On July 7, 2020, a group of 150 elite writers and academics, ranging from David Brooks to J.K. Rowling, signed their names to a letter in Harper's Magazine crying the alleged censorship of so-called "cancel culture" — which is to say, angry voices on the Internet who disagree so vehemently with views they consider abhorrent that they use their right to free expression to boycott those views. "The Letter," as it's come to be known, was spearheaded by Thomas Chatterton Williams, and gestures broadly towards a few high-profile instances of "cancelling" without actually committing to any details or specific arguments beyond vague platitudes about "free speech"; supposedly, most of the signatories did not even read the final content of the actual letter before agreeing to add their name in support of these generic notions.
About a week later, even more writers and media professionals — most of whom were far less renowned than Chomsky or Brooks or Rowling, including myself — presented "A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate," that addressed the specific instances alluded to in the original The Letter, while also pointing out the plainly transparent irony that, if you're a marquee name publishing a letter about a censorship in Harper's fucking Magazine, you are, by definition, not actually being censored or cancelled. If you're a famous intellectual or writer, and people get pissed at you for, say, repeatedly spewing transphobic bullshit, and they stop buying your books because we live in a capitalist society and they do not want to financially support rhetoric that they consider to be hateful or harmful, then that's not censorship. It is, quite literally, free speech, and using good free speech to drown out bad free speech, which is exactly how all of the idealist platitudes about free speech say that it's supposed to work.
Are there times when this might go too far, and do some serious harm? Sure. And that sucks. But historically — and despite the existence of "free speech" ideologies and laws — this is something that has more often affected queer people, and people of color, and labor organizers, and so on. "The Letter" only seemed to arise as a reaction to the underdogs holding elite writers and thinkers accountable.
The "Cancel Culture" debate has continued to rage online, but nowhere has its Schadenfreude been in greater effect than in the promotional efforts of the man behind The Letter, Thomas Chatterton Williams. To be clear: Williams has shared some interesting ideas, some of which have made me pause and reflect, and many of which I disagree with. That's fine.
Less than a week after publishing The Letter, Williams boasted on Twitter about kicking a guest out of his home because of his ideas:
To recap: the guy who organized The Letter about "cancel culture" claims that he "literally" kicked someone out of his own house for their opinions, then later said that person "self-ejected with my encouragement"
That doesn't sound like a fair and open discourse! pic.twitter.com/nuy4Ul2FuD
— Cancel Couture (@thomdunn) July 13, 2020
Williams deleted the original tweet, then deleted a follow-up tweet in which he explained that his wife made him delete the original tweet. Williams did not seem to recognize the irony in cancelling his own house guest — something which is honestly fine, don't be a dick when you're in someone else's home — or blaming his own spouse for cancelling his initial comments and then deleting those as well.
Later on his press tour for The Letter, Williams admitted that he had considered inviting Glenn Greenwald to sign it as well, but the committee decided that his views for too noxious, and no one wanted to associate themselves with him:
HAHAHAHAHAHA here's thomas chatterton williams, the main drafter of the harper's letter, saying he didn't have glenn greenwald sign it because he was "outvoted on that". HAHAHAHA they "cancelled" glenn in the anti-"cancel culture" letter. LMAO you really can't make this shit up pic.twitter.com/bYr5oRKlwC
— ☀️👀 (@zei_squirrel) July 18, 2020
Don't get me wrong; Greenwald says some obnoxious things sometimes. He also says some intelligent and insightful things (I would argue that his greatest intellectual flaw is largely in his inability to see beyond the haze of his own gleeful Schadenfreude, but that's a topic for another time). On Twitter, Greenwald — who acknowledged having some lovely interactions with Williams! — said that, " it's been obvious from the start that the Letter was signed by frauds, eager to protect their own status, not the principles." Which pretty much sums it up.
But Williams' own missteps on his publicity tour are painfully ironic proof that "Cancel Culture" is not the newfangled phenomenon that he thinks it is. Rather, it's something people have always done to protect their own comfort. And that's fine — just, apparently, not when it threatens the comfort of comfortable people.
There are, undoubtedly, issues with "cancellation." But it's a non-partisan issue, and tends to hurt more people with lower social statuses. It's not some terrifying new threat growing within the hallowed walls of liberal arts colleges; in fact, people have been decrying the threat of "cancellation" by liberals in the New York Times opinion section for at least 50 years now. It's hardly the existential threat that elite voices have made it out to seem — except that it's an existential threat to their status as unquestionable intellectuals.
You can watch Greenwald's System Update about the "Cancel Culture" scam above.
4/ All that said, that many of the Letter's signatories are frauds does not impugn the principles they're cynically invoking for their petty, self-absorbed interests. I devoted our show yesterday to this: it's the marginalized that need these protections:https://t.co/nTRzx9DZlm
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) July 18, 2020