On March 30th, 2021, the city newspaper Hannoversche Allgemeine (HAZ) reported that the city of Hannover cancelled a lecture by Professor Helmut Bley, a renowned historian of colonialism in Africa, because an activist group, Initiative für Diskriminierungssensibilität und Rassismuskritik (IDiRa), that was also invited as a discussant, protested. Professor Bley was scheduled to speak about “Kolonialgeschichte von Afrikanern und Afrikanerinnen her denken“, as a keynote speech for the International Week against Racism that the city had planned in March. IDiRa’s complaint was that Professor Bley, as a white European male, should not speak authoritatively about the “experiences of Africans”, about the history of colonialism. The city government listened and decided that the planned event itself was untenable. Professor Bley was cancelled, and the subsequent ed op discussions overwhelmingly supported Professor Bley and blamed the city politics for cancelling the venue, as if they succumbed to the pressures of political correctness.
On September 10th, 2021, the same newspaper featured a music ethnologist, Dr. Nepomuk Riva, from the Hannover University of Music, Drama, and Media (HMTMH), who exposed the racist elements in the popular children’s song, “Drei Chinesen mit dem Kontrabass” . This and many other children’s songs, such as “Ein Mann, der sich Kolumbus nannt”, should no longer be taught or sung, because of their racist content and history. They should be cancelled. (The more obviously racist songs, such as “Zehn kleine N..” and “c.a.f.f.e.e.” are already cancelled – they are no longer in print in children’s song books and are said to be discouraged from circulating among Kindergarten teachers.)
Meanwhile, in early 2020, a group of 70 concerned academics formed a Netzwerk Wissenschaftsfreiheit, an association “with the common concern to defend the freedom of research and teaching against ideologically motivated restrictions and to contribute to strengthening a liberal academic climate” (from their Manifesto). The association has now increased to over 580 academic supporters who resist the increasing encroachment of cancel culture and political correctness policing in academia. The signatories feel that certain topics in research and teaching become targets of cancel culture, if they do not self-censure; professors and students today must worry about “moral discredit, social exclusion, or professional disadvantage” and avoid expressing their views, for fear they might be labeled racist, sexist, anti-Semite, or homophobe. This is a limitation of the constitutional right for the freedom of expression. The claim makes it clear that cancel culture is undemocratic, illiberal, and it has no place in education.
A clear example might be the recent resignation of Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor at Portland State University in Oregon. In his letter of resignation of Sept. 8th, 2021, he explains that the university is now dominated by the “cancel culture ideology”, that it has become a “social justice factory” whereby its “only inputs were race, gender, and victimhood and whose only outputs were grievance and division” . His interest in “searching for truth” in an unbiased manner is met with hostility and retaliation, as the students are taught to mimic the “moral certainty of ideologues”. The university has become illiberal. It is intolerant of diverse views; only those views that promote the now-vogue social justice agendas (feminism, anti-racism, LBGTQ, etc.) are considered legitimate. As he began to speak up and challenged this issue, he has met with hostility and ostracization, so much so that he no longer wishes to stay at the university.
What is cancel culture? It is a public boycott of a person, business, historical practice, or an institution, initiated by a group of people who “call out” (often through social media) the problematic speech or practice. What counts as problematic are usually racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, colonialist, or other such contents that are offensive or hurtful to historically marginalized groups of people. Those who are advocates of anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-anti-Semitism, anti-colonialist, and LGBTQ+-oriented issues boycott (cancel) those who offend and things that offend. It has become increasingly popular in the last several years, especially after the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements. There is an inherent power difference in the political act of cancelling. The historically marginalized, disenfranchised, and oppressed groups call out and cancel those who have said, done, or represent something racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, etc. in public. So it is a form of political speech-act “from below”, a public attempt at an intervention in the dominant discourse. The dominant discourse is historically seen as perpetuating and reproducing structural patterns of racist, sexist, homophobic, neo-colonial domination, even though the legal and political systems are supposed to guarantee equality for all.
The critics of cancel culture claim that it is part of the bad practice of “identity politics”; the so-called oppressed groups – various racial groups, women, LGBTQ+ advocates – are out to wield their own power, perhaps for revenge and compensation, but really just for the sake of staking their own power to dominate. Now the tables have turned in our era of political correctness – it is they who have the power in public discourse. We have all become afraid to say the wrong things, for fear we would be deemed racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., and be cancelled.
How should we understand the debates? Are the critics right, that the so-called marginalized groups have now become too dominant in their cancelling power, making our society undemocratic and illiberal by limiting our freedom of expression through political correctness policing? Is this practice a sign of the “fascism of the left”?
Let me clarify some points. What are the positive and negative motivations of the canceling acts? Their effects? What are the positive and negative motivations and effects of the critics?
First, the positive motivations of canceling and calling out are clear: we call out, or try to cancel the racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic speeches, persons, businesses, practices, etc. so that these disrespectful, hurtful and demoralizing practices would no longer be supported and would hopefully come to an end. The calling-out also functions as a pointer to make explicit what the problematic expressions, speeches, etc. are for the public consciousness. This is for the good of society – we do not wish to live in a world where the marginalized are constantly disregarded publicly, or worse persecuted and killed, and since our default practice still includes structural inequalities and discriminatory practices against those who are marginalized, we feel the need to keep raising our voices.
The negative motivations of canceling might indeed involve resentment and desire for power. The wish is primarily for revenge or domination of their own, instead of aiming at eliminating injustice. The critics mostly criticize this aspect of the cancelling acts – the wielding of power in the name of moral superiority.
In this particular sense, the critics are right to protest – the use of power for its own purposes of domination by cancelling others and forcing them into silence would be undemocratic practice. So the desire of the critics to preserve freedom of expression for all in the democratic society is a good one.
However, what is problematic is that often, the motivation for the criticism of cancel culture has little to do with actually preserving freedom of speech (for cancelling call is also protected by freedom of speech), but actually the critics want either of the following:
- To silence (again) the counterhegemonic discourse, such as the recent passing of right-wing legislature measures in several states in the U.S., making it illegal to teach Critical Race Theory, anything related to anti-slavery movements, the history of slavery, white privilege, white supremacy etc. The current dominant discourse protects white privilege and minimizes the harmful effects of the history of slavery and subsequent structural racism, and they want to keep it that way.
- To let the racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic patterns of discourse be included in our public discourse (for the sake of protecting freedom of expression). The first, silencing counterhegemonic discourse (i.e., anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-colonialist, etc. discourses that challenge the status quo) would be undemocratic, and second, letting the undemocratic racist, sexist, homophobic discourses “just be” would also be undemocratic, as it would only extend or even legitimate the current exclusionary and dehumanizing practices that harms people of color, women, LGBTQ+ and other marginalized groups.
The issue here is the blindness to the concretely existing current structural inequalities, because of the belief and conviction in the formal and legal equality of all citizens. Legal, formal equality masks the actual, substantial inequality. If you are in the position of power and have never experienced the force of structural and systemic disadvantage and marginalization, you are likely to believe that the formal equality translates into real existing reality. But two are not the same.
On Formal Equality and Substantial Structural Inequality: Color-Blindness
To illustrate this difference, let me use a concrete example of color-blindness. Color-blindness has to do with ignoring the so-called “color-markers” which produce racism. Rightly, the laws should not discriminate against people based on their race, nationality, ethnicity, origin, (sexual-orientation, religion, etc.): the laws are formally color-blind and all individuals/citizens, regardless of “color”, should be protected equally under the law. The civil rights movement in the U.S., for example, removed many of the color-based discriminatory laws. In this sense, color-blindness is a formal ideal of democracy that treats everyone, regardless of color, as equal. You are not supposed to “see color” when it comes to human beings. We largely understand color-blindness in this positive sense today and tend to avoid color-based politics, as if “noticing color” is itself racist.
How, then, can color-blindness actually worsen racism? Because for the majority of us nonwhite people, color-blindness has never been lived realities. Historically and politically, we have not had the luxury of ignoring color, as color-based racism is a concrete, substantial, sustained, reality for us. So paradoxically, when we “ignore color”, we can no longer see racism as it functions. Persons may be nonracist and may not in fact register color at all, but social structures reproduce structural racism; if you are a person of color, your chances of getting an apartment, of getting a job, of being promoted on the job, of reaching the top management level, of breaking into the traditionally white professions, of being perceived intelligent and high-achieving, etc. are much harder than your white peers. We are asked to downplay our difference, because “it makes people feel uncomfortable” that we talk about being persons of color in a white society and experiencing racism. We must strive to overcompensate, pretend that racism does not exist, just so that we would appear normal and be accepted. People of color face extra burdens of marginalization and disadvantage in many areas of life, yet such marginalization is interpreted as individual failures. The reality is that it is simply not true that we stand on an “equal” ground as our white peers.
When we speak of our own experiences and perceptions, when we want to discuss racism, how we are fed up, how we want to speak out, we are told that we are overreacting, ungrateful, we are making up some story, we are playing the race card to get some advantage, it’s all identity politics, we just want power, and we should just shut up, because after all we are all equal in our society and we don’t have the right to be treated special, like above and beyond “being equal”. Our testimonies and call-outs are thus met with resistance and anger, and our pleas are discredited, silenced (which is itself an act of violence toward people of color). The dominant discourse is seen to be the legitimate perception of the world and it therefore rules, again because the “ideology” of color-blind equality, which is taken to be the reality, works to erase counterhegemonic interventions that try to challenge the racist status quo. The belief in the principle of color-blind equality, in conjunction with the dominant white society in which the experience of equality is actually more or less the norm, makes substantial color-based inequality invisible, or worse, those who suffer the blunt of racism are blamed for their own shortcomings. (The laws and the system are just and equal; thus if people are not treated equally, then they must have done something wrong to deserve it.) In short, color-blindness makes one not only racism-blind, but in addition it contributes to perpetuating and reproducing racism.
With these points in mind, let me return to the examples at the beginning of the essay.
The Analyses of the Three Examples
The first example: The HAZ report made it sound that the Initiative für Diskriminierungssensibilität und Rassismuskritik (IDiRa) boycotted Professor Bley, because he was a “white European male” trying to represent “Kolonialgeschichte von Afrikanern und Afrikanerinnen her denken“. Granted that Professor Bley probably knows the history of colonialism in Africa better than anyone else, and he probably did not mean literally to represent what the people under colonial violence may have felt, thought, and experienced, the reported incident was problematic on several grounds.
First, the planned venue was supposed to be the International Week against Racism. It would have been more appropriate, then, to invite a speaker who have the perspective and experience of the historical effects of racist colonial violence – because giving time and space for the Betroffene to speak (who are usually silenced) actually belongs to the practice of anti-racist intervention. Who gets to speak is itself an important issue, as the whole problem has been to privilege those who are “experts” on topics such as injustice, which usually meant well-educated academics for whom the issues of injustice is an academic problem. However, racism is not primarily an academic problem. It is a human problem, and extensive academic research may not have been the best criterion for a speaker.
Second, there are so many histories of colonialisms in Africa, and each history is unique in its own context. So “Afrikanern und Afrikanerinnen her denken” would be too generalizing, in fact this is very much a part of how European discourse represents “Africa” as some entity. It is too crude and othering.
Third, in order not to reproduce racism as embodied in public performance and statement, IDiRa had to intervene; the article made it sound as if this organization was wielding power to make trouble for Professor Bley or for HAZ, but it is not a personal battle. The organization has a duty to call out and work to stop the reproduction of racist practice (no matter how subtle and not consciously meant at all), because otherwise the status quo would prevail, with its problematic discourse and exclusionary practice intact. The call-out has a function of making the problematic issues visible, so that we can learn and avoid future mistakes. It is not meant to “blame” or “shame” the target of criticism, in this case Professor Bley.
The second example: Professor Nepomuk Riva’s research shows how these seemingly innocent children’s songs come out of the standard racist sentiments of the day, which were taken for granted and part of the “normal” understanding of the world and its people. What is cancelled is not persons, but a cultural practice in this case.
The song “Drei Chinesen mit dem Kontrabass” was originally supposed to be with “Japansen”, but as Japan and Nazi Germany joined the axis powers in alliance during the Second World War, it was switched to the Chinese. The three Chinese people, with a contrabass, are sitting around on the street (an incongruous picture), and a police officer comes by and wants to know what’s going on. It was a routine then, as it is perhaps also today, for police officers to control strange activities on the street (particularly by foreigners) and usually that is done in a slightly confrontational or at least not in a welcoming manner. (Given the context of National Socialism’s racist policies, the control of the minorities by the police is not a politically neutral picture – it is even more problematic in the context of racial profiling today.) The song then goes on with substituting the vowels a, e, i, o, u, possibly mimicking funny foreign accents.
Historical issues aside, the real problem is more acutely its effects today. As Germany becomes increasingly multicultural, Kindergartens are becoming much more mixed. There are children from Asian families, and the kids feel very uncomfortable with others making fun of them by repeating the song (especially with the other vowels) in a group setting. For many children, the song features “some exotic people” in some funny manner (as it probably has been for most of the population), but for Asian children (regardless of whether they are Chinese or not) the song is about them. They feel singled out, to be made fun of, and it is extremely alienating and hurtful. To say “ach that’s an overreaction, it’s just a song” or “it’s not meant to offend”, or “I’m sick of PC, we’ve always sung this song, no big deal” is to trivialize and ignore the negative effects that the song has on children who are targeted. More than that, if the teachers do nothing or say “well it’s not supposed to be harmful”, then they perpetuate and normalize the hurtful racist practice (which are not perceived as such by the privileged, nicht-betroffene), thereby teaching the children that it is ok to ignore the racist markers in the songs or what the victims are saying. (Victims: die Betroffene would be a better term.) If we teach our children that racist expressions are “no big deal”, we raise them to be insensitive to racism – or even raise them to be racists. What would be called for is to stop perpetuating this pattern for all those who are involved, not just the Betroffene. The cultural practices change over time, and they should change in a more inclusive direction.
The third example: Both Netzwerk Wissenschaftsfreiheit and the outraged philosophy professor Peter Boghossian’s cases point out that the “woke” ideology (which an African-American linguist John McWhorter calls a “New Religion”) of the left-activist professors, nonacademic activists, and similarly convinced students take a moral high ground, and they wield power to control what kind of research and teaching topics are morally and politically acceptable. The problem is often portrayed as ideology that is eroding the objective, rigorous, and unbiased scientific method that seeks to find the truth by considering all possible standpoints.
The claims to democracy and fair considerations of all perspectives are indeed noble goals firmly rooted in liberalism and protected by the constitution. Here again the formal principles are good, and to this extent, the critics of cancel culture are right to protest if this is really the issue. But the problem is more complex than “political woke ideology vs. non-ideological science”.
First, the “objective and fair” considerations of all perspectives have never existed in academia. Up until recently, if you wanted to promote research defending homosexuality, on feminism, on race issues, or anything deviating from the standard Eurocentric imagination of what a proper subject matter of scientific research should be, you are likely to be silenced, excluded, or just not taken seriously from the scientific community. In case of philosophy, it had meant that one stays within the parameters of either philosophy of history (as conceived in the standard Eurocentric manner, from the Greeks to the 21st Century), analytic philosophy, ethics (such as Kant, but without ever mentioning racism), and the like. It is simply not true that previously it was all fair and unpolitical but “recently” a certain force has emerged to control the proper subject matter of research. It has always been selective and certain topics were privileged in the name of “proper science/philosophy”; scholars who were interested in “deviant topics” either had to abandon their interest, or assimilate completely in order to survive or maintain some levels of respectability. This is still true to this day. If one’s area of specialization is in any non-Western philosophy, for instance, that person feels the pressure to prove that she has also mastered the European and American philosophical tradition. What was suppressed before (and still are in philosophy) are also the topics which the anti-cancel culture folks call “ideologically driven subjects”.
Second, this battle over proper areas of research should not be interpreted in an individualistic manner. It is not over who does what kind of research. The focus of cancelling calls aims to alter the structural inequities as well as the academic climate that still tends to reproduce research that uses Eurocentrist, historically exclusionist methodologies and content, such as excluding anything that appears to lack rationality or analytic rigor. The traditionally established class of scholars and their academic culture have always defined what the proper areas and methods of research should be, and others whose interests and methodologies differed had no chance (this is still true today). The pretense to equality and fairness, as well as the claim that cancel culture is making the academic environment illiberal, are therefore disingenuous. The dominant academic culture still has power and privilege in the end, and the “challenges from the marginalized” still have not made much of an impact overall, especially in philosophy. It has a long way to go before philosophy becomes truly inclusive and questions itself on its own history. Until then, we will continue our interventions, and unfortunately, this endeavor may include critical call-outs which may not be welcomed by the dominant group. But without them, the status quo will most likely prevail.
On the surface, cancel culture may appear as if it is identity politics gone wild; the worst off are the white hetero European males and what they represent. But this portrayal by the critics is an unfortunate and unhelpful way to present the public debate. The debate is understood in an individualistic and/or in group identity terms (our group against them), as if all individuals and groups participate in the debate on an equal footing. Against the white hetero-patriarchy, now we (the people of color, women, the LGBTQ+) are going to get even, as if all the players are in different camps on the same level.
This way of portraying the debate results from our belief in the liberalist tradition with its formal equality of individuals and groups. However, the formal equality has never translated into actual equality – it remains an invisible luxury experienced by and defined by the dominant group, and since it belongs to the common discourse, it appears as the “norm” that is taken for granted – after all, it’s in our constitution. But for those who are marginalized, they are told that “of course” equality applies to them as well, but without substantial content. The subtle yet deep structural inequities that produce the marginalized group in the first place keep reproducing themselves, in the school system, in work opportunity, in real estate, etc.
The call-out from the marginalized and the complaint by the dominant group, thus, have different moral weights. They should not be seen as some power game between the equals. The former is a call to more inclusion and true equality, whereas the latter is an attempt to keep the status quo, with its unequal structural issues intact.
In addition, the call outs and cancelling are meant for a more humane and just future. It is not to blame/shame someone or to “destroy tradition”. All traditions change, but the question is how. The tradition of chattel slavery has largely ended, but it was not because the dominant group decided to stop. It had to be fought over, with a great cost. Women’s right to vote has also been fought and achieved in most parts of the world; equality is not completely achieved yet – it is still an upward battle. Homosexuality was medically deemed a sickness, but our public discourse has changed over the years, due to activism. Yet, the prejudices remain. Countless other violence against the marginalized had to be fought against and still need to be fought. Public discourse must change and the common understanding of such issues must evolve. Without the interventions and enormous efforts for a change, terrible practices remain in the name of tradition all over the world.
“But can’t we just promote equality and justice without calling out and propagating cancel culture? It is not helping, as it only agitates us all – it’s counter-productive”, one might say. Who is being agitated? Who wants us to shut up? Feminists have protested the violence against women since the 1970s. Yet, 50 years later we still have the #MeToo movement. Civil Rights activists have fought racism since the 1960s. Yet 60 years later we still have to have #BlackLivesMatter. LGBTQ+ acceptance has a long way to go still. Black folks continue to be killed, teaching anything about the history of racism has been outlawed (again, and this is 2021), women and queer folks everywhere continue to be harassed, trafficked, sold, if not killed. We are told to be “polite” because our anger makes people uncomfortable, but when our being polite and remaining complacent would further perpetuate this violent culture and disregard for life, we won’t remain silent. We continue to call out, and we may sound angry, but we hope you understand.
© Dr. Yoko Arisaka
Dr. Yoko Arisaka is currently a research associate for the DFG project, “Histories of Philosophy in a Global Perspective”, at the Institute for Philosophy, University of Hildesheim. Before coming to Germany, she was an associate professor of philosophy at the University of San Francisco. Her fields of research include political philosophy (including philosophy of race and gender issues), modern Japanese philosophy, and phenomenology.
 Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung, 30.3.2021, S. 15.
 John McWhorter: Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. New York: 2021.