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E-Pluribus | October 28, 2021
Another attempt at defining cancel culture, liberal arts college students dislike free speech, and a play performance reserved for only "black-identifying" audiences?
A round up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Cathy Young: What Cancel Culture Is—and Isn’t
It’s a day that ends in “y” so that means another debate about how to define “cancel culture.” At The Bulwark, Cathy Young addresses critics of the cancel culture concept and takes a stab at differentiating between justified deplatforming and the illiberal silencing of speech and viewpoints.
Current “cancel culture” differs from the “normal” push-and-pull of speech-related pressures in several significant ways. First, the internet and the social media in particular have enabled much more public speech by people who aren’t journalists, politicians, activists, or other public figures—potentially exposing them to retaliation for speech that offends. Second, the internet and social media have become highly effective vehicles for collective retaliation for disapproved-of speech or conduct. (Gurri’s Liberal Currents article discusses these developments.) Third, a version of progressivism that stresses the “harm” done by very broadly defined racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise bigoted speech and expression—and even routinely labels such expression as “violence”—has moved from the margins of left-wing academia to the mainstream of universities, media, and other cultural institutions.
In such a framework, the suppression of speech becomes not just defensible but virtuous.
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At least anecdotally—since relevant social science data is still thin on the ground—it seems that anti-free-speech illiberalism has increased dramatically over the last decade, on both the left and the right. The right has certainly engaged in its share of attacks on speech it considers distasteful—whether it’s the egregious harassment of anti-Trump conservatives like David French, the hounding of comedienne Kathy Griffin for the admittedly tacky stunt of posing with a fake severed, bloodied head of Trump (despite a prompt apology), or the firing of Associated Press cub reporter Emily Wilder after conservative activists and journalists targeted her over her (still quite recent) college involvement in Students for Justice for Palestine and her social media posts. There are also good reasons to be concerned about some of the recent laws seeking to curb “critical race theory” and other progressive ideas in schools, especially when those laws target higher education. We should absolutely be worried about right-wing authoritarianism.
But in some ways, progressive cancel culture has a much broader reach. It does not simply retaliate against speech by ideological opponents; it also quite often targets progressives or neutrals for sometimes accidental transgressions against the new norms of identity-based social justice. It does not simply punish opposition but demands allegiance, including repentance by transgressors. In that sense, the analogies to Stalinism and Maoism, much derided by the “anti-anti-cancel culture” crowd, have some validity. This is especially true since, in the last few years, social justice or “wokeism” really has become something of a party line not only in progressive activism and academia but in most of the established media, a wide range of cultural institutions, and large corporations: Witness, for instance, the rapid spread and embrace of the unpronounceable “Latinx,” which is used as a self-description by only 3 percent of Hispanics in the United States and seems like a blatant example of linguistic imperialism, but is considered woke because it signals not only gender neutrality but gender-inclusiveness beyond male and female. “Cancel culture” is, as Bari Weiss points out in Commentary, only the “justice system” of a larger revolution that seeks to overhaul personal attitudes and behavior through messages in the media, schools and universities, and corporate diversity programs.
Read the full piece here.
Samuel J. Abrams: Many Liberal Arts Students Need a Lesson in Free Speech
While there have been numerous reports and surveys showing a growing antipathy toward freedom of expression on college campuses around the country, a recent poll shows that this sentiment is more prevalent at liberal arts schools. At Inside Higher Ed, Samuel J. Abrams examines these findings and attempts to explain why illiberal impulses are higher at these institutions.
Do attitudes toward speech and political leanings, in fact, differ across various types of institutions of higher education? New data from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, RealClear Education and College Pulse provide empirical insight into this question. Their recently released survey about speech on college campuses captures the voices of more than 37,000 students at 159 colleges. The data reveal that students at small liberal arts colleges are both more accepting of attempts to silence speech and overwhelmingly more liberal than their public and private university counterparts.
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Explaining these differences is no easy task. One possible reason could be that liberal arts colleges tend to be more humanities-focused and concentrate more on social justice questions and pedagogies. Sarah Lawrence, for example, prides itself on being “built on a legacy of political activism and social justice.” These colleges may be more likely to fixate on political engagement and maintain the idea that some issues cannot be discussed and debated.
[ . . . ]
Colleges and universities have long served as robust marketplaces of ideas. Many institutions today preach the gospel of inquiry and diversity. But the data make it abundantly clear that a number of liberal arts colleges will fail to live up to those goals if their student bodies genuinely believe they can and should limit their peers’ exposure to a diverse array of narratives and views, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.
Read it all.
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education: Harvard reserves performance of ‘Macbeth’ exclusively for ‘Black-identifying audience members’
Can a university-sanctioned event discriminate based on race? That’s the question asked by Kelley Bregenzer and Jordan Howell in a piece at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which examines the legal implications of a “Blackout” theatre performance at Harvard University.
This version of the play is called “Macbeth in Stride” and is currently being performed by the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University’s Loeb Drama Center. Unfortunately, some Harvard students and members of the general public interested in seeing this classic play with a unique twist and social commentary may be out of luck. One upcoming show on Oct. 29 is billed as a “Blackout” performance, “designated . . . to be an exclusive space for Black-identifying audience members,” according to the event page.
“For our non-Black allies, we appreciate your support in making this a completely Black-identifying evening,” it reads. “We invite you to join us at another performance during the run.”
While the “Blackout” performance of “Macbeth in Stride” will not be the only showing of the play (which runs from Oct. 23 to Nov. 14), for Harvard to designate a performance as available only to students, faculty, or other patrons of a specified skin color appears to run afoul not only of state and federal laws, but also Harvard’s own commitment to fostering an inclusive environment for every member of the university community.
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As an integral part of Harvard, the American Repertory Theater is subject to the university’s legal obligations and policies. Under federal law, excluding university students, faculty, and staff from educational enrichment opportunities based on race is forbidden. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids all institutions receiving federal financial assistance, whether public or private, from discriminating “on the ground of race, color, or national origin.” Colleges and universities like Harvard that accept payments from students who receive federal financial aid are covered by Title VI. Massachusetts law also bars discrimination based on race in places of public accommodation, defined as “any place . . . which is open to and accepts or solicits the patronage of the general public.” This includes performance spaces such as theaters.
Read the full analysis here.
Is a Nazi salute free speech?
This week, the Wall Street Journal published a letter to the editor from former President Donald Trump on the 2020 election. CNN’s Chris Cillizza argued that the paper shouldn’t have published it, but his argument solicited some critiques:
Finally, more questionable takes on the WSJ LTE: