From political correctness to cancel culture

On my walk the other day, I passed a group of six people in their late teens or early twenties. One of them, a female, asked what “cancel culture” means. A guy answered, “it means if you say the politically incorrect thing, you’re gone.”

I didn’t hear the reaction to this answer. I hope it was negative.

In any case, the answer was smart and accurate. Political correctness brought social disapproval for certain forms of normal speech. Cancel culture brings adverse economic consequences for them. It’s the logical next step for leftists.

Tevi Troy argues, however, that conservatives were successful in defending free speech from the scourge of political correctness in the 1990s, and that the lessons from that successful fight provide a roadmap for combatting the cancel culture. He writes:

Though the current situation may be dire, key lessons from the first battle against political correctness are still instructive. The first is the power of right-leaning intellectuals to make an argument part of the national conversation. Beginning with [Allan] Bloom, who did not call himself conservative but arguably counted as one, the effort grew to include self-proclaimed conservative writers like [Roger] Kimball and [Dinesh] D’Souza. Bloom’s arguments about the weaknesses of contemporary education laid the groundwork for further investigation, while Kimball and D’Souza built on his arguments with new theories and practical applications. . . .

The second lesson has to do with the ability of politicians, and particularly the president, to elevate issues to a national audience. Once the right-leaning intelligentsia broke the story in the late 1980s and early 1990s, journalists helped it reach the political realm. Former conservative journalist Tony Snow was especially instrumental in bringing the concept to the attention of the Bush White House, leading to a presidential speech that was elegant, unifying, and even a bit understated.

The third lesson relates to the need to build alliances across the aisle. Arguments from right-leaning writers like Bloom, Kimball, and D’Souza could have only gone so far without allies from the left making common cause in defense of free speech. The addition of more mainstream and left-leaning voices meant that people couldn’t dismiss criticism of political correctness as the work of right-wing zealots. . . .

Then there was the power of the entertainment industry. As comedians mocked the pretensions of political correctness and movies like PCU showed that even some in Hollywood wanted to hop on the bandwagon, the term “politically incorrect” became a badge of honor. Disseminating the anti-political-correctness argument through popular culture allowed it to transcend the world of left versus right and reach the bulk of the American population in a way that even leftist arguments in the mainstream media could not have done.

These are useful lessons. However, in my view, political correctness wasn’t truly defeated in the 1990s. It survived the conservative counterattack, at least on college campuses.

Students subjected to it in college beginning back then are now in power at media outlets, corporations, law firms, and to some degree in government. They are the ones who have taken PC to its next logical level — the cancel culture.

This doesn’t mean the battle is lost. I agree with Tevi’s conclusion:

The American people have good instincts on this question. If they can continue to receive solid guidance from a unified conservative movement while some key politicians speak out, some leftists defect, and some talented comedians and entertainers stand up for free speech, there is a chance that cancel culture, like political correctness before it, will be seen as a joke of the past rather than the scary reality of our future.

(Emphasis added)

But there may be a greater chance that the cancel culture’s assault on free expression will prevail.

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