When Washington Post reporter David Weigel retweeted a joke in early June, he probably didn’t expect to be suspended without pay for a month, or for it to lead to a newsroom blowup culminating in another reporter’s firing and a very public black eye for the Post.
Comedian Dave Chappelle probably didn’t expect to have his show at First Avenue in Minneapolis canceled last week either — but given reactions to his jokes about transgender issues, he probably wasn’t surprised it happened somewhere. Chappelle can’t really be “fired,” of course, and he performed at a nearby venue the same week.
Some view these cancellations as success stories: They see the widespread chilling of “bad” speech as a desirable outcome, ridding our public square of everything from hate to poor taste. But cancel culture never does stop exactly where our individual senses of moral judgment — all of which differ, of course — might suggest. Just ask Felicia Sonmez, the reporter who “called out” Weigel’s tweet. Surely, she didn’t anticipate that her own job would become collateral damage in what she saw as a righteous attempt to get her colleague punished. Who would?
Surveys show that most Americans are concerned about the implications of our nation’s crash dive toward a puritanical social environment in which employers, colleges, and cultural institutions of all kinds are quick to punish, deplatform, suspend, and/or fire people, rightly identifying cancel culture as “a growing threat to our freedom.” Yet, the idea of free speech is often mischaracterized — in the style of Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse — as a tool of oppression that privileges the powerful.