Amid an international reckoning over racial justice in the summer of 2020, several hundred Princeton faculty signed a letter delineating University-wide changes. One professor offered criticism of the letter, faced serious condemnation, and then published a piece about “[surviving] cancellation at Princeton.” Without dredging up the original debate, the events surrounding the letter certainly showcase a high-profile instance of “cancel culture” on our campus.
In the wake of our return to campus this semester, Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Princetonian Emma Treadway directed each of us to rethink our campus culture. In light of this directive, cancel culture seems the ideal tradition to tear down. We have to recognize cancel culture for how corrosive it is and understand the constructive principles that can replace it. Then, we can commit ourselves to pursuing them, despite how difficult it might be.
Although there are many understandings of the term “cancel culture,” for the purposes of this piece, it is defined as building consensus around the idea that an individual should be shamed or their reputation — professional or personal — attacked for what is perceived as offensive behavior. Cancel culture has engulfed big names in American society, from entertainment to literature, and it has become particularly salient to the nation’s political discourse.
With a working definition, it is now important to dispel some myths about the efficacy of cancel culture. Starting with the discourse just mentioned, those on the political left have to listen up: Stop thinking that cancelling people holds them accountable.
Cancel culture directly undermines both the message of tolerance you rightly uphold and the transformative policies you champion, which need broad-based support. Far from holding those it cancels accountable, cancel culture enables those conservatives who lack principle or policy to spew overtly offensive language and then decry legitimate criticism as just another failed cancellation by the politically correct left.
Cancel culture is not a substitute for accountability, mainly because it doesn’t carry any weight for those supposedly being held accountable. The reputations we build with and among our peers, friends, and colleagues are our first real contribution to Princeton. If someone’s cancellation is successful, it rids them of that contribution and, therefore, any real stake in our community.
Employing cancel culture also creates another victim, real or imagined: the victim of cancellation, who might think their fall from grace was due to views they did not fully understand or opinions they had not fully formed (of which, no doubt, some readers will accuse this writer). Moreover, if they happen to “survive” their cancellation and its aftereffects, they reap the (sometimes material) benefits.
At their core, these myths represent different degrees of the same problem: a lack of ownership in this community. Building a new Princeton requires cultivating this ownership again. We have to take ownership in ourselves. Real accountability means taking responsibility for past failings in two ways. First, we have to recognize when we screw up and determine if those mistakes were intentional or accidental. Second, we have to understand that the failures of others are often a reflection of our own (a famous verse about splinters and beams comes to mind).
When thinking about someone else’s behavior, we need to offer them the space to fail and the grace to heal. This is difficult but not impossible. We can validate what someone thinks or does, if not totally, insofar as it is based on a valid life experience or opinion, not on some arbitrary intention to offend us. If they have intentionally offended us, we have to lean on imperfect institutions to get justice, which only become more legitimate when we build on them.
This leads to the second level of ownership: ownership in one another. Being willing to help others understand where they’ve failed, especially when it is difficult, requires us to identify the principle which will have to guide our relationships going forward: restorative justice. We have to bring victim and offender together to effectively repair the harm done and build a path forward in what are always going to be complex and painful situations.
The final level of ownership, ownership in our community, is only possible after the first two are firmly entrenched. Cancel culture creates an ambiguous environment wherein people are afraid of anecdotal instances of unjust cancellation and so stifle honest questions and not entirely objectionable opinions. Moreover, those who have been cancelled might either throw their hands up and leave this community or mischaracterize legitimate standards as oppression or censorship, neither of which will move the campus forward.
At this point, one might think this piece ignores or mischaracterizes the truly horrible things people have done to get themselves cancelled. The urge is powerful to throw someone under the bus for crossing the line. But this doesn’t mean cancellation is the right way to deal with these sometimes dangerous viewpoints or the people that espouse them. Freedom of expression does not and should not mean a freedom from consequence, even if the extent of those consequences is social or relational. If you swear at the dinner table, don’t expect Mom and Dad to be happy; but Mom and Dad don’t kick you out of the house either.
This piece is also not some naive attempt to just get everyone talking again. There are real problems on this campus and in this country that have to be addressed head on. The norms of inclusivity we’ve built here at Princeton are paramount to our community and need to be respected. I simply argue that these norms should be extended to those viewpoints that make us most uncomfortable because viewpoints in general should not decide our comfort. We are made comfortable by building a loving community that effectively distinguishes between a painful albeit honest mistake and threatening, careless behavior. Furthermore, we get to negotiate and set the standards for the distinctions between these two things — after we can be sure we will take each other and our community seriously.
Moving cancel culture off our campus may seem trivial to some, nearly impossible to others. Regardless, it is essential. Reuniting and reinvigorating Princeton will send a clear message that the divisions in communities around our country are not final. Only eight months since domestic terrorists stormed the Capitol, as sitting members of Congress hint at rigged elections and civil war, it is clear that we need to learn how to fight and make up again.
So f*ck cancel culture, or let the fighting begin.
Dillion Gallagher is a junior concentrating in the School of Public and International Affairs. He can be reached at email@example.com.