First argument: Cancel culture doesn't exist.

This is actually a cluster of arguments, which can be roughly subdivided as follows:

1) No one is getting canceled
2) The people getting canceled deserve it
3) People get canceled but its rare
4) The right cancels people too
Argument one is just false.

The fact that Twitter has failed to cancel someone you personally hate and think should be cancelled post haste does not mean that no one else has been canceled.
Nor can "cancellation exists" be falsified by the fact that someone lost a fellowship but not their job, or lost their job but got another one in a different industry. This is a ludicrously high standard, and never applied when a conservative mob goes after some progressive.
Argument # 2 is a non-sequitur; whether or not we think they deserve it, they have been canceled.

#4 is true, and irrelevant, unless you aspire to the high intellectual rigor of Senator Josh Hawley.
#3 goes to the question of whether there is a "culture", or just some random incidents.

I'm going to argue that yes, it is a culture, not among everyone, but among enough online people to matter.
These attacks have regularities that look like cultural practices--the way incidents are surfaced (often by people involved who ritually declaim any interest in harming the target even though we all know what is likely to follow)--the way they propagate, the language involved.
These attacks are viewed as valuable, habitual practices by the people involved. That seems somewhat culture-like to me.

As to rare ...
Some of these events involve actions that would previously have been unthinkable within the institutional culture in which they take place, notably, retracting academic papers that have not been found to have a serious error, because they offended someone.
One such event would have been an earthquake; there have now been several.

Which brings us to an important piece of cancel culture, and why the Letter happened; this is different from a simple online mobbing.
The hallmark of cancel culture is not just a bunch of vicious trolls being mean to you; it is an attempt to cause social or economic harm to the target in the real world.
I've been writing online since 2001; I suffered through mob attacks before social media was but a gleam in Mark Zuckerberg's eye. The difference is in the people coming after your job, or trying to get your community to shun you.
To my mind, the main reason that "cancel culture", or whatever you want to call it, can't be written off as a random, rare event is that its effects go far beyond the canceled, in the way that the mob attacks of yore did not; people trim their sails to avoid attracting ire.
Now, one could argue that this is all to the good; people are being more careful about giving offense (see argument 2: the canceled deserve it). In some cases, that's probably true. But that's not all they're doing.
Increasingly, people tell me that within their institution you can only do research or write about certain topics if you know in advance you are going to get the right answers. If you're afraid you won't, you pick a different topic.
This isn't about making sure that you describe things in a sensitive way, take into account the viewpoints of marginalized people you might be writing about, or otherwise just do basic good journalism or academic research.
I mean, yes, I'm sure people somewhere are complaining about having to do that basic stuff and well, come join us in the 21st century.

But people are afraid to get the wrong factual answer on sensitive questions.
Taken to its illogical conclusion, this ultimately means that you can only investigate if you don't need to investigate, because you know what the evidence is going to show you.

That's not a good way to do journalism, or academic research.
Now, maybe they shouldn't be afraid! But they are afraid; I've spoken to them. If those fears are irrational, then we need to figure out some way to reassure people that it is safe to investigate important social questions.
Second set of arguments: that people have no "right" not to be cancelled. I'm not sure that anyone was asserting that they did have such a right.

I mean, I'm a libertarian, my sense of what a "right" is is pretty narrow.
But things can be bad even if no one has an affirmative right not to suffer them. You have a legal right to be a vicious heel to your spouse, as long as you avoid certain specific kinds of abuse, like domestic violence. You still *shouldn't* use your speech rights that way.
I don't think we should make cancelling people illegal; I think we should make it ineffective. For reasons that can be summed up as "scale matters".
So once, when I was working as a hotel maid, one of the guests started calling me by the name of the Irish maid her family had had in the 1920s, and when her friends corrected her, said "Oh, we always changed the names of our maids. The irish don't care."
I, who had never actually lived through an era where being Irish, or Catholic, was salient, thought this was quaintly hilarious. A genuine example of (mild) anti-Irish bigotry, right out of the history books!
Obviously, this would probably not have been funny to me in 1870s Boston when the protestants were refusing to allow priests into hospitals to give last rites because Popery is Filthy.

(Yes, this actually happened)
A random, isolated person with some prejudice peculiar to themselves is not a problem. A boss who won't hire anyone with blue eyes is crazy, but he is not a social problem, because all the other firms will hire his applicants.

It's a social problem when everyone does it.
Cancel culture is a problem because it has mass scale. And because the scale it has requires so little effort--a flick of the finger to hit retweet.
A shamestorm of, say, 50k people took 50,000 seconds--about 13 hours of human time. But everyone in it only necessarily cared one seconds worth.
This is self-evidently a bad way to decide social outcomes.
Especially because the outcomes are persistent--Google is forever. And this is especially true if you are less famous, and do not have lots of other links to your work to drown out the cancellation.
Which brings me to another point that came up frequently: that this was just a bunch of famous people complaining about being criticized.

As if famous people can't worry about their jobs, or use their relatively secure perches to speak up for those who do.
A peculiar irony, in that many of the people endorsing cancellation themselves purport to be using their power to aid those more marginalized than themselves.
As someone modestly internet famous, who has been through the death threats, the lurid descriptions of the ways I might be raped, the savage denigration of my intelligence & morals, the fond hopes that my family members might be killed in some especially agonizing manner ...
... along with endless vehement disagreement with my work, some of it absolutely deserved, I feel safe in saying that the signers of the Letter, some of whom have lived through literal fatwas, are able to bear criticism all right.
It's those real-world consequences, and the way that it is causing people to shy away from addressing some of the most important social questions of our time.
And also because, I'd imagine, they are watching people with less influence and security than they have get cancelled, and their natural human sympathy makes them want to speak out. Humans are like that; indeed, it is this fine motive which animates some of the cancellers.
Anyway, this has been a bit unfocused, so let me see if I can ruthlessly extract a few key points: first, I think we can be clear it exists because it acts like a culture, and has widespread real-world effects, as cultures tend to, especially on mainstream idea institutions.
It is a significant change, that the people involved in these institutions recognize, because accommodating it has required violation of previous norms like "retractions are for factual or methodological error".
It is not just widening the discourse to accommodate new voices--which is a good, vitally necessary thing!--while trimming an equal amount from the other side, to hold the field of acceptable debate roughly constant in size.
One of the more appealing defenses of cancel culture is that this is really just a within-institution fight about how to allocate scarce resources.
Those institutions always had to decide who to hire, what to fund or publish; including historically marginalized voices will necessarily mean trimming less-marginalized ones.
It's appealing because if it were factually correct, it would make a lot of sense. But I haven't seen a lot of compelling examples of people citing social justice research that was forbidden, or op-eds that couldn't be published, say five years ago.
On the other hand, I've heard multiple stories about how much harder it has gotten to do work on, say, Title IX issues over the last five years, unless you're going to support the maximalist version of the Obama-era regulations.
That looks to me like an actual narrowing of the discourse, not just a shift in its focus.
This will necessarily be qualitative rather than quantitative, and that will leave people room to say "Who can tell if there's an actual narrowing?"
But we could point out that the Sexual Revolution legitimized certain sexual acts, like sex before marriage, and delegitimized others, like marital rape. It would be wrong to say that it's impossible to know whether the range of permissible sexual behavior got narrower or broader
I'll close with one more thing: the personal references to my status as an affluent white lady, and how that might influence my thinking.

Which, sure. Standpoint epistemology can be taken too far, but it also makes a good point.
People are inevitably shaped by their own experiences, and they worry most about whatever is most likely to happen to them. Which is why, until the mid-2000s, the left loved free speech.
Believe it or not, I think about that a lot; I worry about it. And when I think about this stuff, I try to draw on the parts of my own experience that I think might be relevant--like being a woman in an all-male workplace, or a righty in strongly left-leaning mainstream pubs
Those experiences have made me vastly more empathetic to anyone who has to operate in a space where some salient feature of their identity makes them a minority.
It's challenging, and conservatives, who spend a lot of time complaining about being excluded and microaggressed by the media, should take it more seriously.
But now I want to talk about a different part of my experience, one that is relevant to the part of cancel culture that rarely gets quite named: people use these tactics because they work. They enable vocal groups to make changes that would otherwise be slower, or never happen.
So here's a part of my experience that might be relevant: as a cheerleader for, and minor participant in, the decades-long quest to take immigration and trade off the table on the right. This was done by a politer version of cancel culture.
For years, I cited this as a huge policy success; we hadn't let the troglogdytes make economically illiterate policy. This was bad on multiple levels.
First it was bad because in fact, some of our arguments turned out to be garbage; the China shock was real, because China was *so* big that US labor markets were unable to adjust fast enough to avoid catastrophe for some of the displaced workers.
I still think we were basically right on trade, but we screwed that piece up, and it was a big piece. We free trade advocates made arrogant jerks of ourselves.
And I have to think that we were enabled in this by the fact that we cleverly set things up so we didn't have to have some tiresome debate over trade, when everyone knew the other side was just wrong.

At the time this felt great; no more exhaustingly rehashing the obvious.
And then, Donald Trump.
Donald Trump was, to some extent, the revolt of voters who were tired of being told to go sit quietly in the corner while Mamma did what was best for everyone.

Shutting those folks up no longer seems like a clever policy move.
"One convinced against their will is of the same opinion still" gets repeated a lot, but that's because it's kinda true. In a liberal democracy that can be disastrous.

That experience is bound to affect how I see cancel culture.
I mean, that could go both ways: maybe it makes me hypersensitive to an imaginary threat, or maybe it's a valuable warning against hubris. The answer to that question will have to be left as an exercise for the reader.
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