In late Republic America, conservatives complaining about being “canceled” or “silenced” while holding forth in mainstream newspapers or on national television shows is so routine it has become cliché. People like Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens have made their entire careers into complaining about how they aren’t allowed to have careers. It’s like they are the only ones who can’t hear themselves over the sound of their own braying.
The newest member of this “society of the silenced” to have been granted a platform to complain about her lack of a platform is Emma Camp. Camp is a college senior of the University of Virginia who self-describes as a “liberal who has attended abortion rights and written about standing up to racism”; she has also written for the conservative publication Reason and interned at the nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. On Monday, she got an op-ed in The New York Times to complain about [checks notes] having to lower her voice for fear that other students might hear what she thinks.
I’m not exaggerating. Her piece starts by complaining about feeling like she needs to speak in “hushed tones” during a professor’s office hours and goes on to bemoan the closing of doors so roommates don’t have to hear defenses of Thomas Jefferson (at the university he founded with profits from his slaveholding plantation). Nothing bad has happened to Camp or to the other UVA students she quotes in her article for anecdotal support. Camp complains that her defense in class of the right of white people to criticize other cultures made other students in the same class angry with her. She complains that writing columns in her student newspaper “implor[ing] students to embrace free expression” caused her to “lose friends” and face “a Twitter pile-on.”
Her problem, according to her, is the need to “self-censor.” She’s apparently annoyed that she can’t say every single thought in her head without being “shamed” for the quality of those thoughts.
At this point I have to mention that Camp is white, because her self-reported problems make a lot more sense once you know that. In contrast, “self-censorship” is just part of the normal, everyday experience of non-white students at white American colleges. In fact, one of the reasons historically Black colleges and universities are still a thing is that they are some of the only places in the educational landscape where Black people don’t have to censor their thoughts and beliefs in order to play nice with white folks. Hushed tones? I’m a 43-year-old Black man with my own opinion column, and there are tons of thoughts I don’t give voice to in mixed company.
Now, I am a grown man who has seemingly devoted his life to bothering white conservatives; Camp is a college student just starting out on her journey. I don’t think Camp, or any college senior, should be elected off the island for expressing unrefined thoughts in office hours. Then again, most college seniors do not get the opportunity to share their unrefined thoughts in The New York Times. The Times certainly doesn’t seem to be giving those column inches to Black students to muse about self-censorship at UVA. The paper did this student no favors by holding her out as an example of censorship in the same week Florida passed its “Don’t Say Gay” bill, while Republican governors continue to censor the teaching of Black history in American schools. Of all the news that is fit to print, it’s hard to see how this piece made the cut.
And that’s really all Camp’s article is about. A publication that cared about her might have given her some writing tips, but the Times let this 22-year-old flag a crisis in university education over some normal instances of self-control that non-white students exhibit every day. They let her claim that the penalties for refusing to self-censor are “steep,” but then let her illustrate these penalties with quotes from a white college Republican. Steve (whose last name I’ll omit because I’m more gentle than The New York Times) is literally a member of the college debate club, but just can’t handle it when politics comes up in the classroom. “It’s very anxiety inducing.”
That’s it. That’s the “steep” penalty. A white boy has become anxious in Charlottesville. A recent study found that 75 percent of Black men and women will develop hypertension by the age of 55, compared to just 54 percent of white men and 40 percent of white women, but young Steve from debate is very anxious every time he has to talk about politics, so let’s all think about how to make it easier for him to support the insurrection party while at a college located with in spitting distance of a deadly white supremacist rally.
I would argue that what people like Camp and Steve and Weiss and others are afraid of isn’t being “canceled.” They’re afraid of being held accountable. Nobody is preventing the students Camp is defending from saying whatever it is they want to say. But if they say it, they might have to defend it to people who disagree. They might have to defend their words to a future employer.
It’s not the need to defend speech that motivates the people most invested in decrying “cancel culture”; it’s the dislike of consequences. That’s why this week the person talking most loudly about cancel culture is former New York governor Andrew Cuomo.
In a speech at God’s Battalion of Prayer Church in Brooklyn, the former governor cast himself as a victim of “cancel culture,” which he described as a frightening form of extremism. Cuomo has long portrayed the allegations of sexual harassment and assault against him as mere misunderstandings arising out of shifting generational norms. According to reports, Cuomo repeated the phrase “cancel culture” over a dozen times.
The through line from Camp to Cuomo is that they’re both acting like the imperative to behave in public is some kind of newfangled totalitarian directive dreamed up by the left. But it’s not. It has long been verboten to insult other people’s cultures in class or kiss women without their consent. Being decent in public is not new, and before 2016, before white people elected an embarrassing con man whose ignorance was only outstripped by his bigotry and misogyny, I feel like we all knew that decency was a normal public expectation.
Having inhibitions is a fairly normal thing in civilized society: People do not do in public the full range of things they might conceivably be able to get away with doing under the law. And when people say things or do things that transgress the norms shame of their community or society, even things that do not rise to the level of crimes, they might get for it. Indeed, all societies have been constructed around concepts of honor and shame—society nobody would call “woke.” If anything, American shamelessness is what makes us exceptional on the global stage.
Camp and Cuomo are free to revel in their impolitic impoliteness. They’re free to say what they want, to whomever they want, whenever they want to. What they can’t do is make people like them. They can’t make people want to be around them. That is what seems to be bothering them at the moment.