Cancel Culture: An International Perspective
Cancel culture. It is the subject of numerous opinion pieces (see here and here for two recent examples) and more than one formal debate. Yet, at a fundamental level, there’s no agreement over whether it’s even real. While some say no, others say yes. Harvard professor Pippa Norris brings empirical tools to tackle this question in a recent paper titled “Cancel Culture: Myth or Reality?” in the journal Political Studies.
Although some of the dispute over the existence of cancel culture is tied to divergence on what the term means, Norris is clear on this point. She defines it as “collective strategies by activists using social pressures to achieve cultural ostracism of targets (someone or something) accused of offensive words or deeds.” With this in mind, she expands her titular question to whether “...claims about a growing ‘cancel culture’ curtailing free speech on college campuses reflect a pervasive myth, fueled by angry partisan rhetoric, or [whether] these arguments reflect social reality?”
For her empirical analysis, Norris used data from approximately 2500 political scientists spread over 100 countries. The survey instrument included questions to assess perceptions of constraints on the open exchange of ideas and perspectives on campus and pressure to be politically correct. Crucially, the survey’s international sample allowed her to conduct a cross-national comparison along these dimensions.
Norris framed her study by considering the role of dominant cultural and moral values when looking at which groups feel like they are at risk for being canceled. She wrote:
Modernization theory suggests that the dominant culture in poorer societies usually remains deeply socially conservative on many moral values, such as those concerning the importance of religion, respect for traditional sexual social norms, gender equality, marriage and the family, and the importance of largely fixed social identities based on sex and gender, race and ethnicity, class and caste, nativism and nationalism.
Having described poorer countries in this manner, she depicts post-industrial societies as essentially the opposite.
...cultures in post-industrial societies have gradually become far more socially liberal toward many moral issues, endorsing more fluid sexual and gender identities, support for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning) rights and same sex marriage, acceptance of ethnic diversity and support for racial justice, and related progressive values.
In these descriptions, Norris sets poorer and richer countries up as though they exist on a singular political spectrum. The implication is then that the conservatives in one type of society are analogous to the conservatives in the other in terms of their opinions and positions, and likewise for the liberals. Setting that aside for the moment, Norris argued that this factor—which end of the political spectrum’s values are dominant—largely determines who feels free to speak their mind in each setting. She wrote:
...in [the liberal] environment, scholars holding socially conservative moral values are likely to feel that their views are not merely attacked, but also ‘silenced,’ meaning excluded from serious consideration on campus in everything from reading lists to event speakers, seminar discussions, and lecture halls….[I]f the broader societal culture matters, in deeply conservative developing societies where traditional values prevail, it is liberal scholars who are most likely to feel silenced and thus unable to express their personal moral beliefs openly without social penalty….
After describing the landscape as she saw it, Norris drew upon the literature on Noelle-Neumann’s “spiral of silence” and on congruence theory to further situate her study and her findings. She wrote:
…[O]n moral issues where the balance of opinion is deeply divided within a group, people’s perceptions of other people’s views in the group influence their willing (sic) to express their own opinions. In particular, those holding what are seen as minority views within the group are predicted to be more reluctant to express their attitudes and beliefs openly in discussions, for fear of violating prevalent group norms, risks of social isolation and because some conformists without strong opinions may take their information cues from what many others think.
In other words, what causes people to be silent in these situations is fear that is induced by social pressure to conform. Given this, whichever group holds the minority views will naturally feel the need to hold back. Norris concluded this point saying:
By contrast, ideological majorities are believed to openly defend their views, confident that they will receive collective affirmation.
In this line of thinking, cancel culture might be the inevitable result of incongruence. In other words, insofar as there is a dominant set of moral values in the broader society, scholars (and perhaps others too) who don’t share those values will feel constrained in their ability to express themselves. One could imagine a symmetrical and predictable pattern of self-censorship emerging any time scholars deviate from the dominant values of the society in which the academic institution is embedded.
The empirical results largely follow Norris’s predictions. Those on the political right in post-industrial, progressive societies report a greater perception of cancel culture, while those on the left in lower income, socially conservative cultures report a similar experience.
These results touch on an important topic—one that sits squarely within the concerns of Heterodox Academy. After all, cancel culture certainly constrains academic discourse by creating and sustaining fear. While Norris brings an empirical examination to an important question, after considering her study, several key questions persist—questions that, if answered, might shape our interpretation and understanding of her findings.
What Norris Missed
One of the components that was left out of Norris’s study—perhaps because the data don’t permit its exploration—is a substantive question about which kinds of topics trigger self-censorship in each setting. This requires more than just knowing that the topics touch, for instance, gender, homosexuality, or race—which are mentioned in the earlier quotes. Rather, it requires a deeper understanding of the nature of the concerns being raised.
We might consider the following scenario: Imagine that in some of the poorer, more socially conservative, societies Norris refers to, the left-leaning academics who feel their perspective is being silenced would, given the opportunity, advocate for the rights of the LGBT community. And let’s imagine that, in the progressive, post-industrial societies, the right-leaning academics who feel their perspective is being silenced would advocate for a system of hiring that is exclusively merit-based.
The former example is about the criminalization of a sexual orientation. The latter is a moral judgment about how resources should be fairly allocated in society. The issues do not form mirror images. The first is a threat to human rights—criminalizing homosexuality—and the second is a threat to democratic norms—denying the moral legitimacy of a political perspective. While both warrant serious concern, understanding the difference between the two is crucial as we think through how to move forward.
It’s clear that the different problems require different approaches to overcome them. A threat to democratic norms requires a different response than a threat to human rights. In both settings, the dominant culture will likely deny there’s a problem. But, within Norris’s framework, in poorer countries—if my examples are correct—this may require convincing the dominant culture to value human rights in a more expansive way. And, in richer countries, it may involve getting the dominant culture to recognize that they’re not creating the open environment they think they’re creating.
While the scenarios described above are certainly plausible, it would be premature to claim that we have identified with certainty the primary axis of differentiation between cancel culture in poorer and richer countries. More research aimed at understanding the differences is needed.
In short, Norris’s work suggests that solving the problem of cancel culture in poorer, socially conservative countries, may require a broad shift in thinking about human rights. While solving the problem of cancel culture in post-industrial, progressive countries may require a broadening of discourse that can’t begin until and unless there’s a recognition that institutions of higher education are often not what they claim to be. Both problems require a willingness to broaden current thinking and clarity about the broader goals of institutions of higher education. That willingness likely won’t likely come easily, but it is worth striving for.
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