When I moved from the United States to South Africa in 2009, the phrase cancel culture did not exist. By the time I returned this year to publicize my new book, it was commonly portrayed as a pervasive reality. Publications I read said that American public discourse had been reshaped in the 13 years I’d been out of the country, like a barrier island after a hurricane, and that institutions such as publishers, newspapers, and universities now directed extraordinary resources and energy toward appeasing cancel-culture warriors. “However you define cancel culture, Americans know it exists,” The New York Times wrote in an editorial. In a recent Times guest essay, a writer sympathetic to concerns about diversity in literature noted—almost as an obvious aside—that anyone “with a public-facing persona must [now] contemplate the prospect of having her reputation savagely destroyed.” Her column’s inquiry was how to deal with this reality. Listen to the “mob” intent on censoring speech, resist it, or ignore it?
Friends and colleagues told me that one of my biggest jobs ahead of publishing my book would be to take careful steps to avoid cancellation for writing about race. (I am white.) My book, The Inheritors, follows several South Africans as they grapple with their white-supremacist country’s rapid transfiguration into a Black-led democracy. It begins with a young Black woman’s memory of preparing to go to school—she was one of the first Black students at an elementary school that for a century accepted only white kids—and ends on her mother’s reflections. Ninety percent of South Africans are Black, and I’d felt frustrated reading decades’ worth of writing, even by Nobel-winning progressives, that envisioned South Africa through anxious white families’ eyes. Two editors, though, told me in private conversations to evade criticism by cutting the manuscript so it focused exclusively on white people. I’d discussed representation for years with the people I interviewed. No South African believed it was possible—not to mention desirable—to write about the country’s white people without writing about its Black citizens; everybody’s self-understanding incorporates ideas proposed by people unlike themselves.
“That doesn’t matter,” one of the editors told me, warning me I’d be “misread.” A white writer, prominent in New York, warned me that my publisher now demanded “at least three sensitivity readers” and that I would not “be allowed” to object to anything these readers wanted to change or delete.
In the run-up to the book’s publication, two writers of color said that although they wished it wasn’t necessary, I should spend days memorizing a perfect, canned answer to the question “What made you think you had the right to write a book that includes Black people?” The question would arise “in every interview,” one said.
I began to feel like a Squid Game participant in that episode where players have to guess which pane of glass on a bridge will hold their weight and which one will give way. Statistically speaking, there’s no way to proceed far without falling to your death. But the contestants still furiously scrutinize the panes’ textures, trying to figure out what could make a step safe. A publicist warned me not to send copies of the book to three writers I’d long admired, because the writers were Black. “They'll tear into you” online, she said, because they might assume “the only reason you sent it is because they’re Black.”
One morning, I woke up from a vague but terrifying nightmare that my life had been ruined by a single harsh tweet. The whole week after, I refrained from talking about the book on social media. I never did send it to the Black writers whom my friend advised me against contacting. I also didn’t send it to some conservative-leaning and religious podcasts I initially thought might be interested, worried their attention could be a bad look.
I hid the book a little, in other words. I self-censored, not—it seemed to me afterward—because of a direct fear of censorious mobs, but because of the way the threats to free speech are now depicted in innumerable essays and whispered rumors from elders in the world of letters.
What struck me later was that almost none of what people told me now occurs routinely in American media actually did occur. People do get shamed publicly, now, for offenses that don’t reflect the range of their work. Last week, some on Twitter attacked the prolific, jokey account of a cat named Jorts; one tweet was called out for ableism. But the culture in cancel culture implies that these phenomena—the dire consequence of becoming unpublishable or unhirable, and thought-police-y efforts by media institutions to scrutinize work for its acceptability—are dominant. Are they? Nobody demanded I have a sensitivity reader, though I chose to have some South Africans I know review the manuscript. A journalist told me the publisher would “never let me get away with” using the lower case for black when the word denoted a person’s race. “You can’t publish black instead of Black anymore,” he told me. “It will seriously cause offense.” But nobody at Simon & Schuster mentioned how to style words denoting race until I brought up the question. Only two interviewers out of a dozen asked whether I thought I had the right to write the book.
The experience made me wonder: Why do we assume that cancel culture is a pervasive reality, and what’s the impact of that assumption? When the Times wrote in its editorial that Americans “know [cancel culture] exists and feel its burden,” the paper was referring to a poll it commissioned in which 84 percent of respondents said they believed “retaliation” and “harsh criticism” against opinions now constitute a “serious” problem. But substantial numbers of Americans also believe the 2020 election was fraudulent without that being the truth. I began to think that the way pro-free-speech advocates now talk about speech suppression constitutes a driver of the perception of it. And that, paradoxically, concern about cancel culture has itself become a threat to free speech.
It might sound strange, or even offensive, to suggest that writing about threats to free speech could make people afraid of speaking. The thing is, we know this is how behavior works in other domains. When writers emphasize adverse reactions to vaccines, people shy away from taking them. People clean supermarket shelves out of toilet paper, creating a shortage, just on the warning that a shortage might happen. Americans consistently believe crime is rising nationwide even when it’s falling. In studies on crime and public behavior, researchers reliably find that increased worry in the press, on social media, and in public opinion—the same outlets on which journalists rely to describe cancel culture’s reality—do not correlate well with changes in crime rates. They also find, as one analysis put it, that “ironically, fear of crime” can “lead to other behaviors” that drive crime up: installing ostentatious security features, fleeing “bad” neighborhoods, voting for heavy policing that aggravates conflict between people and law enforcement.
Writers don’t only, or even mainly, describe the world as it is. They build worlds. Some journalism depicting cancel culture functions like speculative fiction, conjuring a future that explicitly resembles The Scarlet Letter or is as viscerally violent as Game of Thrones, full of barely metaphorical lynchings, defenestrations, “pillow[s] or iron ball[s] or paper packet[s] of excrement … shoved into” journalists’ mouths, “human flesh searches,” and murder. The goal of censorious mobs “isn’t to punish everyone, or even very many someones; it’s to shame or scare just enough people to make the rest conform,” the columnist Ross Douthat has argued. That may indeed be the goal of some social-justice warriors. But the effect he describes, the scaring and shaming, is also driven by voices who claim to oppose it.
A lot of younger writers I know now materially adjust how they write, staying clear of covering “controversial” topics or lives unlike their own, because of the way cancel culture is portrayed by those who seek to fight it. I asked some friends who teach aspiring writers in their teens or early 20s if any of their students might like to talk about what topics interest them and what worries them, if anything, about pursuing writing. A dozen students were eager to talk. (They spoke on background because they’re starting their careers and wanted to be Googleable for their published work rather than for comments about their industry.) Many said they felt a disconnect between the depiction of their generation’s censoriousness and their actual experiences at their student newspapers. A recent college graduate from Georgetown University, a school The Wall Street Journal has portrayed as overrun by a “progressive mob,” told me that in 2020, “we had a Black writer publish a Black Lives Matter op-ed. I wrote a second one.”
Although her op-ed was “a call to action for other white people,” friends warned her against publishing it. “Aren’t you worried?” she remembered them saying. “Even writing on that subject as a white person seems risky.”
“It went over fine,” she said. A high-school senior described interviewing a Republican congressional candidate in her state: “I found it so interesting to interview someone who held the opposite perspective.” But, she went on, “it scares me when they”—older journalists—“say you’ll have to watch what you say all the time because of cancel culture. I hear that you have to restrict yourself regarding where you work, and how you present yourself where you work. I think Gen Z is very undermined” by this discourse.
The Republican candidate she interviewed “ended up staying overtime. He said, ‘You ask such tough questions.’” The encounter thrilled her, deepening her desire to write about politics and the way she feels “a lot of pop culture extends from political ideals.” But she also concluded that journalism wasn’t “a stable, solid career in part because of cancel culture” and planned to pursue a pre-med major.
Another high-school senior, in New Jersey, told me about how she’d gotten the impression that journalism has recently become “a much scarier job to do. The aspect of it that I find scariest is probably the backlash you face.” She clarified that she feared “the portrayal of the backlash.” She’d recently written a story for her school paper—“an immigration story, because my parents are immigrants to the U.S. I really worried people would make fun of me for it.” A journalist had come to speak to a class she took, and “she talked about all the backlash writers receive—like mockery and death threats.”
This student had struggled with her mental health. “I don’t think I could handle … everyone coming at me and mocking my writing.” She got the impression that “even when you write from authority based on your identity,” as she did in her immigration essay, you easily become the target of hate if “your opinion doesn’t align with the dominant cultural moment.
“But I didn’t face any backlash at all,” she went on. Now she tells friends, “You should just write, and then see what response you get, before you overthink it.”
But she finds taking her own advice difficult. She’d fallen in love with writing in the second grade. “When I was going through a really hard time during quarantine, I had a black journal I wrote in every day. It’s kind of a sad journal, but it’s really, really special to me.” Her voice cracked. Writing felt life-giving to her. “I still write in it,” she said. But “I don’t know if journalism is something I’m going to pursue … There is still this fear there. You hear so many stories [from] journalists who say you’ll inevitably receive such negative, hateful remarks.”
When the Pew Research Center recently asked working journalists to pick one word to describe the media, the overwhelming plurality, nearly 50 percent, picked words such as chaos and struggling—with financial insecurity, with organizational dysfunction. Gone is the age when independent writers could make a living reporting; gone is the age when veteran editors knew how to market books; gone even is the recent age when Twitter celebrity sold books.
Young people ask working journalists how to succeed all the time, and honest journalists have no idea how to answer. You can feel as if you’re trying to describe landscapes to explorers who have already sailed beyond a horizon past which you can’t see. I’ve worked with people who strive to convince themselves and others that the one big threat to the press is venture capitalists: When VC guys buy media outlets, they say, those guys demand faster, more exponential profits than any news organization can return. Then they dump their investments, destroying valuable institutions.
The solution? Seek wealthy backers with a strong sense of journalistic mission. But rich people on a mission may use the publications they buy to pump their pet causes. I’ve also worked with people who say the main problem with journalism is that social media warps reporting incentives. But they ignore the incentives that led them to break readers’ faith on things like reporting the Iraq War well before social media dominated everything.
The threats the American press confronts are so many, so contradictory, and so often faceless. I don’t think that most of the journalists who warn about cancel culture intend to scare off aspiring writers. Cancel culture may function—covertly—as a relievingly manageable problem. A problem whose solution turns out, also conveniently, to be exactly what writers want to do, or want to be known for doing: writing what we want to write.
I also think many writers on the left are traumatized after laughing off the threat posed by Donald Trump in 2016. Since then, in left-wing circles, wisdom has consisted of hypervigilance, of a willingness to believe things can always get worse. Sagacity is to always be scanning for the flicker of torches held by extremists, as well as to brood over what progressives might be doing to alienate otherwise rational Americans. We had a failure of imagination. Now our imaginations have become too vivid.
There's a cost to this hyper vigilance, though. Writers may hedge or self-censor their work in response to a proposition about reality, not a fact, and evade interesting, worthy confrontations. You can get the impression that getting published is much easier now if you have a unique identity, or even that such an identity is a requirement. The truth is that even lefty outlets still mostly publish men. Perhaps my experience with my book was a unique case. But my editor told me she’d worked on only one manuscript assigned a sensitivity reader—a far cry from my friend’s harrowing assertion that “every book” publishers now release must be vetted by “at least three.”
I actually wish critics had raised more of the issues people warned me to armor my book against. To discuss whether words denoting race should be capitalized, for instance, is especially interesting in the South African context.
The word black is more widely used there in the lower case, because, from the beginning, that usage was an attempt by the country’s mid-20th-century Black Consciousness movement to reinvest a people with dignity. Apartheid leaders first called indigenous South Africans by their tribal origins, part of an effort to divide and conquer; then they turned to capitalizing racial adjectives to underscore their claim that people of different races were as distinct as the Persian or Chinese peoples, separate cultures that could never become one nation. Most apartheid government texts that I quote capitalize Black and White.
Recently, though, some South African publications have begun to use adjectives signifying race in the upper case, arguing that race has become, or always was, a cross-national experience. Debating capitalization illuminates—and offers specific terrain through which to examine—really serious questions about race and its significance, and what acknowledgments we still owe to its history. It’s not just some petty semantic contest that offers participants a chance to flaunt their arbitrary “woke” medallions.
We don’t have these kinds of debates as much or as freely as we could—and not only, or even mainly, because social-justice warriors terrorize writers into toeing their lines. We restrict ourselves because of the impression pro-free-speech advocates give of a landscape swept with persecution, one in which writers have to treat Twitter as if it were mined, act as if their colleagues might be double agents, imagine their inboxes are bugged, keep quiet, hide. In the past two years, journalists have talked a lot about how to write responsibly about the risks posed by COVID-19 and its vaccines. Researchers who study crime talk a great deal about how to cover it so that people are informed but don’t feel terrorized. Why aren’t we talking about how to responsibly write about cancel culture?