Cancel Culture’s Freedom FROM Speech

Third in a Six-Part Series by Larry Greenfield
May 2, 2021
Image by wildpixel/Getty Images

To read Part 1 and 2 in this series, click here and here.

A recent public policy opinion poll released by the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University and The Harris Poll revealed that 64% of Americans believe that “cancel culture”—the bullying, boycotting, pressuring, and punishing of fellow citizens for their past and current verbal statements and written views—is a threat to their freedom. 87% agree that it is a problem of varied import.

At his 2019 Foundation Summit, former President Barack Obama decried “call out culture” and cautioned young American activists. This “idea of purity, and you’ve never compromised, and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff…you should get over that quickly. The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws…if all you’re doing is casting stones you’re not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”

In a similar vein, former President Trump, in his 2020 Mount Rushmore Independence Day speech, stated:

“Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children. Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities…One of their political weapons is ‘Cancel Culture’—driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values.”

Of course, we all have the right to endorse or reject products and performers. We can “thumbs up or down” on YouTube, though we can only “like” (not “dislike”) on Facebook. We make choices with our time, money, eyeballs, hearts and minds. And it has always been the case that if enough people don’t watch a TV show, it reasonably gets “cancelled.”

Recently, however, we see the organizing of (mostly) online social media mobs to embarrass and harass, and to target and terminate. Being cancelled today often means losing one’s reputation and livelihood. Just as our country has seen a rise in political violence, from the left and the right, our culture has moved sharply into a kind of blood sport, where Twitter mobs, for example, target their victims relentlessly.

While American law continues to offer First Amendment protections against government restrictions on unpopular speech, American culture has been crushing and suppressing “offensive” words with increasing viciousness. What some call a new McCarthyism developed on American college campuses and is now a feature of the corporate entertainment world and now even parts of government as well.


In his important book promoting a true liberal education “The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students” (1987), scholar Allan Bloom noted that a society that opens itself to moral relativism while denying human nature (and fundamental math equations like 2+2=4) paradoxically closes itself off to critical thinking.

Bloom’s critique includes his concern that liberal arts students arrive to college campuses as coddled children, fragile, lacking attachment to reason, and ill-prepared to hear challenging ideas or real confrontation of thought. Once on campus, students are also not consistently being taught how to seek beauty in the arts.

It is well documented that many liberal arts faculties are ideologically imbalanced, especially in the social sciences. Consequently, the current intellectual climate of college campuses is one that essentially rejects non-conformity, preaches “value relativism,” and deconstructs the value of “free thought” and traditionally observed notions of what is good.

Even students in the physical sciences are now subjected to politically correct scholarship. While prejudice and error point our way to improvement and discovery of the truth, visceral political ideology and emotionalism are starting to substitute for substantive knowledge and wisdom.

Bloom has a worthy successor in Greg Lukianoff, (a self-described “pro-choice” liberal and atheist who has worked for environmental causes and the ACLU), who is President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and co-author of the “Guide to Free Speech on Campus.” He is also the author of “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate,” “Freedom from Speech,” and, with Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure.”

Lukianoff argues that citizens must not succumb to the idea of seeking intellectual comfort, likening it to an addiction to the pursuit of physical comforts.

His work unpacks the rise of campus cancel culture, with its political correctness, intersectional identity politics, micro-aggressions, and hate speech codes. All of this has emboldened radicals on American universities to dominate the conversation, and in many cases it has put students in a position either to write course essays that reflect the dominant identity politics discourse or to refrain from speaking up in class out of fear of ideological disapproval. Academic freedom has been replaced by the frequent selection and disinviting of speakers based on their political views. Both the literal and figurative “hecklers veto” enforces purity of speech and thought through sheer power.

The legacy of many in the American humanities professoriate is spending decades in their field engaging almost exclusively with contemporaries with whom they generally agree, rather than testing ideas and enjoying the provocative life of worthy dialogue and discourse with those who might challenge their politics. Many social science departments are stacked with like-minded political perspectives, with the rare conservative or Republican wildly outnumbered.

Students notice that “diversity” is meant to indicate everything except diversity of perspective, often experiencing indoctrination rather than education, with disproportionately biased ethnic studies courses and gender sensitivity training enforcing radical political views, now found even at high school and even elementary schools levels.

In a 2015 essay, columnist Bari Weiss, who felt so targeted by a woke mob of colleagues for her pro-Israel views that she quit the New York Times, describes the shutting down of speakers at Vermont’s Middlebury College and at U.C. Berkeley (once the famous home of the free speech movement) among many scenes of intimidation and violence throughout the country.

“These believers are transforming the campus from a citadel of intellectual freedom into a holy space—where white privilege has replaced original sin, the transgressions of class and race and gender are confessed not to priests but to ‘the community,’ victim groups are worshiped like gods, and the sinned-against are supplicated with ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings,’” writes Weiss.

Weiss’s 2021 essay reveals the terror felt by parents who dare to question the intolerant views imposed upon their children in high school. “Real Time” TV comic Bill Maher (formerly of “Politically Incorrect” until that show lost advertisers and was suspended and then cancelled after his post-9/11 comments) called our collective situation a “climate of fear.” 

In their stunning documentary about campus culture, authors and media commentators Dennis Prager and Adam Carolla plead for “No Safe Spaces” and reveal the dead end to free speech that results from allowing those who are “offended” to define what can and cannot be said in public, and by whom.

A poignant example:  Ayaan Hirsi Ali is among the most impressive and dignified advocates for women’s rights in the world. A victim of female genital mutilation and various other abuses in her native Somali, she rose to election in the Netherlands parliament. An advocate for reform within Islam, she has long been threatened by Islamists and castigated by the American political left for her scholarship. When Brandeis University offered and then retracted her invitation to receive an honorary degree at its 2014 graduation ceremony, it bowed to pressure from the Council on American Islamic Relations and several student activists in an incident now widely seen as a shameful betrayal of academic freedom and pandering to ideological litmus tests.


Censorship in the entertainment world used to come from traditional conservatives.

In the late 1920s and 1930s, the bawdy Mae West battled industry censors and helped to inspire government obscenity codes to regulate movies, radio and Broadway. The blacklists of the late 1940s and 1950s stalled the careers of accused communists. And in the 1960s, many stand-up comedians were arrested for obscenity, including countercultural satirist Lenny Bruce, in 1963 in West Hollywood, for the use of the word “schmuck.”

In the audience was a young George Carlin, who was also arrested for failing to present government ID.  Carlin was a student of Bruce, and later famously did a bit about the “7 words you cannot say on television.” The popular television show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” depicts some of these and other obstacles to freedom of speech faced by performers in the comedy world during that era.

In recent years, the Me Too movement accelerated the targeting of “bad actors” for public condemnation and firings. Many deserved their fate, including Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein, accused and convicted of multiple crimes. Once he was outed as a bully, many women came forward with stories of his abusive behavior. Hundreds of other high-powered men (and some women) also lost their reputations and positions among the industry elite, including actor Kevin Spacey and TV executive Leslie Moonves. Big name television journalists like Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose were also cancelled.

Today, however, the cancelling of celebrities and media personalities is increasingly a response to campaigns from the “woke” political left, with comedy perhaps the best example.

The great actor and renaissance man Peter Ustinov once said “comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.” If ever there should be a public forum for the free expression of offensive ideas, one would think it would be in the realm of comedy, which by its nature is seen as exaggerative and inviting to those who opt-in to hear insults and raucous opinion. Don Rickles is just one of countless famous stand-up comics who has made jokes based on racial or gender stereotypes. The Friars Club hosted popular televised “roasts” that were insult fests, a foreshadowing of Comedy Central’s Cable TV roasts, full of politically incorrect humor.

But being a funny man, or woman, now gets you no pass if you are accused of being politically incorrect.

Comedian Kevin Hart was disinvited from hosting the 2018 Academy Awards show after revelations of tweeted remarks deemed insensitive to some members of the LGBTQ community a decade earlier. Though he said he had grown in his views and had the support of Ellen DeGeneres, after his apology was deemed insincere by activists he declined to seek to be reinstated as host.

Comedian Roseanne Barr had a long and successful career marked by fairly outrageous public commentary, including Hitler jokes, and a 2018 tweet about former President Obama’s senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, which was considered racist. Barr apologized and tried to clarify she meant to be political, not racial, but her show was cancelled by ABC.

It is true that political bias and blacklisting today can cut both ways.

Kathy Griffin was turned persona non grata after a stunt in which she posted a photo of herself with a severed head, which looked like President Trump. She was fired from CNN and lost endorsement deals.

In 2021, Gina Carano, an outspoken but well-liked independent voice in Hollywood, was fired by Disney and Lucas Film, ostensibly for warning via Twitter that the Nazi-era featured neighbors turning on neighbors based on political correctness. While the Nazi comparison caused concern, she argued that her point was sympathy, not antipathy, for those targeted by totalitarian thought policing.

Noted liberal writer Jonathan Chait wrote that far worse has been said by Carano’s fellow left-wing colleagues, and likened her firing to McCarthyism.

The quick judgment of employers or sponsors who cave quickly to a perceived Twitter mob in order to halt bad publicity or a potential consumer boycott is unfortunate. Major League Baseball’s removal of the 2021 All-Star game from Atlanta is perhaps the gravest example of a public relations panic. The game will now be played in Colorado, which has voting ID laws similar to Georgia’s, not to mention a less diverse population.

But also concerning is the pre-emptive self-censorship by those not under scrutiny for past social media posts or commentary, but who are nevertheless unwilling to express their opinions in an environment policed by the most radical voices.

The thematic question of the 2015 documentary “Can we take a joke?” has been answered by Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Larry the Cable Guy, and many other comedians who have declared that they will not play for college audiences anymore because of what they might say to an audience unprepared to hear words of offense or political challenge to their left-wing orthodoxy.


The government language control of 1984 is here.

U.S. military brass rarely speaks out publicly on contentious issues like the role of pregnant women in the military. Yet they rose up to confront Fox News opinion commentator Tucker Carlson, a frequent target of campaigns to have him fired for expressing independent views. The idea of military officials attacking a news commentator should give the entire country pause if for no other reason than, regardless of the merits of Carlson’s perspective, it is not the role of the military, a government institution, to publicly attack the speech of citizens.

U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), applauded by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), asserted she would not vote to confirm any nominee of President Biden if they were white and straight. This is a level of race-based politics against which the entire civil rights community fought generations ago.

Perhaps the wokest of states, California for years has banned state employee travel to 8 “pariah” states, based not on pandemic health reasons but on opposition to different state laws on controversial social issues.

A member of the California State Assembly, Asm. Ash Kalra (D-San Jose, CA) recently introduced a bill (AB 655) to exclude from serving in law enforcement and subject to termination anyone associated with a “hate group.” But his definition includes anyone who is a member of a church or political organization that supported Proposition 8, the statewide constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage that passed with some 7 million votes in 2008. Even past membership in the Republican party or Catholic, Evangelical, LDS (Mormon) or some Orthodox religious communities would result in someone being banned from serving as a police officer.

Even liberal professors objected, and the author of the bill, Asm. Ash Kalra (D-San Jose, CA) stated he will back off and amend it to focus for now only on violent groups and not those who merely disagree with his views. But another piece of police reform legislation in California (AB 17) would subject police officers to discipline for social media posts that convey “bias.”

Cancel culture, in our education, entertainment, and the execution of rule by government leaders, is nothing less than bullying and intimidation, rather than fair play in a competition of ideas. It’s about power rather than debate. And its consequences are reduced educational excellence, the loss of our sense of humor and the shutting down of voices, and an abandonment of political discourse through sheer ideological control.

Larry Greenfield is a Fellow of The Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship & Political Philosophy.


The Speech Project is an initiative of the Jewish Journal that brings together some of the most compelling voices from across the political spectrum to address the topic of free speech. In a cultural moment where civil liberties often seem to be under siege, we encourage freedom of expression, independent thinking, and personal choice. The articles, podcasts, books, and other resources you’ll find here all challenge the growing illiberalism of our time in their pursuit of balance and authenticity.

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