Panic! On the Editorial Page
Breaking down a "cancel culture" scare story
I’m trying out a new video series where I break down the tropes of moral panic journalism line by line. The first episode is about the already-infamous “America Has a Free Speech Problem” editorial in the New York Times.
If videos aren’t your thing, below is a text version of the script!
On March 18, the New York Times published an editorial called “America Has a Free Speech Problem.” It was the third nearly identical article in national media in just two weeks and roughly the 10,000th in the three years or so since “cancel culture” became a nationwide moral panic.
The editorial engages in a number of tropes that show up frequently in moral panic journalism and I want to break them down one by one. Let’s dive in.
We begin with a howling fucking lie. The editorial tells us that Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right: “the right to speak our minds and voice our opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.”
This is a child’s understanding of free speech. It’s true that Americans are protected by the First Amendment, but that means the government can’t restrict what you say. Voicing your opinion in public has always carried the risk of being shamed or shunned.
In fact, both those acts are important elements of free speech. If a Senator says he wants to shoot peaceful protestors, you have the right to send him a letter telling him that he sucks. If you invite your neighbor to a BBQ and he says a bunch of QAnon shit that makes everyone else uncomfortable, you have the right not to invite him to the next BBQ. This is basic human behavior stuff and doesn’t violate anyone else’s rights.
The second paragraph of the editorial includes another whopper: America’s epidemic of social silencing is hard to talk about. Addressing it feels dangerous, like a third rail. And that, in itself, is dangerous. Not only are we losing our fundamental right to speak without fear of shame, but we can’t even talk about what we’re losing.
This is obviously, hilariously, screamingly false. The “threat” of cancel culture is one of the most over-addressed topics in American journalism. This editorial has appeared almost word-for-word in a dozen other establishment media outlets (and at least a hundred Substacks) on an almost weekly basis since 2015. The New York Times itself employs three columnists and a full-time beat reporter who write about almost nothing else.
This is, in fact, the worst kind of Controversial Idea™: A restatement of the status quo while pretending to challenge it
We then move into the false equivalence section of the editorial.
Many on the left, we learn, refuse to acknowledge that cancel culture exists. On the other side of the ledger, many on the right have embraced an even more extreme version of cancel culture by passing laws that will ban books and target teachers.
These are not equivalent phenomena.
Who exactly “on the left” says that cancel culture doesn’t exist? Nearly every thoughtful breakdown of this term (including mine) acknowledge that social media mobs are a genuine, and genuinely troubling, phenomenon. I do see people on Twitter saying cancel culture is fake pretty frequently but a) it’s Twitter and b) the term “cancel culture” has no fixed definition.
Right-wing moral panics often rely on concepts (“political correctness,” “critical race theory”) that contain true, false and outright conspiratorial elements. The statement “cancel culture isn’t real” could mean “social media mobs have never gotten anyone fired” I guess, but it could also mean something more like“there is no War on Christmas.” I don’t see why a specific reading of a shorthand statement is being held up as equivalent to Republican efforts to literally ban books.
Speaking of definitions, the next problem with this editorial is that it never provides one. A few paragraphs down we learn that “However you define cancel culture, Americans know it exists and feel its burden.” The Times commissioned a poll that found only 34 percent of Americans think they enjoy complete freedom of speech.
There’s two flavors of chickenshit here. First, you can’t write an entire article calling something a threat to democracy without defining it. You just can’t. Fuck off.
Secondly, the fact that many people believe something does not mean that it’s true. In the 1980s, more than a third of Americans thought children had a 50-50 chance of being kidnapped by a stranger. Since the 1990s, large majorities of Americans have been convinced that frivolous lawsuits are out of control. In reality, stranger kidnappings are vanishingly rare and the number of lawsuits was steadily falling in the 1990s.
This is how moral panics work: By amplifying non-representative anecdotes, the media convinces the country that rare, isolated phenomena constitute a pervasive threat. It’s frustrating that national-level editors are either unaware of this history or unwilling to consider whether they’re falling into this extremely consistent pattern.
The next section of the editorial provides more results from the New York Times poll on free expression. As with every other poll on “self-censorship,” these results don’t hold up to the slightest scrutiny.
According to the very first question, we’re supposed to believe that 44% of Americans didn’t hold back from speaking due to fear of criticism even once in the past year.
According to the second question, more than three-quarters of Americans have not harshly criticized anyone for their speech in the past year. Never. Not even once.
It gets even more ridiculous in the crosstabs. Are we really supposed to believe that Democrats are almost twice as likely to harshly criticize someone for their speech? And that young people are more than twice as critical as seniors?
A far more likely scenario is that demographic groups are interpreting the poll question differently. Read it again: Over the past year, have you retaliated against or harshly criticized another person because of something he or she said?
Again, these are not equivalent acts. Harsh criticism is a normal, maybe even essential, part of a functioning liberal society. Ideas like “women shouldn’t vote” or “gay marriage is a threat to civilization” are dumb and bad and harsh criticism is one of the ways we keep them from spreading. This is how the marketplace of ideas is supposed to work.
Retaliation, on the other hand, really does represent a threat to free speech. If people are losing their jobs or being physically attacked for their ideas, that’s something we as should indeed worry about.
So to recap: This poll is asking participants, in the very same question, whether they’ve done something normal and whether they’ve done something that makes them a huge piece of shit.
And it’s getting worse as we go along. Here’s the next question:
This is a pretty clear-cut example of push polling. The question isn’t asking participants whether holding their tongues in social situations is a threat to free speech. It’s telling them that refraining from speaking is a threat to free speech and then asking how concerned they are about it.
The editorial makes a big deal out of the fact that 84% of Americans said this is a very or somewhat serious problem, but of course they did. The phrasing of the question is telling them to. This is a Clever Hans clop-clop performance, not intellectual inquiry.
Now we come to my favorite section.
Freedom of speech, we learn, requires a commitment to openness as well as conscientiousness about how words can cause harm. We all need to come together to make the internet a more gracious place.
I’m gonna screenshot this next part because it’s fucking bananas.
Do you see it?
“Free speech demands greater self-restraint in face of words that challenge us.”
The New York Times is telling you to hold your tongue before you respond to ideas that challenge you. This comes immediately after the same editorial board classified people holding their tongues as a grave threat to free speech.
This pulls the mask off of the project of this editorial and the entire cancel culture moral panic.
The New York Times editorial board is a group of reporters and opinion writers for the nation’s most prestigious outlet. They have a tremendous amount of power and, due to the rise of social media, receive far more feedback and criticism than they used to.
I know I don’t sound like it, but I’m actually quite sympathetic to the anxieties behind this editorial. I host podcasts and write stuff that has given people on the internet opinions about me. Some of the criticism I get is unfair, some of it is fair — that’s the kind that hurts the most — and some of it is fucking deranged.
Being a public figure in 2022 can feel like you’ve been walking around wearing a blue shirt every single day of your life and then you go on the internet and 500 people are saying you suck because you wear red shirts too much. I haven’t gotten internet criticism 1/100th as bad as my female and POC colleagues, but I feel like I understand how can get under your skin.
So I really do come to this issue from a place of human sympathy. It is a lot harder and more hurtful to be a journalist these days, especially (I imagine) if you work at an outlet that attracts a disproportionate amount of criticism.
The phenomenon I’m describing, and what I believe the New York Times editorial board is experiencing, is not a generalized problem. It’s true that public figures receive more scrutiny and feedback than they used, but 99.9% of Americans are not public figures.
While I do sometimes get frustrated at the tenor of criticism about me online, I don’t spend much time ruminating or writing about it because the fact that my work is shared and discussed is a profound privilege. I am absurdly lucky to make a living sharing my thoughts with the public, and the (entirely expected, incredibly minor) cost of that privilege is hearing from people who wish my thoughts were different and better.
One of the most dispiriting aspects of this moral panic is watching prominent national journalists relentlessly conflate things that annoy me (people are mean on social media) with things that threaten democracy (Republicans are passing laws that restrict voting, speech and curricula). While I understand the conflation on a human level, on a journalistic level your literal job is knowing the difference.
The editorial starts to wind down by finally circling back to Republican efforts to restrict speech through legislation. It begins in the 25th paragraph of the story. We’ve gotten nearly 2,000 words about left-wing threats to free speech. We are about to get 300 words about right-wing threats.
So what are they?
Sounds bad! These efforts include Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prevents teachers from mentioning LGBT issues in classrooms, and an anti-critical race theory law in Tennessee that aims to protect children against the “distress” caused by learning the basic facts of American history.
These laws are bad and I’m glad the editorial finally mentions them, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. The New York Times doesn’t mention its own reporting on Republican efforts in 34 states to restrict the right to protest. It also elides the Republican efforts in 19 states to restrict the right to vote. Considering how much space they just spent arguing that holding back from saying a slur at Thanksgiving is a threat to democracy, it’s an incredible oversight not to mention laws that directly threaten democracy.
The editorial also, importantly, does not mention non-legislative efforts by conservatives to restrict speech and attack democracy. Remember: All of the progressive threats to free expression we’ve heard about so far come from random citizens: Uppity college students, salty social media users, un-strategic activists.
OK, so let’s compare apples to apples. If the actions of the left-wing fringe represent a liability for progressives, then the actions of the right-wing fringe should be the responsibility of the entire conservative movement.
The comparison demolishes the last shred of legitimacy for the “left-wing illiberalism” narrative. Over the last two years, the American right has implemented a nationwide, sophisticated and increasingly violent backlash to social change.
The run-up to the 2020 election saw numerous incidents of voter intimidation and even terrorist plots. Conservative parents are organizing grassroots NGOs to pull books out of schools.
Progressive politicians across the country have experienced a dramatic increase in hate speech, doxxing and rape and death threats. An Illinois school board member resigned after finding four dead rats in front of her home. Kshama Sawant, a socialist woman of color on the Seattle City Council, has received 109 pages worth of threats since 2020. Some allegedly came from IP addresses associated with retired police officers and Seattle firefighters.
And we haven’t even talked about the pandemic yet. It’s been clear for months that the best predictor of anti-mask and anti-vaccine beliefs is political ideology. For the last year, COVID deniers have disrupted flights, invaded hospitals and physically attacked essential workers. They might not all be conservatives, but conservative media has systematically downplayed and even promoted these efforts.
All these interrupted school board meetings and threatened city council members are just anecdotes, of course. It’s easy to write them off as rare, non-representative, nothing to worry about.
Perhaps that’s true, but why is the same standard not applied to college protests or social media dust-ups? Last month, Yale Law students loudly protested the introduction of an anti-gay speaker and then walked out of talk. Despite being in compliance with the school’s free speech code (and a huge nothingburger in general), the story received days of catastrophizing coverage from national outlets.
The same week as the Yale protest, anti-CRT activists interrupted a school board meeting in Eau Clair, Wisconsin. One accused school board members of “grooming our children as human sex traffickers.” The board president later received a threat from a sender named "Kill All Marxist Teachers." The story received a few brief notices in national news pages but no op-ed condemnations nor feature treatments casting it as part of an anti-democratic trend.
The editorial ends, both bafflingly and predictably, by blaming liberals for the conservative efforts to restrict speech.
If I quoted this without screengrabbing it you’d think I was making it up. Conservative complaints about progressive speech — going back to Elvis shaking his hips and beyond — are one of the most consistent features of the 20th century. But today, the Times tells us, they wouldn’t be happening if libs hadn’t been so insistent about trigger warnings.
And that’s it, the cancel culture panic in a nutshell: Left-wing threats to free speech may not be backed up by any evidence and totally unconnected to any Democratic policy agenda. But! If we’re not careful, someday, the Democratic Party could be as dangerous as Republicans are now.
Can’t wait to read 50 more articles about it.