Scott Adams and the Time Cancel Culture Was Good
Reactions to the Dilbert cartoonist's racist expressions show that the debate is over the norms, not the process of shunning offensive speech
Cancel culture has come for Dilbert creator Scott Adams. On a YouTube livestream, Adams said things others considered racist, people denounced him for it on social media, then newspapers said they would stop running his comic strip. Portfolio, a publisher, canceled a new book by Adams it was planning to release in September. So much for free speech.
Or maybe this wasn’t cancel culture. At least not the type that’s bad.
Adams said Black Americans are a “hate group” and “the best advice I would give to White people is to get the hell away from Black people, just get the f**k away … because there is no fixing this.”
He based this conclusion on a Rasmussen poll that asked if people agreed or disagreed with the statement “It’s OK to be White.” There were 117 Black respondents, and 26 percent disagreed.
It’s not clear why. The question is poorly designed; too ambiguous. On its own, “OK to be White” is fine, but it’s also been a white supremacist troll since at least 2017.
Regardless, Adams took the 26 percent who disagreed, added the 21 percent who weren’t sure, omitted the 53 percent who agreed, and absurdly used that to lash out against all Black people.
This crossed a serious line: overt racism. Adams’ speech was so egregious that social media users piling on and companies breaking ties is an appropriate reaction.
But isn’t that what a cancellation mob says? Don’t they all think their target’s speech crossed a serious line?
Yes. But there’s more to it.
Not Cancel Culture?
As criticism mounted, Scott Adams drew from the familiar rhetorical playbook, claiming to be a victim of “cancelation” who was denied “free speech.”
But Thomas Chatterton Williams, who spearheaded an open letter published in Harper’s that made a liberal, culture-of-free-speech case against what it called an “intolerant climate,” says the response to Adams “is *not* ‘cancel culture.’” When I asked why, he said “cancel culture is really about when someone is called out by a mob for transgressing a not-yet-agreed upon norm” while “Adams just indulged in classic super basic racism.”
That’s a distinction based on newness, and degree of public acceptance. If most people agree some expression is over the line, and have for a while, then harsh reactions are reasonable. Distinguishing Adams’ comments from other expressions people find offensive, Cathy Young, a signatory to the Harper’s Letter, explained that “it's based on overwhelming agreement that the opinion in question is not just wrong but morally reprehensible.”
Agreed upon by whom? And how do we know when a norm crosses the threshold where cutting ties with someone over their public speech becomes appropriate? It has to be well over half to avoid tyranny of the majority. So what level of disagreement renders a norm contested?
On Twitter, the Adams case is contentious. Adams has his defenders, both direct and indirect, and not just small accounts run by long-time fans. Influencer Robby Starbuck shared a video in which an interviewer asks some Black people “what are white people superior at?” and they give answers like “repression” and “taking what’s not theirs.” Starbuck called the respondents “racists,” said they should be “shunned,” and argued that if American culture had not been consumed by “madness,” then “every person in this video would lose their job.” Twitter owner Elon Musk responded favorably, drawing more attention to the post.
In a separate discussion, Musk responded to a claim that Adams’ comments were reasonable and his critics are wrong by stating that U.S. media is “racist against whites & Asians,” and “elite colleges & high schools” are too.
“Newspapers are cancelling Dilbert claiming creator Scott Adams ‘made racist comments’ while discussing 26% of blacks don’t think it’s OK to be white,” tweeted Charlie Kirk, president of the influential advocacy group Turning Point USA. “Are we going to ignore the fact 12 million blacks think it’s okay to hate white people, or just be outraged someone noticed?”
(Again, this is based on 30 out of 117 Black responses to an ambiguous survey question.)
But that’s Twitter, hardly representative of the country. Maybe it’s one of those fringe positions that appears more prevalent on the platform due to activists, trolls, algorithms, and the owner’s proclivities.
But probably not. The latest big annual survey by PRRI and Brookings, released at the start of February, found that 41 percent of Americans agree that “Today discrimination against white Americans has become as big a problem as discrimination against Black Americans and other minorities.” That works out to over 105 million U.S. adults. I don’t know how many would be sympathetic to at least part of Adams’ argument, but it has to be in the millions.
With norms, “agreed upon” and “overwhelming agreement” apparently don’t mean anything close to consensus. But thinking of it relatively, norms against explicit bigotry like Adams’ are more agreed upon than norms against subtler forms of racism, and norms against anti-Black speech are more established than many others. Therefore, to understand when cancellation is appropriate, we also need the other side of the equation, where reactions should be proportionate to the alleged offenses.
Cancel culture, writer Christina Sommers explained, “refers to cases where individuals face absurdly harsh consequences for relatively minor lapses. Sometimes there are no lapses at all.”
Combining the principles of widespread acceptance and proportionality, Williams argued that, “Social media mobs targeting a person’s employer for often minor or niche offenses should not be indulged as norms are still being figured out. When they are that’s more like what is meant by cancel culture.”
In 2018, comedian Roseanne Barr tweeted “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj,” referring to Valerie Jarrett, a top advisor to Barack Obama. Calling a Black person an “ape” is an old, well-known racist trope, and ABC removed her from a revival of her classic sitcom Roseanne. Barr said she was being political, not racist, and "thought the bitch was white.” (Jarrett has mixed ancestry and relatively light skin, but Barr’s comment doesn’t make much sense if directed at a white person.) This month, Roseanne released a new standup special titled “Cancel This.”
Both Adams and Barr, whose public personas often aim for edgy and provocative, expressed something long established as racist, got denounced on social media, and cut loose by media companies. The cases aren’t identical—Barr said something about one Black person, Adams about Black people as a whole—but they’re pretty similar. To say one is cancellation and the other is not, or that one response was proportionate while the other was disproportionate, requires narrow parsing.
In late 2020, Disney cut ties with actress Gina Carano, who was in their hit show The Mandalorian. Her offenses: tweeting antisemitic imagery, mocking trans people with “my pronouns are beep/boop,” and spreading conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. Carano said she didn’t realize the images were antisemitic, but also didn’t want to take them down because, she said, that would be bowing to “the mob.”
Norms against anti-Jewish expressions are about as agreed upon as those against anti-Black expressions. With Adams, it was one rant but clearly deliberate. With Carano some was maybe inadvertent, but it wasn’t just one thing, and Disney had repeatedly asked her to stop. And actors are more public-facing than cartoonists.
Seems pretty proportionate. The alternative principle would be that companies have a moral obligation to continue working with (and paying) someone whose public behavior they think is hurting their brand, even after privately asking them to stop. Such an obligation would go against both free association and free enterprise.
How about someone outside the entertainment industry?
In early 2022, as President Joe Biden considered Supreme Court nominees, recently hired Georgetown Law professor Ilya Shapiro tweeted that the “best pick for Biden is Sri Srinivasan,” but that “doesn’t fit into latest intersectionality hierarchy so we’ll get lesser black woman.” That got denounced at Georgetown and on social media, with critics calling the phrase “lesser black woman” racist, and arguing that it showed Shapiro wouldn’t be fair to Black students. The school launched an investigation and put Shapiro on paid leave. After four months, they decided to reinstate him without punishment (albeit by saying he wasn’t an employee at the time, rather than with a declaration that no one should face negative consequences for what he did).
While Adams’ comments were unambiguous, Shapiro was arguably trying to say Srinivasan was a better choice than any individual, not that Black women as a group were inferior, and that Biden narrowing the pool by race and gender excluded the best possible nominee. (It should be noted that Srinivasan and Biden’s pick, now-Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, both have incredibly impressive resumes.) While Adams doubled-down in response to criticism, Shapiro maintained that critics were being unfair but did say, “I apologize. I meant no offense, but it was an inartful tweet,” and took it down.
Shapiro’s offense wasn’t as bad as Adams’, but neither was his social punishment. He got criticized, but if saying “lesser black woman” is free speech, saying “that was racist” is too. While Adams lost work, Shapiro got paid during Georgetown’s investigation and kept his job after. That’s consistent with a principle of proportionality, not against it.
But Shapiro thought otherwise. Like Adams, he seemingly wanted to cast himself as a victim of cancellation. After Georgetown reinstated him, Shapiro resigned, publishing an op-ed in the Wall St. Journal called “My Cancel-Culture Nightmare is Over,” and another four days later arguing that Georgetown “yielded to the progressive mob, abandoned free speech, and created a hostile environment.” Within a week of Georgetown’s decision and his two op-eds, Shapiro started a job at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank that also employs Christopher Rufo, an activist who advocates laws and administrative policies to suppress ideas and expressions he considers too woke.
Being investigated isn’t nothing, even if one is ultimately cleared, and it’s reasonable to say Georgetown should’ve finished it in less time. But that’s true of just about every investigation—criminal cases, migrant asylum claims, professional athletes suspended for off-field behavior, etc.—and not particular to cancel culture.
Proportionality doesn’t seem to be the real issue here. For Gina Carano, Roseanne Barr, or Ilya Shapiro to be victims of cancel culture while Scott Adams is not, we’d need widespread agreement that Adams’ offense was major, while the others were all minor or nonexistent, thereby making consequences appropriate in his case and unfair in theirs.
Celebrities and Randos
Where it’s clearly unfair, with disproportionate consequences for minor offenses, is with random non-famous people who get caught in an internet maelstrom.
In a 2020 article, Williams referenced the 2013 case of Justine Sacco, “the Ur-cancellation of the twitter age.” Waiting in Heathrow airport, Sacco tweeted jokes like “Chilly — cucumber sandwiches — bad teeth. Back in London!” It was mostly for her own amusement. She had 170 followers, and didn’t get any replies.
Then Sacco tweeted this, before boarding a plane for South Africa: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Landing 11 hours later, she reconnected to find herself the number one topic on Twitter, with people around the world calling her a racist and saying she should lose her job as a communications executive. She was fired soon after, and hounded for years.
Sacco’s comment was tasteless, and maybe should’ve cost her job since she worked in public relations, but the social consequences were excessive.
I find it especially objectionable when something like this happens to teenagers, ones who weren’t even communicating publicly, but become nationally famous and treated more as political props than as kids.
There’s Nick Sandmann, a white teenager wearing a MAGA hat on a field trip with other kids from Covington high school, in a photograph face to face with a Native American demonstrator at the Lincoln Memorial in 2018. The photo went viral, observers projected all sorts of terrible intentions onto Sandmann and the other students, and some doxxed them (i.e. found and shared their personal information online, tacitly encouraging people to harass them). The school fielded direct calls to punish them, and some families got death threats.
Another case is Mimi and Jimmy, two kids from a Virginia high school who became nationally famous in 2020. In 2016, Mimi (who is white) posted on Snapchat a short video where she said “I can drive, n****r” in a rapper-like cadence. In spring 2020 it circulated around the school again, and Jimmy (who is half Black) saved a copy. That summer, fed up with multiple incidents of racism at his school he says administrators wouldn’t address, Jimmy shared the video online during protests over the murder of George Floyd.
It went viral, and both students faced a mountain of public criticism: her for being racist, him for publicly shaming her and inviting disproportionate social punishment (plus a bunch of racism). Under pressure from trustees and the public, the University of Tennessee removed Mimi from the cheer team, and under pressure from administrators, she withdrew from the school. Jimmy also faced public calls for colleges to reject him. A New York Times article about it uses their full names, so there’s a good chance if anyone googles them, including potential employers, this is what they’ll see for years, maybe forever.
Randos unexpectedly becoming internet famous and objects of culture war over speech they did not intend for mass consumption is unfair, especially if they’re minors. A standard under which people shouldn’t use Information Age communication methods (or talk within range of a smartphone camera) if they don’t want to get publicly shamed for relatively minor transgressions is unreasonable.
That’s why I disagree with L.D. Burnett and others who argue that “there is no such thing as ‘cancel culture’ – there is only culture.” Yes, in general, culture is always evolving, and “public denunciations for shameful behavior” have always been part of shaping social norms. But the Information Age features much more communication at much faster speeds, creating new ways random people can become objects of national derision. That’s different, and “cancel culture” is as good a term for it as any.
But cancellations of randos are rare. For example, a database by the website “Canceled People” has 229 entries, dating back to Justine Sacco in 2013. Mimi is in the database too, as is a janitor from Smith college who was accused of racism on social media and put on leave (a subsequent investigation found no evidence of bias). But so are Roseanne and Gina Carano. Most of the cases are to some extent public figures, going all the way up to former congresswoman Liz Cheney and former president Donald Trump (in his case, for getting kicked off Twitter after violating the “Glorification of Violence Policy” on January 6).
Most cancel culture discourse is about public figures; people with sizeable followings who speak on topics that, fairly or unfairly, generate controversy. Among the most famous are Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who devotes considerable energy to arguing that trans women should not be considered women, and faces harsh criticism from people who disagree, along with a futile effort to boycott Harry Potter material. And there’s Joe Rogan, one of the world’s most popular podcasters, who faced a futile effort to get Spotify to fire him after old clips surfaced where he says the n-word. (Spotify CEO Daniel Ek: “I do not believe that silencing Joe is the answer… canceling voices is a slippery slope”).
Celebrities are not just like us. Public figures who weigh in on controversial matters invite reactions. Doesn’t mean they deserve everything people throw at them, but they all get it to varying degrees, and they know it comes with the territory. (And some like it because it attracts attention). This goes back a while—politicians, shock jocks, comedians—but in the social media age there are more opportunities for negative feedback.
Arguably, pressure on a public figure to stop saying something chills speech more broadly, as randos fear it could happen to them. Then again, seeing public figures defy the critics and get institutional support could encourage others to speak similarly. The balance of those forces isn’t clear. But attempts to use data to support the claim that fear of cancellation is causing considerable self-censorship don’t stand up to scrutiny (as I showed here and here).
A Matter of Time
In 2021, Williams cited comedian Dave Chappelle as an example of cancel culture. Like Scott Adams, Chappelle said things that others found offensive, did it on purpose, and defended it afterwards. As with Adams, Chappelle’s comments got a lot of criticism online, including calls for everyone to shun him, and he faced some negative professional consequences. Film festivals disinvited him, and one of his shows had to switch venues. But that show went forward, Netflix kept producing his specials, and this year he won a Grammy for best comedy album. When it comes to proportionality, Adams faced greater consequences, indicating his offense was worse.
Beyond that, the main substantive difference is Adams’ comments were about Black people while Chappelle’s were about trans people.
If it was cancel culture with Chappelle, but not cancel culture with Adams, one could interpret the distinction as nothing more than personal opinion. Basically “I object to anti-Black speech but not to anti-trans speech, so social consequences for anti-Black speech are fine, but not for anti-trans.”
But there’s a more substantive argument here, and it rests on the idea of newness, contentiousness, and “agreed upon norms.” Objecting to anti-Black speech is older and more widespread than objecting to anti-trans speech.
Another liberal cancel culture critic, Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf, made that point directly:
“I was born in 1980. As far back as I remember, what Adams said would've been regarded as beyond the pale [because] textbook racism was rightly verboten in my circles. & most opponents of ‘cancel culture’ were never objecting to *that* but to expansive new taboos.”
I was born in 1981, and I don’t think he’s right, at least not about America as a whole (I don’t know about his “circles,” and don’t see why the relatively small group of people he happened to know as a kid would be relevant). The 1980s and 90s featured the crack epidemic, race riots after LAPD officers were acquitted for beating a Black man named Rodney King, and leading politicians fearmongering about Black people as “welfare queens” and “superpredators.”
“Textbook racism” is an odd phrase in this context too. Running for president in 2016, Donald Trump said the judge overseeing a fraud case against Trump University couldn’t conduct a fair trial because he’s “Hispanic” and “Mexican.” (The judge was born in Indiana, his parents had immigrated from Mexico.)
In 2019, Trump said four non-white Democratic Congresswomen “came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe” and they should “go back.” All four are Americans, and three were born in the U.S.
These are both examples of textbook racism—the phrase “go back where you came from” is literally in textbooks as an illustrative example—yet many Americans defended him, or at least disputed the criticism. So was the norm he violated agreed upon? There might be less consensus that this sort of speech should be verboten today, in the age of Trumpism and Black Lives Matter, than during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies.
The relevant variable here appears to be change over time. Friedersdorf thinks back to the late 20th century and laments “expansive new taboos.” Williams says it’s wrong to have a strong reaction to something you find offensive if the “norms are still being figured out.”
Is this different from “if I was taught it was wrong as a child, then it’s okay to shun it today, but if not, then not”? Because that’s an unworkable standard, not least because we were all children at different times. It’s either entirely subjective, or outsources morality to popular sentiment. By this standard, 20th century Hollywood blacklisting was okay because anti-communism was an agreed upon norm. And it was reasonable to socially punish Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., because they were transgressing norms that were well established and widely supported, especially in the Jim Crow south.
If you think Civil Rights activists were right and the Red Scare was wrong, you’re prioritizing the norms themselves, not how long a given norm has been around nor how many people agree with it.
How Norms Change
But still, it’s true that there were norms against overt racism in the 1980s to a greater degree than norms against anti-gay bigotry, let alone anti-trans, and that more blatant violations of more established norms tend to prompt more widespread shunning.
One recent example is Kanye West, who faced denunciations and lost deals with Adidas, Balenciaga, Gap, and other brands after he tweeted that he was “going death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE,” and repeatedly praised Adolf Hitler. Liberal cancel culture critics didn’t take issue with that one.
An older example is Michael Richards—Kramer from Seinfeld—who was shunned after he went on a racist rant during a standup set in 2006, shouting the n-word at hecklers. This shows that social consequences for behavior like Scott Adams’ isn’t a new development.
But it doesn’t tell us how norms got there.
I think that, deep down, many liberal cancel culture critics are idealists. They’re writers, speakers, public intellectuals, and believe in words’ power to persuade. “I think that social norms should be hashed out via debate and intellectual exchange,” explained Cathy Young, “not witch-hunts and attempted silencings.”
But debate and intellectual exchange alone are not how change happens. Never has, and probably never will. There are also negative social reactions, from dirty looks to public shaming to lost business.
These reactions are, in part, a product of successful persuasion. Not everyone is a debater, or wants a discussion of contentious topics. If others convince them that some expression should be considered beyond the pale, they shun it.
But that sort of thing doesn’t start happening only after a norm becomes widely agreed upon. It is an unavoidable part of the process, generating both acceptance and backlash along the way.
Before Friedersdorf, Williams, or I were born, this had happened with the n-word and other overt expressions of anti-Black racism. (Mostly. At least more than before.) We grew up with it, so it feels normal, but people struggled for years to get it there.
We saw something similar happen with anti-gay slurs, as they moved from welcome in most circles to unacceptable. It took arguments and debate, yes, but also Stonewall, activism, shunning, and lessons to kids. Those social changes helped change the law (gay marriage), which in turn caused greater acceptance, with more people treating anti-gay speech as a violation of norms.
As Frederick Douglass famously said, “power concedes nothing without a demand.” He wasn’t telling people to take up arms, but he wasn’t telling them to rely entirely on polite intellectual exchange either.
Not in a Vacuum
Does this mean everyone is under a moral obligation to support, or at least accept, every attempt to change norms?
Of course not. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and to express it (and to express opinions of others’ opinions). Some proposed changes, even if well intentioned, would make things worse.
Unlike Fox News commentators and other conservatives who frame opinions on this subject in explicit left-right culture war terms, liberal critics of cancel culture argue from the center, emphasizing norms that facilitate free exchange of ideas. Progressive commentators such as Aaron Huertas, Michael Hobbes, Thomas Zimmer, and Will Stancil deride those folks as “reactionary centrists,” which Huertas defines as “someone who says they’re politically neutral, but who usually punches left while sympathizing with the right.” One of their targets, New York writer Jonathan Chait, bristles at the accusation, arguing that it’s simply an attempt to silence liberals, and tell them they can never critique the left.
Without getting into the weeds of their back-and-forth, I want to be clear I’m not doing that. I support free expression on principle. I think some culturally progressive “woke” arguments merit pushback. (If any students or scholars of color are reading this, don’t let anyone tell you that quantitative analysis isn’t for you because things like “emphasis on the scientific method” and “cause and effect relationships” are part of “whiteness” you’ve wrongly “internalized,” as a Smithsonian website said in 2020.)
I also agree that criticism has a different impact when it’s from one’s own “side.” Someone who votes for Democrats and holds traditionally left-leaning positions—abortion rights, higher taxes on the rich, etc.—is in a better position to counter left-wing excess than a Republican.
So I’m not saying liberals and centrists shouldn’t critique the left. I’m saying that when they do, they should ground their arguments in reality, and focus on the norms themselves, rather than banging a crisis drumbeat with sweeping, metatextual, often hyperbolic arguments about process.
Such arguments frequently appear in prestigious, influential publications. For example:
The Harper’s Letter: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted… This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.”
A New York Times lead editorial: “Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned… When speech is stifled or when dissenters are shut out of public discourse, a society also loses its ability to resolve conflict, and it faces the risk of political violence.”
There are also numerous pieces in the Atlantic and other outlets, and overblown comparisons to China’s Cultural Revolution.
Though liberal cancel culture critics often base arguments on process—mobbing, disinviting, firing, silencing—it’s apparent from their reaction to Scott Adams that their principal objection is over norms. Not cancellation itself, but when those social reactions are appropriate.
One of today’s biggest purveyors of internet mobs harassing non-famous people to silence their expression is Chaya Raichik, who runs a big Twitter account (1.9 million followers) called “Libs of TikTok.” Raichik uses her account, and appearances on popular shows such as Tucker Carlson’s, to say things like this: “The LGBTQ community has become this cult… they’re evil people. And they want to groom kids. They’re recruiting.”
Raichik takes it beyond expressing her opinion, doxxing events such as “Drag Queen Story Hour” at public libraries. She doesn’t directly call for violence, but by posting hateful rhetoric and the time and location, she prompts people who share her views to try to shut them down. For example, five men shouting threats and anti-LGBT slurs disrupted a reading at a public library in California last year, shortly after Libs of TikTok posted about it.
Later in 2022, Boston Children’s Hospital was temporarily shut down and evacuated due to bomb threats after Raichik denounced them for providing gender affirming care to trans teenagers, including a false accusation that they were “mutilating” minors by performing sex reassignment surgery (the hospital doesn’t do that for anyone under 18).
A voluntary event where a person in a colorful costume reads kids’ books to families who choose to attend is a cut-and-dry case of free speech, but liberal cancel culture critics don’t give it much attention. For example, I googled “Jonathan Chait Libs of TikTok” and similar terms and found nothing.
I’m not saying he or anyone else needs to write about this. Time is limited. There are many important things I don’t write about, and bad things I don’t criticize. However, defending the cancellation of Scott Adams and choosing not to focus on cancellations prompted by Libs of TikTok shows that liberal cancel culture critics are concerned about a fairly narrow subset of norms, not about cancellation per se.
If you take issue with anti-racism or “gender ideology,” just say so. Challenge those ideas on the merits. Hyperbolic, abstract, process-focused arguments unnecessarily spread fear that worsens the self-censorship you want to reduce, and fuel a growing illiberal movement in America, one that’s using government power to force libraries to remove books, reduce freedom of the press, chill speech with vaguely written laws, and retaliate against private businesses for expressing opinions politicians don’t like.
Because when many of the country’s leading publications and writers repeatedly declare that Americans’ fundamental freedoms are under serious threat, a lot of people think that means the time for debate and intellectual exchange is over, and more drastic measures, such as state intervention, are justified.
All due superlatives. So refreshing to see reasoned nuance in the public sphere in 2023. Earned a paid subscription. Another nit: I assume you meant to refer to Justine Sacco rather than "Justice Sacco".
Excellent article, hope will be read widely!
Nit: In "(as I showed here and here)", both "here" flinks seems to point to same page..