Stop Using ‘Cancel Culture’ To Talk About Academic Freedom – Massachusetts Daily Collegian
We need a more accurate way to talk about free speech on campus
If you participate in contemporary political discourse, you will inevitably come across one of the most widespread and controversial expressions of the time: âcancel cultureâ. Part of its popularity stems from its apparent versatility. That is, people can use the term for just about anything that particularly bothers them. Criticism of beliefs, online harassment or, at times, physically targeted, removal of the platform from controversial academic lecturers, campaigns to fire deprived citizens of their jobs, and cargoes of other internet feuds have all been at the heart of “culture cancellation” at one point or another. The inevitable consequence of using a term for everything is that it ends up meaning nothing.
The term is arguably an offshoot of the “culture of calling”, a more specific term that describes the phenomenon of progressive activists. “calling out” actions or statements perceived to be problematic. But I don’t want to attempt to define the culture of cancellation here. It has been tried a million times. I also don’t want to praise, criticize or deny the existence of the vaguely defined phenomenon; this market is completely saturated. I want to stop the overuse of undo culture. We need to stop branding conversations about academic freedom as culture cancellation controversies.
Unlike canceling culture, it is necessary to define precisely what I believe to be âacademic freedomâ before discussing it. Academic freedom is the freedom, both de facto and de jure, for academics and students to seek, believe, discuss, and defend ideas, regardless of their acceptability in the public eye. Of course, like many concepts in the sphere of free speech, the term is malleable and subject to debate. For example, those who defend academic freedom may argue that a denialist should not be allowed to speak on campus, but generally advocate for free speech. I’m not sure where I stand on the issue, despite being Jewish, but the line between covered and uncovered discourse under the banner of academic freedom is blurred. Academic freedom is a principle that is vitally important to honor, even as we debate the details, if the search for truth is the primary goal of scholarship.
âCancel cultureâ is often used to describe conflicts over academic freedom, but the term is woefully inadequate for several reasons. More importantly, the cancellation of culture individualizes a much larger systemic problem. The act of “annulment” is usually something that is undertaken against an individual person, whereas a repressive academic culture is something different, and it can destroy the search for truth in an entire field of study. If academics fear being targeted for publicly pursuing an idea, whether through policy or social sanction, most will not speak out and will be “quashed.” On the contrary, social coercion will force them either to stop pursuing controversial subjects or to carry out their work underground, resulting in a loss of knowledge for society. Second, the culture of cancellation has become irreversibly associated with celebrities.
Famous cancellations like “The Mandalorian”Star Gina Carano and Bon appÃ©tit Editor-in-Chief Adam Rapoport made the term fundamentally trivial in academia. While there is some discussion to be had about these two figures, there is a big difference between using social coercion to oppose the actions and opinions of public figures and preventing academics from pursuing or discussing uncomfortable topics. . Freedom of speech is a hallowed concept in American society, however, most successful societies are built on the fruits of the free exploration of the hard and soft sciences. Quarrels over academic freedom on college campuses are by no means a new phenomenon. The wave of concern over âpolitical correctnessâ on campuses in the 1990s was a direct precursor to today’s debates, but that doesn’t mean today’s discussions aren’t meaningful.
The struggle against forces that wish to restrict speech will never end, as long as they have the freedom to struggle. Like the Irish Republican Army noted after an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Margaret Thatcher, âyou have to be lucky every time. We only need to be lucky once. Academic freedom must be constantly defended, and that means we must define in the clearest terms what it is and who its opponents are. âCancel cultureâ is not a serious term that fits these discussions.
Partner Dylan can be reached at [emailÂ protected].