It's Not Self-Censorship If You’re Writing About Your Bad Opinions in the Atlantic

In the past several weeks, there have been two articles published in huge outlets decrying the next stage of cancel culture: self-censorship. Too bad they’re B.S.

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Stacy Lee Kong

Mar 18 2022

11 mins read

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Writer Sarah Hepola. (Image: sarahhepola.com)

‎I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we’re living in dangerous times. No, not because Florida’s senate recently passed the controversial Parental Rights in Education act, the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill that bans schools from teaching students about sexual orientation and gender identity—and could potentially prohibit mere discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity, according to a recent NBC News explainer. Not because Texas governor Greg Abbot issued an edict in February that requires the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents who seek out gender-affirming care for their children, something the department had actually started doing until a Texas judge issued a temporary injunction earlier this week. Not even because more than 25 U.S. states have introduced legislation banning schools from teaching students about “divisive concepts”—a.k.a., white supremacy, male privilege, white privilege, equity, unconscious bias and systemic racism.

According to recent essays published in two of North America’s most prestigious publications—the Atlantic and the New York Times—we’re living in dangerous times because people are… ‘self-censoring’ (🙄) to avoid public shaming by an out-of-control woke mob.

‎I don’t mean to pile on, because Twitter has certainly (and fairly) been dunking on these essayists for days now, but I do want to unpack this idea a little bit, because I think it’s where the already bad-faith discourse around cancel culture is going to go next, and that’s pretty scary.

What’s Sarah Hepola ‘scared to write about’? That she sympathizes with accused rapists, for one thing

Let’s start with the most recent piece: Texas writer Sarah Hepola’s Atlantic article, a rambling, illogical screed that was full of fallacious arguments. On a very petty level, it was poorly written and felt barely edited. Far worse, it sets up an idea—‘we’ writers are too scared of professional exile by “liberal media elites” to share our honest opinions about things like #MeToo—then neglects to define who she's talking about, provide proof this is happening or often even disclose what those honest opinions even are.

Proof: “From 2015 to 2021, my private conversations were some of the best I’ve ever had,” Hepola writes. “Taboo subjects have always been delectable, but suddenly we were living in a time when so much that was once considered fair game for discussion (education, biological differences, the benefits of policing) had become dangerous. Phone dates with writer friends in other parts of the country stretched to two and three hours as we worked out essays we would never write, toggling between outrage, despair and armchair cultural analysis of the latest dustup.”

Who were those writers? (I mean… we know who they were, even if we don’t know who they were, but stick with me for a minute.) What about education? What do you mean by ‘biological differences,’ and who are these differences between? What benefits of policing? And why does she think these questions aren't fair game for debate? Based on the uh, entire premise of her piece and the sneaky weasel words she drops—“red-pilled,” “elite media tribes,” “moral panic”—it's clear she's trying to imply that some hypothetical progressive overlords have changed the rules about acceptable conversations, but in reality, all of those things are being debated ad nauseum, often in deeply problematic ways. Also: it’s very annoying to see someone ramble on about how scared she is of saying the wrong thing... in a prestigious magazine that’s probably paying her a couple of bucks per word. Especially when she plays fast and loose with facts in order to convince the reader that her fears are justified.

For example, Hepola makes the absolutely bizarre choice to use the Brock Turner rape case as an anecdote to illustrate how complicated issues become one-sided in public discourse. Her argument, essentially, is that Chanel Miller, Turner’s victim, was able to “control the narrative” around the case despite being an unreliable narrator because of her searing victim-impact statement. Hepola says since Miller was blackout drunk and couldn't remember the details, her statement turned what should have been a “he said, she said” case into a slam dunk, with Turner the one being dunked on. Only, as CBC producer Allie Jaynes pointed out on Twitter, this wasn’t a “he said, she said” situation—there was eyewitness testimony from two Swedish students who saw Turner assault Miller and from police who arrived on the scene shortly after the assault. What’s more, Jaynes argues, Miller’s victim-impact statement was published in Buzzfeed after Turner was already tried, convicted and sentenced. There had already been months of media coverage, and Turner’s dad had written his own viral statement, all of which has contributed to the public understanding of this case.

Despite all this, Hepola had to argue that the public's understanding of this situation was flawed because otherwise, she doesn't have an argument. She's just saying she sympathizes with Turner, wants to express that publicly—but doesn’t want to be criticized for doing so. “The unsavory truth is that, as someone who has done Very Stupid Things while drinking, I also sympathized with Turner,” she writes. “The unsavory truth is that I sympathized with many of these men: Johnny Depp, Ryan Adams, Brett Kavanaugh, every booze-soaked dumbass who has been accused of doing or saying things he may or may not remember, may or may not regret, may or may not have done while under the influence. But being sympathetic to these fallen creatures—a trait instilled by literature, my mother and Oprah—had been declared a sin.”

Of course, this is a made-up problem. The contrarian opinions Hepola hints at having? They're everywhere—among politicians, pundits and regular people alike. Lots of people sympathize with Brett Fucking Kanavaugh, my dude. That's why he was confirmed to America's Supreme Court.

Hepola is not the only essayist who has recently, and dramatically, tackled self-censorship

When I finally managed to read all of Hepola’s piece (again I ask, did anyone edit it?!), I immediately thought of Emma Camp, the University of Virginia student who claimed in recent a New York Times essay that her fellow students were too scared of cancel culture to meaningfully debate contentious topics.

‎‎‎Her “college experience has been defined by strict ideological conformity,” she writes. “Students of all political persuasions hold back—in class discussions, in friendly conversations, on social media—from saying what we really think… In the classroom, backlash for unpopular opinions is so commonplace that many students have stopped voicing them, sometimes fearing lower grades if they don’t censor themselves.”

She goes on to say that, “eventually, [class] discussions became monotonous echo chambers. Absent rich debate and rigor, we became mired in socially safe ideas.”

Only… as with Hepola, the examples Camp chooses to illustrate her point don’t quite tell the whole story. At one point, she references a discussion in her feminist theory class during her sophomore year: “I said that non-Indian women can criticize suttee, a historical practice of ritual suicide by Indian widows. This idea seems acceptable for academic discussion, but to many of my classmates, it was objectionable.” But according to a UVA alum who says they were also in that class, she didn’t accurately describe the debate. “The issue we discussed then was how the article chose to ignore historical reality in order to presently criticize an entire culture as ritualistic and sadistic,” Jacob Oleander wrote on Twitter. “The class didn’t have an issue with Emma disagreeing—the problem was that her argument was bad.”

I’m inclined to believe the same goes for many of Camp’s sources—the Republican student who sometimes lies about his beliefs because they are not popular at liberal-leaning UVA, the progressive student who disagreed with her professor and classmates when they characterized Captain Marvel as a feminist film and felt like a victim of a pile-on when they told her they thought she was wrong, the conservative prof at left-leaning Sarah Lawrence College who characterized “Black Lives Matter and justice for women as well as for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual and allied people” as “politically lopsided” in a 2018 New York Times op-ed, which inspired someone to vandalize his door.

The problem is, what these people characterize as backlash and vilification is often just disagreement. They're not facing actual consequences, much less censorship; they're just embarrassed that their special little opinions aren't met with widespread praise and support. Like... why are we pretending that it's a good-faith argument to say that you're being silenced when people are really just replying to your opinion with their own?

Let’s spare a thought for the people who actually get silenced, please? 

Interestingly, self-censorship is happening in post-secondary education. But the people it’s affecting most aren’t the ones Camp is talking to. Journalist and Davidson College James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy Issac Bailey is tracking it on his campus, and he agrees with early research by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) that indicates students of all political stripes are censoring themselves.

But, he says, “the existence of self-censorship is not really the issue. Think back to when you were that age. You likely self-censored, like most of us did—and do. That's why the real question isn't the what but rather the why… There is a good bit of data showing that about 8 in 10 students say their institutions encourage them to speak up and [they] have never been discriminated against for doing so. But that data also shows that ‘a higher proportion of students of color report feeling unsafe on campus because of others’ speech.”

I can tell you with absolute certainty that self-censorship is a thing in media, too. But again, not in the way Hepola seems to think. Every racialized journalist I know who wrote about their experiences in Canadian media during 2020’s so-called ‘racial reckoning’ agonized over it, weighing the value of finally getting to say out loud what so many of us have experienced with the risk of, well, saying out loud what so many of us have experienced. The gatekeepers and decision-makers who didn’t hire us, or nixed our story ideas, or branded us as difficult hadn’t actually gone anywhere, so what if telling these stories came back to haunt us? I was genuinely scared I was doing irreparable harm to my career when I wrote about my experiences, and I didn’t even name names!

That’s what makes this discourse so frustrating; regardless of how these two essayists identify themselves (as a liberal and a libertarian, respectively), they’re glomming onto a very conservative idea: that the minor discomfort of not being praised for your contrarian ideas is equivalent to the physical, psychic and professional harms caused by systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc. And I honestly think that’s deliberate. I’m not sure anyone who raises the spectre of cancel culture gets taken seriously these days—after all, in almost all cases where people are ‘cancelled,’ what they are experiencing can be better described as criticism and consequences. But how do you disprove it when someone says they’re silencing themselves? You can’t, which makes claims of self-censorship a powerful rhetorical tactic in conservatives’ misinformation toolkit—it’s a bad-faith argument that’s hard to actually argue with.

That’s why we have to consider Hepola and Camp’s essays in the context of these legal bans on critical race theory, Texas’ anti-trans law and Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Through that lens, it’s easy to see how this isn’t really a desire for debate or conversation; it’s about wanting the freedom to say whatever they want without consequence or shame.

But I wish these writers would just be honest, because I’m actually dying to know: what exactly can't they say?


And Did You Hear About…

This book excerpt that explains how My Best Friend’s Wedding changed rom-coms forever.

This excellent Vogue article on Rihanna’s pregnancy style and how it’s a “radical act of optimism and defiance.” 

The TikToker who pretends to be a rich Aussie mum. It is so random, so niche and yes, so, so funny.

How you can help fight the wave of anti-trans legislation being passed in the U.S. right now.

The fact that the Islamophobic Christchurch massacre may have had a Canadian connection—and why many Canadians don’t know that.


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Sarah Hepola
Emma Camp
cancel culture