Comment: What Tanden’s retreat says about ‘cancel culture’

We need to consider the range of political tolerance between criticism and cancellation.

By Ramesh Ponnuru / Bloomberg Opinion

Neera Tanden became President Biden’s first Cabinet casualty on Tuesday when she withdraw her nomination to be budget director.

The Republicans who sank her have not accomplished much. Biden’s next nominee will be a little more or less progressive, and a little more or less competent, but not significantly different in any way that matters. The next nominee will, however, lack Tanden’s record of combative tweets against Republican senators. Those tweets were what kept her from being confirmed.

Tanden’s disappointed supporters are slamming her Republican opponents for hypocrisy. It’s not just that Republicans waited until after Donald Trump’s presidency to start saying that mean tweets are disqualifying. They have also gotten more and more worked up about the excesses of “cancel culture” except when it comes to canceling Tanden.

For some of the people calling out Republicans’ behavior, the point is that Tanden should have gotten confirmed. For others, it’s that complaints about “cancel culture” are never anything more than political weapons. When people say they’re being canceled, runs the argument, they’re not being silenced; they’re trying to silence criticism.

My initial reaction to the claim that Tanden has been canceled is that it is absurd: Of course politicians are within their rights to weigh what political activists have said when deciding whether to give them jobs. I had the same reaction when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said his colleague Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., had embraced cancel culture by saying that a conservative conference should not have invited Trump to speak. She’s a political figure urging political activists to go in a different direction than they’re going. That’s just normal politics. And, for that matter, Cheney isn’t being subject to a cancellation attempt just because some Republicans want her out of the House Republican leadership because she voted to impeach Trump.

On second thought, though, maybe these seemingly opportunistic invocations of “cancel culture” are telling us something about that phrase and the phenomenon it describes. The view that “cancel culture isn’t real” has purchase because the concept is fuzzy. If you’re a book publisher, or the director of a speaker series, or the editor of an opinion page, where do you draw the line between the reasonable exercise of discretion over who should be able to use your platform and the illiberal suppression of debate?

Jonathan Rauch, a centrist who has been writing about challenges to free speech for decades, has proposed a six-point checklist to distinguish between criticism and cancellation. A campaign to get someone fired for something he said trips two of Rauch’s wires: It’s “organized” and “punitive.” If you’re a cancel-culture skeptic, this checklist won’t convince you that it’s real, because the items on it are matters of degree. Nobody has tried to deny Tanden the ability to earn a livelihood, but she has been deprived of an opportunity for professional advancement. Does that count as punitive? The difference between a campaign of hostility and a spontaneous cascade of disapproval, meanwhile, can be undetectable on Twitter.

When we argue about cancel culture, what we’re really arguing about is how far tolerance should extend. Naturally, then, cancel culture can’t be defined any more precisely than intolerance can. We can grasp that intolerance is a real phenomenon — one that can wax and wane, change its character, have consequences — without having a formula to determine what falls within the category. Being tolerant or intolerant is a matter of disposition rather than of principle. That’s why Rauch’s checklist is helpful: It provides guidelines instead of attempting a sharp definition.

It also calls attention to the context of any cancellation controversy. Was a racial slur used, or just mentioned? Was the viewpoint expressed one that many intelligent people of good faith will hold in our society, or one that is evidence of bad character? Are the critics trying to get a truck driver fired, or stop a politician from getting elected?

What Tanden’s defeat mostly tells us is that you should not insult a group of thin-skinned people if you might need their support in the future. It doesn’t tell us much about the broader question of how tolerant our culture is. Most people, according to polls, think the answer is: less and less. We are quick to attribute disagreements to evil motives. To change that will require something more than the First Amendment or even a dedication to its spirit. It will take good judgment, which continues to be in scarce supply.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

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