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Cancel Culture Debate Has Early '90s Roots: Political Correctness

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When former President Donald Trump announced his lawsuit against social media companies this week, he described his complaint using a word that's become a very familiar grievance.

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DONALD TRUMP: A stop to the blacklisting, banishing and cancelling that you know so well.

SHAPIRO: Canceling - there is a national debate right now over the consequences of speech and who gets to exact them. And in a way, this mirrors a debate the country had a few decades ago.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY: I think the panic over cancel culture is pretty much exactly the same as the panic over political correctness, just dialed up to 11 because of the influence of social media in particular.

SHAPIRO: Nicole Holliday teaches linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania.

HOLLIDAY: Cancel is something that was invented sort of by young people. And it actually just kind of means boycott, right? It means do not support this thing. So conservatives have picked it up not to just mean boycott, but rather to say, our value system is under threat by these people who want to deplatform us because we have unpopular opinions.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that studying the political correctness wars of the '90s can help us understand the cancel culture wars of today in a deeper way?

HOLLIDAY: Yeah, I think that we definitely can gain a lot from thinking about what happened in the '90s.

SHAPIRO: So let's go back a few decades. In 1984, Ruth Perry founded the women's studies department at MIT. She's now the Ann Friedlaender Professor of Humanities at MIT emeritus. She just retired. Back in her early career, she ran with a crowd of lefty idealists.

RUTH PERRY: We cared about the Earth. We cared about sexism. We cared about white supremacy, all these things.

SHAPIRO: So yeah, earnest, but they didn't take themselves too seriously.

PERRY: Somebody would say, would it be politically correct if we had a hamburger? Or, you know, somebody who was a feminist might say, it may not be politically correct, but I think he's really hot, some sexist movie stars or something.

SHAPIRO: Politically correct was an in-joke.

PERRY: It was ironic. It was arch.

SHAPIRO: And so how did you feel the first time you heard people from outside of that group using the phrase in a way that presumed it was serious?

PERRY: So it felt like, oh, my God, they're using this against us. And they're acting as if this term really was a kind of litmus test for politically correctness, which it never had been.

SHAPIRO: Political correctness morphed into a sneering term used to swat away criticism from the left as an overreaction. And it quickly became a national obsession. If you use the archive Nexis to search newspapers and magazines from the year 1989, you'll find the phrase politically correct in print fewer than 250 times. And then, it's like someone flips a switch. In 1994, the same search for politically correct turns up more than 10,000 hits. It was everywhere, from comedy shows...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "POLITICALLY INCORRECT")

BILL MAHER: Thank you. And hi. I'm Bill Maher, and this is "Politically Incorrect."

SHAPIRO: ...To cartoons like "Beavis and Butt-Head"...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD")

MIKE JUDGE: (As David Van Driessen) I think it's about time you guys became politically correct.

SHAPIRO: ...To current events shows like "Firing Line."

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MICHAEL KINSLEY: Resolved - political correctness is a menace and a bore.

SHAPIRO: And this national obsession didn't just bubble up organically.

JOHN WILSON: It is an industry. There are all these right-wing foundations and books that were published that made a lot of money promoting this idea.

SHAPIRO: John Wilson wrote a book in 1995 called "The Myth Of Political Correctness." And he says that word, myth, is important.

WILSON: A myth is not a falsehood. It doesn't mean it's a lie. It doesn't mean everything is fabricated. It means that it's a story. And so what happened in the '90s is people, with political correctness, they took certain - sometimes true - anecdotes, and they created a web, a story, out of them, a myth that there was this vast repression of conservative voices.

SHAPIRO: He says there were grains of truth - isolated examples of conflicts and protests, often on college campuses.

WILSON: Real cases of people getting punished, people getting fired, for doing what were not things that should be punished. And I don't want to deny that fact.

SHAPIRO: But he says those isolated cases got magnified into a sweeping national narrative that the right used to claim conservatives were being silenced. And Wilson says by claiming victimization, conservatives were able to use the term political correctness as a bludgeon to hammer the left, a lot like the phrase cancel culture today. So local debates that might have stayed largely unknown beyond college newspapers suddenly became national news.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: There's no fight like a good academic fight, and the Stanford campus has been embroiled in a dandy one for the past two years.

SHAPIRO: In 1988, NPR and lots of other news organizations reported on a fight over the classes Stanford freshmen were required to take. The name of the course at the center of the controversy was Western Culture. So when students protested - chanting, hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Culture's got to go - people like Education Secretary William Bennett, a Republican, interpreted it as a broader attack on society.

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WILLIAM BENNETT: Right from the beginning, this was an assault on Western culture and Western civilization.

SHAPIRO: By 1991, this panic had reached all the way to the president of the United States.

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GEORGE H W BUSH: We find free speech under assault throughout the United States, including on some college campuses. The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land.

SHAPIRO: President George H. W. Bush gave this commencement address at the University of Michigan.

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BUSH: Disputants treat sheer force - getting their foes punished or expelled, for instance - as a substitute for the power of ideas.

TRUMP: The goal of cancel culture is to make decent Americans live in fear of being fired, expelled, shamed, humiliated and driven from society as we know it.

SHAPIRO: And that was another Republican president making the same argument almost 30 years later at the 2020 Republican National Convention.

MEREDITH CLARK: Honestly, I did my best to avoid doing research on cancel culture.

SHAPIRO: Meredith Clark teaches media studies at the University of Virginia.

CLARK: But there are only so many times that you can hear a phenomenon described in incorrect terms and just sit with it.

SHAPIRO: She says what's incorrect is not the idea of canceling, it's defining this as some sort of broader culture.

CLARK: Canceling is what comes out of Black discourse. It's what comes out of Black queer discourse. But the assignment of culture to that makes it a label that's big enough to be slapped on anyone and anything. And that is where the weaponization of what is otherwise accountability really takes off.

SHAPIRO: How much of this is about disenfranchised groups that sometimes don't have a voice finding and using that voice in a way that makes the people with power uncomfortable?

CLARK: That's what it's all about. If this had remained something that just stuck within Black communities, within Latinx communities, then this wouldn't really be a story. But because it has crossed over and because people in powerful positions who are not used to having to answer to marginalized folks find that they are not beyond their reach, now have a problem. And so now this becomes newsworthy, and it becomes something that is positioned as something that every everyday person should fear.

SHAPIRO: Of course, the big difference now is the existence of social media. And for some perspective on that, I talked with an expert named Jon Ronson. He wrote a book in 2015 called "So You've Been Publicly Shamed." It tells the stories of everyday people who weren't in the public eye until a tweet or something like it brought societal condemnation crashing down on their heads.

JON RONSON: I think it's absolutely wrong to say, oh, this is just a moral panic, there's nothing going on. You know, we're living in this very binary world. And in this world, people on the right say, you know, we are being silenced by a woke mob. And people on the left are saying, it's not happening. We're just holding people accountable. Now, clearly those are two polemical positions, and the truth is somewhere in the middle.

SHAPIRO: So if, as you say, there is a real concern and also there is a right-wing conspiracy to blow that concern out of proportion to score political points, what do we do with the coexistence of those two realities?

RONSON: Well, I just think it's up to every individual on social media to be curious and patient and to...

SHAPIRO: You are asking people on social media to be patient. Have you been on social media?

RONSON: Patient and curious - well, I'll tell you what. I've been off Twitter for a little while. And I went back on the other day. And it was like a party at 6 in the morning when people are - when something terrible happened hours before. Everyone is still screaming at each other that they're hoarse, and they've maybe even forgotten what it was that made them so angry. And if you...

SHAPIRO: And you're the only one who's sober (laughter)?

RONSON: Yeah, yeah. And I wouldn't have been if I hadn't left Twitter for a few weeks.

SHAPIRO: I asked Meredith Clark of the University of Virginia about this. We heard her earlier in the piece. And she said when you look at the vanishingly small percentage of the U.S. population that is on Twitter, you understand how out of proportion this narrative of cancel culture actually is.

RONSON: You know, this is a new - this is a very new weapon that we have. You know, on Twitter, we're like, you know, children crawling towards guns. You can't say that this whole new way of treating other human beings is just going to fit into it all with ease when it's this entirely new weapon. You know, of course there's going to be people destroyed. And people are destroyed.

SHAPIRO: What do you think of the argument that maybe the pendulum has swung too far but the pendulum had to swing, that people who were getting away with things they should not have gotten away with are now being held to account and, yes, there may be innocent victims, but ultimately, that'll sort itself out?

RONSON: Well, by and large, I do agree, yes. But at the same time, I wouldn't sort of just toss off the idea of there being some innocent victims. Like, that's bad and important.

SHAPIRO: In the last few weeks, it does seem like some of the furor over cancel culture has started to die down. That could be because the pendulum is swinging back towards the center on this issue. Or it could just be that the national moral panic has moved on to another target - critical race theory.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGITALISM'S "MIRAGE (PART ONE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.