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'Cancel culture' debate bubbles up in politics and beyond


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Stephanie Sy: One of the key attack lines at last night's Republican National Convention was on the supposed intolerant climate affecting freedom of speech in the country today.

But the simmering debate about so-called cancel culture goes beyond politics. And a recent letter in "Harper's Magazine" that drew national attention shows how blurry the battle lines are.

Jeffrey Brown has our look, for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Donald Trump Jr.: Joe Biden and the radical left are now coming for our freedom of speech.

Jeffrey Brown: It was one theme of opening night at the Republican Convention, with speakers decrying a so-called cancer culture on the left that targets any but the most progressive views.

Kimberly Guilfoyle: Do you support that cancel culture? Do you think America is to blame?

Jeffrey Brown: But in a strange twist in our strange political season, opponents of the president, people who would disavow anything heard last night, are having their own debate over speech.

That heated up after recent publication of an open letter in "Harper's Magazine," charging the demands for -- quote -- "ideological conformity have led to an intolerant climate that has set in on all sides."

Writer Thomas Chatterton Williams helped lead the effort and co-wrote the letter.

Thomas Chatterton Williams: It's the climate that has been in the cultural and media landscape that myself and some of the other original drafters of the document work in, a kind of censoriousness and a the feeling that one has to be very careful about what one says or even thinks, because there is the risk of whipping up the kind of unforeseen storm of backlash

Jeffrey Brown: One reason the letter got so much attention, the star power of its 150 writers, artists, journalists and academic co-signers.

They see a rush-to-judgment atmosphere unfolding mostly on social media. "The result," they write, "has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal."

Thomas Chatterton Williams: What happens is that somebody trips over a new norm that's not yet on the books that is identified and called out. And then it whips up a kind of collective response, usually on social media, that burns like a raging fire very fast and quick and intensely.

And that fire reaches the person's employer. And what happens is that the fire is not satisfied until the person loses their job.

Jeffrey Brown: The "Harper's" letter did not use the term cancel culture, but many others do, the idea that a given writer or other figure, having committed a perceived transgression in their work, is canceled, their views no longer acceptable, in some cases their livelihoods lost.

Williams cites Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who kneeled during the national anthem, was blasted by President Trump and others, and subsequently lost his job, as an example of canceling by the right.

But he also cites the case of David Shor, a data journalist who shared controversial, but peer-reviewed research on protests and their impact on elections, was then blasted on Twitter for seeming to suggest a backlash to protest would help reelect Donald Trump, and later fired from his job.

Another case, the resignation of the leadership of the Poetry Foundation after what many on Twitter found a too tepid response to the Black Lives Matter protests, examples, among others, he says, of demands for ideological conformity and canceling on the left.

Thomas Chatterton Williams: So, what we're trying to do is carve out a space for free thought and free expression that resists both of these extremes.

Jeffrey Brown: But the "Harper's" letter itself met with scathing and bitter responses.

Many, including Gabe Schneider, a journalist with the Web-based MinnPost and co-founder of the media collective The Objective, see something very different and more positive in the culture.

Gabe Schneider: Twitter has sort of opened up the floodgates to a variety of more voices.

There is no publisher or editor saying, you can or can't say that publicly. And the way that it's uplifted is not by being in the opinion pages of The New York Times, but by other people saying, you know, I agree with this opinion, I'm going to uplift it.

And so I think it's created a culture where there's actually more speech, not less speech.

Jeffrey Brown: Schneider helped organize and write a response to the "Harper's" letter, criticizing its lack of specifics and the powerful editorial positions of its signatories.

"The irony of the piece," it says, "is that nowhere do the signatories mention how marginalized voices have been silenced for generations in journalism, academia, and publishing. The content of the letter also does not deal with the problem of power, who has it and who does not."

Gabe Schneider: The letter fundamentally misunderstands that this has been a problem for much longer than it presents, and not a problem in the way that it presents, right?

It's not necessarily that cancel culture is a whole new thing. Black, brown and trans voices have been left out of newsrooms and publishing and academia. They have been censored by their newsrooms. They have been told, you can't cover this.

I personally think cancel culture has been, for the most part, powerful media -- members of the media, celebrities and academics being told by some of their prior fans and colleagues that they don't like them anymore.

Jeffrey Brown: That goes to another criticism of the "Harper's" letter aimed at some of its signers, including "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling, beloved by millions, but also under fire for comments she's made that were seen as anti-transgender.

Gabe Schneider: Quite frankly, some of the signatories are bigoted, are bigots. And, to me, it's very easy why -- to see why folks would be angry.

Jeffrey Brown: I asked Williams if he regretted including any of the signers.

Thomas Chatterton Williams: I have no regrets of anybody being on the list. I really don't think that anybody that signed our letter is a bigot. In fact, I think everybody is committed to liberal values.

Jeffrey Brown: In the meantime, while opponents of Donald Trump continue their debate, the president and his allies hammer away.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.: We don't get into cancel culture.

Jeffrey Brown: Like so much in American political discourse today, the terms themselves are used in different ways for different audiences to very different ends.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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