The courage to not cancel

It’s easy to overlook the many colleges that are not giving in to cancel culture

Have you heard the good news about cancel culture on college campuses? Did you see the story about the university that didn’t cancel the speaker?  

Probably not. 

We all know how the story usually goes: Someone on campus voices an unpopular perspective or makes a comment that is hurtful or insensitive to some group. Then, stage right, the angry mob enters. Public pressure mounts until someone in power yields to the grievance brigade.  

A job is lost or some disciplinary action taken. A reputation is tarnished. Rinse and repeat.   

But it turns out that many controversial campus events are actually held without deplatforming. And it is time to acknowledge those schools that get it right.

The impression many of us have is that anytime a conservative speaker steps one foot on campus, social justice warriors phone each other to decide what time to invite antifa to show up. Overlooked are the many heartening counterexamples. 

Why you can get canceled and celebrities rarely do

In 2018, professor Jeffrey Sachs at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, made a big list of examples on Twitter of when controversial conservative speakers weren’t interrupted. While there were some instances of protesters or demonstrators, most of the events went off without a major hitch.

You’ve probably heard of the rallies at the University of California, Berkeley, against Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro in past years; but, you’ve likely heard absolutely nothing about the long list of other controversial speakers who spoke on the same campus without incident. Some of the improvement in free speech on college campuses is thanks, at least in part, to the work of groups like Bridge U.S.A. which bring together left- and right-leaning students to foster civil exchanges. Yet, few of us hear about cases where universities get pressured about a given speaker, but choose not to relent.

They do the right thing, despite mounting pressure.  

That happened at Utah Valley University this past spring, with the commencement talk of Sister Wendy Nelson. After getting pressure by activists on and off campus to cancel Sister Nelson’s speech because of her traditional views on marriage and sexuality, university leaders did something brave. They stuck with their plans.  

Embrace surprise, remove contention, Sister Wendy Nelson tells UVU graduates

The decision was criticized by a few vocal activists as an “administrative blunder.” But it would be better to recognize this as an example of how any university can act with courage to promote diverse — including religious — perspectives on America’s increasingly dogmatic campuses. To be clear, any campus atmosphere should permit differing voices to advocate for positions and speakers they favor and to critique of those they do not. Yet, amid this back-and-forth, institutions need to be the adults in the room.  

Too often, however, these institutions aimed at inquiry and the pursuit of truth cave and fold to public pressure, despite the fact that academia should be the quintessential space for exchanging ideas.  

How frequently do such pressure campaigns and cancellations actually happen in higher education? Thankfully, someone has been paying close attention. 

Sean Stevens, senior research fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), is one of the nation’s foremost advocates of free speech on college campuses. The foundation has been cataloguing a comprehensive “Disinvitation Database” of any episode where somebody tries to block or prevent a speaker from being featured on a college or university campus. With examples dating back to 1998, there’s a total of 477 documented instances of public pressure campaigns to convince a university to cancel a speaker or event.  

The good news: Out of those 477 events, a little more than half (53%) still took place when universities stood firm and refused to cancel. There are concerning signs, however. 

According to another FIRE database, the number of sanctioning or targeting incidents against professors has risen dramatically in recent years — with a fivefold increase between 2015 and 2020, peaking at 122 incidents nationally last year. The use of petitions as a means of demanding sanctions has also increased. The foundation found that targeting and sanction attempts are increasingly coming from undergraduate students, rather than other faculty or administration.  

Can we replace cancel culture with ‘accountability culture’?

Interestingly, the pressure to cancel comes from both sides of the political spectrum. For instance, 60% of sanction attempts/targeting incidents against professors come from individuals and groups to the left of the scholar. However, 73% of death threats, harassment, and other forms of intimidation as a means of targeting scholars come from individuals and groups to the right of the scholar. In another trend, on-campus demands for sanctions tend to come from those to the left of the scholar, whereas off-campus demands tend to come from those to the right of the scholar.

And when it comes to unpopular speakers on campus, in 289 of the documented pressure campaigns, the intimidation came from the political left (e.g., against Ann Coulter, Ben Carson, Ben Shapiro, and Ivanka Trump). By comparison, in 134 of the pressure campaigns, the intimidation came from the political right (e.g., against Michael Moore, Jeremiah Wright, Richard Dawkins, and Chelsea Manning, etc).

It’s time to stop thinking about cancel culture as a problem unique to one side of the political spectrum and confront this as a challenge for all Americans to overcome. It can unite rather than divide us, and with campus life coming back post-COVID, these issues will likely begin to resurface. 

Conservatives are, of course, facing unique constraints on many campuses today. One professor shared with me recently, “How do we deal with the fact that many people in our communities think that particular (usually conservative) viewpoints shouldn’t be expressed because they are inherently violent? (i.e. because another person feels they are a threat to their identity)?”

After noting that a lot of disinvitation attempts occur at the same schools, Zachary Greenberg, also with FIRE, observed that “once a school takes a strong stand against censorship and for free speech, it may deter attempts to persuade that school to disinvite speakers. Conversely, university acquiescence to disinvitation demands encourages more demands.”

Having strong policies favoring free expression is perhaps best protector against pressure campaigns — providing everyone on campus a basis to say, “We’re not able to do this — not under our own rules.” A second factor is when the university president comes out and says “free expression is a paramount value for us” — in a way that provides cover for faculty and students alike.  

So how well are schools doing in this regard? Based on a rating system developed to assess these kinds of speech policies across the 475 top universities in the nation, only a subset — 56 schools — do not, according to the foundation, evidence “any serious threats to students’ free speech rights in the written policies on that campus. Some of these campuses have proactively established robust campus policies that nourish open inquiry (the University of Chicago, being the most famous). In the other direction, 94 schools have policies which have at least one policy that “both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech” — which they define as “unambiguously infring(ing) on what is, or should be, protected expression.”

Free speech, of course, does not exist in a vacuum. And speech always has some reasonable constraints. Private religious schools, for example, might choose to affirm certain standards that would not be appropriate at a public university. But, the most pressing challenges to free speech today are typically less about religious dogmas and more about secular ones.

In a fascinating piece by New York Times, journalist Thomas Edsall quotes Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at Brookings, explaining some of the larger forces that seem to be encouraging an increasingly outward display of outrage among students — and, especially, why it seems to be increasingly effective at shutting down speech on college campuses. Rauch summarizes:   

  • “The younger generation (wrongly) perceives free speech as hazardous to minority rights.”
  • “The purist side has had more passion, focus and organization than the pluralist side.”
  • “Universities are consumeristic these days and very image-conscious, and so they have trouble withstanding pressure from their ‘customers,’ e.g., activist students.”
  • “The use of social pressure to manipulate opinion is a powerful and sophisticated form of information warfare. Anyone can be dogpiled in minutes for any reason, or no reason.”
  • “Activists have figured out that they can have disproportionate influence by claiming to be physically endangered and psychologically traumatized by speech that offends them.”

In the same article, Randall Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard recounts how activists have learned to “deploy skillfully the language of ‘hurt’” —  as in “I don’t care what the speaker’s intentions were, what the speaker said has hurt my feelings and ought therefore to be prohibited.” He encouraged leaders on campus to, “become much more skeptical and tough-minded when encountering the language of ‘hurt’” — so as to avoid incentivizing “those who deploy the specters of bigotry, privilege and trauma to further diminish vital academic, intellectual and aesthetic freedoms.”

These are not minor concerns among a mere handful of campuses, as attested to by the more than 5,000 professors, administrators, graduate students and staff who have gathered to Heterodox Academy — started by professor Jonathan Haidt at New York University — which aims to foster a true exchange of ideas on college campuses.

Is there any stopping the march of cancel culture?

Concerned individuals span the political spectrum, but to a person they worry about narrowing “viewpoint” and “ideological” diversity on campuses across the country. Through conferences and both written and online programming, this and other organization such as the Village Square’s Respect and Rebellion’s campus program or Braver Angel’s college debate program, help encourage campuses to stop merely playing defensive, and instead proactively foster a healthy environment on campus.  For those feeling on their heels, Heterodox Academy even publishes a guide to help navigate the realities of the modern university — it’s titled, “When Cancel Culture Comes for You: A Toolkit for Responding.”

All universities should take steps to preserve space for thoughtful differences of opinion, within the principles of their respective missions. Utah Valley University provided a good model of how to do this in the spring, but there are others. And that’s a fact we ought to celebrate and highlight if we’re to encourage more campuses to follow suit.  

Jacob Hess served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation and has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since his book with Phil Neisser, ”You’re Not As Crazy As I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong).” His most recent book with Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, is ”The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”

Correction: An earlier version misstated the location of Acadia University. It is in Nova Scotia, not Pennsylvania. It also misstated a statistic regarding universities’ response to controversy. The increase of 74 to 114 between 2019 and 2020 refers to instances of sanctions or targeting incidents against professors, not disinvitations of a public speaker.