November 9, 2021
November 9, 2021

You know the drill. Someone does, or says, something offensive. A public backlash — typically on Twitter — ensues. Then come the calls to “cancel” that person, brand, or institution. That usually means the loss of cultural cache, political clout, and often a job or career. While the term “cancelling” has roots in a misogynistic joke, it has come to be one of the most prominent tools of progressive activists. Many see “cancelling” as a modern-day means of holding people to account, calling out injustice, and breaking down ingrained systems of prejudice and exploitation, particularly for the historically marginalized. But others see it differently. They are sounding alarms about the emergence of a new cancel culture where digital mobs police our speech, invade our rights, and even put our physical safety at risk. They argue that cancel culture has created a society ruled by online censorship and eroded our public discourse. Against this backdrop, we ask: Is cancel culture toxic?


04:00 PM Tuesday, November 9, 2021
  • 00:00:00
    John Donvan:
    It's a controversial form of ostracism, a tool in bringing down those with power. Canceling. Some see it as accountability and a method of calling attention to long standing injustice. They say it's always been around. Others see a new, virulent form of mob justice which jeopardizes a person's safety and risks indefinite alienation. Either way, in this modern era, social media has a decidedly amplifying effect. It's against that background we debate for and against this motion, cancel culture is toxic.

    Hi everybody and yes, we are talking about lately what's being called cancel culture. The perception at least and possibly the reality, that there has been an outbreak of people being punished for the ideas they express through a process of public shaming that is seen to be silencing them to getting them ejected from positions of prominence, even to ending their careers.
  • 00:00:59
    There is much disagreement on whether cancel culture is even real or exaggerated or whether it's really something new and whether it is toxic to public discourse or unnecessary corrective to have these call outs. Cancel culture on trial, that's our debate. I'm John Donvan and this is Intelligence Squared.

    [music playing]
  • 00:01:44
    John Donvan:
    All right everybody now you have a duty to perform here in this program and that is to act as the judge of the debate, each one of you. What we would like you to do is tell us which side you feel argued the best and we're going to ask you to do that by voting on our Motion: Cancel Culture is Toxic, before you've even heard the arguments and then we're going to ask you to vote after you've what everyone has to say. And here at Intelligence Squared we name as our winner the team whose numbers go up the most in percentage point terms between the first and the second vote. The first vote, it's right now, and here's what we would like you to do, go to I-Q-2-U-S dot org, that's I-Q-2-U-S dot org in a web browser and you will get to a multiple-choice field where you will tell us whether you are for, against, or undecided on the statement cancel culture is toxic. I'll give you just one more second to get that first vote in and all right it is time to meet our debaters. Arguing for the motion cancel culture is toxic is Garry Kasparov, Russian chess grandmaster and pro-democracy activist. He is currently chairman of the human rights foundation, a non-profit that promotes human rights globally.
  • 00:02:57
    His partner, Kmele Foster, a media entrepreneur and political commentator and co-host of the fifth column podcast. Foster was one of the signatories of the much discussed Harper's letter and its call for free speech and open debate. Opposing them, Karen Attiah, a Washington Post columnist who writes on issues related to race, international politics, gender and human rights. She is author of "Say Your Word, Then Leave" and was a Fulbright scholar to Ghana. Her partner, Erich Hatala Matthes, an author and moral philosophy professor at Wellesley College. He is the author of the book "Drawing the Line: What to do with the Work of Immoral Artists from Museums to the Movies".

    John Donvan:
    Okay now here we all are assembled to begin this debate. I just want to say to all four of you thanks so much for joining us on Intelligence Squared.

    Kmele Foster:
    Thank you.

    Garry Kasparov:
    Thanks John.

    John Donvan:
    All right. So, let's go in to our first round one is made up of opening statements from each debater in turn. These openings will be form in its each. Our motion is cancel culture is toxic.
  • 00:03:59
    And speaking first for the motion here is Kmele Foster, Kmele the screen is yours.

    Kmele Foster:
    Thanks so much John and thank you to Intelligence Squared for hosting this, I think, very important debate. I have to begin by making a bit of an awkward admission, I dislike cancel culture which is probably not surprising in some respects, but I mean in a very specific sense I dislike cancel culture because I find the phrase a bit frustrating. It's aesthetically not so satisfying. I think it has almost a satirical quality to it. It kind of conjures these images of mean girls, of people engaging in these rather trivial social media cyber bullying. But what we're talking about here is a fair bit more serious and sinister than that. It is a dynamic that is a real and in many respects, definable and easily discernable aspect of American society, of American politics and American culture.
  • 00:04:57
    And is having a meaningful impact on how our institutions operate, on our relationship to truth and on core, philosophical ideals and values like free speech and free inquiry that are indispensable for our social project regardless of what values people think they are defending when they participate in these mobbings. Now, I've been participating in these conversations in one respect or another for a very long time and I'm pleased that we've gotten beyond the point where we have to debate whether or not cancel culture is a thing at all. We do know that cancel culture is real. Most Americans recognize that in numerous polls and surveys from across the ideological spectrum and numerous media organizations have confirmed as much. And to kind of operate in the universe of definitions briefly, cancel culture is a dynamic where various tactics are used and, I would say, abused for the purposes of exercising social power to silence debate.
  • 00:05:59
    Often this is fueled by social media controverses and takes place on social media platforms, but it's hardly limited to that medium. Again, these campaigns are consequential and they're also yes, toxic. The campaigns are also swift they're generally and curious and they're often brutally unforgiving. There is generally not an opportunity for people who are accused to kind of appeal evidence, to muster any sort of defense for themselves and the dynamics that facilitate the social intimidation that’s used to fuel these campaigns often intimidate even their friends, their co-workers, their family members from speaking out publicly for fear they'll receive the same sort of treatment. In a nutshell, what cancel culture does is it paralyses the free flow of ideas and information that goes against particular ideological dogmas.
  • 00:07:01
    It is an attempt to win arguments, not by engaging with the substance of what's on offer, but by making debate completely impossible by essentially pulling out the rug from underneath your opponent. And this is, distressingly, something that again, numerous polls have suggested is very real and the belief that it is real amongst the public is something that transcends partisan and ideological boundaries, even amongst democrats who identify as somewhat liberal and very liberal it is not so much that a majority but a very uncertain kind of majority might say that they don't believe cancel control is a fear problem but, as many as 41 percent by some measures indicate that they do believe that this is a problem that they do feel that they have to shield their political values, their views in certain cases for fear that they might be punished in some way.
  • 00:08:02
    And nearly a third of these same kinds of people suggest that they fear they might lose their jobs as a result of this.

    John Donvan:
    Thank you very much Kmele Foster and that is your opening statement. Our next statement will be against the resolution that cancel culture is toxic. Here is Erich Hatala Matthes, Erich, the floor is yours.

    Erich Hatala Matthes:
    Thanks so much John and thanks to Intelligence Squared for hosting this important debate. I'm glad to be here arguing against this resolution. So, I'm going to sort of lay out the framework of our argument then Karen will be filling in cases and details and further considerations. So, when we think about a resolution like this, cancel culture is toxic, we need to be really clear about the meaning of the key terms in order to be in a position to evaluate the resolution. So, toxic, that’s not very controversial but it's worth being explicit. Something that's toxic is pervasively harmful. So, harmful in a widespread way.
  • 00:08:56
    Cancel culture on the other hand, much more controversial and we're going to argue that there is no clear and consistent definition of cancel culture that one can demonstrate is in fact pervasively harmful. That’s our position. So, what might cancel culture be? So, you might think that cancel culture is constituted by public shaming, largely on the internet, but political culture where have normalized expressions of prejudice and bigotry, not arguments necessarily. Public shaming is a perfectly legitimate response right as a means of engaging in social resistance against those expressions. Moreover, right, as we've seen when people engage in critiques of cancel culture that are based on a commitment to freedom of speech, right? These acts of so called public shaming, I would say social resistance are themselves just more speech so that seems like an inconsistency in the other sides argument.
  • 00:09:54
    Now, you might say that cancel culture isn't just about public shaming, it's also about the loss of jobs or opportunities, the function of that public shaming but in fact it seems like cases where people do lose their jobs as a function of being canceled are vanishingly small and indeed it seems like often its more likely that people acquire new opportunities as a function of being canceled, speaking opportunities, book deals, etcetera. So, it's really hard to see how the claim that being canceled is harmful is supposed to be established. Moreover, you know, I think there's an inconsistency in the way critics of cancel culture talk about what counts as cancel culture so there's a range of cases where we do see people losing jobs or opportunities but conveniently these seem to not be part of what critics typically think of as cancel culture when they're criticizing it so you think of, you know, Hannah Nicole Jones or even Colin Kaepernick, you know, people who have lost jobs or opportunities because of political stances and yet right those cases don't count as part of cancel culture according to most of cancel culture's critics.
  • 00:11:02
    Right? So, that again seems like an inconsistency in how we're thinking about what cancel culture is. So, those are three reasons I think to reject this resolution because it doesn't seem like there is a clear and consistent definition of cancel culture that we can demonstrably show is in fact pervasively harmful. I think that’s really all our side needs to show but, I think that we can do you one better. I think that we can show not only that this resolution is false but the resolution itself is toxic. This idea that cancel culture is out there and is harming people is a shield that people in positions of power use to try to avoid reasonable critique of things that they do and that they say, right? And the fact that Kmele mentioned that so many people believe cancel culture exists is really just a function of the way in which media attention has put it out there as this specter, right?
  • 00:11:59
    And then people in positions of power hide behind it so I think that you should vote against this resolution because it is both false and itself harmful. Thanks.

    John Donvan:
    Thank you very much Erich Hatala Matthes and here's where we are halfway through the opening round of this Intelligence Squared debate you have heard from the first two debaters and now on to the third speaking next in support of the motion that cancel culture is toxic here is Garry Kasparov. Garry, the screen is all yours.

    Garry Kasparov:
    Thank you and I want to take a few seconds while I have all the time to point out that while we're on opposite sides today, Karen and my colleagues and I and the human rights foundation shared an advocacy to seek justice for her nor the Washington [unintelligible]. You mind if I [unintelligible] thank you. We are gathered virtually to debate a vital topic. A world where freedom is on the run, on decline.
  • 00:13:00
    Just a few short decades ago, [unintelligible] of all was considered inevitable, the iron curtain fell. The Soviet Union collapsed and trust me, it felt much better for those of us on the other side. Also, the joke went in the Soviet Union we have freedom of speech but in the United States they also have freedom after but all these freedoms we envied of are now under threat everywhere including the United States still the freest country in the world and most probably many threats are against the institutions that are that are so essential to protecting intellectual freedom.
  • 00:13:59
    Schools and universities are where we most need to challenge and be challenged on how can we learn what's right if we are afraid to ever be wrong. Well, increasingly you hear oh we'll tell you what's right and good, but it reminds me too much of the ideological education I grew up with back then in the Soviet Union. If you disagreed, you were wrong, you were wrong to loudly you were silenced. The good news is that the United States is not Russia or the Soviet Union no one is going to be sent to gulag for failing to draw the line but just because there's no part with capital P does not mean there is no part one. There's still no big brother yet but the effectiveness of the modern platforms like Twitter and Facebook to stifle the debate.
  • 00:15:02
    So, its enabling online loss, you know, creates a threat, a threat to the free fall of ideas that are silenced by socially and challengeable views. [unintelligible] dissonance from around the world shared the alarm about how the United States is suppressing the very freedom they are fighting for in their home countries. The United States today so as is pointed out activist from China to Belarus to Zimbabwe to Venezuela to Cuba to Iran so it’s creating an intellectual environment that is closing in way so painfully familiar to these activists.
  • 00:16:01
    And these attitudes are toxic at any dosage. So, our best defense is the values of the free world and protecting these values. It doesn’t mean putting up with tolerance or promote hatred. So, it doesn't quite courage, the courage to defend views and rights of those you don't agree with. The response, our response more openness, more debate, more freedom and today you can do your part by voting in favor, voting for intellectual freedom and against toxic spread of intolerance and grouping and ideological purity tests. Thank you.
  • 00:16:56
    John Donvan:
    Thank you, Garry Kasparov. And our final speaker in this opening round will be speaking against the resolution that cancel culture is toxic. Here is Karen Attiah, Karen the screen is yours.

    Karen Attiah:
    Thank you so much and thank you for having me. Y es, again I would like to advocate in advance for why your audiences should vote no against this resolution. I would backup my teammate Erich and say I still see that our opponents, our friends but today our opponents, have not convincingly provided concrete evidence and concrete proof that A, this is a pervasive part of American culture and B that this is toxic we're implying this is infecting our culture so much our entire society is unraveling that this is a danger unraveling the American project itself. Now, again, I'm a member of the media and I will admit that the media we tend to focus on powerful and prominent people who complain that their views are being challenged.
  • 00:17:58
    Who complain that their book deals and that their sponsorship deals that their comedy specials are being protested and we tend to focus on a small very vocal, very prominent people who complain about this but again I think that we should take a step back looking at a Gallup from last month what most Americans see as their top important problem in America and most of them did cite, 21 percent or so cited the C word as their top priority and you know what and you know what the C word was? That was coronavirus an actual disease that is actually threatening the wellbeing and the stability of this country. I even tried to be generous and tried to look for anything that could look proxy to cancel culture I looked maybe free speech concerns, were they there, censorship concerns were they there, they were not most Americans outside of our blue check brigade outside of our elite bubbles and I think we can say we're part of a certain elite bubble of Americans.
  • 00:18:57
    Most of them are just worried about their day to day lives and those who are not sitting on Twitter all day are just not. So, again it's really for us to say is this unraveling American culture. And in reality, the ones who seem to claim the most that they've been canceled again are they really buried? Woody Allen take him he's still got his book deal. Bill Cosby convicted of sexual assault that was overturned. Or even the bad boy today, Dave Chapelle, who's now a subject into these cancel culture wars. Still, he's rich, he's still famous and Netflix is still standing behind him on a 24-million-dollar deal. So, right now the moment that we are in what we are talking about is not so much cancel culture which again mind you originated from black communities who are using whatever power of shaming that they had to call out harmful, toxic behavior towards them as a group is now being used as a pejorative.
  • 00:19:56
    I do not see it as a coincidence that cancel culture is now being somewhat turned against marginalized communities as a way to stifle what is actually happening which is actually the opening of space we have more voices than ever before [unintelligible] voices, nonbinary voices, transgender voices who are now speaking and who are now speaking out against those systems and those who perpetuate the systems that have long participated in what I would say is erasure culture which has led to generational wealth being disappeared, what has led to literally incarceration, what has lead to basically just a deep systemic continued erasure and I would say this is the same for women and me too so it's not an accident to me that this supposed boogeyman of cancel culture is really status anxiety is discomfort in the fact that there's more voices, its discomfort in the fact that the gatekeepers are now seeing that they could be outside the gates of privilege and power.
  • 00:21:01
    Now again, I think this is the reason why we should vote against the resolution because what we're debating at our lives of the marginalized should never be debated but what I think we should embrace is a culture happening which is that there are more voices and more people who are being moved to the center of American democracy and discourse.

    John Donvan:
    Thank you, thank you very much Karen Attiah and that concludes round one of our Intelligence Squared U.S. debate where our resolution is cancel culture is toxic. Now we move on to round two and in round two the debaters have a conversation, address one another directly and also take some questions from me. But just in terms of what I'm hearing the team arguing for the motion that cancel culture is toxic are talking about a situation a dynamic that they consider frightening and widespread in which people with only certain views are not considered acceptable by others are facing a kind of punitive process of shaming that has real consequences.
  • 00:21:58
    Among those consequences I think they're saying there is a tendency of a chilling effect on dialogue and discourse in general that means that only one view ultimately dominate and that its shutting down freedom of inquiry and free speech they say is essential to the American project. The team arguing against the resolution are arguing a few different things, one, they question whether cancel culture as expressed by their opponents is really real even if it's real in tiny doses they argue that its not deep and it's not pervasive that in fact the calling out that happens can actually be beneficial and they make the argument that those who are signing cancel culture in a derogator, pejorative way are using it as a shield to defend themselves against criticism that they don't like hearing.
  • 00:22:49
    So, I want to go to Kmele Foster you first and say this question of the cancel culture claim being a shield that your opponent Erich raised that he's questioning whether the whole phenomenon, the whole dynamic is as deep, widespread and as toxic as the resolution implies and kind of accuses your side of playing a double game of not only challenging cancel culture but using the term to protect against criticism that one doesn't like to hear, those that are signing it. So, I'd like you to take on that description of what it means for you to be arguing that cancel culture is toxic.

    Kmele Foster:
    Yeah, I think Erich made a number of rather dubious claims frankly. First, the assertion that cancel culture is difficult to find thus because of its nebulous qualities should be dismissed out of hand I think is rather absurd. Love, hate, freedom, various other things that no one would dispute exists are all somewhat difficult to define but again nevertheless exists and have real and profound consequences in the world.
  • 00:24:01
    I think the fact that polling consistently has demonstrated that people believe cancel culture is there whether one believes that is a result of the media sensationalizing or because of realities that they experience in their everyday lives actually illustrates our point. The reality is that the fact that people believe this suggests that they will in fact curtail their behavior which is another thing that they acknowledge doing. The question of how toxic this is, how bad this is, is an important one but I would actually like to pause at another question, is it possible that in pursuit of some just ends one might over correct that one might imperil particular values it is another demonstrated reality that surveys suggest repeatedly that an increasing number of Americans think that there should be curtailment of free speech for the purposes of protecting certain classes of citizens.
  • 00:24:56
    That is a real dynamic that’s happening. It's something that is playing out in the polling and can't be dismissed in an arbitrary fashion. I think you have a difficult circumstance for yourself when you're both simultaneously suggesting that something is being inconsistently applied because certain cancelations on the left perhaps aren't being called out by some hypocritical conservatives. I would submit to you the hypocrisy is real and so are the cancelations and whether or the consequences of these cancelations are devastating for particular individuals that’s a complicated story. The reality is beyond someone actually has their lives disrupted by a cancelation there is a universe of people who stay silent because they fear cancelation and that is the dynamic we are concerned about.

    John Donvan:
    So, Erich Hatala Matthes what's your response to what you heard from Kmele on that?
  • 00:25:50
    Erich Hatala Matthes:
    Well, I mean on the one hand I'm happy to hear Kmele say that he wants to include right sort of like a broader set of responses to people's actions in, you know, the supposed cancel culture umbrella, so at least we can sort of remove the inconsistency which you see in a lot of the criticisms in cancel culture where they don't include, right, any ways in which people are subject to reprisal when their views are more on the political left. But I think that, you know, one of the challenges that we confront here, and I think you see this in some of the comments that Garry made in his opening, is we have sort of a general inflation of a bunch of different ideas, and this is really what I was getting at when I said there's no clear and consistent understanding of cancel culture at play. So, like on the one hand we have things like, you know, the online response to things that people say, right? On the other hand, you know, Garry's talking about like state sanction suppression, right? Those are totally different things, right?
  • 00:27:00
    And so, like when we have such an ambiguous set of things that we're supposed to be saying, "Oh, this whole thing is toxic," I think sort of undermines the force of the point. I completely agree with you that state sanctioned suppression is a bad thing, that is toxic. But I just don't think that's what we're talking about when we're usually talking about cancel culture.

    Gary Kasparov:
    I can look at my notes, and I didn't recall that I ever said something about state oppression or central authority in the United States. Of course, I cited my Soviet experience and I tried to share the concerns of dozens and dozens of prominent dissidents around the world who are really alarmed by these develop in the United States. And you talking about people who experienced the attacks on individual freedoms and especially freedom of speech in their countries just across the globe. Of course, America is far from being there, and that's what I said.
  • 00:27:59
    But, you know, we have instruments like Twitter and Facebook and all the social media that allows the mobilization of online mob that attacks people. And while Karen said, "Oh, but the Dave Chappelle is still there or J.K. Rowling," yes, they're too big. So that is too big to be canceled. But the effect it has on millions of others who saw that even these giants can be under attack. So -- and Kmele quoted a few polls that indicated and demonstrated that more than half of the Americans, you know, really concerned about, you know, what would be the consequences of them exercising their rights of free speech.

    John Donvan:
    Karen, you want to jump in?

    Karen Attiah:
    Yeah, again, I just see a conflation of a whole bunch of different points. One thing I would point out as the sole woman on this panel, I also look at -- I find it interesting to see when these terms woke, cancel culture and to our consciousness. And to me, it seems cancel culture seemed to really enter the consciousness after the MeToo movement.
  • 00:29:06
    And I remember a lot of men, especially sitting on their -- really worried that maybe they would be canceled too, like Harvey Weinstein, because now women were speaking up or speaking out and were calling for accountability and were calling for consequences. And I think ultimately, ultimately what people, women in particular were calling for was for a reform of how we treat us and how we treat each other in this in this system. So I think to a certain extent, it's A, it goes back to my point, which is I was trying to make when cancel culture enters the lexicon, when woke enters the lexicon, after, you know, the power and the force of black voices of black protest. Now we're seeing, you know, CRT. I just look at the fear of cancel culture being this pervasive thing.
  • 00:30:00
    And I actually do think that men, people in power, Cishet people, I actually do think there is a discomfort. Is that toxic? I don't think so. I think it's uncomfortable and I can see that, and I can acknowledge that. But what is more uncomfortable and more toxic? Women, black people, people of color who've been marginalized for a long time, who've had their careers destroyed by those who abuse their power, who have used the systems to silence women, to use NDAs nondisclosure agreements, who use lawsuits to use threats, actual physical threats of violence against those who do not have the power the system to work for them. So I, you know, I look at this and I'm kind of like the whole thing is sort of disingenuous because it's just really interesting who the groups that perpetuate, you know, woke as being pejorative, cancel culture as being pejorative. And I would just again like to say, I don't think we have a very -- we can talk about digital culture and bots, online harassment. I've been a victim of that.
  • 00:31:01
    I've seen that and I've seen that. However, I still speak, and I still write, and there are plenty who still choose to do so. Does it make it that we're in a new environment? Yes. But I actually embrace the culture that we're in right now because again, more voices are involved. There is actually less canceling in some ways going on. There's less erasure, there's more visibility. And so to try to dismiss that by saying, "Oh, we're afraid of the new voices." Maybe you should reconsider whether or not public discourse is your thing.

    Kmele Foster:
    Well, I wonder if I could interject something, Karen, because it seems that, you know, one of the accusations that was leveled at our side is that, you know, we have this rather nebulous definition, and it's hard to prove. An assertion is continually made on the other side that minorities are being sort of disempowered, that the motivation for people who are concerned about cancel culture is that they that they are afraid of losing control, that they want to sort of disempower women who are raising legitimate concerns about being mistreated.
  • 00:32:07
    I think it's worth noting that the same polling does in fact, break out certain demographic groups that when asked, "Does the political climate these days prevent me from saying things I believe?" 49 percent of African-American respondents said that they agreed with that sentiment. 65 percent of Latino respondents said they agreed with that sentiment. 65 percent of Asian respondents said they agreed with that sentiment. And while men certainly do get a bit higher in terms of 65 percent of men, 59 percent of women seem to agree with that sentiment. I think it's disingenuous to insist that the people who are raising these concerns don't share a number of this social justice related and certainly criminal justice reform issues that have been brought to the fore since the summer of last year when I signed the Harper's letter.
  • 00:33:02
    And I did so alongside more than 150 prominent academics and social commentators and creatives and entrepreneurs, all of whom are well to the left of me [laughs], all of whom expressed a tremendous amount of sympathy for and support for the Black Lives Matter protests. And generally, myself personally, I've advocated I've spent hundreds of hours personally working on issues of criminal justice reform and my company Free Think publishers on this constantly. I would submit to you that if we are raising concern about this in that context, that there is perhaps a legitimate concern that ought to be taken seriously. And to use a word that used a moment ago, not dismissed, I do not dismiss legitimate concerns about policing, about social justice. My concern is that a world where we are fighting those battles by purging people from our polite society and by preventing them from having an ability to sort of make arguments in certain contexts is disadvantageous to minority groups who want to feel protected.
  • 00:34:09
    Karen Attiah:
    But Kmele, is that really happening? Come on. I mean, in the sense of, you know, I remember the Harper's letter and had thoughts about it. But the thoughts I would say now is it's not even so much a right left issue. It's not sort of, you know -- I have a lefty friend who agrees -- that Harper's letter and I would say, you know, all of us in this room, we belong to a certain class that has visibility, that has prominence, that has power, that has platforms, right? The fact that you were able to come back on this platform and I feel like, you know, that we're able to speak about that is -- means that it belongs to a certain group and we belong to a certain power structure that does have the power to shape discourse and to shape thought.
  • 00:35:01
    Again, I still -- and I hear your percentages about the polling. I can't comment until I see who did the bullying and what and all that. That being said, I as a journalist, look at, you know, what really actually worries me right now is we actually do have quote unquote canceling of -- look at what's happening with books by black authors, Beloved by Toni Morrison now being taken out of schools, Black authors Nikole Hannah-Jones again 1619 project just recently disinvited from Middlesex School because of her work that seriously challenged America and I think this is what really --

    Kmele Foster:
    I'd say that's all evidence of cancel culture, by the way.

    Karen Attiah:
    Well, I don't see -- I didn't see your side advocating for her and --

    Kmele Foster:
    I most certainly -- I most certainly have, as have a number of the Harper's letter signatories. We are concerned about that as well.

    John Donvan:
    I want to bring -- I want to bring Eric and Gary back into the conversation a little bit more.
  • 00:36:00
    And I want to do that, Eric, by taking to you what I think I heard Gary's point being, not that he was talking about state sanctioned censorship in the United States, but more that as a former Soviet citizen, he knows curtailment and crushing of free speech when he sees it, and that he feels that that's happening not at the state level, but in that sort of cultural way here. I want to take that thought to you, but framing it around this question. You made the point also that the sort of pushback from previously marginalized communities is actually kind of a social good that now communities that didn't have a voice and could not stand up to people who are complaining about cancel culture now can. But I'm wondering what the goal is. Is the goal merely to be heard? Or is the goal of pushing back to silence the other side, to punish the other side, to remove the other side from positions of power?
  • 00:37:03
    Because that's what your opponents I think are saying cancel culture is about. It's not just having an opposing point of view and being heard, they're complaining that it's a power play again, similar to the Soviet Union, to silence the views that they don't want to have out there and to punish those who hold those views. I want to ask you, is that, you know, is that an accurate description of the motivation of people who are pushing back against those in power by calling them out?

    Erich Hatala Matthes:
    Yeah, it's an interesting question, John. I mean, I, of course, can't speak to the motivations of anybody who participates in social activism that might be lumped into this cancel culture umbrella. I think that a lot of people who get, you know, pegged with this cancel culture label are really looking for institutional reform, and they're doing that via protesting or calling out behavior of particular individuals. I think that there are occasions when the sort of focus on the speech of particular individuals can actually be a bit of a distraction from those more institutional aims.
  • 00:38:05
    But I think if you really pay attention to what activists are saying, that's what they want, right? So it's like, go back to this recent Chapelle case. So like Dave Chappelle was like out there being like, "Oh, I'm being canceled," but who lost their job? Right? The trans employee at Netflix who helped to organize the walkout in protest is the one who lost their job, and they published an op-ed in The Washington Post where they said explicitly, they were like, "I'm not trying to cancel Dave Chappelle." We're talking about working towards changes at this institution that they work at. And I think that's really ultimately what a lot of activism is geared towards is sort of making changes at the institutional level that are going to influence what we are ultimately exposed to. Critics of cancel culture focus a lot on the sort of after the fact, right? What's the response to speech? But that just obscures the many ways in which people are canceled before the fact because of the way that our institutions are set up?
  • 00:39:04
    Right. So, you know, Karen was talking about publishing. The publishing industry is 82 percent white. That's going to affect the kind of content that gets produced, right? So what are people really agitating for? I think they're agitating for institutional reform that's going to yield a more diverse set of voices without some being pushed to the top where they need to sometimes be protested against.

    John Donvan:
    Gary, I just want you to jump into the conversation with what you're thinking.

    Gary Kasparov:
    Oh, yes, our opponents are just trying just to push the debate show just in the opposite direction, you know? I'm still struggling to understand the couple here in this argument, but basically they try to politicize everything and pretend that, you know, the cancel culture is an invention of those who are trying to stay in power. Kmele responded that 99 percent of those who signed the Harper letter, you know, they were on the left of the political center. And they probably do not differ very much with Eric and Karen on many political issues.
  • 00:40:02
    But they expressed concern about the threat, an explicit threat to the freedom of speech. One of the signatories was J.K. Rowling, who was immediately attacked. And that's classic. You know, this is the way that this cancel culture operates. It's not about the content, but it's about an individual. So she was attacked and a few other people saying they were too prominent to sign such letters. Wow, that's not cancel culture. How are you denied the rights of a prominent individual to express political concerns? And I could say again, as I pointed out twice already, there are dozens and dozens of dissidents who have real experience dealing with oppressive regimes. They are really concerned looking at America, which is, by the way, I said, the still freest country in the world, how the freedom of speech, which is an absolute fundamental reason of American success. And I believe because of freedom of speech, many of the problems that Karen presented that have been dealt with in the past are still being dealt with.
  • 00:41:04
    They are successfully addressed. It's a freedom of speech. But when you have this discussion as if there are not dozens, if not hundreds of cases from universities where the small but loud groups of students and activists prevented speakers to show up and nine out of ten, if not 99 --

    John Donvan:
    Let me break in. I wanted to get to a few specific examples, because we often say in Intelligence Squared that data is not the plural of anecdote, but I do think we need some anecdotes here and you just brought one up or a class of anecdotes of instances of students protesting the appearance of individuals on campus. And sometimes those individuals have been allowed to speak, sometimes they have not, or they've chosen not to. But I want to take it to Karen and Eric that question. Is that -- do you consider it an appropriate use of counter speech to prevent somebody from having a platform? Is that -- when -- that is the classic example of what your opponents are saying is canceling and cancel culture?
  • 00:42:03
    And it concerns them. I want to know what your take is on that sort of situation, and I have a few more that I want to get to. But Karen or Eric, either of you can take that question.

    Karen Attiah:
    Yeah, I find again, the focus of so much of this discussion is on the harm done to again, you know, prominent, visible and usually powerful individuals. And even if we take the case of students who are protesting speakers without any specifics here, there -- you haven't really, you know, if we're talking about freedom of speech and discourse. And I think it's not just about speech, but it's about listening. And I think what is happening now is we're in a cultural shift. We're definitely in a cultural shift where younger people, the next generation after mine frankly, is super vocal about the world that they want to live in.
  • 00:43:00
    Super vocal about climate change, about the environment, about freedom for those who identify as anything other than outside of traditional, you know, gender norms. And I think this is a very good thing. Again, I still feel -- I still haven't heard -- I still feel a lot of just sort of general this is bad, this is terrible. As some people say, they have been [unintelligible]. But I think what we should be focusing on again, not so much about what's being toxic, but honestly about what's being healed The Dave Chappelle controversy and all these controversies, I think what I see as being healing is much more than acceptance and much more dialog about trans people that we are seeing more shows and more voices about what they go through, seeing more voices from Black America, from Latinx America. I think that is actually what is healing. And I think a lot about this discussion that we're having here, and as I'm hearing my opponent speak, it's that saying, you know, to someone, when someone pushes for a little bit of equality, equality feels like oppression.
  • 00:44:04
    I think that's what people are using their voice, using protest, using whatever meager tools they have, whether it's to try to push for just basic equality and to be heard --

    John Donvan:
    If the consequence of that, if a consequence of that --

    Karen Attiah:
    Consequence for who?

    John Donvan:
    For the people -- for an individual who is speaking and others who hold their point of view is that they become afraid to talk, is that advancing dialog or should they just put on their big boy pants and go ahead and hold their views, even if it means that they might lose their jobs or be ganged up on Twitter, et cetera?

    Karen Attiah:
    I would ask, can you provide me widespread examples of that? I'm not denying that, as I said before, I'm not denying that there is discomfort. I'm not just denying that there is fear a little bit about how are we supposed to refer to those who are trans?
  • 00:45:01
    What pronouns should we use? How should we speak? The answer to that should be, let's listen and let's learn. And I think in terms of consequences, the only consequence, perhaps is those who again, I think back to what Eric said, it's not so much about individuals. I care somewhat less in some ways, and I'm speaking as somebody who, you know, folks attempted to cancel me. I have said about white America and things that I had written in the Post, I've been the subject of this. So for me to defend [unintelligible] on this, I hope, counts for something.

    Kmele Foster:
    I think that's I'd say, I think that's a pretty profound admission. And I'm one, sorry that you experienced that because I've talked to many people who have and it is not comfortable. I'd also say that it isn't to your advantage, at least from arguing the proposition to suggest that you've also been subjected to this, that you know that this is a thing. You know --
  • 00:46:00
    Karen Attiah:
    But you know what, I don't call it cancel culture.

    Kmele Foster:
    Perhaps not. Again --

    Karen Attiah:
    I call it white America being [inaudible] --

    Kmele Foster:

    Karen Attiah:
    -- this has always happened. And so this is why I'm not fazed by all of a sudden like cancel culture being this crazy threat. Oppression has been around and with us for a long time. It's just the fact that those who are now the subjects of us finally black when there are so few black women in the spaces that I'm in, the fact that I'm finally -- people like me are finally being able to call out, you know, white America for what it is and what it pretends to be. And then meeting that backlash. I mean, that's how America has worked, and that's what has kept people like me from being in positions of power for such a long time. So to hear that all of a sudden, you know, for me to -- for people like me to use what -- there's so many people who don't have the platforms that I have. So, when I see that they're using Twitter, that they're using whatever power they have to try to address harm, you know, I get it's uncomfortable.
  • 00:47:00
    I get it, but I actually think we're moving in many ways in the right direction for those who are, if I insist and systematically -- one more point. It's just institutionally, I think we're seeing institutions respond. We're seeing my institution, you know, we're using -- we're changing our style of language in turn to be more inclusive. We're changing our hiring practices. We're now understanding that like, yes, people are angry, and there are political uses for anger and there are constructive uses. I know that there are --

    Kmele Foster:
    I think I'd like to unpack some of the things that you've that you've put out there because you've put out a lot of stuff, some of which I think is actually really important. I mean, I want to concur with you that there are more voices in the discussion, that there are a number of young people who are using new tools to try and have their voices heard. But I'd also like to go back to campus for a moment if I can. We talked about disinvitations and I'm on the board of Advisors for Fire and an organization that advocates for free speech on campus again for organizations and persons who are both on the left and the right.
  • 00:48:07
    And what Fire saw last year was a tremendous spike in disinvitations, something like 70 percent from 2019 to 2020. Mind you, we're talking about a year during which most people weren't really on campus in 2020. So that's a pretty profound spike. And what that suggests here is that these new groups are in fact using new tactics. And the preferred tactic for many people in these groups is that when they encounter speech, they don't like, their goal is to try to prevent this person from talking. And I think that project of trying to stamp out discrimination and bigotry or racism, not by engaging with people who they believe have perhaps a malevolent project or malevolent intent, but by getting them -- making it impossible for them to come to campus to have the conversation is important.
  • 00:48:58
    And I would say that a 70 percent spike in disinvitations -- even if you want to dispute the data there and say, in actual instances of this, getting reported to people is not inconsequential. It is evidence of precisely what you and I agree is taking place. There is a change, a sea change in terms of who is kind of controlling the reins of power here. And when we talk about power, let's not pretend that social media mobs are not a profound manifestation of power.

    John Donvan:
    I want to bring Eric into --
    [talking simultaneously]

    I want -- I want to bring Eric. Karen, if you don't mind, may I bring Eric back into the conversation because you're closer to this academic world right now than anybody? So if you could jump in?

    Erich Hatala Matthes:
    Yeah, I mean, you correct me if I'm wrong, but I think I'm the only one of us who actually works on a college campus. And I. Often find that, you know, the hand wringing about the state of discourse on college campuses that you see in the Op-Ed pages is blown wildly out of proportion, right? Like all I do every day is sit in rooms with students and talk about difficult material.
  • 00:50:02
    Talk about contentious issues, right? I teach ethics. And I can assure you that those debates are alive and well on college campuses. Moreover, the idea that students might protest speakers is nothing new. Students on college campuses have been protesting speakers for ages. If there is some sort of like Kmele suggested, some sort of like increase in disinvitations in the i previous year, I want to go back to what I said before. When we talk about cancel culture, there's always this focus on the after the fact as opposed to before the fact, right? Like, inviting somebody to campus requires a judgment call, right? Everybody is free to speak, but nobody is entitled to particular platforms for their speech. Nobody's entitled to speak at a particular event or speak in a particular campus. So if somebody mistakenly invites somebody and then others bring to their attention, you know what, that might not have been the best choice for this particular event. Let me explain why to you, right?
  • 00:51:02
    It's not actually that shocking or necessarily bad that the organizers then say, "Oh, you know what? You were right? We messed up. We shouldn't have invited this person for this purpose in the first place." I don't think that's objectionable. That's progress.

    Garry Kasparov:
    Oh, that's an amazing confession. Thank you very much. Basically, you proved our proposition because right now, you made a case for cancel culture. So the rights of groups of people do express the protest against free speech. It's absolute nonsense. Oh, these people don't deserve the platform. We're not talking about somebody selling Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin or mass crimes. We're talking about science. We're like, professor from Chicago was invited to MIT to talk about astrophysics. And he was disinvited because of something he said thought that unrelated to the topic. And that's exactly what has been happening, and that's what our point is trying to escape from.

    Erich Hatala Matthes:
    No, that's a completely complete misreading of the case --
  • 00:52:02
    Garry Kasparov:
    It's clear cut. So, you don't think that some people are entitled to free speech because you believe or some of your students or whoever believe that they are not, you know, they should be disinvited since their views are not comfortable.

    John Donvan:
    This concludes round two of this Intelligence Squared U.S. debate where our resolution is "Cancel Culture is Toxic." So here's where we are. We are about to hear brief closing statements from each debater in turn. These statements will be two minutes each, and it's their last chance to try to change your minds because right after this, we're going to ask you to vote for that second time. So here, making his final statement in support of the motion "Cancel Culture is Toxic," here is Kmele Foster.

    Kmele Foster:
    Well, thank you for that, John. I'm going to deviate from my planned comments here. I think what's really important to underscore is that when we talk about a culture of free speech as opposed to the legal protections that are afforded to all Americans by the Constitution, protecting them from the government interfering with their ability to speak.
  • 00:53:00
    Those legal -- this legal culture -- this culture of free speech is something that directly relates to our ability to engage in civil discourse, to have open dialog, to debate important issues. It actually creates opportunities for minority viewpoints to be expressed in public. It is part of the framework that had allowed for the robust activism of the civil rights movement. We know that when people were engaged in things like, say, a boy counter -- a counter demonstration where they came in they sat in at some sort of dining establishment that had been previously discriminatory, their goal was very simple. They wanted to be included. They didn't want to be forcefully excluded from different environments on account of their race. They achieved their goal and they used that culture and those tools. And that is precisely what I am most concerned about and what Gary is most concerned about and what so many people who are worried about cancel culture are concerned about.
  • 00:54:00
    Our cultural willingness to engage with ideas that are not our own, our willingness to forcefully rebut when necessary, but also to explore possibilities that exist among people who we may not interact with on a regular basis. On university campuses in particular, this manifests itself in a number of pernicious ways. You have publication bias, a very real phenomenon where people won't even ask particular questions if they fear that they run afoul of some sort of sacred zeitgeist. We don't need dogmas; what we need is a culture of free speech that values genuine inclusiveness, and that puts the hard work of confronting bad ideas where it belongs with us.

    John Donvan:
    Thank you, Kmele Foster. And next up to be making an argument, his closing argument against the resolution that cancel culture is toxic, here is Erich Hatala Matthes.
  • 00:55:00
    Erich Hatala Matthes:
    So I'm going to tell a quick story that I think illustrates the arguments that we've been making today. The French painter Paul Gauguin engaged in sexual abuse of teaching girls, and so some people in responding to those facts have argued that we need to do a better job of contextualizing his work in museums, right? We need to be honest about the things that he did and their relevance to our understanding of his work. So, the New York Times ran an article about this a couple of years ago, and that very point is the most critical point that was made in the article, right? That we shouldn't take Hogan's paintings down, but they should -- we should take his actions seriously and contextualize the work. What was the article titled? "Is it time Gauguin got canceled?" So this is just a perfect illustration of the way in which the specter of cancel culture is used to obscure attention from the very legitimate and plausible criticisms that people sometimes make in response to immoral phenomenon.
  • 00:56:03
    And if you're not very particularly compelled by cases about the arts, right, consider that on the heels of the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th, when people were critical of the fact that the then President Donald Trump was not taking a stronger stand against the insurrection, Representative Jim Jordan said, "Oh, people are trying to cancel him." That's where the idea of cancel culture ends up doing. It functions as a shield so that people can try to avoid legitimate criticism. And that is why you should vote against this resolution.

    John Donvan:
    Thank you very much, Eric. And here to make his final argument in a closing statement in support of the motion, "Cancel Culture is Toxic," Garry Kasparov.

    Garry Kasparov:
    As the saying goes, the solution for the problems with free speech is just bringing more free speech. Terrible ideas can and should be confronted without promoting those who hold them.
  • 00:57:00
    People should be held accountable, but they should not be held hostage. I'm not afraid for myself, I've faced real mobs, not just Twitter mobs. I've had my Russian website banned in Putin's Russia, my offices raided my friends and colleagues beaten, jailed or worse. The victims of cancel culture are not multimillionaire authors or famous comedians we mentioned in our conversation. But seeing them attacked so viciously sends a clear message to those who do not have their protections and advantages. The real victims are the same people who always suffer most when fundamental rights come under attack.
  • 00:58:00
    They will stay quiet and even paralyzed while the powerful are entitled get louder. That is real, that is dangerous, and that is toxic. Meanwhile, we are debating here -- all debating here. And it's privilege, and I doubt that any one of us would like to live in a world where it couldn't happen. In a world where we could be scared for our career or for our families because we might say something tonight. I have live already in two of these worlds and I'm here arguing because I don't want to live in the third. And I urge you to support the proposition. So, my American born kids do not repeat the experience of the Soviet born father. Thank you.
  • 00:59:00
    John Donvan:
    Thank you very much, Garry Kasparov. And finally, with our last argument, it will be against the resolution that cancel culture is toxic. Here is, please, Karen Attiah.

    Karen Attiah:
    Thank you so much. Again, I would like to urge audiences to vote no against this resolution of cancel culture being toxic. Our opponents have made all sorts of statements and all sorts of -- expressed their fears about a supposed very, very evil and dark turn that the U.S. is going down. But so far have not -- we've come full circle on just -- it's a mishmash of ideas about what cancel culture really is, and I would propose a different way to look at what's really happening. And what is really happening is a cultural shift on multiple levels, on multiple fronts. And what is happening is cultural shifts have always been uncomfortable.
  • 01:00:00
    Norms changing have always been uncomfortable. Generational divides and differences have always been uncomfortable. And I think what is happening is that the blinds are being taken off of so many people who have long been subjected to frankly, erasure by this -- by our society. And so I would say is that we're actually not in a moment of deep, deep toxicity of polarization, what is actually happening is that we are having more speech and there is more visibility and more healing, and we're inching towards justice. And I actually fear that when these trends of cancel culture and wokeism and social justice warriors, but that actually is is backlash to the progress that has been made, backlash to the progress that Me Too made, backlash to the progress that Black Lives Matter has made, backlash to the progress that trans and LGBT people have made in making themselves a little bit, just a little bit more of the center than they were before.
  • 01:01:03
    And it's just unfortunate that them making themselves a little bit more of the center causes fear and status anxiety and those who have long had power. I think we are in a better place and this new culture of inclusivity, this new culture of justice is one that I believe we should fully embrace, not see as toxic, but more as us, as a society trying to live up to our ideals.

    John Donvan:
    Thank you, Karen Attiah, and thank you to all of our debaters, because that concludes the final round of this Intelligence Squared U.S. debate. All right, everybody, it's now time for our second vote. And remember, it's the side that changes the most minds between the first and the second vote that will be declared our winner. We're going to do this as the same way as before. We'd like you to go back to, and there you will get the same choices to say that you are for or against or undecided the statement that "Cancel culture is toxic."
  • 01:01:57
    And as I mentioned earlier, we're keeping this vote open for seven days, and at the end of those seven days, we will announce a winner on our website With that said, I want to say something to all four debaters. It was clear that you had some very sharp disagreements about the -- both the statement, the debate itself, the nuances, et cetera. But what you all did, the way in which you brought -- you, argued all of you, you know, honestly, without cynicism, with facts, with examples, and most of all, I think with respect for one another. That was -- that just came through. It's really, really what we aim for in Intelligence Squared. And I want to thank you all for how you competed in this debate, which is a competitive event, but you all did it with such style and class. So thank you from me and from all of us on Intelligence Squared.

    Multiple Speakers:
    Thank you.
  • 01:02:58
    John Donvan:
    And now that the competition is over, I would like to say all of you who are joining us that this really has been a good debate and the topic is extremely important. And in addition to thanking our debaters, I want to thank all of you for tuning in. We really appreciate your interest in this and what we do. We've been now doing this for many years where we've done more than 200 debates at this level. We appreciate your support and your commitment. And as I say, at the end of every debate, we're a nonprofit. We rely on the support of the public to keep this going. So if you would like to support us, we would love it. And you can do that by going to, and there's going to be a chance there for you to donate to keep this going. We put it out to the world for free. It's used in schools around the country, at the high school level, even the elementary school level and certainly at the college level. So you'll be taking part in an educational endeavor if you support us. So I want to say thank you to all of you for joining us and for supporting us.
    [music playing]


15 %
67 %
17 %



23 %
70 %
7 %



23 %
Change in voter behavior
13% - Remained on the Side
5% - Swung from the Side
5% - Swung from Undecided
70 %
Change in voter behavior
2% - Swung from the Side
60% - Remained on the Side
8% - Swung from Undecided
7 %
Change in voter behavior
0% - Swung from the Side
4% - Remained Undecided
3% - Swung from the Side

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