No, America is Not Experiencing a Version of China's Cultural Revolution

A bad analogy that reveals something important about the social justice/anti-woke debate

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In a Commentary essay imploring people to “say no to the Woke Revolution,” Bari Weiss argues that, “Just as in China under Chairman Mao, the seeds of our own cultural revolution can be traced to the academy, the first of our institutions to be overtaken by it.”

Analogies to China’s Cultural Revolution are popular among prominent critics of “wokeness” and “cancel culture.” In the Atlantic, Anne Applebaum argues that, “During China’s Cultural Revolution, Mao empowered students to create revolutionary committees to attack and swiftly remove professors” and “this pattern is now repeating itself in the U.S.” Criticizing “woke” efforts to remove statues of slave-owning Founders (e.g. Thomas Jefferson), Andrew Sullivan writes, “That was the case in Mao’s Cultural Revolution, when the younger generation, egged on by the regime, went to work on any public symbols or statues they deemed problematically counterrevolutionary.” Discussing a Yale Law student pressured by administrators to apologize for words in a party invitation that other students found offensive, Washington Post editor Ruth Marcus writes, in what she admits is exaggeration, “Maoist reeducation camps have nothing on Yale Law School.”

The Cultural Revolution was a decade-long campaign of violence and intimidation enforcing adherence to communism via public beatings, property confiscation, torture, and murder that left hundreds of thousands dead. You’ve probably noticed the United States isn’t experiencing anything like that.

But hyperbolic historical analogies are common in political discourse, especially to 20th century tyrants like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Nazi analogies are so common that there’s an internet adage about them (Godwin’s Law) and a meme (“Everyone I don’t like is Hitler”). It’s easy to find pictures of every 21st century American president with a Hitler mustache painted on.

Defending Weiss’s analogy, Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf tweeted, “The sentence is ‘Just as in China under Chairman Mao, the seeds of our own cultural revolution can be traced to the academy…’ That’s not a claim that our cultural revolution is as alarming as Mao’s. It is a different claim.” The different claim, he later specified, is that China’s Cultural Revolution and what Weiss calls the Woke Revolution “are alike along one specified dimension: the ideas takeover the academy first and then spread to other institutions.”

Whatever one thinks about hyperbolic analogies in general, the problem with this one is it’s wrong. Factually, historically wrong.

The first institution Maoists captured was not the academy, it was the state. The seeds of the Cultural Revolution were not in the academy, but in the perceived weakness of the communist party in China, and Mao’s position within the party, after the failures of the Great Leap Forward. Maoists took over the state first, and 17 years later launched a campaign to force cultural change in the academy and elsewhere.

This historical error not only makes comparisons between 2020s America and 1970s China misguided, it also highlights flaws in the liberal anti-woke position.

Cultural power, and related concepts like “privilege,” aren’t nothing, but they’re vaguer and less impactful than the state, which can credibility threaten, authorize, excuse, and utilize force. State-backed violence made the Cultural Revolution, and if you think the social justice movement is similar, you misunderstand it.

While there are obviously people who derive their opposition to social justice from racism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry, anti-woke liberals argue from classical liberal values, such as free speech and academic freedom. They identify some genuinely bad instances, arguably enough to constitute a trend, but mistakenly treat it as a national crisis. As a result, they’ve stoked a paranoia that undermines, rather than strengthens, the liberal values they care about.

What’s the Problem and How Bad is it?

Anti-woke liberals take a collection of “cancellation” anecdotes — some involve job loss, others little more than public criticism — and weave them into a narrative of civilizational threat. A recent Economist editorial warning about “the threat from the illiberal left” begins by intoning, “Something has gone very wrong with Western liberalism.” Weiss writes that “the Enlightenment, as the critic Edward Rothstein has put it, has been replaced by the exorcism.” It’s over the top.

Defending her Atlantic article, Applebaum tweeted that the “claim that the mob justice, illiberal bureaucracies and long-term ostracism of people in American cultural institutions ‘isn’t important’ or doesn’t matter because it only affects ‘a few people’ — that documented stories are ‘anecdotes’ — is mindblowing… A *single* miscarriage of justice is a terrible thing. Why wouldn’t you fight to change systems that created so many?”

While there are surely people who argue it doesn’t matter, as well those who say it’s good — that all the cancelled deserved it — a more interesting criticism challenges the claim of “so many.” 

The frequency and intensity of a problem matter because attention is limited, and the scope of a problem shapes the response: Which systems we fight to change, how we fight to change them, and how much effort we devote to a given fight at the expense of others. If we overstate a problem, not only do we poorly allocate attention, we risk cures that are worse than the disease.

Terrorism really does kill people. But if the government inaccurately said you’re at high risk every day and severely curtailed civil liberties in response, that would be wrong.

COVID really does kill people. But if the government inaccurately said the death rate is 25 percent even among the vaccinated, and permanently banned indoor gatherings in response, that would be wrong.

Police really do kill unarmed black people. But when activists inaccurately claim such violence is common, that people of color see it as much more concerning than crime, and argue that we should “literally abolish the police,” most Americans recognize that as wrong.

The size and scope of a problem matter a great deal.

Terrorism, public health, and police violence are all life-and-death issues, and all involve the state, so they’re more consequential than the criticism, shunning, and loss of professional opportunities associated with cancel culture. But that doesn’t mean the latter isn’t a problem. We can, and should, care about more than one thing at a time, and many things that aren’t the worst problem deserve attention.

Nevertheless, it’s important to assess problems accurately. An anecdote of ostracization and job loss in response to fairly mild expression — like a throwaway post on social media — is bad. (Social justice activists, of all people, should understand caring about single instances of unfair treatment). If an academic, activist, or corporate trainer argues that we should eliminate First Amendment speech protections, or claims that “objective, rational linear thinking” and “quantitative emphasis” are values particular to a system of “whiteness” that needs dismantling, that warrants pushback. (To any people of color, especially students and aspiring scholars, don’t let anyone tell you you’re less capable of large-n scientific research than white people, nor that science isn’t for you because white men valued it in history). But whether there are any instances of this stuff is not the argument I’m examining here.

Weiss claims that the “Woke Revolution… has successfully captured the most important sense-making institutions of American life,” including newspapers, Hollywood studios, and tech companies. That’s a point about power. About control. There’s a substantial difference between “can be seen in” and “has captured.” If uncompromising Maoists were actually in charge, that’d be a different type of problem. But they’re not.

A Moral Panic?

In a widely-shared Substack post, Michael Hobbes calls all this worrying about wokeness a “moral panic.” That’s a term some use online to wave away serious concerns, but Hobbes uses it the way sociologist Stanley Cohen did in the 1970s, as a phenomenon where something becomes “defined as a threat to societal values and interests” based on media accounts that “exaggerate the seriousness, extent, typicality and/or inevitability of harm.”

Hobbes references previous moral panics, such as “stranger danger.” In the 1980s, media devoted a lot of attention to the possibility of surprise kidnappings—sometimes illustrated by predators in white vans enticing children with candy—which led to new laws that landed people in jail or on sex offender registries, but did not increase child safety. The point here is not that stranger abductions never happened, but that they didn’t happen nearly as much as the media, concerned parents, and lawmakers thought. And because stranger kidnappings were not a national crisis, but treated as one, the “solution” made things worse.

Along similar lines, Hobbes argues that anti-woke alarm-bell-ringing relies on a relatively small number of oft-repeated anecdotes. Some don’t stand up to scrutiny, and some of those that do are low-stakes. The resulting moral panic fuels, among other things, a wave of red state legislation aimed at banning “critical race theory” that uses vague language and effectively cracks down on teaching about racism in American history.

Opposing Hobbes in an Arc Digital essay, Cathy Young acknowledges “the argument that, while leftist intolerance may exist, the problems are minor, vastly exaggerated by anti-‘cancel culture’ warriors, and cynically weaponized by the right,” and then focuses on litigating the details of anecdotes Hobbes mentions. That’s fine in its own right — accuracy is good, and the more serious cases, the more it’s a trend — but doesn’t sufficiently address the point about moral panics.

In the universe of cancel culture cases, I find more incidents concerning than Hobbes and fewer concerning than Young, but “this one incident wasn’t actually bad” vs. “yes it really was” doesn’t answer the question about size and scope. It doesn’t tell us what, if anything, society should do about it.

For that, we should look to data, and here again the problem looks smaller than anti-woke liberals make it out to be. In Liberal Currents, Adam Gurri cites the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which documented 426 “targeting incidents involving scholars at public and private American institutions of higher education” since 2015 and 492 “disinvitation attempts” since 1998. The organization Canceled People lists 217 cases of “cancellation” since 1991, while the National Association of Scholars (NAS) lists 194 cancellations in academia since 2004 (plus two in the 20th century). Based on these numbers, Gurri concludes, “If any other problem in social life was occurring at this frequency and at this scale, we would consider it effectively solved.”

Let me add a denominator. There are nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States. U.S. News’ 2021 rankings of the best schools lists 1,452. Using that smaller number and NAS’s figure of 194 academic cancellations since 2004, the chance of a college or university experiencing a cancellation in a given year is less than 0.8 percent.

Some of these are not remotely high-stakes. For example, actress Phylicia Rashad, dean of Howard University’s College of Fine Arts, tweeted “FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted- a miscarriage of justice is corrected!” when her former co-star Bill Cosby was released from prison (the prosecutor who secured Cosby’s conviction for sexual assault used incriminating statements from an earlier civil trial that were supposed to be sealed). Some people criticized Rashad and she issued an apology. That’s it. She’s still the dean.

There are some concerning cases in the NAS database too, in which professors were fired for actions that should be covered under a basic principle of academic freedom — for example, reading aloud a Mark Twain passage that included a racial slur, even after giving students advance notice — so this isn’t a total non-issue. But the number of low stakes and relatively unobjectionable cases means the risk is lower than 0.8 percent (and it’s even lower than that, since NAS includes Canada and my denominator is ranked schools in the United States).

It’s even smaller if we focus on left-wing illiberalism. One of Canceled People’s 217 cases is Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY), removed as a Republican House leader for “public statements critical of Donald Trump’s continued effort to convince Americans that the election was stolen from him.” I think that’s bad for multiple reasons, but it’s definitely not left-wing, and I wouldn’t call it illiberal either. Congressional caucuses can pick their own leaders based on the public messages they want to convey.

Similarly, FIRE classifies about 30 percent of the attempted disinvitations in its database as from the right. About 60 percent are from the left — the other 10 percent N/A — so if you want to argue that the left does this more, you’ve got some evidence. But still, the number of cases from the left is lower than the total. And more than half of FIRE’s attempted disinvitations did not result in anyone getting disinvited.

Using U.S. News’ ranked schools as the denominator, the chance of left-wing protestors trying to get a speaker disinvited at a college or university in a given year is about 0.5 percent. The chance of an actual disinvitation is less than 0.25 percent. And that’s in the entire school. To put this in perspective, my political science department alone hosts speakers most weeks of the semester.

Some individual cases of disinvitation under fire are concerning, indicating that some higher education administrators are too quick to grant a heckler’s veto. Others look like a reasonable exercise of freedom of association (though in those cases, it’d be better to not invite, rather than invite and rescind). But even if we assume these databases capture a fraction of actual instances — which would be surprising, given the media attention on this topic, but even so — the data does not show an illiberal left-wing movement in control of academia.

Chilling Effects

In The Bulwark, Cathy Young argues that this data-based “reasoning underestimates the chilling effect of ‘cancellations.’” Similarly, Conor Friedersdorf devoted an Atlantic article to the chilling effect of an open letter calling for the cancellation of Steven Pinker. According to this line of argument, actual cancellations may be rare, and attempts to cancel high profile figures may fail, but fear of cancellation is sufficient for woke ideological enforcement.

Bari Weiss and Anne Applebaum both cite a Cato study purporting to show this effect:

Two things jump out here:

  1. The number agreeing that the political climate prevents them from saying things they believe ranges from 42% to 77%, which is high across political views. That suggests self-censorship is, to a significant degree, a factor of the political, cultural, and technological environment, rather than caused by any particular ideology.

  2. Conservatives report self-censoring more than liberals do.

The anti-woke read of the graph is “political climate” means “wokeness,” and conservatives are more afraid of wokeness than liberals, so liberals speak freely while conservatives self-censor.

That’s a lot of assumptions. The same study shows that the biggest increase in self-censorship from 2017 to 2020 was among strong liberals (+12), while strong conservatives increased the least (+1). If this data told a story of ascendent Maoists suppressing conservative speech, it would probably be the opposite, with the left becoming more confident of expressing their views — on race, gender, etc. — while the right becomes disproportionately more fearful. Culture warriors fixate on wokeness, but when asked about the political climate, many Americans likely thought about Trumpism.

Nevertheless, this data does show conservatives are more likely to say the political climate prevents them from expressing their beliefs. But what it doesn’t show is which beliefs or why.

Self-censoring can be a problem, but also not. The adage “do not discuss politics or religion in general company” goes back to at least 1879. If someone today is too scared to say “Robin DiAngelo’s conception of ‘white fragility’ does not stand up to logical scrutiny,” that’s bad. If they’re too scared to shout racial slurs at minorities, that isn’t. A lot depends on the content of the speech.

When I was a teenager in the 1990s, anti-gay slurs were common insults among boys, and tough-guy talk in movies. Now it’s a lot less common, one of the things pushed out of polite society, like the n-word, Holocaust denial, and sexual harassment. I think that’s a positive. For one, it means less culturally and physically enforced self-censorship by gay people. And the cultural change happened by argument, representation, and social sanction — sometimes as basic as dirty looks instead of encouragement — not by laws or violence.

Another problem with the anti-woke interpretation of the Cato study is media constantly tells conservatives they’re under dire threat. Fox News, including Tucker Carlson (the most-watched show on basic cable), Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino (frequently among the most-shared on Facebook), and other right-wing outlets devote tons of coverage to cancel culture, riling up conservatives with hyperbolic claims that people are coming for them. Anti-woke liberals in prestigious mainstream outlets tell them it’s the Cultural Revolution. Then a survey asks if the political climate prevents them from saying what they believe, and, primed by media, they say yes.

Or consider this example:

Evolutionary psychology professor Gad Saad announced to his nearly 400,000 Twitter followers that his wife was ordering coffee and wanted to engage the server, who she thought might be transgender, but “was frozen in fear that she might use a pronoun that might offend. Therein lies the problem with this language policing.”

Assuming this is true, what was the primary cause of her fear? Is it because there’s a decent likelihood the server, if transgender, would make a scene if Saad’s wife didn’t use their preferred pronoun (rather than either ignore it or politely correct her), and that this would lead to some sort of social sanction? Or is it because she listens to figures who constantly say she should be terrified because trans people, backed by all major institutions, will destroy the life of anyone who violates their linguistic requirements, even if inadvertent?

As Jen Monroe shows, conservative media powerhouse The Daily Wire was so eager to validate fearmongering about transwomen going into the women’s restroom to commit sexual assault that they turned an instance of rape in a Virginia high school into a national story, accusing the school board of covering it up because the perpetrator was a “boy allegedly wearing a skirt.” What actually happened was a girl invited a boy she had hooked up with before to meet her in the bathroom, he wanted to go further than she did, and when she refused he forced himself on her. Claims of a cover-up were also false. It’s inexcusably awful, as all rapes are, but not at all an example of a woke-captured institution doing something bad on behalf of their ideology.

With so many writers on the anti-woke beat, it’s not especially plausible that we’re missing many cases of transgender servers getting people canceled for using the wrong pronoun in coffee shops to the point that everyone who isn’t fully comfortable with the terminology should live in fear. By overstating the threat of cancellation and the power of woke activists, anti-woke liberals are chilling speech they aim to protect.

Understanding Power

It’s not totally clear why more than 3/4 of conservatives told Cato researchers they self-censor, but it’s easy to see why a Texas administrator told teachers “make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has an opposing” perspective. That happened because the state passed a vaguely-written law that says teachers who discuss “controversial issues of public policy or social affairs shall, to the best of their ability, strive to explore such issues from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.”

Texas legislators almost certainly didn’t aim to require a contending perspective on the Holocaust, nor to forbid teachers from giving deference to the perspective that it was bad (though some likely hoped to get contending perspectives on slavery, the Confederacy, Jim Crow, and their legacies). But a requirement to both-sides the Holocaust is a plausible read of the legal text. It’s an unsurprising result of empowering the state to suppress ideas in an environment with bad faith culture warriors, such as Chris Rufo and James Lindsay, advocating state censorship and deliberately stoking panic to get it.

There are similar laws in other states, including Florida, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. As Jeffrey Sachs argues, many of these new laws are “a poorly-written, misguided mess,” with nonspecific language that could easily be interpreted in ways proponents do not intend.

And that’s not all that’s happening in Texas. A high school principal, who is black, got put on administrative leave because a school board candidate publicly accused him of supporting critical race theory and “the conspiracy theory of systemic racism.” The principal’s supposed offense was writing a letter to the school community in June 2020 arguing that “education is the key to stomping out ignorance, hate, and systemic racism… It’s a necessary conduit to get ‘liberty and justice for all.’” The Superintendent indicated he intends to end the principal’s contract.

Meanwhile, Matt Krause, Chair of the Committee on General Investigating in the Texas House and a candidate for Texas Attorney General, has launched an investigation into school district content. Krause names 850 books, and asks districts to report if they have copies, how many they have, and how much they spent on them. Many of the books discuss race, gender, or sexuality. On Krause’s list are multiple recent books about the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the 1967 Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” which is about a slave revolt.

In addition to these 850, Krause’s letter instructs schools to identify any books that “contain material that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” Like the new law requiring “contending perspectives” on “controversial issues,” Krause’s instruction is very vague — just about anything might make students feel discomfort — almost as if it’s designed to have a chilling effect.

This is state power. Actual control. The ability to cut funding, confiscate, arrest, fine, and jail is inherently more powerful than the ability to protest. College students’ complaints and activists’ denunciations aren’t nothing, but they’re significantly less powerful than laws and government officials. Texas, Florida, and other states trying to suppress unwanted ideas in both K-12 and higher ed isn’t the Cultural Revolution either — no state-sanctioned mass violence here — but it’s coming from government, making it a bigger threat to speech and academic freedom. At the very least, it shows that woke Maoists don’t have nearly as much control as the anti-woke claim.

To put this in perspective, antiracist guru Ibram X. Kendi has called for an “anti-racist Constitutional amendment,” which would “make unconstitutional racial inequity over a certain threshold, as well as racist ideas by public officials,” and establish a Department of Anti-Racism to enforce it. It’s a terrible proposal that would repeal the First Amendment and get the state heavily involved in policing speech (which, even if well-intentioned, comes with serious risks of abuse).

It also doesn’t stand the slightest chance of happening. Constitutional Amendments require supermajorities in Congress and the states, which makes them easy to block. And Democrats aren’t trying to enact it. Even with a Democratic president, slim Democratic majorities in Congress, and Democratic control of government in blue states, none are advocating anything like Kendi’s idea.

Meanwhile, the University of Florida just blocked three political science professors from testifying in a lawsuit against a recently-passed voting-restrictions law championed by Republican governor Ron DeSantis. The school says “litigation against the state is adverse to UF’s interests,” perhaps because the governor has influence over university funding and can appoint six out of the 13 members on the university’s board of trustees.

“Private citizen says” is on a lower scale than “government does.”

Anti-Anti-Woke

When I floated bits of this argument on Twitter, I got a similar criticism from two writers I respect:

It’s fair to characterize this article as anti-anti-woke. And I usually don’t like anti-anti- arguments, especially anti-anti-Trump (because it’s effectively pro). But in this case I’m doing it because I reject the binary.

Trump was the president, with the institutional power that entails, and now he’s not. Democrats control Congress, and after the midterms they might not. American politics is often binary.

Culture is not. It’s an ever-changing mishmash, with a large variety of influential participants. There have been unmistakable changes in American culture — Western culture, really — regarding race and gender, but there are way more than two sides to that. You don’t have to be woke or anti-woke. It’s not a political campaign or a war. You can think all sorts of things, mixing and matching from these ideas and others.

I won’t say “this is trivial” nor “this stuff is great,” because I don’t think either. At least not if “this” means uncompromising Maoists seeking domination.

I think that’s bad, but it’s not especially common. It’s not fiction — I’m online a lot, I have feet in both media and academia, I’ve seen it too — but, importantly, it’s not in control. It’s something that can and should be addressed with argument, dialogue, and compromise, not with hyperventilating or laws.

I think government censorship is inherently more concerning than private censorship, and that we can’t sufficiently counter the push for state idea-suppression without countering the overstated fears that rationalize it.

I think a lot of the private censorship problem can be addressed by executives and administrators — the ones who actually have power over businesses and universities — showing a bit of spine. Don’t fold at the first sign of protest. Take some time to look into it yourself, and make a judgment call on whether discipline is merited and necessary. Often, the activist mob will move on in a few days anyway.

I think that, with so much of the conversation focusing on extremes, people often miss when administrators do this. Recently, University of Michigan music professor Bright Sheng garnered student complaints for showing the 1965 movie Othello featuring Lawrence Olivier in blackface. Sheng apologized and stepped down from teaching that seminar, but woke protestors didn’t accept it, demanding a Title IX investigation for discrimination. That got national attention. What didn’t is the university’s Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office subsequently deciding not to investigate Sheng. It’s a good example of both an attempt to impose penalties that are disproportionate to the offense, and how “wokeness run amok” gets a lot more attention than “excessive wokeness turned back,” creating an availability heuristic that skews perceptions.

I think transgender and non-binary people have a convincing case for equality. I don’t think that points to clear answers on every question—what’s the point of gender segregated sports?—but I think that, at a baseline, treating people as equals means respecting who they say they are. The vast majority are not edge cases like a competitive athlete, but regular people trying to live their lives. Let them use the bathroom in peace.

I think the argument that racism and other forms of bigotry operate at a systemic or institutional, in addition to individual, level is insightful, intuitive, and empirically supported. We can improve people’s lives by taking that into account when crafting laws, policies, and practices.

I think identity and societal structures shape people’s lives (whether they want it to or not) but they’re far from the only factors. Treating them as the only, or even predominant, factor essentializes more than it empowers.

I think judging speech primarily by the identity of the speaker rather than by the content of the speech is a mistake.

I think the comedy sketch with Woke and Racist saying the same things with slightly different inflection lands.

I think free speech is an essential value, not just at the legal level, but culturally as well. I think people who would scrap it, from crusading antiracists to social conservatives pining for Viktor Orban’s Hungary, have a naively utopian sense of how that would go (both in general and for them specifically). Getting the state involved in speech suppression is a bad idea.

I think free association is an essential value too. Which inherently includes the right of disassociation.

I think these situations often fall into a gray area, and businesses should be able to make their own judgment calls about personnel, since companies have a reasonable interest in protecting their brand. That especially applies to public-facing businesses with employees who do PR, such as with Disney firing Mandalorian actress Gina Carano.

I think violence is physical, and that while speech can be quite harmful, it’s better to think of these two things as categorically different than to insist harmful speech is literally violence.

I think America’s founding was a big step forward for government and individual liberty, and early America was a deeply racist, bigoted place that needed Amendments (13-15; 19), Civil Rights Acts, and landmark court cases to become a liberal democracy. I don’t think it’s hard to hold both of those in your head at the same time.

I think students learning the unvarnished truth about America’s racist past is good, and teaching students they are personally responsible for the sins of the past is not.

I think synthesis of these cultural forces is both desirable and possible. Way more people think both that bigotry is bad and individual freedom is good than online arguments lead you to believe.

I don’t think the sides are as far apart as they think. The anti-woke liberal “Harper’s Letter” cited the case of David Shor, who was fired after sharing a link to a published political science paper showing that Democrats tend to lose vote share following violent protests. A counter to the Harper’s Letter also cited Shor’s firing as “indefensible.” This year, when black author Frederick Joseph launched a social media campaign that rapidly got a white woman fired over a video of a relatively mild confrontation at a dog park, it got widespread criticism. As Cathy Young put it, “even as zealous an anti-racism advocate as 1619 Project lead author Nikole Hannah-Jones” said Joseph’s actions were unethical.

I think if a zealous advocate of anti-racism says this cancellation was wrong, then the number of people who actually believe that, as Young put it when defining wokeness, “All claims and accounts of identity-based oppression, abuse, or prejudice must be accorded the presumption of belief; to challenge or deny them is oppressive” isn’t large. And the number who actually believe in Bari Weiss’s conception, in which everyone’s placed on “a spectrum of ‘privileged’ to ‘oppressed’” where the latter “bullying” the former is “very, very good,” is quite small. The Joseph case shows it’s real. It also shows that the extreme version faces large cultural opposition.

I think we should disaggregate cancel culture and left-wing identity politics. Cancellation should be understood as an internet phenomenon. Social media provides the tools to highlight individuals who supposedly crossed the line, organize pressure campaigns, and publicly shame them and their employers. If it ever was just something the left does, it isn’t anymore.

I think a lot of us could agree that social media mobbing and professional media attention on minor incidents is wrong, especially as part of a campaign to get someone fired. In general, disproportionally severe social and professional sanctions is a problem, no matter the alleged cause.

I think kids in the digital age need space to be dumb kids without it ruining their life, like many pre-internet kids had. I especially object to adults turning teenagers into culture war props, as both left and right did with Nick Sandmann from Convington high school, or Jimi and Mimi from a high school in Virginia.

I think about New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg’s argument that “the cancel culture panic” is partly driven by “middle-aged sadness,” as a generation that prized transgression deals with a younger one that dislikes it. Is this just what getting old feels like? As Goldberg notes, “The shame of turning into the sort of old person repelled by the sensibilities of the young is a cause of real psychic pain.” I certainly don’t think that’s all of it, but I am a little wary of becoming like Principal Skinner (“Am I out of touch? No it’s the children who are wrong”). On some of this stuff, the kids these days, they might have a point.

I think most anti-woke liberals really do want to defend free speech and academic freedom. But I don’t think their panic-stoking hyperbole is helping.