Galileo’s Replacement Speaker
How Cancel Culture affects you and our universe of shared facts whether you know it or not
Imagine an anachronistically modern university in 1633 Italy. Your school is hosting a debate about whether the Earth goes around the Sun or vice versa. Galileo is supposed to speak on a panel defending heliocentrism, but a different scholar enters the room instead.
“I’m sorry to tell you that Galileo Galilei could not make it because he’s under house arrest for the charge of blasphemy for arguing that the Earth revolves around the Sun. I am your new Vatican-approved debater on this topic.”
You ask, “Hold on. How can I expect you to be objective if heliocentrism is considered blasphemy and you’re representing the institution that burns people at the stake for blasphemy?”
He responds, “No, no, no. Don’t worry at all. I’m completely objective and have come to my position on my own.”
“And what is your position?”
“Well, I think it’s obvious that the Sun revolves around the Earth.”
“And you came to that completely on your own?”
“1000%! So much yes!”
Then the other debaters enter the room — 15 more of them, all Vatican-approved.
You say, “Okay, raise your hand if you believe the Sun goes around the Earth.” All hands go up as the debaters chant, in unison, “But we came to our position completely independently!”
Would you have a hard time believing these “debaters”?
This little thought experiment reveals why Cancel Culture affects you even if you don’t believe you’ll ever be canceled or threatened with cancellation. Its most profound harm for society as a whole — besides, perhaps, how it undermines interpersonal trust and is often simply merciless and cruel — is that it undermines trust in experts.
When even a single thinker is punished for their academic opinion or for engaging in thought experimentation, it leads the public to be justifiably skeptical that any expert on that topic is being fully honest. For example, if even a single professor, like Carole Hooven at Harvard, lands in hot water for arguing that biological sex is real and important, that would, for obvious reasons, undermine the public’s trust in anybody claiming that it isn’t. After all, given the incentives and the climate of either conformity or cancellation, would a professor even tell you if they thought otherwise?
Or take the more recent example of Yoel Inbar, a famous professor whose research I have relied on time and time again, who was turned down for a job at UCLA after students objected to his candidacy. Why did they object? As conveyed by FIRE board members Harvey Silverglate and Samuel Abrams, “In an episode of his podcast, ‘Two Psychologists Four Beers,’ Inbar mildly criticized diversity, equity, and inclusion statements as compelled speech and empty ‘value signaling’.”
The denial here is particularly outrageous because Inbar was right. DEI statements are not only compelled speech but also political litmus tests. Given that even justified criticism of DEI statements can result in an eminent professor being dropped from consideration for a job, why should the public trust that professors are being genuine when they come out in favor of DEI statements?
And that’s if just one expert gets in trouble.
In my upcoming book, “The Canceling of the American Mind,” co-authored by 23 year-old wunderkind Rikki Schlott and featuring a foreword from my good friend Jonathan Haidt, we define Cancel Culture as the uptick beginning around 2014, and accelerating in 2017 and after, of campaigns to get people fired, disinvited, deplatformed, or otherwise punished for speech that is — or would be — protected by First Amendment standards, and the climate of fear and conformity that has resulted from this uptick.
We lay out layer after layer of conformity-inducing processes that exist in modern higher education: From the diversity statement you need to submit in order to get into most colleges in the first place, to the tenure process which often includes further mandatory diversity statements, to the social pressure to conform.
One-third of professors say they've been discouraged by administrators from pursuing controversial research, and 16% of professors say they've been disciplined or threatened with discipline for their pedagogy, research, academic talks or non-academic publications.
Given how many mechanisms exist to discourage dissent in higher education today and how low viewpoint diversity is in many departments — practically nonexistent in many elite departments — it’s actually remarkable that there is anyone left to be canceled in higher education. But in the book we write about the more than 1,000 examples of professors targeted with about two-thirds of them being punished in some way and almost 200 of them terminated or forced out of their jobs. Put in perspective, in the 11 years of McCarthyism the commonly accepted estimate of how many professors were targeted is 100. In the nine-and-a-half years for which we have Cancel Culture data, we’re approaching twice that.
To be clear, about one-third of those successful targeting attempts come from the right of the speaker as opposed to the left. Cancel Culture is not exclusive to either political side. But that makes the situation objectivity worse, not better. This environment makes professors less likely to take risks, engage with one another in candor, or otherwise rock the boat the way Galileo did.
It was almost comical to see numerous people leap to the defense of higher education when statistics showed that Americans’ confidence in higher education hit an all time low of 36%. People who should know better, including Tom Nichols at The Atlantic, dismissed it as just the fruits of a Republican plot:
I've been defending free speech and academic freedom on campus for 22 years, and if you can’t see how much higher education has done to undermine its own credibility you’re being willfully blind. As Evan Mandery points out in “Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us,” higher education has become an engine for maintaining class privilege while distorting everything from the neighborhoods to which the wealthy flock to the joys of childhood.
So, there are plenty of factors in addition to Cancel Culture which undermined higher education’s credibility — perhaps, above all, millions of Americans sinking into debt while universities expanded their bureaucracies rather than their teaching staff. But if even one professor gets in trouble for having the “wrong” academic opinion, especially in an environment that everyone knows already has a supermajority of professors of one political stripe, it is absolutely devastating to expert credibility.
And not knowing what facts or experts to trust is disastrous for the stability of a democratic society.
Shot for the Road
And here is the first of a series of short videos the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression is doing to explain the themes of my forthcoming book, “The Canceling of the American Mind.” If you like this Substack newsletter please consider both buying the book and supporting FIRE, the hardest working free speech shop in the business!