Language always evolves. New words and phrases are coined, enter general usage, and reflect the spirit of the times – for good or less-than-good.
So it is with two phrases that recently infiltrated the culture, one I first heard more than a year ago and one that I encountered just last month.
The first has become a cause célèbre in certain parts, with passionate advocates and detractors: “cancel culture.” Count me among the detractors. “Cancel culture” is the attempt to ruin someone’s career or life because of words they utter or positions they hold that challenge the world view of the aggrieved. The cancellers try, in effect, to “cancel” the person – negate his or her existence, erase them from society, and deny them jobs, audiences, friends, and vehicles through which they disseminate their views.
This first appeared more than forty years ago (although it wasn’t called by this term), and it is still its primary application, in the effort to prevent people with whom the activists disagree on one point or another from speaking – at a college, a private event, or any public forum. It is the antithesis of free speech, which by the explicit admission of the cancellers should not pertain to any speech with which they disagree. I recall when this was the fate of Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick in the early 1980’s for her pronounced foreign policy views against Communism and totalitarianism and for a strong America. (The nerve!) She was banned from some campuses and harassed at others. In the last decade this has become the norm on too many American campuses. Speakers, almost always conservatives, are either banned or their speeches are disrupted by rude behavior designed to make the event unpleasant enough that listeners leave or the speaker leaves. Several speakers – political scientists and professors, mostly – have been physically assaulted. In sum, freedom of expression has been suppressed, which itself has exacerbated the polarization in society. “Free speech for me and not for thee” is the death knell of American civilization.
This suppression is often accomplished by pressuring the hosts to cancel the event and convincing the proprietors of the venue that violence will likely ensue if the event is not canceled. Often, threats of violence are made, and the pusillanimous cave in. Or, concerted efforts are made to force employers to fire the speaker or, in the entertainment industry, not to hire the offender to perform. In the latest manifestation of this lunacy, there are states in these United States that boycott other states, outlawing official state delegations from visiting or spending money in states whose policies annoy them. These left-wing states – such as California or New York – have authorized boycott of other states, such as North Carolina and almost ten others. The main irritants are state laws that conform to reality in defining males and females (how outrageous!) and laws that restrict in some form the provision of abortions.
It is important to note “cancel culture” is a one-way street. The cancellers are almost always on the political and cultural far left, and the victims are almost always conservatives with traditional views. There are foreign policy affronts that engender these efforts to “cancel” people – such as support for a strong America or a strong Israel. But usually the offenses are failures to toe the leftist line on social issues, all of which leave one open to the hackneyed accusations of racism/ bigotry/ misogyny/ homophobia/ Islamophobia, etc. and sometimes all of them together. It is a select list of victims and grievances, and it is not easy to win a nomination to that list. Hence the growing discomfort – on the far left and the far right – with inclusion of Jews on this list, notwithstanding the recent spate of physical and verbal assaults on Jews in America and Europe. Too many writers are still too quick to blame the Jews for provoking attacks on themselves, something to which no other group is subject.
Social media, an altogether unconstructive phenomenon in any event, encourages these purity tests by indulging in the second phrase, one I just heard last month: “hate reading.” No, not “hate speech,” but “hate reading.” That is the process through which one scours the writings or words of a particular individual in order to extract the one word or phrase or idea that defy the conventional norms of these cultural imperialists. In the best circumstances, words are lifted out of context. More generally, words, sentences, expressions, themes and entire essays are just misconstrued. It is not just that the main point is missed but rather that the ideas are outright distorted, positions never articulated or even contemplated are assailed, and the process takes on the appearance of a grotesque farce. Radicals of all sorts, including radical feminists, are skilled in this. It is the snippet that is highlighted and twisted, publicized through (un)social media, and their false narrative takes root in the public domain.
The weak (or perhaps the prudent?) then decide to stop writing or speaking, and the field is abandoned to the passionately misinformed and the enemies of tradition. The latter make absolutely no effort to engage the speaker or writer or refute her ideas. There is no substantive argument. Hate reading and cancel culture only target the individual. It is as if their ideas are beneath contempt. Or perhaps proof enough that they are just beyond refutation.
“Hate reading” is characterized by the utter disregard for what the person has actually said; it is indeed just a search for, and often the fabrication of, the word or phrase that “triggers” (hey, there’s another newfangled concept) the easily offended. Nothing is heard or read with an objective mind but only read in order to get aroused and enraged.
How did American society descend to these depths wherein so many people just hate read, sit in judgment of those with whom they disagree and try to destroy them rather than respect their right to express and disagree? How can it be that so many people go to college and are actually traumatized by hearing views that differ from theirs? And especially in a society that prided itself on free and open debate, on the exchange of views and opinions, and on the right to disagree without being disagreeable? How did disagreement become inherently disagreeable?
The answer is multi-faceted but it occurred to me not long ago that, in the wake of all these new phrases, we lost some oldies but goodies. I recently told some millennials that when I was young, there was a popular expression in the schoolyard: “if you don’t like it, you can lump it.” They conceded that they had never heard that expression, which, to me, was a crying shame.
That is one way to deal with disagreements, insults, arguments or opinions that diverge from yours: “if you don’t like it, you can lump.” It is of disputable etymology, but it worked! You don’t like it, so you don’t like it. Move on. No two people should ever agree on everything – or one of them is superfluous. So get over it. Let the other person have his views. “Who is wise? He who learns from every person” (Avot 4:1). “Cancel culture” and “hate reading” have reinforced the echo chambers that divide us and cause nothing but grief and agitation.
And one must never succumb to the pressures of the cancellers. There have been two times, I think, when groups attempted to cancel me for some grievance they had. Both failed – essentially because they were told to “lump it,” albeit in other words. You would be surprised at the effectiveness of telling haters to “lump it.” They are nonplussed – and quickly move on to more amenable targets.
Our Sages taught us that “just like no two people look alike, no two people think alike” (Berachot 58a). Just as people’s different faces – even ugly ones – should not bother us, so too even their views (ugly or even just different) should not bother us.
“Lumping it” is a good antidote to both hate reading and cancel culture. When they learn to lump it, or are forced to lump it because they are otherwise ignored, even pitied, we can regain some normalcy in American life and go back to arguing with each other in peace – and with mutual respect.