The Washington Post recently ran a piece in its “Perspective” section denying the existence of “cancel culture.” However misguided that assertion may be, the most startling aspect of the article was it’s foundation in logical fallacy; so much so that it is even surprising that The Post would print it.
In her piece titled “So you’re being held accountable? That’s not ‘cancel culture’” Media Columnist Margaret Sullivan makes the case that “cancel culture” does not exist, because in America every person is “entitled to his opinion.”
Interestingly, Sullivan seems to understand the definition of the term, explaining it as “he catchphrase for how the masses supposedly gang up to silence provocative voices,” but then builds a (not so carefully constructed) strawman– attacking an uncited argument connecting the First Amendment.
“There’s been plenty of criticism about these decisions, not one of which had anything to do with the First Amendment, which forbids the government — not Twitter or any other private entity — from shutting down speech except in the most dangerous cases,” writes Sullivan.
“I talked to a First Amendment lawyer and scholar,” she continues, adding that the scholar of course confirmed that the First Amendment does not prohibit “cancellation” of individuals.
This clarification actually sets the stage for the potential for the type of culture that Sullivan denies– but she goes on to assert that somehow her cited scholar’s assertion that the Constitution protects the right to “cancel” an individual is evidence that the practice does not exist.
In fact, the scholar Sullivan uses to make her point says that the ability for “private citizens” to criticize others is “whole point of the First Amendment.”
“It’s not subverting the First Amendment, therefore, to criticize a politician or a cable news host or a right-wing provocateur,” Sullivan concludes.
Should we be awaiting Sullivan’s piece denying the existence of “hate speech”?
In order to demonstrate that such a culture doesn’t exist, Sullivan explains repeatedly that the First Amendment does not protect individuals from being what many would characterize as “cancelled.” She bases her entire argument against the existence of “cancel culture” on the First Amendment.
Sullivan uses interchangeably examples of conservative complaints about “cancel culture” and complaints about Big Tech censorship (which is admittedly more closely related to her First Amendment argument) in a way that presents as either a thinly-veiled attempt to gaslight victims of cancel culture, or evidence of a complete misunderstanding of the sentiment behind the complaint. Either way, not particularly reliable.
Cultural phenomena exist outside of their Constitutional context, and any intelligent person should be able to construe the difference between a claim of existence of “cancel culture” and an assertion that it somehow violates the Constitution. The enormous logical leap made by Sullivan is akin to insisting that cults do not exist in the United States because its citizens enjoy Freedom of Religion; yet it is an argument deemed fit to print by The Washington Post.
At the end of the disjointed argument, Sullivan characterizes “cancel culture” complaints as simply coming from those who can’t handle “pushback,” tying back to her introduction which used a recent uproar at Politico over a Ben Shapiro cameo.
“But, even if that sort of pushback becomes the norm, news organizations should be wary of handing these charlatans a megaphone.”
“You can call that cancel culture if you want. I call it responsibility.”
“The good news is that, in America, we get to argue about it.”