Entitled to Your Opinion

REVIEW: ‘The Canceling of the American Mind’ by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott

December 17, 2023

In 2022, an art history professor lost her job at an American university for showing a painting to her class. It was one of the more flagrant recent violations of freedom of speech at Ground Zero for such violations—academia. Erika Lopez Prater showed "The Prophet Mohammad Receiving Revelation from the Angel Gabriel," painted by a Muslim king to honor his faith, but not before issuing a warning and an opt-out to students who might find the portrayal of the prophet sacrilegious or offensive. No one opted out, but one student complained, holding a makeshift press conference to declare the image "actually hurts all of us."

Lopez Prater’s bosses at Hamline University issued a statement paying lip service to "robust … intellectual inquiry" before revoking her job offer for the next semester and saying her speech was "undeniably … Islamophobic."

You’ve probably heard a story like the opening case study in The Canceling of the American Mind: Cancel Culture Undermines Trust and Threatens Us All—But There is a Solution. There are enough of these anecdotes to literally fill several books (I cowrote one of them myself!). Though the locus is elite universities and other seats of power, damage extends far beyond to unpublicized incidents and chilled speech among the more than 80 percent of Americans in surveys who consider cancel culture a problem that could come for them.

And yet, some on the left would use the existence of this book, written by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott, to say there is no loss of free speech culture, that "cancel culture" is a right-wing moral panic.

"You see, these critics are able to publish books and talk about them in public! There is no problem here."

It is fitting, then, that The Canceling of the American Mind is most useful as a bulwark against that exact form of gaslighting. The coauthors work for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a nonprofit that defends speech in court and on campus. They use data from their time in the trenches to make the case that cancel culture—"the uptick beginning around 2014, and accelerating in 2017 and after, of campaigns to get people fired, disinvited, deplatformed, or otherwise punished for speech that is, or would be protected by First Amendment standards, and the climate of fear and conformity that has resulted from this uptick"—is real and getting worse, along with some tips to improve it.

A follow-on to The Coddling of the American Mind, which Lukianoff wrote with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in 2018, Canceling moves from its predecessor’s explanation of the pernicious mental-health effects of the mindset of cancel culture to a dissection of the tactics and statistics of its rise, this time with the Gen-Z perspective of Schlott, who came through New York University in the thick of these fights.

The modern era of cancel culture, post 2014, "has resulted in almost 200 professor terminations," while 100-150 professors were terminated in the second Red Scare (1947-57). Doubling McCarthyism is quite a stat. Since 2000, 60 tenured professors have been fired for speech that is protected by the First Amendment, with two-thirds of those coming in the short post-2015 time period. In less than a decade, FIRE has compiled a list of 1,000 attempts to get professors "fired, punished, or otherwise silenced," even the unsuccessful of which chill speech and solidify conformity on campus.

"Americans should absolutely believe their eyes," Lukianoff and Schlott write. "In terms of sheer numbers, its scale is unprecedented."

Led by cultural elites, the correct understanding of freedom of speech "as the necessary tool of the powerless against the powerful" has been flipped on its head, and "very powerful institutions now argue it’s the weapon of the powerful against the powerless."

The book takes both political sides to task while spending most of its time on threats from the left, including in the field of medicine, where public trust fell off a cliff during COVID cancel culture. The authors oppose legislation pushed by Republicans in Florida and a handful of other states meant to eliminate "divisive concepts" like critical race theory from curricula, which "can tend to be quite vague" and invite frivolous lawsuits, causing teachers to censor themselves from the right in the same way college culture demands they do from the left. But the authors also say decisions on K-12 curriculum and "age appropriateness are within the jurisdiction of a school board." They note conservatives have an equally effective if less academic way of fencing themselves off from dissenting opinions and account for about a third of professor sanctions.

The team effort from both sides of the aisle is jettisoning a generation of cultural wins for the Free Speech Movement. Though the legal scaffolding remains, it’s up to us, they say, to maintain a free society on those supports. It sounds simple—a return to old saws like "to each his own" and "everyone is entitled to their own opinion" and "take seriously the possibility you might be wrong." It’s not easy when living those values, raising anti-canceling kids, and being a voice against conformity risks harsh punishment. But it is the antidote to our authoritarian tendencies.

The Canceling of the American Mind: Cancel Culture Undermines Trust and Threatens Us All—But There Is a Solution
by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott
Simon & Schuster, 464 pp., $29.99

Mary Katharine Ham is a contributor to Outkick, cohost of the Getting Hammered podcast, and coauthor with Guy Benson of End of Discussion: How the Left’s Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).