9 July 2020

The illiberalism at the heart of cancel culture


In 2018, David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, cancelled a public interview with Steve Bannon, a former senior adviser to President Donald Trump, which he had organised for the magazine’s annual festival. Several staff members had complained and two or three participants in the festival had said they would withdraw if Bannon appeared. Two of the magazine’s most distinguished writers, Malcolm Gladwell and Lawrence Wright, strongly criticised Remnick’s decision: “journalism is about hearing opposing views”, said Wright. Gladwell noted that “If you only invite your friends over, it’s called a dinner party”. The episode was a worrying sign of things to come.

In 2019, New York Review of Books publisher Rea Hederman – who has a proud history of anti-racism – fired Ian Buruma, editor of the Review for only sixteen months, after pressure from the staff. Buruma’s crime? He had printed an essay – ‘Confessions of a Hashtag’ by Jian Ghomeishi, a former Canadian Broadcasting radio host, who had been accused of violence to around twenty women, but had been recently acquitted in a case brought by some of them. Ghomeishi’s piece, which addressed these accusations, was deemed to be out of step with the spirit of the #MeToo movement. That the next issue of the NYRB was to devote a large amount of space to rebuttal was not enough to save Buruma.

A G Sulzberger had, in his apprentice journalist years, used relentless coverage to force a Lion’s Club in Narragansett to reverse its decision to bar women, and revealed misconduct in an Oregon sheriff’s office, causing his resignation. He took over as publisher of the New York Times in 2018, the sixth Sulzberger to take that position: he strongly criticised President Trump, in an Oval Office meeting, for calling the Times “treasonous” and rendering journalists’ work more dangerous.

Then in June 2020, he forced the resignation of James Bennet, editor of the NYT‘s op-ed page. Why? Because they carried an opinion piece by the Republican senator Tom Cotton which argued that demonstrations which turned violent should be met with “an overwhelming show of force” – a phrase that caused outrage among some of the staff. Bennet had been tipped as the future Editor of the New York Times. Now he was out the door.

In each case, the main actors were men I admired – Hederman and Sulzberger by reputation, Remnick (whom I met when we were both correspondents in Moscow) by his writing and editing. They had faced difficult decisions, made enemies and hard choices. In each case, the men worked for a journal with a history of innovative, no-hold-barred criticism of the powerful.

And in each case, they had folded because of pressure from the staff  – pressure which stemmed from an article or an event the complainants deemed unsuitable for any audience. For those staff, opinions they dislike are seen as intolerable in a publication on which they work. A red line had been crossed.

Journalism, in the protesting staffs’ view, must conform to novel, liberal verities, which include the protection of audiences from material seen as hurtful, even dangerous. The view of John Stuart Mill in On Liberty (1859) – “to utter and argue freely, according to conscience”- is now discarded in many parts of the cultural landscape. The sharpening of one’s own convictions by setting them against opposing opinions would now, under this approach, be impossible.

Part of this may be the phenomenon which Jonathan Swift noted when he wrote that “you cannot reason someone out of something that he or she was not reasoned into”: that views held because fashionable, or approved by one’s circle, or regarded as morally beyond question, are sometimes too shallow to be able to sustain argument. Dogmatic positions adopted with little thought except for signaling virtue often collapse when questioned hard.

What’s to be done about this? First, the phenomenon itself has to be held up to the light as much as possible. If, as I suspect, much of it is loudly proclaimed but lightly ingested, argument and debate has to be brought to bear. The best argument remains Mill’s: that opinions, many of them having to do with central issues of our time, are too important not to be challenged, worked over, considered anew and either strengthened or weakened – and, in the latter case, either modified or discarded.

Journalism needs now, more than ever, to build debate and contestation into news media worlds. The challenge is to rediscover the fundamentals of journalism – without which it ceases to be a necessary pillar of democratic, civic societies: in short, journalism needs to rediscover a belief in the fact of facts, and in the plurality of opinion. No liberal would for a moment agree that criticism of President Trump, distasteful to his supporters, should be censored.

Editors’ mission is to insist that, barring the dangerous extremes, all opinions deserve airing and contesting, just as all facts deserve to be checked and given context. Those in journalism who object to views in their journal, channel or website must accept that the robust clash of beliefs remains a necessary insurance against enforced conformity, and indeed reaction. In a society built on diverse ways of looking at the world, some upset on seeing or reading an account or a conviction which strongly contradicts your own has to be borne, considered and where possible replied to, not shut down.

A letter signed by prominent writers, scholars and others organized by Harper’s Magazine on July 7 – “On Justice and Open Debate” – noted that “it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms”.

The concession to staff protests in the great New York titles and the punishments to Buruma and Bennet were “hasty and disproportionate”. These journals stood as examples to others: their example has been weakened. Journalists have been trained to keep an open mind to all events they chronicle, conscious of their complexity: and to listen to and allow space for views which are far from their own. That tradition is not past its useful life.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor to the Financial Times, ex-editor of The New Statesman and a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.