The Canceling of the American Mind: Cancel Culture Undermines Trust and Threatens Us All―But There Is a Solution, by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott (Simon & Schuster 464 pp., $29.99)
Greg Lukianoff, free-speech attorney, is back with a new book on the state of cancel culture. Lukianoff’s previous book, The Coddling of the American Mind (co-written with Jonathan Haidt), addressed young people’s emotional fragility and inability to handle conflict. In this new, similarly titled work, The Canceling of the American Mind, Lukianoff and coauthor Rikki Schlott turn their focus to the phenomenon of “cancellation”: its origins, its corrosive effects, and how to push back against it.
Lukianoff and Schlott begin with a survey of cancel culture. They trace its origins to the anti-bullying movement, which told children to respond to bullying by telling an adult or a teacher about the mean kids. Proponents inculcated this approach among a whole generation. Those children have since grown up, and now, in the workplace, continue to “tell an adult” (in this case, their boss or HR) when conflicts arise.
Anyone born before 1985 likely grew up with a dim view of tattle-tales. (How many books and movies involve kids getting their own revenge on bullies by learning to fight back, and not involving any of the adults?) The baby boomers saw the authorities as oppressive or irrelevant, to be ignored or rebelled against. Zoomers, by contrast, use the authorities as a dispute-resolution mechanism. In 1965, young people were sticking it to “the man”; in 2023, they demand that the man fire someone who uses a word they don’t like on Facebook. “The rise of Cancel Culture was not gradual,” Lukianoff and Schlott observe. “On campuses across the country, it struck like lightning. Although students had long been generally supportive of free speech, a new generation of anti–free speech activists sprang up in the mid-2010s. Suddenly they were demanding speech codes, trigger warnings, and the policing of microaggressions.”
The fuel of cancel culture is, of course, the power it gives to the cancellers. Teachers and professors can be canceled on the say-so of a motivated student. One shaky phone-camera video of a street argument can induce a life-changing hurricane of criticism that can escalate in some cases to ending a person’s career.
We might be able to appreciate the thrill of turning the tables in a situation one finds unfair. And having complete strangers willing to jump in on your side? Power like that must be intoxicating. But that is an instinct we need to guard against, not just among the outrage-starters but also among those willing to join in, amplify, and validate the outrage.
The cancel crisis is not confined to America. “Although this book is focused on the United States,” the authors write, “we will occasionally mention the insanity that has gone on in the United Kingdom, where hate speech laws can be deployed in service of Cancel Culture. In 2016 alone, more than 3,000 people were detained and questioned by police for non-crime ‘hate incidents’ related to what they had said on-line.” This should terrify anyone who believes in free speech.
Cancel culture also can undermine public faith in institutions. Many institutions, responding to cancellers’ pressure, have nailed their colors to one political mast and declared the other side the enemy. The authors highlight the pandemic as an example, when the public broadly got the message “that our institutions cannot be trusted to produce an accurate, unbiased body of shared facts.”
Lukianoff and Schlott propose rolling back the cancel-culture tide with both attitudinal and organizational changes. They suggest banning political litmus tests at American universities, including “mandatory DEI statements and other attempts to select students or professors who hold a ‘preferred’ political viewpoint,” and “any conservative equivalent” to such statements.
The authors also point out that, far from being a left-only tactic, cancel campaigns in education have been launched from the right, too. The administrations of most colleges and universities lean left, of course, yet cancel campaigns from the right are sometimes successful, and even those that aren’t can lead to people being threatened and harassed.
On the structural side, the authors propose allowing students to test out of college altogether and move straight to graduate school. They also advise alumni to look at their alma mater’s record on free speech and adjust their donations accordingly. Such changes may help to stem the cancelation avalanche. But economics is a factor, too: academia has too few jobs for too many candidates, thus making cancel campaigns driven by professional rivalry more likely. By contrast, job-rich fields tend to see fewer cancellation attempts; accountants and oil rig engineers don’t face social media pile-ons the way academics do. This reality may be harder to address.
Canceling is in some sections a rehash of Coddling; readers familiar with Lukianoff’s work will likely be able to hum its main melody if not sing the chorus. The book’s argument is sensible, and the authors are optimistic that change is possible. The greatest obstacle to ending cancel culture, however, lies in converting those who deny it exists or who believe its victims had it coming. The people who most need to read this book won’t.