A few days ago, a top executive at Boeing resigned. Niel Golightly, ex-Senior Vice President of Communications at the Boeing Company, apologized in a statement for penning an “embarrassingly wrong and offensive” article…in 1987, thirty-three years ago. In an email to Boeing staff Golightly wrote, “The article I wrote – with arguments I disowned soon after – makes for painful reading. Painful because it is wrong. Painful because it is offensive to women.”
Given the decades that have passed since the article’s publication, you would reasonably assume what Golightly wrote must have been very monstrous indeed. In fact, Golightly – who was serving in the military at the time – had explained why he thought women should not serve in combat roles. It is worth noting that the United States didn’t officially lift the ban on women serving in combat until 2013, just seven years ago. In other words, the position that Golightly took was U.S. national policy, and completely mainstream at the time.
And so, the public purge continues.
Golightly’s case is certainly one of the most bizarre and extreme examples of so-called “cancel culture,” but it is not necessarily the most disturbing. The number of public figures who have been fired or forced to resign in recent weeks, often for expressing opinions that ought to be solidly within the realm of polite discourse, is staggering.
Even more staggering is that many of these public figures are people who, by any metric, are rightly labelled “liberal” or even firmly “progressive.” Yet, despite this, they have been hounded out of careers and polite society by mobs of fellow progressives who have deemed their views insufficiently “woke.”
J.K. Rowling vs. Cancel Culture
In recent days, for instance, the mob has gone after such solidly progressive – or, at most, mildly centrist – figures as J.K. Rowling, Steve Pinker, Andrew Sullivan, and Bari Weiss. In many cases, their alleged crimes are so difficult to discern that it is impossible to reconcile the howling rage of the mobs demanding their heads with the actual content of their words or position.
Take Rowling, who has merely dared in recent days to assert the utterly common-sensical view that sex has a biological component. Not only is this view common-sensical, it is confirmed by every scrap of scientific data that we have. And yet, for defending the self-evident, Rowling has been denounced as “transphobic” and a TERF – a truly Orwellian acronym that stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist.” This, even despite the fact that Rowling has gone to great lengths to explain that she fully supports transgender individuals, and even counts some among her friends.
In her essay explaining her opposition to some of the most extreme forms of transgender ideology, Rowling had revealed that she was a survivor of domestic abuse, and sex abuse, and explained that she feared that progressives weren’t sufficiently considering how allowing biological men into women-only spaces put women at real risk. The fact that Rowling is herself a victim, however, did nothing to appease the crowd: for within the strange hierarchy of progressive “critical theory,” an abused woman is less of a victim than a transgender individual, and within this “critical theory” it seems that all rights, sympathy, and protections accrue to whoever is deemed the greatest victim.
As the abusive term TERF suggests, being a “radical feminist” is no longer even the bare minimum to be deemed acceptable. In order to avoid public denunciation and possible “cancellation” (i.e. being hounded out of one’s job) one must also avoid being “trans-exclusionary” – that is, one must offer absolute acquiescence to every dot and tittle of the new ideology of transgenderism.
Recently, a slew of predominantly leftist public figures – writers, intellectuals, journalists – all signed an open letter in Harper’s Magazine, decrying “cancel culture.” The writers criticized a growing “intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” As writers, they wrote, “we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.”
The letter, as many others have pointed out, was an anodyne defense of basic liberal values principles of free speech. The fact that it even needed to be written – and signed by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, and Gloria Steinem – shows just how troubling the situation has become. However, the greatest proof that there is a true crisis afoot was the controversy – even rage – that greeted its publication.
In one of the most ironical incidents of recent memory, one of the writers, Jennifer Boylan, distanced himself (Boylan is a biological male who claims to be a “transgender woman”) from the letter, due to the fact that some of the other signatories were insufficiently progressive. “I did not know who else had signed that letter,” tweeted Boylan in a cringe-worthy apology. “The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.”
In other words, Boylan was willing to sign a letter defending free speech…so long as everybody else signing the letter was someone with whose views Boylan already agreed. This would be funny if it weren’t so dangerous.
Conservative Silence Fuels Cancel Culture
To many conservatives, this trend is utterly terrifying, for – the thought presents itself – if this is how progressives treat their own, what would they do to us? If this is how they treat “radical feminists” who aren’t sufficiently on board with the progressive train, then how would they treat those of us who believe that radical feminism itself is profoundly problematic? It is a perfectly sensible question, and I think the answer is obvious: they would do precisely the same thing, but worse, and probably with higher success rates.
Consider the case of Andrew Sullivan, an openly homosexual man who was one of the intellectual driving forces behind same-sex “marriage,” and who supports a multitude of liberal causes. However, on a few issues, such as free speech and the dangers of “woke” progressivism, he is what you might call “centrist,” even – on occasion – mildly conservative. This past week, he was fired from his job at New York Magazine. As he wrote in his concluding column: “It seems to me that if [my] conservatism is so foul that many of my peers are embarrassed to be working at the same magazine, then I have no idea what version of conservatism could ever be tolerated.”
Fearing for their safety, an increasing number of conservatives and people of basic common-sense are simply bowing out of the public square or the limelight, refusing to say anything, however mildly worded, on any remotely controversial issue, and nodding along in vague agreement to the demands of the woke mobs. Unfortunately, while this may save their skins in the short term, it is certain to make the situation worse in the long term. As Randall Smith wrote last week, “Cancel culture is cowardice culture.” It thrives on cowardice, and the only hope of bringing it to an end is if enough sensible people band together and push back.
The Silent Majority Must Speak
When Jordan Peterson was made a pariah in 2016 for speaking out against a Canadian bill, C-16, which added “gender identity or expression” as prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act, I was astonished that almost none of his fellow academics came to his defense. No doubt there were many professors at the University of Toronto who shared his concerns about what Bill C-16 would mean for free speech, or who at a bare minimum believed in Peterson’s right to speak his opinion. But while hundreds of Peterson’s colleagues signed an open letter demanding for him to be fired, there was no such letter defending Peterson’s right to free speech. Whoever his supporters among the faculty might be, they remained silent.
Thanks to Peterson’s unshakeable convictions and fierce courage, he went on to become one of the most popular and successful public intellectuals in history. And yet, even in the face of his success, the voices offering their support to him in academia are practically non-existent.
In a way, this is understandable, since recent history shows that while it is difficult to “cancel” the biggest, brightest and most popular public figures, often it is their lesser-known supporters who bear the brunt of the wrath of the “cancel culture” mob. Such as Gillian Phillip, a children’s author who merely tweeted her support for J.K. Rowling but was promptly fired by HarperCollins. Rowling, though suffering professionally for her views, is likely to weather the storm, simply by virtue of being the most successful author in modern history. Phillip, on the other hand, may never recover from the blow.
These are the very real risks that those who feel compelled to speak up now face – facing down a ruthless mob, who no longer sees them as a person, but merely as a threatening disease that must be expunged. However, the simple truth is that we are in desperate need of more Petersons right now. There is strength in numbers. It is time for the silent majority – those who are dismayed at this hijacking of our public square by totalitarian ideologues – to speak up.