Every Canceller Its Book, and Every Book Its Canceller

Banned and Challenged Books, Censorship, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By: Ross Sempek

A cartoon drawing of a person in a skirt reading a book stands in front of a bookcase with a blue sky behind it. A hand comes down from the top to grab the book out of the person’s hand.

Harper’s Magazine recently ran an open letter calling for the reestablishment of open debate in this culture war being fought on the front lines of social media. It essentially urges informed arguments instead of censorship: let’s make these arguments additive, not subtractive. Unexpectedly, a group of writers and journalism outfits supported a rebuttal to this open letter, rather than calling for the sacking of its signatories. It aims to justify cancel culture by profiling the plight of its proponents and connecting their struggle to find a platform to the censorious milieu of mainstream publishing. But regardless of the good start, the open letter precipitates into illogical arguments that center race when convenient, and omit it when it’s not. For example:

“The signatories, many of them white, wealthy, and endowed with massive platforms, argue that they are afraid of being silenced”

The “we” and “our” of the open letter isn’t restrictive to the signatories alone; furthermore any fear they have of being silenced is done out of concern for themselves and other writers who share the same apprehensions. But the rebuttal’s misreading inherent within this quote leans on a logical fallacy as a persuasive crutch: being rich, white and in a position of power has become a widely acceptable straw-man argument. Apparently many (not all) of the signatories’ wealth, power, and lack of melanin adulterate the statement with disingenuousness. And as for the rest of them, well… I guess they don’t have an explanation there. No matter. I wonder who exactly has to say these things, and what their racial makeup needs to be, so others might lend credence to an honest and constructive critique. There are many types of people who would agree with the open letter’s message regardless of class or color, but those visible signatures being in the minority is an attractive vignette used for some blatant navel-gazing.

This rebuttal also misinterprets the letter’s purpose as “an attempt to control and derail ongoing debate about who gets to have a platform.” Is that what cancel culture is? A debate about who gets to have a platform? Doesn’t the fact that the debate is taking place negate that particular debate entirely? Platforms do exist, and what cancellers do is not use them to create for themselves, but destroy those of others because they fail a sacrosanct morality test that’s effectively a moving target. Argue or disagree with a single item on this living laundry list and you walk the plank. Cancellers only want people to say what they want to hear, and will ignore the assets of anything with the slightest tinge of impropriety. It’s impetuousness and we’re treating it like informed activism.    

Logic class must not have been a prerequisite for the signatories of the rebuttal, though. This is most evident in the rebuttal second section addressing inauthenticity. They begin by acknowledging that Jeanine Cummins’ detractors publicly policed her identity and skin color without even knowing her personally, but they use this as evidence of their cause’s righteousness. And the rebuttal doesn’t really refute anything here — it gives a pithy overview of two controversial books (American Dirt and Apropos of Nothing) and follows that with a paragraph citing other challenged authors that are more important for having been challenged, then supports the argument that a Japanese director shouldn’t work on a movie that stars a Korean protagonist. Some more identity-policing for good measure. I keep forgetting that it’s OK when they do it.  

The signatories must not have read this linked-to story they used to support their authenticity argument, because if they had, they would have realized it was written by a journalist who hadn’t read the book she critiqued. Re: Eleanor and Park, she even went as far as to say “I don’t need to read it to understand what’s going on.” (emphasis mine) Additionally, NPR, one of the signatories of the rebuttal, aired a round-table discussion about the cultural impact of American Dirt which included the well-informed perspective of a panel member who hadn’t read the book. Oh, and with their other example, Apropos of Nothing, there wasn’t even a book to challenge when Ronan Farrow and some of the would-be publisher’s employees went ahead and challenged it anyway. All of this support for pseudo-intellectuals, mind you, immediately follows the rebuttal’s first section that cites the fired New York Times editor who, the rebuttal infers, deserved his pink slip because he admitted to not reading an op-ed he green-lit.

This double standard leads me to believe that some cancellers simply think that they are “right,” obviating any sort of cogent argument necessary to prove people “wrong.” Persuasion is null when ideas have no middle ground. What worries me most is this: it seems that demagoguery gets legitimized simply because of its progressive flavor. Would these same people who elevate non-readership be OK with people across the aisle challenging their favorite books because of an out-of-context quote or an author’s transgressions? My guess is no. It’s great to engage and cultivate worldly opinions, but these don’t exist in a vacuum, and reading can only expand one’s understanding of those values and strengthen persuasive arguments. It’s certainly not easy, but nothing worth doing is.

Ross Sempek

Ross Sempek is a recent MLIS graduate and a Library Assistant at the Happy Valley Public Library just outside of Portland, Oregon. He comes from a blue-collar family that values art, literature, and an even consideration for all world-views. This informs his passion for intellectual freedom, which he considers to be the bedrock for blooming to one’s fullest potential. It defines this country’s unique freedoms and allows an unfettered fulfillment of one’s purpose in life. When he is not actively championing librarianship, he loves lounging with his cat, cycling, and doing crossword puzzles – He’s even written a handful of puzzles himself.

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