Every day brings a new salvo in the battle over “cancel culture.” Disney cuts ties with conservative actress Gina Carano. The guardians of Dr. Seuss’ legacy disavow some of his books. A low-level USA Today editor gets fired for a tweet declaring all mass shooters are white men. But it’s exhausting living in a perpetual state of conflict that does little to advance anyone’s actual political goals. If conservatives are serious about protecting a broad range of public expression, and liberals sincerely want new norms to take root, there are grounds for a truce.
Consider five starting points for such a framework:
First, make it harder for skittish employers to fire or blackball people over their political views.
Carano’s dismissal from “The Mandalorian” over a series of inflammatory social media posts spurred conservative complaints about Hollywood’s liberal orthodoxy. So why not work to narrow the morality clauses used to keep Hollywood and sports stars in ideological line, and strengthen the protections for speech in collective bargaining agreements? There’s plenty in this principle for liberals, too, as the Colin Kaepernick controversy demonstrated.
Similarly, both left and right frequently argue that academia has become inhospitable, whether to conservatives who question the rigor of certain disciplines or to professors who criticize the policies of the Israeli government. The solution to both sets of complaints is to do more to defend faculty from firing and to prevent politicians and donors from monkeying with tenure decisions. People across the political spectrum should stand up to a Kansas effort to make it easier to suspend or terminate professors, including those with tenure. Newspapers and magazines, too, would do well to set expansive standards for what ideas their employees can explore — and make clear they’ll defend writers and editors who come under coordinated attack from the right or the left.
Second, liberals should agree it’s good for troublesome works to be available, while conservatives should accept context and content labels.
Keeping works in print and available in digital libraries would undercut complaints about censorship. A school might decide not to use certain Dr. Seuss books, but parents could still seek them out. It’s no hardship to skip a preface that acknowledges and analyzes Dr. Seuss’ use of racist tropes — or to fast-forward past a content warning on a TV show. And in the entertainment world, keeping controversial material available in box sets and streaming services should be a liberal goal. Why let stars and companies launder their reputations by making problematic old works disappear?
Third, put a statute of limitations on cruel, stupid things people say as children and teenagers.
The ninth graders who made headlines in Texas last week for discussing buying and selling their Black classmates deserve whatever discipline their school system doled out. It’s entirely appropriate that Alexi McCammond, a former Axios reporter who was named the new top editor of Teen Vogue, apologized in 2019 for ugly, anti-Asian remarks she made in 2011 as a teenager. But as repulsive as this sort of behavior is, there ought to be a limit on how far such incidents follow young people into adulthood. McCammond shouldn’t have had to give up her post at Teen Vogue, and those teenagers should, someday, have a shot at explaining what they did and how they learned from it to college admissions boards. Children and teenagers learn social norms and develop greater impulse control with time — let’s give them a chance to prove they’ve put their mistakes behind them.
Fourth, liberals and conservatives should seek to end corporate welfare in exchange for corporate freedom of speech.
States and cities have long thrown money and tax breaks at corporations to get businesses to relocate factories and headquarters into new jurisdictions. Though some locales have gotten wise to the dubious economic benefits of these deals, Republicans disgruntled by the liberal positions some companies have taken are trying to use these subsidies to bring big business to heel. Here’s a better idea: Governments should stop showering companies with cash, and stop caring what bandwagons those companies hop on. Consumers who want to affirm their politics when choosing a particular soft drink or airline can make those decisions for themselves.
Finally, everyone should think seriously about redemption.
Social media pile-ons and professional death sentences become the easy default but accomplish little. Conservatives get nothing of material value out of a libertarian think tank staffer losing his job over a dumb tweet. It’s not clear what the staff at Teen Vogue won for themselves in not having McCammond as their boss.
It’s just too easy for employers to cut ties with inconvenient workers — or even, in the case of a White professor who masqueraded as Black, for offenders to declare themselves “canceled” in elaborate displays of self-flagellation. And the truth is that punishing individual offenders often is a gesture of resignation, not triumph. Getting one person fired or leaving them disgraced generally does little to address the dynamics behind their behavior. We should instead think more deeply about what we really want when someone behaves badly, and what repairing the damage might look like.
Human urges to judge and condemn are hard to rein in. But there are choices we can make about how we use our outrage. Some of them can make the world better in the long term — instead of just making us feel smug in the moment.