Criticizing vs. Canceling, by Jonathan Rauch

I just finished reading The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, by Jonathan Rauch, published two months ago.

He covers a lot of ground in 264 pages of prose, and the point he hammers home from many different eras and viewpoints is that truth/knowledge is a social construction: scientists, journalists, and lawyers (to pick three professions) have long-standing norms to challenge, question, test, and verify what is true. Criticism is an essential activity in the continuous search for what is true.

As “political correctness” has morphed into “wokeism” — with the aid of social media — more people are turning to “canceling” as a means of silencing criticism, reducing intellectual (and political) diversity, and thus threatening our hold on truth.


From “Chapter 7 Canceling: Despotism of the Few”, with a few formatting changes:

How to tell the difference [between canceled as opposed to critized]?

Here are some good diagnostic indicators:

Punitiveness: Does what is being said to or about you have the goal or foreseeable effect of jeopardizing your livelihood or isolating you socially? Are people denouncing you to your employer, your professional groups, your social connections? Are you being blacklisted from jobs and social opportunities? The Constitution of Knowledge punishes the idea, not the person; cancel culture punishes the person, not the idea.

Deplatforming: Are campaigners attempting to prevent you from publishing your work, giving speeches, attending meetings? Are they claiming that allowing you to be heard is violence or makes them unsafe? The Constitution of Knowledge relies on diversity of expression; cancel culture prevents it.

Grandstanding: Is the tone of the discourse ad hominem, ritualistic, posturing, accusatory, outraged? Are people flattening distinctions, demonizing you, slinging inflammatory labels, and engaging in moral one-upsmanship? Are people ignoring what you actually said and talking about you but not to you? The Constitution of Knowledge rewards careful, rational argumentation; cancel culture rewards demagoguery.

Reductionism: Are you being condemned on the basis of one or two things you may have said or done, taken in isolation and shorn of context? Are people collapsing the totality of your character and career down to a single mistake or offense, without regard for your other contributions and accomplishments? The Constitution of Knowledge builds reputational credibility over decades; cancel culture demolishes it overnight.

Orchestration: Does criticism appear to be organized and targeted? Are the organizers recruiting others to pile on? Are you being swarmed and brigaded? Are people hunting through your work and scouring social media to find ammunition to use against you? The Constitution of Knowledge relies on independent observers; cancel culture relies on mob action.

Secondary boycotts: Is there an explicit or implicit threat that anyone who supports you will get the same treatment that you are receiving? Are people putting pressure on employers and professional colleagues to fire you or stop associating with you? Do people who defend you, or criticize the campaign against you, have to fear adverse consequences? The Constitution of Knowledge relies on independent judgment; cancel culture relies on bullying.

Inaccuracy: Are the things being said about you incorrect? Do the people saying them seem not even to care about veracity? Do they feel at liberty to distort your words, ignore corrections, and make false accusations? The Constitution of Knowledge puts accuracy ahead of politics; cancel culture puts politics ahead of accuracy.

The more of those information-warfare tactics you are encountering, the surer you can be that you are being canceled, not criticized. Most of the time, in real life, the difference will not be hard to see.


Please buy a copy of The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, by Jonathan Rauch!

Author: benslivka

19 start-ups, software, hardware, biotech, space launch, neurodiversity, learning, free markets, food, wine, cycling, walking, Seattle, Microsoft, Northwestern University, Garfield HS, DreamBox Learning, IBM, Amazon.

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