You’re Not Being Silenced.
You’re Just Being an Asshole.
CW: Mentions of Nazism, antisemitism, far-right extremism, criminal threatening, and threats of sexual assault.
I am so tired of talking about cancel culture when I deal with literal Nazis for my job.
Yes, you read that right—self-proclaimed, Hitler-worshipping, 14-88-type Nazis, not Nazis in the pejorative, hyberbolic sense that many on the internet use. I’ve written about working on issues relating to abortion before, but a majority of my full-time job that I hold along with being a student is researching, writing about, and maintaining records on the far-right in New Hampshire. I’ve been doxxed by the leader of the New Hampshire Proud Boys, I’ve had rape threats crowd my Twitter DM inbox, and I’ve been sent fantasies about my torture and murder by members of the National Socialist Club, Chapter 131. A convicted felon who spent 8 years in federal prison on a firearms racketeering charge posted in the “New England Nats” (White Nationalists) and “Whites Against Loxism” channels on the encrypted messaging app Telegram about how I’m a “baby-killing k*ke,” and emblazoned a yellow “Jude” star over my Twitter profile picture. He lives about 50 miles from my home, and works the front desk at a boxing gym.
So just keep that in mind as you read this, because that context might make this sound less… harsh.
You have a legal right to be an asshole in this country, as has been proven many times in court—Cubby v. CompuServe, Matal v. Tam, Snyder v. Phelps, just to name a few major free speech cases that were decided in favor of the speaker, rather than victim. “Asshole” is a generous way of putting it—two out of three of the aforementioned cases concern hate speech. There’s nothing America loves more than protecting the right to practice hatred against marginalized people.
However, individuals are not the government, and therefore have no responsibility to protect assholes’ rights to free speech. You have a legal right to speech free from censorship. You do not have a legal right to speech free from criticism. In essence, you have the right to be an asshole, but you do not have the right to be protected from being called an asshole.
But that doesn’t stop conservatives and neoliberals (and generally, cisgender old white people) from loudly lamenting the horrors and devastation of #CancelCulture. The idea of “cancellation” was a term coined on Black Twitter, and like many other phrases of African American Vernacular English that have been used to move forward racial justice and accountability in the online sphere, the idea of “cancel culture” has been fully distorted and weaponized by the conservative right. Of course, the media can’t resist a made-up moral panic invented by the far-right, so headlines about cancel culture now dominate every mainstream news outlet.
But this mythology of cancel culture has escalated in the last couple years to have real-life material consequences. Some are hilarious, like Bari Weiss founding the unaccredited University of Austin, Texas, dedicated to the promotion of ideas harbored by the so-called canceled elite (the board of which has Tufts’ own political science professor, Vickie Sullivan, as a member). But some are deeply disturbing, like the wave of anti-Critical Race Theory education laws that have swept the nation, which I spent the majority of the last year researching.
In February of 2021, Republican legislators in New Hampshire introduced a bill that would soon become the bane of my existence: HB 544, a piece of legislation that was a carbon copy of the since-repealed Trump Administration’s Executive Order 13950. EO 13950 was written by Christopher Rufo, a far-right libertarian Fox News talking head and sometimes employee of the Heritage Foundation, a thinktank credited with being one of the primary architects of modern conservatism and white supremacist mainstreaming. HB 544, in its original form, banned the instruction and discussion of content relating to 10 principles about race and gender equity from all schools, government agencies, and government contractors—private workplaces—that do business with the state of New Hampshire. California courts had already struck down EO 13950 as broadly unconstitutional, and President Biden repealed the order on his first day in office, so Heritage sent the text to Republican state legislators across the country.
Bills directly copied from EO 13950 or inspired by it have been introduced in more than 20 states. Some use the exact language; some go further than EO 13950 (in Tennessee, the bill calls for the ban of instruction relating to the “violent overthrow of the government”); some call for the ban of Critical Race Theory by name; some call for the ban of specific materials relating to racial justice––frequently, The 1619 Project; and some are modeled off of Red Scare-era anti-communist bills governing “teachers’ loyalty.”
So if we want to talk about cancel culture, let’s talk about that! Let’s talk about government actors trying to outlaw the instruction of Black literature, Black political theory, and works by prominent Black authors about systemic and institutionalized racism. Let’s talk about government actors trying to ban educators from recognizing trans students’ gender identity. Let’s talk about government actors trying to “cancel” various political theories and ideologies by outright banning them from the classroom.
But that’s not what the cancel culture critics are up in arms about, of course. No, they’re upset about people telling them their opinions are wrong or cruel. They’re so upset about this made-up loss of free speech at universities that they’ve founded a whole (unaccredited) university in Austin, Texas of all places, a state that just passed one of the most extreme anti-Critical Race Theory laws in the country and released a list of 800+ books that may soon be banned from Texas classrooms. Really showing their commitment to free speech, I see.
The funny thing is, while right-wing reactionaries lament about how reality is being degraded by the “woke mob,” they are actually the ones who are usually getting the facts wrong. Take the so-called “gender critical” (read: trans-exclusionary radical feminist) movement, for example, in which Kathleen Stock, a founding member of University of Austin, TX, is a prominent leader. Anti-trans philosophers’ arguments don’t actually hold up when faced with a shred of scientific inquiry. Gender is not a biological fact, and sex in nature is not a perfect binary. The fluidity and malleability of gender is evidence-based. Moreover, recognition of that is not only factual, but also a moral imperative. It’s just plain human decency to respect others’ identities.
Or take Andrew Sullivan, another founding member of UATX. His supposed “cancellation” was over his adamant and continued support for the debunked, scientifically incoherent practice of phrenology, which posits that people of different races are biologically different in intelligence levels. Never mind that this is fundamentally untrue and has been disproven many times throughout history by actual doctors and not just idiots with Substacks, but this practice was also the basis of Nazi experimentation on Jewish prisoners in concentration camps.
Look, you can call me the woke mob—it would certainly not be the most offensive thing I’ve been called since I started this work. But consider what kind of views you are defending when you go to bat for the so-called “cancelled” elite like Bari Weiss, Kathleen Stock, and Andrew Sullivan. Are you defending academic freedom on principle? Or are you defending bigots with factually incorrect and morally egregious views? Which side of history are you hoping to be on?
In any case, it’s your legal right to keep crying about cancel culture—but I really just don’t care.