Cancel Culture is a Misdiagnosed Problem

by Kevin Currie-Knight

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I’ve wanted to write this article for a while. Every time, though, I postpone for some reason. Not to worry, of course, because examples of what we call cancel culture abound. The trend seemingly has no expiration date. Whenever I worry that the examples I am going to use will become obsolete, new ones thankfully pop up to take their place, meaning that I finally can write this damned article.

The most recent stories that we like to file (as I will argue, wrongly) under cancel culture are Amazon.com’s decision to discontinue  selling the book When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement, and Dr. Seuss’s estate announcing that it will cease publication of no fewer than six Dr. Seuss books over potentially offensive illustrations that caricature various (non-white) ethnic groups.

First, for clarity, let me tell you what my argument won’t be. I will not argue that these were good decisions on the part of Amazon.com and the Dr. Seuss estate. Nor will I be arguing that there aren’t societal and moral problems that these decisions illustrate. Now, here’s what my argument will be. Whatever the moral problems these decisions exemplify, attributing them to “cancel culture” is a misdiagnosis. The problem isn’t cancel culture, but balkanization, and it is not a problem of illiberal trends threatening liberal values, but some liberal values (free speech and association) threatening another (toleration). 

The Problem Isn’t Cancelling, but Balkanization 

Let’s look first at Amazon’s decision not to sell When Harry Became Sally (henceforth WHBS), a book that caught heat for allegedly being anti-trans. First, we should note that no one (well, maybe some people at Amazon) know(s) the reason why Amazon removed this book from its platform, yet everyone – especially conservatives – act as if they do. The reason I mention this is that a search for the book on Amazon.com takes you to books like Deborah Soh’s The End of Gender and Ben Shapiro’s Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings that seem to make similarly “trans critical” points, as WHBS. We can assume that Amazon pulled the latter as a way to censor purportedly anti-trans ideas, but why then link a search for WHBS to books making similar arguments? My guess is that the book was removed because, in a way similar to Target’s temporary cancellation of the book Irreversible Damage, Amazon received some feedback from customers or activist groups that led them to think pulling WHBS would do better for PR and maybe sales than retaining it on their shelves. But, I digress.

The point I want to make is that anyone concerned that Amazon’s redaction of WHBS can easily disabuse their thoughts by doing the experiment I did. Use whatever search engine you’d like and quickly search for the title of the book. Now, follow the links on the first two pages of results, and if your results are like mine, you will find at least five places – including the publisher’s own website – where you can purchase the book.

Here’s the point: the book was not cancelled except by a single vendor. That vendor is disproportionately large, and maybe the book risks being cancelled by other vendors. But as it stands, the book is readily available for anyone who wants it. And this is the reality of how cancel culture goes. In the internet age, being cancelled by one platform or medium doesn’t mean you are done. Far from it! It means that, while some platforms are now closed to you, you almost certainly have others at your disposal, as well as an audience eager to lap up your “I was cancelled too!” story and merch.

Am I saying that there is nothing to see here, folks? No. But, if cancelling isn’t the problem, what is? In my view, it is best framed as a problem of balkanization that results from a pervasive “us versus them” cultural mentality. The trend seems to be this: An outlet hosts a particular content creator, and for whatever reason decides that content creator’s views are problematic; so problematic that their mere presence on the media platform risks PR nightmares and may trigger other platform users. From there, the content creator finds – and they always seem to find – other platforms that are willing to host that type of content. When enough platforms do so, this unrelenting sorting process ensures that platforms will only carry a homogeneous roster of viewpoints acceptable to the moral purity standards of its audience.

The problem wasn’t that Amazon was in any way able to “cancel” WHBS. The problem is that if decisions like Amazon’s become the norm, different books reflecting different views and tastes will only be available at certain booksellers dedicated only placating a certain sort of person. There will be conservative publishers and booksellers, liberal ones, progressive ones, and never the twain shall meet. The “cancelled” will still likely be able to produce and distribute content, but platforms will become increasingly balkanized. You’ll likely still be able to purchase WHBS, but you will no longer allegedly have the right to be able to purchase it from any bookseller of your choosing (a right you never had anyway).

To sum up, the internet age makes it hard to truly cancel anyone in the way conservatives and Intellectual Dark Webby types imagine. The internet doesn’t afford any media outlet that type of unilateral power. But while the internet makes cancelling hard, it makes sorting, blocking, carving new niches, and balkanizing very easy. And these, rather than cancelling, are the real problem.

Combatting Cancel Culture Can Only Be Done at Cost to Liberal Values 

Now, let’s look at the case of the six “cancelled” Dr. Seuss books. The story is that after listening to and entertaining “feedback from our audiences including teachers, academics, and specialists in the field” (what field is never specified), Dr. Seuss’s estate decided that there were enough offensive images in six Dr. Seuss books to warrant their discontinuation.

Nothing about this process easily strikes me as illiberal. The estate that owns the Dr. Seuss copyrights exercised it prerogative to do market research, on the basis of which they decided to discontinue publication of six Dr. Seuss books. For what it’s worth, I think the better move would have been to continue publishing the books but have a skilled (and credited) illustrator draw new images to replace the ones deemed offensive. But neither the decision to de-publish, nor the process that led to the decision, strike me as illiberal.

One could say that while the decision and process wasn’t illiberal, the illiberalism comes from the sensibilities that led to de-publishing of works solely because the images were deemed offensive. Invoking the liberalism of John Stuart Mill, a liberal attitude is one that would permit and tolerate the publication of even the most noxious ideas in the name of liberty. I believe in this too, as a legal principle. But it is very hard to argue that an estate deciding, based on their own market research, to de-publish some of its titles is akin to not allowing or tolerating the flow of ideas. (Who are the illiberal players here? Those who participated in the market research and gave their advice using their liberal free speech rights? The estate who made a business decision they have every right to make given their liberal property rights?) It may seem like this is an example of illiberal attitudes choking the liberal flow of ideas. But just as easily, it can be recast as an example of people exercising their liberal values of free speech and conscience (voicing concern over the books), and free association (the estate refusing to publish the books) against forces that would seek to limit how those liberal rights can be used. And I defy anyone to find a way, using liberal language, to explain how we have a right to make Amazon sell WHBS or make the Dr. Seuss estate publish what it has no interest in publishing.

Am I worried by the spate of decisions to de-platform content creators for perceived moral infractions? Yes, but given my first argument above, I am not as dismayed as some, because I do not think that we can really say that anyone is being monopolistically cancelled. My concern is where all of this likely leads: to an increasingly balkanized society. But as troubling as such balkanization is, it can be the result of perfectly liberal uses of perfectly liberal rights of free speech and association. My guess is that stemming those tides can only be done by limiting those rights in a very illiberal way. And as a liberal, that possibility is more concerning than what we call (and misdiagnose as) cancel culture.

71 comments

  1. Certainly, balkanization is an important part of our current situation, but the idea that cancelation is not really isn’t credible.

    First, Kevin’s title is general, but in the essay he only talks about a few examples from publishing. Even if his analysis of these cases is correct — and I don’t think it is — that still leaves open the very real possibility that in other instances, cancelation is the right focus.

    Second, this is not the first time that Kevin has appealed to the “how can you have been canceled, if I can find your stuff” move, so one certainly gets the impression that he thinks it a doozie. It really isn’t though. For one thing, it is taken straight from Woke talking points, the point of which, yes [and contrary to what Kevin says], is to convey a “nothing to see here” message. For another, the argument suffers from lacking a target. What’s concerning is the *effort* to cancel and how quickly institutions and companies fall into line, with the slightest provocation from social media creeps. Not two seconds after the Seuss books were discontinued, used copies began appearing on Ebay at extraordinary prices, and not two seconds after that, Ebay banned their sale. *This* is what is concerning, and the fact that I might still be able to find the books somewhere else is irrelevant to that concern.

    Finally, Kevin is so fixated on scoring against cancel culture that he ignores the other ways in which these trends are illiberal. One prominent such way lies in what is clearly an effort to cleanse history of anything that runs afoul of contemporary sensibilities. If one buys an edition of the first Doctor Dolittle book, one will have no idea that an entire chapter [or maybe two] have been removed, because they are offensive to contemporary sensibilities. There is no mention that the book is redacted, and if you go on the book’s Wikipedia page, there is no indication of this fact either. I wouldn’t know it myself, but for the fact that I own a copy of the book printed back in the early 1970’s, a time when people had far sounder — and much more mature — views about history and understood the foolishness of “presentism.”

    This effort to erase history, piece by piece, so as to sanitize it and render it acceptable, is also responsible for the juvenile “monument” iconoclasm that we saw last year. And as anyone who has read Orwell knows, this kind of historical erasure, whose purpose is to condition contemporary minds, is about the most illiberal thing a state or society can do.

    1. “What’s concerning is the *effort* to cancel and how quickly institutions and companies fall into line, with the slightest provocation from social media creeps.”

      The problem with “cancel culture” is not the effective cancelling of high-profile people – something that rarely happens – but the effect it has on others, the self-censoring of people who become afraid to speak out because they don’t want to be the victim of a social media-campaign.

      Important here is the group that’s really being targeted by cancel culture: not the extremists – you can’t silence them, they’ll always find a channel to voice their opinions – but the moderates.

      Extremists don’t fear their counterparts at the other side of the spectrum; they’re convinced they can handle them. But what they do fear, are moderate people who start to question their ideology. The moderates *must* be silenced, and “making an example” of higher-profile people or organizations is one of the many ways to do just that. If you can scare amazon, with its immense commercial clout, into toeing the party line, then you have shown everybody that they’ll need a lot of courage to challenge you. Whether book X or book Y is still available from other sellers, is quite irrelevant.

    2. Thanks for the response, Dan. I suspect that you and I will likely not come to agreement on this – though it is always possible. But either way, I think the disagreement is instructive, so thanks for articulating our points of disagreement.

      “First, Kevin’s title is general, but in the essay he only talks about a few examples from publishing. Even if his analysis of these cases is correct — and I don’t think it is — that still leaves open the very real possibility that in other instances, cancelation is the right focus.”

      I am always open to that. As I say in the article, I am not saying that we will never have anything to worry about, or even that there aren’t problems manifest in what is going on now. So, my concern would be if someone gets cancelled in a highly monopolistic way, where all possible venues are taken away from them as an attempt to censor. The most extreme case I can think of are (a) Parler and (b) SCROTUS Trump being banned from social media platforms. In the former case, Parler was able to find a way back online in a week or so. And in the latter case, even then it is hard for me to think that depriving a former President of the use of private platforms (by those platforms’ choice) is a violation of any liberal rights he has.

      But yes, I am open to suggestions.

      “For one thing, it is taken straight from Woke talking points, the point of which, yes [and contrary to what Kevin says], is to convey a “nothing to see here” message. ”

      I am not taking anything straight from any playbook, Dan. I am not sure why it is a bad thing for me to (gasp!) have a position that aligns with ‘the woke,’ as long as I think there is good argument for it. Second, it isn’t that ‘there isn’t anything to see here’ – maybe that is how some use the argument, but to import their use of it to my own is sloppy and lazy on your part. (“Dan’s argument is something taken from the transphobe’s playbook, the point of which is [contrary to what Dan says] to justify hatred of trans people.” Fair?) My point is that what there is to see is quite different in diagnosis from what we are told we are seeing.

      “That’s concerning is the *effort* to cancel and how quickly institutions and companies fall into line, with the slightest provocation from social media creeps. Not two seconds after the Seuss books were discontinued, used copies began appearing on Ebay at extraordinary prices, and not two seconds after that, Ebay banned their sale.”

      So what is your liberal proposal on stemming this tide? Preventing people from voicing opinions about books? Preventing them from organizing social media “assemblies” that aim to pressure publishers? Preventing the publisher from refusing to publish a work? Preventing the copyright-owner from declining to use their copyright? Preventing ebay from refusing to allow sales of certain things they’d rather not on the site they own? Getting everyone to think like you do so that either no one gets offended by the images in the books or if they do, they just decide it isn’t worth it to voice that offense?

      None of those options strike me as very liberal. So, I wonder what you have in mind.

      “One prominent such way lies in what is clearly an effort to cleanse history of anything that runs afoul of contemporary sensibilities.”

      This strikes me as hyperbolic to the extreme, especially as it is uttered in the age of the internet. No one can seriously think – given what is happening AT THE MOMENT, not in your imagination – that anyone will be erasing historical references from being available to anyone who wants to do a search. No one can seriously believe that if amazon doesn’t sell WHBS that it will just cease to exist and no one can find out is was published (or find a copy online). No one thinks that after these six Seuss books are delisted, that no one will be able to discover that they were published. Again, if that type of thing looks like a serious possibility, I will then worry about it. But nothing I am seeing tells me that it likely or remotely possible.

      “If one buys an edition of the first Doctor Dolittle book, one will have no idea that an entire chapter [or maybe two] have been removed, because they are offensive to contemporary sensibilities. ”

      I couldn’t help but read this sentence three times if only to marvel at it. “If one read x, one will not have any idea that [gives information that allegedly has been expunged from history on a webpage that isn’t, to anyone’s knowledge, under threat of being erased].”

      “And as anyone who has read Orwell knows, this kind of historical erasure, whose purpose is to condition contemporary minds, is about the most illiberal thing a state or society can do.”

      Do remember that Winston’s predicament there was that he had no way (legally) to trace certain historical and other knowledge. That doesn’t even begin to resemble today’s world, especially with the internet that is not at the moment being censored in liberal countries. Like I said, I am not ruling out that it couldn’t happen – China is certainly providing a playbook). But AT THE MOMENT, it is the height of hyperbole to say that we are a hop, skilp, and jump away from being Winston in 1984.

      1. I couldn’t help but read this sentence three times if only to marvel at it. “If one read x, one will not have any idea that [gives information that allegedly has been expunged from history on a webpage that isn’t, to anyone’s knowledge, under threat of being erased].”

        = = = = =

        Had I not owned an edition of Dr. Dolittle, printed before our current derangement, I would not know that the book had been altered. And once people of my generation are gone and old books are less and less, fewer and fewer will know, until effectively, no one does.

        That this kind of thing is not just inconsistent with the liberal ethos, but dangerous in the extreme, when imagined on the kind of broader scale that so many self-styling “progressives” are endeavoring to effect. And this remains the case, whatever you may marvel at.

        1. Actually, I thought the racism of the first Doolittle book pretty obvious when I read it forty years ago.. But in any event, revisions to the text have more to do with the popularity of the Eddie Murphy movie than any direct political morality. Is that a bad thing? I don’t know. I don’t read books for their commercial value, and I never bothered with any other Doolittle book. But commercial value is what keeps books in print.

          This sort of thing is nothing new – do we forget what the word ‘bowdlerization’ originally referred to? Shakespeare survived it (and effectively became a massive marketing brand reaching into all walks of life, from the academy to popular film). Doctor Doolittle probably not.

          One of my biggest complaints about Feminist literary critics in the ’80s was their insistence on teaching the works of Samuel Richardson (however ‘critically’), thus keeping his books in print. Undeniably misogynist (what woman really falls in love with her rapist?), the real crime committed in these novels is that they are horrendously written. Fielding (who could actually write well) tore them limb from limb, and so they do have historical value – if one is interested in Fielding; but otherwise their disappearance from publication would be a welcome relief.

          That’s just what history does to literature – or even “Literature.” There is nothing sacred about a commercial commodity, no matter how attached to it one becomes.

          1. EJ, given how abusive the conversation turned, I have opted to bow out rather than respond in kind. However, I disagree with you profoundly on this — and on Lofting in particular — and think we could have a productive conversation about it. Are you up for a dialogue on the subject, perhaps?

        2. I stumbled upon a “revision” of Howard Pyle’s “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood,” which I would not have recognized had I not possessed an older version. The original reads:

          “As a Jew takes each one of a bag of silver angels, feeling each coin to find whether it be clipped or not, so the Sheriff, as all rode slowly and sadly back toward Nottingham, took up thought after thought in turn, feeling around the edges of each but finding in every one some flaw. At last he thought of the daring soul of jolly Robin and how, as he the Sheriff knew, he often came even within the walls of Nottingham.”

          In the modern revision, “Jew” has been replaced with “usurer.” I presume you will share my opinion that a person does not have to be Anti-Semitic to think this is problematic. I am sharing this of course because the situation is almost identical to the one you described in respect to Dr. Dolittle.

          1. I enjoyed Pyle, not so much Dr. Doolittle, but the principle remains the same. But what is that principle? For I am hardly arguing political or moral repression or revision of certain texts. I am saying that all texts are open to historical revision as the culture in which they are published changes. There is, ultimately, no correct original text. Every text occurs within a given cultural context; and when the politics, the religious or moral values, the aesthetic or (and especially) economic values of that culture change (historically inevitable and inevitably bringing forth a new culture), not only do contemporary texts change, but the ways we view texts from the past change. This is a thorny issue for publishers who decided to resurrect older texts, as well as for literary scholars who should be intent on keeping the record straight. For the latter, preservation of the earliest text of Robin Hood has real, because historical, importance. But the publisher has to consider the target audience for the re-publication of the older text, and what tastes those consumers are willing to spend money on to satisfy.

            The questions I have been trying to raise have to do with the fundamental problem of the relationship between economics, publication, and culture – a problem hardly addressed in such discussions, either by the right (which oft treats it as a matter of cultural morality) or by the left (who treat it as a matter of cultural politics). But without recognition of the economic dimension, such discussions can get a little skewed. Good books can get lost, bad books can get endless re-publication. We can alter this somewhat by continuing public discussion of books we like, thus attracting attention to them, or we can provide negative reviews of books we don’t like. Or one can go into publication and take one’s chances. (Both Doolittle and Robin Hood are in public domain, publish them anyway you choose, original or revision.)

        3. Dan,
          A discussion on this could be very interesting. I know you understand that I not the blanket judge of ‘evils of Western Literature,’ or any of that crap. I love books; but my experience earning my English degree spoiled me from bothering with ‘literary Aesthetics.’ I think I know what a “good book” is; but if I am wrong, I remain content with the books I love.

  2. I agree with both Knight-Currie and Kaufman, and I think that’s consistent because Knight-Currie kind of pre-insulated his argument against Kaufman’s comment by only using these two examples, which are not cases of efforts to cancel. I agree that Balkanization is a huge problem, and I mourn the loss of the “good old days” of a non-woke legacy media: the CBC in Canada, the NYT, etc. I mourn journalism in general. I agree with Kaufman that the Substack phenomenon is not a good thing; and it is more Balkanization. We need a trusted Kronkite or Rather much more than we need 1,000 opinion columnists. Greenwald and Taibbi have sold out for Substack outarge clicks, and it’s a reflection of this sad, absurd Internet age.
    In cases where there *is* an effort to cancel, I agree that the impulses behind them are serious problems; whether or not a book can be purchased elsewhere, an actor can still get work, etc. I think judging art, whether that’s awarding it at the Oscars or denouncing it because it doesn’t have the right proportions of ethnic, sexual, and gender diversity are equally absurd. I don’t get outraged a la Shapiro or Carlson over Mr. Potato Head, but I do worry about the road we’re on. These are not healthy, liberal impulses, and every company and institution that gives in is a domino.
    Freddie DeBoer has written brilliant posts on this. Two points that jump out:
    1. Tearing down statues or “cancelling” JK Rowling are easy, symbolic wins that do nothing to actually fix problems of inequality, discrimination, etc. and
    2. The people pushing this stuff are in media and academia (elites, if you will) so they focus on discourse and symbols. Tweeting #Oscarssowhite or putting your pronouns in your bio is much easier than actually organizing for change.
    As FdB says, you just don’t have enough people onside in the US to get the world you want (in his case, radical progressive social and economic reforms; Biden won over Bernie, after all). So you take your wins where you can get them. Here in Canada, it’s tearing down statues of Sir John A. Macdonald and renaming universities. Cheap wins. Many, many Indigenous Canadians don’t have clean drinking water in the year 2021.
    Real change takes work, it takes persuasion, it takes organizing, and it takes time. Hate to sound like a cranky Gen Xer, but damn it, the Internet has ruined the next generation. The focus is now: me, me, me, shame, shame, shame, and now, now, now.
    Social media has made it possible to completely create and edit your identity. Is it any wonder these young people believe they can create and change things in the world with words alone?

  3. Google is part of that cancellamus culture. Some time ago I wrote a review of a book by an Irish writer, John Waters, who is regarded as rebarbative by wokeroonies. It was the only review at that point and fetched up on the first page (# 4) of google and was there for a few days. Then it disappeared. The review was positive. The major book retailer did not stock it or claimed that it was out of stock. This was before Christmas which is the peak sales time in the book trade. Sink Waters, the word was out. After Christmas it appeared in the shop in question. He was not reviewed in the papers which is remarkable as he is quite well known but too scabrous for the effete journalistas.

    Sorry for the descent into anecdote. Kevin, that educational scholar that you interviewed on video probably will get a one way ticket to Cancellville. You can’t touch critical race theory.

  4. My reactions are almost identical to Dan’s here. So I won’t bother reiterating points which have already been set out very clearly. I was particularly concerned by Kevin’s endorsement of altering works from the past because this is such an insidious process.

    1. Yes, I actually forgot to mention that part. Really dangerous, and wrong in my view. It’s hard to accept KCK’s self-identification as a liberal, when he expresses support for that sort of revisionism.

      1. ” It’s hard to accept KCK’s self-identification as a liberal, when he expresses support for that sort of revisionism.”

        Per a previous article of mine, I think you and I are different sorts of liberals. I think you are a sort more in line with Mill, one favoring a liberalism where people act in a liberal way with liberal minds. What matters to me – a liberal that feels more at home with William Galson, Chandran Kukathas, etc – is not that we all have liberal attitudes, but that we have a liberal social order that allows folks to have a wide range of attitudes but be bound by certain liberal rules.

        And as for cancel culture, I have said before that I see it as an expression of free speech and free association. People use their free speech to ‘call out’ whatever, and free association to choose what to do with themselves in relation to others. That said, I don’t see how you undo or mitigate cancel culture without taking illiberal steps. Legally, that looks something like China. Morally, that is akin to telling folks that they must not think in certain ways (they must not be woke, they must not voice offense when offended by things I think they shouldn’t be offended by), and/or that companies/organizations should only decide to do things that express my values when they are countered by values I don’t like.

        But to say that the liberalism I am expressing here is hard to call liberalism seems (historically and philosophically) short-sighted.

    2. ” I was particularly concerned by Kevin’s endorsement of altering works from the past because this is such an insidious process.”

      Let me remind you of what I wrote: “For what it’s worth, I think the better move would have been to continue publishing the books but have a skilled (and credited) illustrator draw new images to replace the ones deemed offensive.”

      My recommendation was that THE PUBLISHER decide that if the market research found certain images to be problematic to publish, that they get an illustrator WHO IS CREDITED AS AN ILLUSTRATOR, to redo those images. I didn’t say this, but I would generally imagine that it would be clear on the book notes that theese illustrations were re-done; Seuss did these ones, and x [re]did these other ones.

      The way you describe it, it sounds like I am endorsing some stealth government mandate that all images found to be offensive by some government board are redone where no one is ever the wiser. No, I wouldn’t endorse that. AND my proposal was simply posed as an alternative to depublishing altogether.

      1. “The way you describe it, it sounds like I am endorsing some stealth government mandate that all images found to be offensive by some government board are redone where no one is ever the wiser.”

        I didn’t say or suggest anything about *who* might be making the alterations (or expurgations or bowdlerizations). There is a long and sad history of this sort of thing and it is something I have always found objectionable. Do I really have to explain why?

        “My recommendation was that THE PUBLISHER decide that if the market research found certain images to be problematic to publish, that they get an illustrator WHO IS CREDITED AS AN ILLUSTRATOR, to redo those images. I didn’t say this, but I would generally imagine that it would be clear on the book notes that these illustrations were re-done; Seuss did these ones, and x [re]did these other ones.”

        “Market research” is a bit of a euphemism here, isn’t it?

        And do you honestly think, if your recommended changes were made, that it would be made clear to the casual (or indeed the careful) reader that original illustrations by the author had been removed? In my experience, this is not how things happen. There are countless instances of old children’s books being butchered in such a way that new readers are unaware that changes have been made. This is the reality. I see this as an unfortunate and insidious process; you don’t, apparently.

        1. This is exactly right, and I find Kevin’s sanguine attitude about it really depressing. Then again, he believes we have gotten valuable insights from Critical Race theory, so its unsurprising that his commitment to liberal values is shaky.

          1. I have no real commitments to liberalism so I’m finding this particular attack quite interesting. What makes Kevin’s commitment to liberal values shaky here? A failure to recite the proper creed? What is he supposed to actually *do* in this scenario to prove liberal commitments? Near as I can tell he’s accepting the world as it is. Is he supposed to ignore that publishers care about profitability and brand management? Or ignore IP law altogether and create an underground publishing operation that keeps unedited works in circulation?

            Looking at this debate I see one guy who’s acknowledging the limits of his legal sphere of influence and two guys who are acting entitled to someone else’s IP while also accusing the first guy of being insufficiently pious to “liberal values” because he *isn’t* acting entitled to the IP of others. Ugh, sorry about the run-on sentence.

            So I guess I’m wondering: what are these particular liberal values Dan and Mark hold? How does one show unshakable commitment to them? Is is just a matter of holding the “right” opinion? I’m genuinely curious! Thanks for your patience with my dunderheadedness!

            Oh and also: I worked in retail not long ago. We were required to write down customer suggestions regarding potential changes to our products. At the end of the day the list was *always* several pages long. I did not assume Kevin’s description of market research was a euphemism. This is America, man. Every breath you take is someone’s market research.

          2. It’s not an “attack.”

            And frankly, given the largely hostile and dismissive tone, I’m not really interested in engaging with you on this.

          3. Look, I’m sorry if you’re having a rough morning or whatever. I am too! But the only hostility in my comment was the hostility your own mind brought to it. As far as the dismissiveness goes, well I’m not convinced you’re right! I straight-up asked questions about your perspective. Those questions are right there in the comment. How many times is one supposed to write “I’m genuinely curious!”?

            And man, the word “attack”? Okay, sorry if you’re not into strategy games and I used a triggering word to describe a move against an opponent. But what would you describe your criticism against Kevin’s devotion to liberalism as?

            Honestly, your response does absolutely nothing to convince me that someone as easily triggered and sensitive as you has any business criticizing the sensitivity of others. Thought this was an open forum for debate and discussion and my questions might actually get a response. I’m sorry if being too online has poisoned your perception and you read hostility in my curiosity.

          4. I’m not having a rough morning at all. Quite happy, everything being equal [it’s not a happy time for anyone].

            I won’t litigate my characterizations of your comment. Not that it really matters anyway.

            One of the fundamental liberal values is respect for individuals’ sovereignty. One of the greatest crimes against the liberal consensus then, is the deliberate, manipulative bypassing of peoples’ conscious rationality for the purpose of controlling their beliefs and actions. [Aldous Huxley spoke at length about this in two legendary interviews with Mike Wallace.]

            The purging, sanitizing, altering, and even erasing of history is one of the most transparent and dangerous efforts in this vein. Both Huxley and Orwell have written about it at length. And I’m really surprised that in 2021, it has to be explained.

          5. For what it is worth, I don’t take Dan’s and Mark’s challenges as attacks. I have only known Dan a brief while, but he’s a person I’d consider a friend. We have really fantastic disagreements, and I think both of us can phrase things in ways that could sound to others like attacks. But I think the disagreements are really interesting.

            I think the issue – and I feel like I’m repeating it too much – is that there is (a) not a singular liberal creed or even tradition, (b) that different liberals emphasize different ostensibly liberal values, and (c) Dan and I are two different (but I doubt mutually exclusive) kinds of liberals. Dan seems to care – I’m guessing, so Dan can tell me if I’m wrong – more at home with the Millian style of liberalism that is held together by citizens sharing common liberal attitudes, things like tolerance for dissent, a respect for civil discourse (as a precondition for free speech), etc. I, on the other hand, don’t care as much that citizens have those – as good a values as I personally think they are – but care more that people are maximally able to live the lives they want, even if those lives aren’t accompanied by liberal ways of thinking. As long as folks are able to associate freely, speak freely (even if this doesn’t mean the discourse is civil), and have exit rights from communities they don’t want to be part of, that’s the liberalism I care about. And that’s why I can’t see cancel culture as illiberal.

            “So I guess I’m wondering: what are these particular liberal values Dan and Mark hold? How does one show unshakable commitment to them? Is is just a matter of holding the “right” opinion? I’m genuinely curious! Thanks for your patience with my dunderheadedness!”

            Yes, I’d like to hear this explanation too. I did my best above to describe the type of liberal I suspect Dan (and Mark) are. But I may well be wrong or they may have something important to add.

          6. I explained it. You don’t accept the explanation.

            If I was asked to describe your orientation, I would not characterize you as liberal. I would characterize you as a reasonable, moderate version of the current zeitgeist, which is a combination of progressivism and neo-liberalism.

          7. “One of the fundamental liberal values is respect for individuals’ sovereignty.”

            So whose sovereignty are you respecting in this case? Those who were offended by the image using their sovereignty to voice that offense? The sovereignty of the Seuss estate to do market research and make decisions based on it? The sovereignty of copyright owners to do what they’d like with their IP? The sovereignty of a bookseller to decide what they want to sell and don’t?

            Or is it only the sovereignty of that rare set of customers who feel desperately slighted if they don’t have the option to read their kiddos books with illustrations that depict Africans as little better than monkeys?

            Compared to the list of people whose sovereignty you want to defend, Dan, the list of folks (my second paragraph) whose sovereignty you don’t mind overriding seems like a very uneven balance sheet.

          8. “The purging, sanitizing, altering, and even erasing of history is one of the most transparent and dangerous efforts in this vein. Both Huxley and Orwell have written about it at length.”

            Except that no one is doing anything close to that right now. That you can point to historical instances where it has been done and dystopian books where we can imagine it can be done doesn’t help your case that it IS being done.

            The two cases we have here are are:

            a children’s book publisher who, based on market research, has decided to discontinue six books from its collection because images in the book are found to be offensive because, well, outdated. To my knowledge, no one is working to make it so that future people could never know that these books were published. And even if they were, the internet will likely make it so that their efforts couldn’t’ possibly succeed.)

            a big ass bookseller deciding not to carry a book for violating its (moral) standards about what is acceptable to carry. (Amazon decides not to sell hardcore porn either, but none of these ostensible liberals are up in arms that THAT is one step from 1984.) And again, I see no evidence that this decision means that no one will ever be able to buy or see – much less find out about – WHBS. My guess is that if we look at the book’s sales, this gave the book MORE publicity. So, 1984 this is not!)

          9. “If I was asked to describe your orientation, I would not characterize you as liberal. I would characterize you as a reasonable, moderate version of the current zeitgeist, which is a combination of progressivism and neo-liberalism.”

            That might be a fair description, in fact. For what it is worth – and you know this from private conversations – I have a harder and harder time labeling my politics except in broad strokes. I generally consider myself something like a ‘liberal agonist’ or ‘agonistic liberal.’ But even if I am a neoliberal – and I’m not sure what that is, because everyone seems to have a different definition of it, and it’s almost always defined by its detractors – it seems hard to spell that without the “liberal” part.

          10. “I describe my own politics I said something to the effect of, “agonistic pluralist with generally liberal policy preferences”. I’m currently reading Chantal Mouffe’s Dimensions of Radical Democracy and enjoying it quite a bit.”

            Sounds like we are coming from a similar place, then, Matthew, much to Dan’s consternation. 🙂

            I just did an interview for Sophia (soon to be released) with Chandran Kukathas, the author of The Liberal Archipelago, and his newest book Immigration and Freedom. If I have a politics, it is close to the pluralistic one voiced by Chandran. Mouffe is great. Kukathas is better. She’s a democratic agonist, and he’s a liberal (if I may) agonist.

            I used to be a libertarian, but burned my membership card maybe two years ago for various reasons. (I’m not a propertarian, believe too strongly that ‘freedom to” is an essential piece of any liberty worth wanting, believe that rights are conventional norms of social recognition and not natural thingies just hanging there, etc.)

            But I’m afraid my current politics is not that impressive. It goes like this:

            Values clash. Just like in economies, there are always trade-offs and opportunity costs, and we can’t have it all. Therefore, political ideologies are stores where we pretend we can have it all by imposing some system that really won’t impose on anyone because it is so damn good. But it won’t be. And we will figure that out when we try to impose it. Some folks will feel put upon. Some will find ways to game and use the rules of that system in ways the originators/theorists didn’t foresee or intend. Cracks will emerge in its edifice. We will impose band-aids in response that will both change the system – often making it less ideal – while at the same time introducing yet other problems. Then we will veer course to some new sweet political ideology that wins the day, and hope that this new one REALLY WILL be the promised land. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

      2. “I did not assume Kevin’s description of market research was a euphemism.”

        No, it wasn’t a euphemism at all. When Mark suggested otherwise, that is because either he hadn’t bothered to check the link in the piece where I quoted that directly from the Seuss estate’s explanation, failed to notice the quotation marks I had around that description, or decided to dismiss that description as inaccurate for no other reason than his intuition and how it didn’t like the explanation. Had the Seuss estate changed something in ways Mark politically approved of, I doubt he would have been so skeptical of the “it’s based on market research’ explanation.” It’s market research when you agree with it, and just a euphemism when it isn’t. Either way, Mark had – or just didn’t share – any empirical reasons for his suspicion.

        1. I watched the Aldous Huxley interview Dan linked to and I’m grateful he shared it. I feel like I have a better grasp of the definition of liberal values he prioritizes. And I can say that by those standards I am not a proponent of liberalism. It’s funny Kevin mentions his own reluctance to describe his politics *and* agonism. Last time someone demanded I describe my own politics I said something to the effect of, “agonistic pluralist with generally liberal policy preferences”. I’m currently reading Chantal Mouffe’s Dimensions of Radical Democracy and enjoying it quite a bit.

        2. Kevin Currie-Knight wrote:

          “No, it wasn’t a euphemism at all. When Mark suggested otherwise, that is because either he hadn’t bothered to check the link in the piece where I quoted that directly from the Seuss estate’s explanation, failed to notice the quotation marks I had around that description, or decided to dismiss that description as inaccurate for no other reason than his intuition and how it didn’t like the explanation.”

          The remark about the term being euphemistic was an aside. My point was that the process was not a straightforwardly commercial one involving surveys of what the general public might want to buy or not buy. It was a decision influenced by powerful groups and *explicitly based in moral grounds*. “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” Dr Seuss Enterprises said in a formal statement. Such a statement may be based on market research but it goes beyond market research

          I am not making a judgment on the specific examples. I have never read the Dr Seuss books and your link to the offending examples doesn’t work.

          “Had the Seuss estate changed something in ways Mark politically approved of, I doubt he would have been so skeptical of the “it’s based on market research’ explanation.” It’s market research when you agree with it, and just a euphemism when it isn’t. Either way, Mark had – or just didn’t share – any empirical reasons for his suspicion.”

          If you read my comments you will see that I am criticizing your gratuitous suggestion about changing the content of the offending books rather than the decision not to republish. Of course a copyright holder has the right to publish or not publish for whatever reason. The substance of my comments related specifically to *your* suggestion.

          1. This was a helpful response, thank you! I can’t speak for Kevin but I suppose my biggest disagreement with you here is about the role of marketing plays in all this. I generally hold the view that everything in our country – assuming you’re in the U.S. as well – is marketing. Like, everything. So ideas like “straightforwardly commercial” or “beyond market research” only set us up to fail to see when we’re being marketed to – or being the mark as it were. The business of America is business, the hustle never stops, etc etc

            I’m quite confident Seuss Enterprises used morally loaded language on purpose to illicit free media coverage. That got them points for being “woke” and it got conservative and liberal reactionaries buying up remaining copies of the book. I don’t know what the sales figures on those books was before the controversy but I’m pretty sure they’ve made more now. I’ve made lots of money selling things to people by appealing to their sense of identity and their fear of scarcity. It’s…quite easy.

  5. Let’s look first at Amazon’s decision not to sell When Harry Became Sally (henceforth WHBS), a book that caught heat for allegedly being anti-trans. First, we should note that no one (well, maybe some people at Amazon) know(s) the reason why Amazon removed this book from its platform, yet everyone – especially conservatives – act as if they do.

    Amazon’s letter back to Senators Rubio, Hawley, Braun, and Lee says, “we have chosen not to sell books that frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness.”

    1. Thanks for the clarification. I hadn’t been aware that amazon issued a formal explanation as I wrote the piece. But my follow up would be two things: (a) as I said in the piece, quite a few books that make very similar arguments are not only published by amazon, but recommended when one does a search for WHBS; it is hard to take their argument seriously when Shaprio’s Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings is still available there. (b) While we can take issue with their rationale, I cannot see how (at least if one is a liberal) one can either think that amazon doesn’t have a right to make these sorts of decisions or conversely, that your right to access information extends to being able to buy a book (that you can buy from many sellers) from the bookseller of your choice. If you want the book, do a basic keyword search. You’ll see plenty of places where you can buy (or, um, just get) the book. Your freedom to get information is still very much in tact.

  6. I would expect (be disappointed if untrue?) that most EA readers at least keep tabs on CrookedTimber.org even if they don’t wish that much more of the internet was like that charming site. And why wouldn’t someone want the internet to be like that charming site? Don’t ask me.

    But you can count on John Holbo to step in at exactly the right time:

    On Beyond Zarathustra! (Seuss in the Nous)
    https://crookedtimber.org/2021/03/15/on-beyond-zarathustra-seuss-in-the-nous/

  7. The first and most important point on which I’d disagree with Kevin is in accepting that modern copyright law is anything close to liberal. I’d claim that this functionally-forever government decreed rent is radically illiberal. What would be the significance of the Seuss estate decision if all of these works had long been in the pubic domain?

    I would cut off copyright at ten years. But, say, double that. Can you really argue that there is any benefit to society in legally created monopolies that last longer than that? Bad law is its own social problem.

    1. “The first and most important point on which I’d disagree with Kevin is in accepting that modern copyright law is anything close to liberal. I’d claim that this functionally-forever government decreed rent is radically illiberal. What would be the significance of the Seuss estate decision if all of these works had long been in the pubic domain?”

      Actually, I don’t think that will be a point of disagreement. I can see the force of that case.

      I just don’t think it is relevant to my case. I am dealing with the world where IP is already a fact of life, and proceeding from there. IF we live in a world where IP is a property right and property rights are part of liberalism, THEN I can’t see how restricting whether people can make choices about using their IP is more liberal than not so restricting.

      As to your chilling effect argument, I can see that too. But again, I guess I am wondering how it is relevant to my case. To have a free press in any liberal sense cannot mean being free from having booksellers choose not to sell your books, or being free from any potential chilling effects that “freely” arise from those decisions. If you think the chilling effect problem will be a problematic limitation on our speech or press rights, you’d have to explain – and you won’t be able to – why limiting the ability of booksellers to choose what they can and can’t sell is a liberal proposition. Good luck telling that tale.

      1. I’m not really making a chilling effect argument.

        But my comment about excessive copyright is part of a larger picture I have. There are endless arguments about bad behavior, but I see few people talk about some general policy changes that could reduce some of the harm. Another example is angry online mobs getting some average person fired from their job. If we had good worker protection that prevented firing on a whim, then such mobs would become rare because they could not quickly and easily succeed.

        But as to your conclusion, while I think eliminating the long term monopoly of IP would be good as would reducing the market power of the likes of Amazon, the balkanization you describe looks likely to continue. I’ve wondered if perhaps a more broadly liberal society was only plausible with particular technologies, and now that new things are changing how we interact, fewer people will think it even makes sense to try and think of themselves as members of a liberal society.

  8. In addition to the points Kaufman makes, the article fails to recognize the tremendous chilling effect Amazon’s decision will have on the future authoring and publication of books which publishers suspect will run afoul of Amazon’s cultural ideological allegiance. Amazon is not just “a book seller among book sellers,” it is THE marketplace for books that hope to have any kind of mainstream traction. Yes, we may still be able to find Ryan Anderson’s book, which has already been published, at other more niche sellers. But if is known that Amazon will not carry books that are critical of a particular progressive ideology, it will chill many rational publishers from publishing such works, and rational authors from writing them. The end result will not merely be “balkinization,” but less creation of works on important, contested and contestable topics of national importance which do not align with Amazon’s ideology.

  9. I strongly agree with the writer on this issue. I also see than there are many comments, many of which I consider various forms of conservative, or soft conservative, rather than hard right, worries about the death of liberalism and accommodationist attitudes that the right to not carry a product by a particular platform constitutes an unambiguous example of a trend called “cancel culture.” I have said before that a pure continuation of Millian liberty is unsustainable in our Internet epoch, for all sorts of reasons. the question is not whether something is anti-liberal or pro-liberal, but rather what parts of an 18th and 19th century venerably doctrine can proceed with any changes whatsoever and what parts need to be modified in our current context.

  10. Hi, everybody! Long time reader first time commentator. I appreciate this forum for such a good discussion! For my own part I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Currie-Knight. Are there any ways of fighting what folks are calling cancel culture without sacrificing liberal values? I don’t think there are – and I would certainly vote against any politician or referendum that tried to compel speech or intellectual property in the ways necessary to do so.

    While I have some broad, casual sympathies with the “cancel culture” hawks, I can’t say I’ve ever been worked up enough to care so much. Perhaps a lifetime in a very conservative part of America’s heartland taught me real quick how to deftly navigate the minefields of “inappropriate speech” – especially when I hit my teens and stopped going to church. I don’t like people dogpiling others or attempting to shame talk they don’t like into silence. But this is behavior is nothing new. From my lay perspective it’s all very, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Or more accurately perhaps, “meet the new church-marms, same as the old church-marms” – though I suppose a good argument could be made that social media has made this (especially the dogpiling) much worse.

    Hope my rambling wasn’t too nonsensical! Thanks again to Kevin and Dan for providing this space for the debate to be had!

  11. Kevin wrote: “No one can seriously believe that if amazon doesn’t sell WHBS that it will just cease to exist and no one can find out is was published (or find a copy online). No one thinks that after these six Seuss books are delisted, that no one will be able to discover that they were published. Again, if that type of thing looks like a serious possibility, I will then worry about it. But nothing I am seeing tells me that it likely or remotely possible.”

    This same argument could have been made in the former Soviet Union where Beatles records were officially banned by the Communist Party government. Yet you could still find them in the black market. You seem to be saying that, as long as an item which has been de-listed or banned is still available somewhere, no matter how scarce or hidden, it doesn’t count as being censored or banned, nor considered part of cancel culture.

    Kevin wrote: “That doesn’t even begin to resemble today’s world, especially with the internet that is not at the moment being censored in liberal countries. Like I said, I am not ruling out that it couldn’t happen – China is certainly providing a playbook).”

    Kevin, I’m not sure how closely you follow the internet and its biggest platforms, but there has been all kinds of censorship on Facebook, Google, Twitter, and youtube over the past several years. It’s already happening. I could provide you with a long list of independent, progressive, liberal, and conservative websites, Facebook pages, twitter accounts, and youtube channels which have been blocked, shadow banned, suspended and outright taken down — all for political reasons by these platforms. It’s not just China, it’s happening throughout Western liberal countries.

    I agree with your point about the problem of potentially using illiberal means to address illiberal practices and how one might go about attempting to counteract cancel culture and censorship. You correctly point out these are after all freely made decisions responding to freely made criticisms made in the arena of public opinion. Here we run into Popper’s Parodox of Tolerance where we are forced to confront the problem of how much tolerance we ought to extend to others who are, or merely seem, intolerant to us and society in general. Perhaps our only hope is that “…error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it” to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson. We may simply have to keep criticizing cancel culture with facts and reason.

    1. “This same argument could have been made in the former Soviet Union where Beatles records were officially banned by the Communist Party government.”

      Not in anything like the same way. In that case, a government unilaterally banned a thing so that the ‘cost’ of getting the work was breaking the law and the consequences that came with it. Nothing close to that is happening in these cases.

      “Kevin, I’m not sure how closely you follow the internet and its biggest platforms, but there has been all kinds of censorship on Facebook, Google, Twitter, and youtube over the past several years. It’s already happening.”

      No need. What I’d need is a handful of cases where platforms banned someone and that person was thereafter effectively never able to voice their thoughts despite trying. The biggest two cases of this i can think of are Alex Jones and Parler. Parler was back up with a competing host a week later. And I recently – out of curiosity – saw how many clicks it could take me to get to Alex Jones’s website and media from a google search. Answer: 2.

      1. Not in anything like the same way. In that case, a government unilaterally banned a thing so that the ‘cost’ of getting the work was breaking the law and the consequences that came with it. Nothing close to that is happening in these cases.

        The de-listing of Dr. Seuss books was also defacto unilateral, given the sweeping uniform banning of all indirect sales that included eBay and all online second hand book sellers. In the former Soviet Union, there wasn’t much of a cost to possessing Beatles records (usually bootlegs), as most people were never punished. That’s how we have evidence for a black market. Enforcement was neither effective nor reliable. However, if caught, the records were confiscated and you could be fined and forbidden to travel. Yet this rarely if ever happened, and nobody was sent to the Gulags for it.

        No need. What I’d need is a handful of cases where platforms banned someone and that person was thereafter effectively never able to voice their thoughts despite trying.

        Except that’s not how censorship and cancel culture works. It doesn’t completely silence people 100% as that is impossible, even in the most totalitarian countries. The very act of censoring is the problem, not who is doing it or how effective it is. Censorship on a small scale is essentially no different from censorship on a large scale. It’s still censorship.

        1. Censorship is done by governments. KCK has posed a question I don’t think has been answered, and I suspect can’t be: what liberal means are available that would have prevented the Seuss and Amazon situations?
          But I’m also sympathetic to the concern about chilling effects and memory holes.

          1. Censorship is done by governments, corporations, media, and anyone else doing the censoring. It isn’t limited to governments.

            I don’t have an easy answer for the posed question.

          2. No, it’s not censorship without the state. No one is entitled to media coverage,to have a product carried on shelves, publishing, or a social media account. You are entitled to expression in a democratic state without government coercion.

  12. I’ve been really enjoying these discussions in the comments, though I haven’t read them all. It’s clear that you need both thick and thin liberalism for liberalism to work, and it’s also clear liberalism can work, as it’s worked for basically 100 years, if not more.

    The thick liberalism is what Kevin calls Millian liberalism. I kind of find that an odd locution, given that Mill emphasized experiments in living (which seems close to the balkanization Kevin worries about and also doesn’t think we should try to stop), but I’ll leave that aside. Millian liberalism says that, in order for liberalism to succeed, people need to have certain values. To the extent that those values wear away, liberalism can’t succeed. I call this thick liberalism, because it implies that liberalism not only requires certain kinds of institutions, but also people to have certain values.

    By contrast, thin liberalism says that a state is liberal if it has the right institutions. You don’t need the people to have the right values, just so long as you have the right institutions.

    I think thin liberalism sits uneasily with democracy, though. The more people don’t have liberal values, the less they’ll want to have liberal institutions (including democracy). Not only do you have the infamous Algerian “one man, one vote, one time” as an example of this, but you also get resurgance of Catholic integralism, Trumpism, and what Wesley Yang calls “the successor ideology”. If you have all these views living together in one country, then you get, well, war, or something near enough. The Catholics want to make the others into Catholics, the Trumpists wants to stamp out wokeism through legal means if necessary, and the wokies want to ban ways of educating people out of line with wokeism.

    So, I think you could have thin liberalism if you also had a powerful government that was unaccountable to democratic forces. Maybe this helps to explain why people like Jason Brennan and Bryan Caplan are both in favor of open borders and against democracy: the more open your borders, the harder it is to maintain thick liberalism, given the wide variety of cultural values that will incur (though of course Caplan and Brennan deny the idea that open borders have any untoward cultural effects).

    But if you do have democracy, then you’re going to want there to be a more delimited range of values. Of course the problem with thick liberalism is: which values? I think many wokies would view themselves as thick liberals. Basically, you need the right values that allow for the maintenance of liberal institutions. I think woke values, given how prescriptive and wide-ranging they are, aren’t the right values. By contrast, I think a kind of live-and-let-live set of values will work, but the problem with them is that they’re pretty unromantic, and lose people’s allegiance after a time. Ironically enough, if you have live and let live, you might need a regular diet of wars against (allegedly) illiberal entities that (allegedly) have imperial designs. Perhaps nothing short of that will keep live-and-let-live thick liberalism inspiring.

    1. Great add, Rob. I’d simply say that i have no love for – nor hatred of – democracy. Democracy is a tool, and as a tool, it is good to the extent that does a good job in its domain and bad to the extent that it doesn’t. As I have argued many times to fellow Board members of the “democratically run” school that I am an organizing member of, democracy is not generally something people want until they feel they aren’t living under good rules. Then and only then do most folks want democracy, and even then, it isn’t usually democracy that they want, but a way to have a voice and (they imagine) use it to get their way. That is all democracy is, nothing more (or less) special than that.

      “The thick liberalism is what Kevin calls Millian liberalism. I kind of find that an odd locution, given that Mill emphasized experiments in living (which seems close to the balkanization Kevin worries about and also doesn’t think we should try to stop), but I’ll leave that aside. ”

      Yes, he does, and I’m sort of puzzled by what I think is this tension in Mill. He certainly favors the idea of experiments in living (and thinking) but then goes on to add basically a caveat “… as long as you do all this while doing your living and thinking in the right way, liberally.” He allows for plurality and diversity, but in a way that winds up being horribly prescribed by that caveat.

      1. Well, maybe what Mill is on about w/r/t experiments in living is finding as many ways of living within the liberal order as possible. After all, if live-and-let-live is an uninspiring creed, you’ll want to find ways of adopting it that appeal to people’s romantic side while also not abandoning it.

        And when you write, “…’as long as you do all this while doing your living and thinking in the right way, liberally.’ He allows for plurality and diversity, but in a way that winds up being HORRIBLY prescribed by that caveat”, it could be that the caveat isn’t *horribly* prescribing, because after all, there is a qualitative difference between liberal values and certain other sets of values.

        E.g., here’s one set of values:

        1. You must never think of or look at people to whom you’re attracted to in lascivious ways, because doing so is objectifying. (Correlatively, if someone objectifies you, you’re entitled to get the community to shun him.)
        2. You must never blame a member of a marginalized group for any bad outcomes he suffers. (Correlatively, if someone else does that, you’re entitled to get the community to shun him.)
        3. You must always treat the self-reports of a marginalized person as dispositive w/r/t reports of racial, sexual, gender, religious, ableist, ageist, … etc. discrimination. (Correlatively, anyone who doesn’t do this should be shunned by the community.)

        Etc.

        Here’s another set of values:

        1. It’s OK to think of or look at people to whom you’re attracted in lascivious ways, just so long as you’re not too obvious about it. (Correlatively, if you do it in a non-obvious way, but someone is nonetheless very het up about it, that person needs to calm down.)
        2. It’s permissible to blame a member of a marginalized group for a bad outcome he suffers, just so long as there is good reason to think he brought this bad outcome on himself because of foolish actions. (Correlatively, someone who tries to undermine this norm should be argued against.)
        3. You may be skeptical about the self-reports of marginalized people, if you have good reason to distrust them (correlatively, someone who tries to undermine this norm should be argued against.)

        Both of these sets of values are thick, but I bet (I’m willing to admit I could be wrong about this) that the second set of values is easier for diverse communities to live according to than the first one.

  13. A great article Kevin, and a wonderfully mature and educated approach to analysing a complex issue. I notice that as usual there are too many troll comments about this being the ‘end of civilisation’, but that can’t be helped these days unfortunately.

    Some things I would add is that this is hardly a new phenomenon. Authors and publishers have revised their works on numerous occasions, and book stores have always restricted the books that they offer. Even now, there are many book sellers who refuse to stock books with homosexual references, and the same ‘end of civilisation’ types never seem get particularly upset about this. The most successful use of ‘Cancel Culture’ has been to shut down criticism of Israel, and again, this doesn’t appear to worry your ‘classical liberal’ much.

    I’m new here, but I look forward to reading more of your articles.

    1. Thanks. Your addition regarding publishers was something I was thinking about bringing into the article because it is certainly a deserving part of the discussion. But I thought the piece risked beibg on the long side. And when I suggested revised versions of the Seuss books, that sort of thing is what I had in mind.

      1. In a way from a conservative p-o-v Seuss thought crime and memory hole capers is a good thing. It reminds one of apartheid South Africa banning ‘Black Beauty’. Their days were numbered at that point. Voters look at the political affiliation of those companies and mark their ballots accordingly.

  14. Matthew Jones

    “I’m quite confident Seuss Enterprises used morally loaded language on purpose to illicit free media coverage. That got them points for being “woke”…”

    I tend to see it as virtue signalling also. But whether it is a genuine moral statement or mere signalling, it takes us beyond market research.

    (My original aside was about KCK’s use of the term *market research*. In your reply to me above you are talking about *marketing*, a much broader concept.)

    1. “But whether it is a genuine moral statement or mere signalling, it takes us beyond market research.”

      Not really.

      It is known (at least believed) among left leaning literati that Seuss was an avowed socialist. They buy his books as much for themselves (partly for nostalgic, but partly as the ‘right thing to do’) as for their children. The publication of his books is a commercial enterprise. His estate knows the target audience.

      Assuming otherwise assumes a certain Romantic fiction about literature and the arts that never holds water under critical scrutiny.

  15. Seeing as we are talking about books and in particular about the cancellation of Anderson’s book ‘When Harry’ we ought to recognise that the publishing industry in its present form is in its final stages. Everything that is in digital form is hackable and downloadable including the WHBS, not that I would want to read it but. Even now unexpurgated Suess is probably out there free. Some Suess! The publishing industry itself is being cancelled. What next? Merch. For a donation I will include you in my next fiction. A signed bookplate or like the Book of Bhrigu – This is Daniel’s Book. Your place in the great book is found after your shadow is measured on your arrival at the sage’s. An ancient algo.

    1. Yes, I’ve sort of noticed this too. It seems like the places where “cancel culture” is the “loudest” (or is most impactful because destructive) seem to be academia, journalism, and book publishing. And those seem to be the “big three” areas that I’d argue are sort of struggling the hardest to retain their places of prominence in a world that is finding ways to disrupt them (in Christiansen’s sense). I wonder if that is a coincidence. If not, then maybe this is just their way of self-destructing before they are destroyed by disruptive innovations.

      And to your point about the Seuss books being out there available for free, I see tremendous irony here. We are complaining about art and intellectual works being cancelled at precisely the point in history where they have never been more freely available. Isn’t it something!

  16. This balkanization argument does not hold much water for me. I could make the same argument that liberal or illiberal callers are keeping perfectly good pop songs from being heard on country music radio stations. Should these complaining country music fans be allowed to balkanize said radio stations, or should the station be tolerating the flow of musical ideas? Of course this line of thinking is nonsense.

    I have a problem with the idea that you would “tolerate the publication of even the most noxious ideas” and promote “the flow of ideas” because none of these ideas are noxious to you in the least. You fail to mention the long history where there was little of the “tolerating the flow of ideas” that you mention. Previously, those that found the books noxious had no voice. Now they increasingly do. And we are sorting out what to do about that…

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