We Need Cancel Culture Herd Immunity

12 August 2020

3.1 MINS

I’ve always disliked the phrase “I told you so”. It reeks of bitterness wrapped in arrogance, especially coming from a young person. Yet I don’t see any other way to encapsulate my frustration with the recent open letter from Harper’s American magazine titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”.

Signed by over 150 writers, intellectuals, journalists, historians and academics, the letter generally advocates for a culture that encourages open debate and greater tolerance towards differing opinions.

I think Bridget Phetasy put it best:

Notably, among those signatures were Harry Potter novelist J.K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, David Frum, and co-founder of Vox.com Matthew Yglesias.

As expected, it didn’t take long for many of these signatories to walk back their involvement. Guilt by association is alive and well in 2020 cancel culture, with many apologising for being unaware of some of the other signatories.

Jennifer Finney Boylan indicated ignorance on her part in saying, “I did not know who else had signed that letter… I am so sorry.”

In Matthew Yglesias’ case, he was berated for associating with a letter full of transphobes, supposedly like J.K. Rowling who recently landed in hot water for declaring that there are only 2 biological sexes. An uncontroversial statement, according to former sex researcher Debra Soh.

Yet a full mea culpa is offered as Yglesias declares “I have committed to not doing contentious stuff on Twitter anymore”.

Welcome to 2020, where the American first amendment is branded as ‘contentious stuff’.

Ladies and gentlemen, behold some of the best minds our modern society has to offer.

Our apparent moral betters have no spine to demonstrate the courage of their convictions.

On another level, many of them have openly advocated for the cancelling of others in the past when it was socially expedient for them to throw stones.

In the case of J.K. Rowling, in 2018 she played the racism and sexism card when cartoonist Mark Knight depicted the US Open Final where Serena Williams broke her racket.


So to you J.K. Rowling and those that signed this letter, I would like to say: “Time was your ally but now it has abandoned you.” The window of opportunity you had to shut cancel culture down was vast, and the perception that it was closing was blatantly clear. Yet here we are.

How many conservatives and provocateurs did you watch get purged from social media platforms over the last four years? Most of you have stood idly by and watched or even threw stones when the mob came for the free speech of others outside and in your professions.

So no, I don’t welcome your washed-down, apologetically-worded letter. Nor do I respect the fact that many of you are distancing yourself from it as the infernal purge continues.

The numerous cancellations in recent weeks have reminded me of the protests against former professor at Evergreen College, Bret Weinstein, back in September 2017. Bret was a vocal critic of an Evergreen State College event that asked white students to leave campus to highlight the historical wrongs against ‘coloured America’.

Bret Weinstein attempting to reason with a crowd at Evergreen State College:

It may be presumptive of me, but I believe that Bret would be in agreement with me when I say to the signatories of this letter, “Welcome to the party pal. What took you so long?”

We need to put an end to this ‘unwinnable game’, as Douglas Murray puts it in the Madness of Crowds.

Everyone can be cancelled for at least one aspect about themselves. Even though my immigrant parents and grandparents are walking examples of successful integration, I will still be cancelled and called a racist for advocating for less immigration to allow for our infrastructure to catch up.

So how do we solve this “circular firing squad”, as Barack Obama put it in April 2019?

Well, we need cancel culture herd immunity.

If 50% of people get cancelled, then it will nullify the concept of being banned, because everyone else is also deemed persona non grata.

If wisdom is the ability to understand consequences and courage is the ability to point them out, I think it’s safe to say that our society has a severe courage deficit after recounting the events surrounding this open letter.

So if you’re looking to find the bastions of free speech and open discourse, do not look to academia — you will be sorely disappointed as I was.


Originally published at The Spectator Australia.
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash.

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  1. Lionel Chan 23 November 2020 at 1:35 pm - Reply

    Dear Sir,

    I really like the analogy of herd immunity here. I would say a further step is to look at what healthy diet, exercise, neighbourhood and family relations, etc looks like in regards to a proactive personally empowering response looks like.

    In all cultures, the value of the maintenance of sacred hospitality traditions used to be held very highly. “The Miracle of Tact” does not work independently of “free speech and expression”. In times less dominated by abstraction and disembodied discursiveness, and where “loving ones neighbour as oneself” (and non Christian versions of this too) held more weight, Beautiful manners and graceful entertaining of ideas/perspectives by way of honouring the vulnerable humanity of the bearers of them was that which we understood at some level as a precursor to sustainable rationality.

    These things anchor in feelings of knowing home and a secure sense of belonging. We think we can reasons without these things, and while I think this is true the cost is a heavy reliance on prejudice instead of discernment. Under this regime, destructive and suppressive good intentions becomes the rule rather than the exception.

    We live in a post Truth era, not because truth doesn’t matter, but ultimately because we can’t handle it anymore. This lack of a capacity derives from no longer being able to handle our or anyone elses embodied, ever emotionally vulnerable humanity, thinking an arrogant epistemology and manner, lacking Due Diligence, and doubling down on the illusion of “not being triggered”, can suffice instead. It cannot.

    And God Knows Best.

    Both Justification and Judgement loses proportion when left to us. Our calling, for ourselves and each other, is to advocacy.
    – Anonymous

  2. Lionel Chan 23 November 2020 at 1:42 pm - Reply

    PS. Oops, I didn’t actually speak about the response. I think it looks something like focusing on the local and particular as the locus of being once again. Mass X doesn’t work in the same way it used to anyone, there’s too many entry points for incursion. Our differences in whatever just don’t seem to matter when it comes to cooperation on the local level when we value the particular over the universal as persons again, even as those differences do not get wiped away. Manners, face, and veiling tact, especially effective defensive and investigative versions of those, only reside at the level of the local and particular, the personal. “Freedom of speech” and “truth” as bulldozer past each other’s humanity may be inevitable when abstractions are all we as a culture know how to work with anymore.

  3. Lionel Chan 23 November 2020 at 1:52 pm - Reply

    “If wisdom is the ability to understand consequences and courage is the ability to point them out, I think it’s safe to say that our society has a severe courage deficit after recounting the events surrounding this open letter.”

    If one keeps pointing foreseeable consequences out in a certain manner that continually generates resistance and failure for anything to deeply change, surely this implies the wisdom to foresee this in any given instance is lacking. Courage lacking such wisdom may be the “courage” of the berserker, adopting a mode where they can act whilst in denial of their own pain and fear.

    A kind of healing and reintegration is called for on all sides perhaps. One side to start by talking about their suffering in public much less, one side to start talking about their wounds appropriately in private (at least to the self and/or God) more.

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