On the recent controversy over “cancel” culture:

Cancel culture is real and it is harmful;
It has the wrong criteria and wrong solution

A Letter from a Member of the National Revolution Tour:

| revcom.us


On July 7, Harper’s Magazine published A Letter on Justice and Open Debate signed by 153 relatively prominent intellectuals and artists. The signatories included people associated with liberal, left-wing and feminist politics, as well as people with more conservative views. They wrote, in part:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.

This open letter was immediately and roundly attacked. A counter-letter titled A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate was initiated by a Journalists of Color group and signed by over 150 people. While the Harper’s Letter is coming from a “liberal” framework and has big flaws,1 it does point to a real problem, and has provoked a needed debate about “cancel culture.” The attacks on the Harper’s Letter, on the other hand, have just further revealed how poisonous this culture of “canceling” individuals—instead of working for an actual revolution to get rid of this whole oppressive system—actually is.

The voices of oppressed people have been suppressed for far too long. But “cancel culture”—what the Harper’s Letter calls “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism”—does not rectify this. In fact, it’s extremely harmful not only to the people targeted in this way, but for justice, to artistic and intellectual life, and to society as a whole. It has nothing to do with getting to the truth and getting free.

Here are three points in response to the counter-letter:

1) Cancel culture is real, and it is harmful.

The counter-letter acknowledges that some of the problems the Harper’s Letter raises are “real and concerning,” but insists that they are rare, anomalous, and not really a significant trend among social-justice-minded people.

Well, when Woody Allen, his films,2 and his recent memoir3 got canceled because of an unconfirmed allegation—and now “everyone knows” Woody Allen is a child molester—how many social-justice-minded people spoke up and said this is wrong?

When filmmaker Nate Parker was canceled because of a decades-old rape allegation (of which he was found not guilty in court), and his stirring movie Birth of a Nation about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion was boycotted, how many people called this out?4

What about Dana Schutz, who was canceled for being a white artist doing a painting evoking the lynching of Emmett Till, and where one of the critics said she had no right, and that she perpetuates “the same kind of violence that was enacted” on Emmett Till?5

When the book The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border, by a former Border Patrol agenta book critical of the Border Patrol—was attacked for “profiting” off the suffering of others and the author Francisco Cantú was canceled for having made the mistake of joining Border Patrol in the first place, how many social-justice people spoke up?6 How many pointed out the obvious truth that if you’re aiming to end oppression it is very good when agents of oppression turn away from that!

Or American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins, canceled because a non-Mexican person has no right to write about the experience of Mexican migrants. But if people can only write about their own direct experience, most books would have to be canceled, and certainly all the fiction. How many social-justice people sounded the alarm about that? Or did they just join in the pile-on and the cannibalistic competition over who gets the book deals?

Cancel culture is real. And it is harmful. Along with prominent cases, many are intimidated into self-censorship. It chills the atmosphere and misdirects people’s anger away from the institutions and rulers of this oppressive system, and narrows the range of human experience.

“Cancel” literally means that efforts are made to deprive a public figure, an artist or writer of a platform and the person’s work is boycotted and/or rendered irrelevant, often effectively suppressed. Instead of the work being engaged, debated and discussed, on whether it contributes to or negates the truth, or evaluated on artistic criteria, the whole thing is just suppressed. In addition to the injustices done to those “canceled,” society is deprived of their contributions and what people can learn from these works, such as the films and books cited above.

Not only is this kind of thing harmful to people and society, it is useless against the real enemy. Try canceling NYPD, the CIA, or the New York Stock Exchange and see how well it works. Try telling Trump’s federal Gestapo to “check their privilege.”

2) Cancel culture has the wrong criteria, and the wrong solution.

The counter-letter doesn’t start by engaging and refuting the ideas in the Letter. It starts with a dishonest, and frankly ridiculous, attack on the privilege of the signatories:

The signatories, many of them white, wealthy, and endowed with massive platforms, argue that they are afraid of being silenced, that so-called cancel culture is out of control, and that they fear for their jobs...

First of all, it is disingenuous to accuse the signatories of all being motivated by a personal fear of “cancellation.” The Letter deals with social trends and makes social prescriptions.

The counter-letter repeatedly refers to the identity and privilege of the “cis white intellectuals” and resorts to simplistic “take downs” of some of the signatories. All of this is just a crutch to avoid dealing with the content of what people are saying. It’s a method that relies on intimidation (in the spheres where identity politics is the currency), rather than the truth of what you’re saying. As opposed to judging ideas based who says them, on their identity and relative privilege, we should evaluate ideas based on whether or not they’re true—in other words, whether or not they correspond to objective reality)—and on that basis, how they will impact society and the struggle for a better world.7 

As opposed to canceling people for a single mistake, or on the basis of an accusation, how should people be evaluated?

There is complexity in this, because everything in life is contradictory, including people. In his recent article, “Bob Avakian On: A BEAUTIFUL UPRISING: RIGHT AND WRONG, METHODS AND PRINCIPLES,” Bob Avakian gives you the tools to figure out “what, in any given phenomenon (a system, a movement, a person), is the main thing (the principal aspect), which defines the essence of that phenomenon at any given time, and overall.” In evaluating people, it is the arc of a person’s whole life and what principally defines them overall that we should focus on, not “the simplistic, and often deliberately vicious, ‘one strike, ever, and you’re out’ mentality and approach,” which can lead to terrible conclusions and actions. For example:

...former slave and dedicated abolitionist Frederick Douglass failed (or refused) to support the right of women to vote in the period shortly after the Civil War, insisting instead that the focus should be (only) on getting the right to vote for Black males (and then the right for women to vote should follow some time after). Should Frederick Douglass be “canceled”?!

Or should the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse be “canceled” (should the monument that is being built to him in South Dakota be abandoned or destroyed) because, after fighting heroically for years against the U.S. Army, at the end of his life, when finally defeated and held in captivity, he apparently cooperated and collaborated with that same army in its suppression of other indigenous peoples?!

What is principal (and what is secondary) in the overall life and role of Crazy Horse and Frederick Douglass?

Many other examples could be cited. But what these examples sharply illustrate is once again the crucial importance of applying the scientific dialectical materialist method and approach8 to all phenomena, including the struggle against injustice and oppression, in order to carry that struggle forward, through all the obstacles, of many different kinds, that are thrown in its path, toward the final goal of abolishing and uprooting not just one particular form, but all forms, of oppression and exploitation, everywhere.

3) The fact that this system oppresses whole peoples, discriminates against and excludes them, and suppresses their voices, does not mean anything goes for those who’ve been marginalized. It doesn’t justify taking up the means and methods of this system. We need revolution—and revolutionary transformation—not revenge.

The counter-letter states:

The intellectual freedom of cis white intellectuals has never been under threat en masse, especially when compared to how writers from marginalized groups have been treated for generations. In fact, they have never faced serious consequences—only momentary discomfort.

The take-home message: we’ve been mistreated, so what’s the problem with inflicting discomfort on others? First of all, losing your job and having your reputation smeared for life is more than “momentary discomfort,” and is in fact a serious form of social punishment.

The counter-letter puts it, “In truth, Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people—particularly Black and trans people—can now critique elites publicly and hold them accountable socially…” But that begs the question: what criteria and standards are being used to hold people to account in these public critiques? And what is the process—and the due process? Are the accused allowed to launch a defense? Or will it be a trial by social media, where an accusation equals guilt; with no statute of limitations; where truth and “right to speak” are determined by identity; and the punishment is to “cancel.”

And what is NOT being held accountable, where is people’s attention NOT being focused, in a culture of tearing down individual wrongdoers in this way?

The actual system—of capitalism-imperialism—and its institutions! This system puts people in horrible conditions, divides them into antagonistic social groups, pits people against each other, forces them to compete against each other, and then trains people in messed up ways of thinking. Is it any wonder that people do messed up things to each other? Yes, people who have done harm should be compelled to reckon with what they’ve done, and struggled with to transform—as part of making revolution, an actual revolution to overthrow this system of capitalism-imperialism.

That is something the Revcoms take very seriously, with our Points of Attention that we uphold, live by, and fight for, as part of building a movement for an actual revolution. Point of Attention #4 says:

We stand with the most oppressed and never lose sight of their potential to emancipate humanity—nor of our responsibility to lead them to do that. We work to win people of all backgrounds to take part in the revolution, and do not tolerate revenge among the people.

That is completely different from the outlook that “we’ve been held down and we’ve been harmed, so any retribution we do to the alleged perpetrators, or to people in a more privileged position, is justified.” When people deny that “cancel culture” is any kind of problem, what they are really denying is the possibility and responsibility of people to strive for anything higher than revenge. Does it mean reconciliation with our oppressors? Does it mean we should have polite conversations with genocidal fascists? No. There IS a fight that has to be waged. But how the masses wage that fight makes all the difference in whether they get to a radically different world, or just change a few faces and leave the world as it is.


1. The Harper’s Letter puts forward and upholds the “free marketplace of ideas,” stating, “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion.” While commonly argued, this is flawed, and it is not a matter of “good ideas” and “bad ideas” devoid of underlying power relations, and of “free exchange” and debate for its own sake, but of getting to the truth—a word the Harper’s Letter doesn’t mention. For a fuller discussion about the “free marketplace of ideas” vs. the search for the truth, check out this excerpt from Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy, by Bob Avakian.  [back]

2. “Woody Allen and Amazon Settle Breach of Contract Lawsuit”, New York Times.   [back]

3.  “Woody Allen book pulped after walkout at publisher,” BBC News.  [back

4. “The Birth of a Nation Can Contribute to Liberation—Re-Prosecuting Nate Parker Does Not,” by Sunsara Taylor.  [back]

5. See “On the Controversy Over a Painting of Emmett Till: ‘Open Casket,’ Should Oppression Be Owned, Or Abolished? OR Did a White Person Have the ‘Right’ To Write Strange Fruit?,” revcom.us.  [back]

6.  On the campaign to shut down book events in the Bay Area: “Activists call on Bay Area bookstores to cancel readings by former Border Patrol Agent,” SFGate.com. On book events in the Bay Area that were disrupted and canceled: “Protesters Attempt to Shut Down Author Event at Green Apple,” American Booksellers Association.  [back]

7. The two are intimately interlinked, the search for truth and getting to a world beyond exploitation, oppression and antagonistic social divisions, communism. As Bob Avakian (BA) has said in BAsics:

Everything that is actually true is good for the proletariat, all truths can help us get to communism. (BAsics 4:5)  [back]

8. In the article Bob Avakian On: A BEAUTIFUL UPRISING: RIGHT AND WRONG, METHODS AND PRINCIPLES, BA describes this as follows: “A fundamental understanding that flows from a scientific materialist (reality- and evidence-based) method and approach is the dialectical recognition that all of reality—everything and every person—is contradictory.”  [back]


by Bob Avakian

Since “canceling” individuals—instead of working for the actual revolution that is needed to do away with this whole oppressive system—seems to be all the rage among certain people, here is a question that could be posed, if one were to apply the perverted logic of this cancerous “cancel culture”: Given that Barack Obama—who has been the chief executive and “commander-in-chief” of this monstrous system—is guilty of committing horrific war crimes and crimes against humanity, should all those people who have supported Obama be “canceled”?!

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