Opinion

The new free speech bullies

An aerial view of the Withers building at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, USA.
An aerial view of the Withers building at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, USA.

As an academic dean of library services for the past 40 years, I think I have a good eye for what constitutes censorship. Cancel culture, a new term for an old and deadly form of silencing your enemies has recently shown its ugly face and has unmistakably assumed the role of free speech bullies. Not since the McCarthy Era have we seen such proscription of speech, and it appears to be unrelenting. The eagerness with which these new speech bullies seek to prohibit ideas is now ubiquitous, and the desire to cancel scores of individuals from Washington State to, well, the heart of the reddest of Red States, Rock Hill, South Carolina, where I live, is raging.

Cancel culture isn’t just tendentious; it’s also malicious. Dr. Seuss’s books now struggle to remain in the reading canon for children. Dozens of our great writers, including Twain, Shakespeare, Carlyle, and medieval culture and literature, have been canceled. More authors are on the cancel culture chopping block. I find this form of censorship appalling. We all should.

Sadly, this isn’t just a group of louche-minded malcontents, either. With no fanfare, Amazon has decided to withdraw from selling any books it deems hate speech, the first such book being one that dares to question sex reassignment among minors. Cancel culture is so widespread it has its talons even in Congress.

What disturbs most, however, is these new free speech bullies are everywhere. Sure, you might expect to see them and their work in places like Los Angeles, California, Portland, Oregon, or Antifa strongholds like Seattle, Washington. But in the heart of conservative politics in South Carolina?

Sadly, yes. Forty-five days from my retirement, I became a victim of cancel culture for a two-part article I wrote for a professional library magazine in March 2020.  My “crimes” were threefold: daring to call our then plague the Wuhan Virus, a phrase nearly every media in the country had used or was still using; repeating an Obama Administration wordplay (the Kung-Flu), and pointing out East-West culture differences. The second part never saw the light of day but both are here and here.

A maelstrom of maledictions followed, first from the magazine I had written for, for the last 15 years (ironically called  Against the Grain). Not only had the magazine given me my own column, but it had in this instance showcased part one on its front cover as “one to read.” After less than a dozen vocal subscribers complained it to be racist, the magazine unilaterally pulled the piece and apologized for its appearance. It didn’t end there.  The American Library Association and the Asian Pacific Library Association also chimed in. Blood was in the water, and they wanted their part of the prized flesh.

Next, my university employer of 21 years piled on. My articles were censored from our faculty digital archive, and I was paraded before my peers as racist and xenophobic in an email from my provost. She later recommended reading materials for my reeducation. All this took place at Winthrop University, a state institution of about 5500 students in the Palmetto State, a state that elected Republicans in every contested seat in the 2020 elections.

Cancel culture usually ends badly for the victim, including loss of reputation, standing, even employment. While I have lost some reputation in my professional circles, my story ended well. I was able, thanks to some prominent friends (among them my congressman and state senator), my cancel culture moment ended with a written apology from the provost for her overreach sent campus-wide, another apology from the Interim president, and reinstatement of my articles to our digital commons.

At the very least, the First Amendment allows ideas to fight it out in the marketplace of ideas. Some ideas will appeal, others will not, but none are to be silenced from the get-go by someone who deems them unworthy by his or her private definition of the term. The First Amendment isn’t a weapon, or it isn’t supposed to be, especially by an institution of higher learning.

If all of this sounds hyperbolic to you, overblown in a kind of hysterical way, just remember how these things work. If cancel culture can erase my right to free speech in one of the country’s reddest states, it can also come for yours. If men and women of good spirit do nothing, you can count on cancel culture coming for your free speech as well.

I hope for all our sakes; we survive this onslaught.

Mark Y. Herring is professor emeritus, dean of library services from Winthrop University. Herring spent 42 years as dean or director in academic libraries in Tennessee, Oklahoma and South Carolina. He was most recently appointed by Governor Henry McMaster to the South Carolina State Library Board. He resides with his wife, Carol, in Rock Hill.