Free speech advocate discusses growing talk of ‘cancel culture’

Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor of education, political science, and philosophy, talks de-platforming, toppling statues, rescinding admissions, Twitter, the First Amendment, and hate speech.

Sigal Ben-Porath of the Graduate School of Education poses in a hallway with her arms folded.

“Cancel culture” is a catchall term that has been used to describe everything from toppling racist statues, renaming buildings and streets named after racist and pro-slavery people, removing the Confederate flag from public spaces, opposing celebrities who use blackface, discrediting racially insensitive films, to de-platforming individuals with racist, sexist, or homophobic views or ideologies.

Although the term is contemporary, Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor in the Graduate School of Education and an associate member of the Political Science and Philosophy departments, says the attitudes behind it are not. She says the term “cancel culture” is being widely used today to refer to what previously was called “politically correct” or “safe spaces.”

“It’s basically a version of the same cultural ideological argument that we’ve been seeing for a long time,” she says. “The term or how widespread this term is, that’s new, but what it refers to is not new.”

Ben-Porath, an expert on free speech and former chair of Penn’s Committee on Open Expression, recently spoke with Penn Today about de-platforming, toppling statues, rescinding admissions, Twitter, the First Amendment, and hate speech.

When you hear the term ‘cancel culture,’ what does it mean to you?

The term, like the phenomenon itself, means that people are removed from prominent positions on account of an ideological breach; they say something that goes against what others see as permissible. When we talk about canceling a person, I think what we’re talking about is the act of removing them from a position of prominence because of their views, a statement that they make, or ideas that they stand for.

Your book ‘Free Speech on Campus’ was published in 2017. Is that what you were writing about, what is now called ‘cancel culture’ in a college setting?

Part of what I was responding to or discussing in the book was all the consternation that we experience, all of the disagreements and struggles over, for example, the idea of de-platforming. It’s similar to ‘canceling.’ It’s basically saying, ‘Here is a person who is propagating or is ideologically committed to ideas that I find noxious, that I find hurtful, or that I find to be inappropriate or undesirable in, for example, my college setting, or inappropriate for an event at my school, so I’m looking to take away their platform.’ That’s something that we’ve been talking about for at least six or seven years in these words, and way longer using other terms as well. So yes, cancel culture is a new version of the same struggle, and the struggle is—at least in the way that it manifests or operates on college campuses—that some members of the campus community are looking to invite or to present some ideas that other members perceive to be dehumanizing, or to be otherwise ideologically objectionable. 

Do you consider this a free speech issue? From your perspective, is ‘cancel culture’ somewhat of an infringement on free speech?

Sometimes it’s a matter of infringement or a matter of protecting speech. There are instances where somebody is being silenced or not allowed to present, or some ideas are not being properly presented, so it might be a speech issue. There are two points to make about this. One, specifically, is that most of the people who are raising the concern about cancel culture have a lot of platforms, they have a lot of opportunities to present their ideas, and I’m not very worried about their voices not being heard. A lot of the more prominent examples that we see right now of people suggesting that they are being canceled or that cancel culture is out to get them, oftentimes these are public speakers or authors or journalists—people who actually do have a significant, large voice and platform in our culture, and they would like to have maybe a bigger one or more space, or they don’t want to hear criticism against their opinions. This is not the entirety of the issue, but I think a lot of the voices that we hear publicly display concern about cancel culture are actually not being canceled, they are just being criticized.

At the same time, there are cases where it is a matter of protecting free speech or open expression. There are cases where students—all of this is not just happening on college campuses, it’s happening in other places, too, but let’s look at college campuses—feel that if they express their actual views in class or in a social setting, they will be canceled, meaning people will not want to socialize with them or people will think that they are an awful person.  I am oftentimes more concerned about this type of ‘canceling.’ When I was on the Committee on Open Expression, sometimes you do see that people—students and faculty—feel silenced or truly are silenced by the response of their peers or their professors, because of their perspective. These are not very common cases. I actually think that that’s not what usually happens at Penn or anywhere, and portraying this as a common occurrence serves a purpose but is inaccurate. But when it does happen, it is our responsibility to make sure that there is room for ideological diversity and for all other types of diversity in our classrooms and on our campuses. In this sense, the concern about ‘cancel culture’ can indeed be a matter of free speech. 

But in the United States today, the suppression of protests, for example, is a more pressing matter of free speech than cancel culture. On the list of priorities that I have, or the list of concerns that I have regarding protecting free speech today, cancel culture is pretty low. It’s there, but it’s pretty low. I think we have more worrisome concerns on campuses and in the public sphere as a country.

I’m not on Twitter, but some critics of ‘cancel culture’ have accused Twitter of playing a prominent role in its promotion. In her resignation letter to The New York Times, former writer and editor Bari Weiss alleged, ‘Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor.’ Do you think Twitter has played an outsized role in the idea of and development of ‘cancel culture?’

Oh, for sure. The way that various social media platforms, but definitely Twitter, are set up sort of encourages people to express their ideas succinctly and in a pointed way, so it encourages strong disagreement, and divisive views can be more visible, which seems to be its own goal: People can be more visible when they are expressing their views in more extreme ways. That creates a strong backlash sometimes. People get mad about something you said, even if you feel that you were only trying to express yourself briefly and very vividly. And sometimes people also express pretty terrible views and make offensive, hate-based, biased, bigoted statements, on or off Twitter, and they get attacked for that on the platform, which Weiss was unhappy about. Maybe they make these statements because it is their opinion, or they do it for laughs or for attention, and sometimes they pay a very high price for that.

Sometimes when you are active on a platform like Twitter, you can mistakenly think that it is actually the political sphere or the public sphere, or it is reality, which it is not. Facing a mob on Twitter can be hard, but you can avoid it by speaking differently, or by signing off. But people still get punished or see consequences in the real world for things that happen on Twitter or on other social media platforms. People lose their job, not just public speakers and journalists, but also everyday people. They say something on Twitter which may be their views or may be a joke and they lose their job. This is the goal of a lot of these canceling campaigns, for the person to lose their job. Let’s say that I make an off-color joke on Twitter, or maybe even I express a bigoted view on Twitter, if I was holding a view like that, then people around me would look for Penn to fire me. I think that is oftentimes inadvisable. It’s not a justified move. I think the problem with canceling is that is has no gradation. Sometimes people do deserve to get a response for something terrible that they said, whether it was serious or jokingly, but oftentimes the punishment that we see is unrelated to what happened and is way too severe.

I don’t know if people think about it in the same way, but there are a lot of students right now—by a lot, I mean maybe a dozen or so—prospective students or admitted students who lost their admission to various universities because of things, pretty terrible things, that they were doing on social media. This is also a form of canceling a person. When you’re 18 and if you don’t have a job, where are you going to be canceled from? You’re canceled from the campus that you were going to attend. Their admission is rescinded because of pretty terrible things that they say or do on social media. I think that is a very harsh response. What do we expect would happen to these kids? Let’s say that they are actually holding these views; oftentimes these are racist views and sometimes they are otherwise biased, bigoted, or hateful views. What would happen to them? Will they stop thinking these things? They are still around us and holding these views. Wouldn’t it make more sense to try and express to them their mistakes or how they are being hurtful or wrong in other ways rather than canceling them? It’s a tough call. Sometimes you just don’t want a person who holds such views on your campus. It’s going to create a terrible relationship problem for a lot of their peers. So it is probably not true in every case, but I think oftentimes it’s a mistake to rescind admissions and to cancel students in this way.

How do we as a society balance the right of free speech and the idea of ‘cancel culture’ since ‘cancel culture’ is such a powerful force that can cause people to be fired or have their admission rescinded? People have the right to say what they want, I guess, but the repercussions can be pretty severe.

Very rarely is it a matter of a right. Even when it’s a matter of a right, such as the right to free speech, it’s always limited by various other laws or rights. That’s true about any right. All the rights that we have are always bumping against each other, and we have to define their boundaries. But nobody has a right to say hateful things on Twitter. Nobody has a right to be invited to Penn and present their views. If you had not decided to interview me today for whatever reason, my rights would not have been infringed upon, even though I wouldn’t have had the same platform. It’s not a matter of a right; oftentimes it’s just a matter of what is it that we want to discuss as a campus or as a society. What kind of debate do want to have in our public domain? What kind of views do we see as interesting, as worthwhile, as accurate, as promoting our shared understanding of the world or each other? This is a more accurate description of the question than saying, ‘It’s my right.’ 

People say that their rights are being infringed upon. Sometimes—quite rarely—that is the case. Usually, it is a matter of asking what are the boundaries of speech that we would like to accept in our debate, or on campus? And you can ask the same question on Twitter, or in Congress, or on the pages of the newspaper. What are the boundaries that we have? Everyone has boundaries. Every society has boundaries, every institution has boundaries. What are the boundaries that we are willing to accept? And they vary from one place to the next, depending on all sorts of things. It depends on the time that we live in and it also depends on shared decisions that we can make. In my view, the way to balance the demands of open expression with some of the concerns that are raised around cancel culture is to ask ourselves how open are we to hear opposing views? What kinds of responses can we have to views that we find noxious, or that we find hurtful, or even awful? And I would hope that the response would usually, in most cases, not be removal or canceling or silencing. 

These are conversations that have been going on for a long time. But if you were to ask me, ‘Can we invite people who are denying the Holocaust? Can we invite people who are supporting certain perspectives on slavery?’ There are going to be boundaries. We do not have to actively invite and listen to everyone. Should we invite anti-vaxxers to give a talk at the Medical School? There are places where we are going to say, ‘These are not views that are going to be resonant or useful or appropriate for my context. You can talk about it elsewhere, maybe, but not here.’ So creating these boundaries is the way in which we protect free speech within our community, and this free speech is never unbounded. We have to have this conversation, and I would hope that this conversation would very rarely be concluded in the removal or silencing of views, and more commonly would look to convince and persuade people, and would look to present to people the way in which their views have impact on others. Having a conversation in which we recognize the dignity of all participants is, for me, the bottom-line demand. As long as you recognize that everyone participating in the discussion deserves dignity as an equal member of your community, you can have a conversation about almost anything.

Do you consider the renaming of places or things, or the toppling of statues, to be a form of ‘cancel culture’? 

Well, cancel culture is not a well-defined concept. We don’t have a shared definition. If you accept that being canceled means that you are being removed from a prominent position because of your ideology, then metaphorically, you can say if we are removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from its prominent position as the name of a school at Princeton because of his racist ideology and actions, then it’s canceling Woodrow Wilson. I don’t think you can literally say he was canceled. He takes the same place in history as he always did, it’s just that we don’t want to express gratitude and we don’t want to express appreciation for some of his contributions or to actions that he took while he was in power. We don’t want to express appreciation for that anymore. I actually think this is part of a cultural debate that we are having. 

Generally speaking, statues or names are not actually how we learn and encounter our history. We do that in other contexts, in textbooks, in museums. Statues and buildings are a way to express appreciation and to attach value, to attach a positive value to the legacy of a person. I think it’s very acceptable to reevaluate the value that we give to certain figures in our history, or to individuals and their contributions. We can have a discussion about whether we value them anymore, whether we want to hold them in high regard, as a campus, as a city, as a society. That’s what happened in Philly with the Rizzo statue, at Princeton with Woodrow Wilson, and the [George Whitefield] statue in the Quadrangle. I think it’s good to evaluate and to have a discussion as a community. We can change our minds about people. I think it’s part of how culture evolves. I don’t see it as canceling, I see it as deciding what kind of value we attach to the legacy of the person.

What did you think of the letter in Harper’s Magazine on justice and open debate? 

While I could agree with many of the words, I could agree with many of the points that were made, I actually really didn’t like it at all, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I just generally don’t think that group letters are a good way to present an argument. More people signing on to a letter doesn’t make it more true or more correct. It’s just really a matter of showing power. 

More specifically, the people who signed on or who added their signatures to this letter were all people with either large or enormous platforms. J.K. Rowling doesn’t like being criticized about her positions regarding trans people, but that’s not the same as being canceled. She is facing a response to her views, which some of her followers and admirers don’t share. Not everyone, but many of the people who signed off on this letter are authors and journalists and public speakers. They are not being canceled. Some of them have various controversial opinions, and that means some people get mad at them. I didn’t like that they presented their cases as instances of canceling. I just don’t share this concern about these individuals. 

And if they are trying to protect others, if this was not about themselves, as I suspect is the case, there are better ways to protect people than to publish a cosigned letter in Harper’s Magazine. I just don’t think it’s a good tool, and I disagree with the way that they presented their own cases. But again, I agree with some of the ideas. They are saying, ‘We need to have a robust debate.’ Sure, yes, of course we need to have a robust debate. That seems obvious to me. The boundaries of this debate are the interesting part to discuss. Some of them are pushing these boundaries and facing a backlash. I’m not very worried about that. That’s the whole idea of boundaries, you bump against them, you face a backlash. That’s fine, that’s how it works.

Right or wrong, it seems as if younger generations are almost uncompromising in their rejection of views that they consider to be hate speech. Do you think we need to accept their more stringent boundaries on speech, or do we need to teach them to extend their boundaries?

I feel like a lot of what the younger generations are demanding is that society lives up to the values that they were taught. If we are expressing, as a democracy, ‘One person, one vote,’ or we are expressing, ‘All people are created equal,’ they are looking for us to live up to that. I think the demands that they are placing are justified and should be listened to.

I will say that oftentimes we as a society, through our schools and the expectations that we have for young people, fail to present to the younger generation the power of free speech to promote these ideals, to promote dignity and equality for all. And this is because of political processes and it’s also because of processes related to how we think about schooling and education. When our students are coming to campus when they are 18 or 19, for the most part, they have not participated in an institution or an environment where free speech is valued, protected, and promoted, because our schools do not do that. This has to do with both educational changes and legal changes in the last few decades. And so young people don’t see what the value is of protecting speech. They mainly see the notion of free speech being wielded as a tool to promote hate-based ideas. That’s the main way in which free speech is talked about publicly today: ‘I can say racist things or hateful things. It’s my First Amendment right.’ That’s the main way in which you hear about free speech publicly, so it’s no wonder that people who care about equality or who care about their diverse peers and themselves don’t like it much as an idea. Obviously, protecting hate speech is not all that the free speech dimensions of the First Amendment are meant to do. 

Especially on a college campus, it’s our job to express that, to present that, and to live up to that, and to show students that speech protections are actually an important tool for promoting equality and for protecting marginalized groups, and for making sure that they have a debate where everyone’s voice can be heard. It’s a way to protect protests, for example, and protestors, who are often marginalized. I think the values that students and the young generations today are promoting are bedrock democratic values, but sometimes the tools that they use to promote them can be ones that are inadvisable or unwise, and so they can learn. That’s what you are young for. We can learn from them how to promote dignity for all, and ideals of equality, on campus and beyond. We are lucky to be informed and invigorated by their ideals.