We have fallen a long way from a time when even George Lincoln Rockwell could deliver a speech on campus.
In fall of 1966, hundreds of students and others assembled at Brown University to protest an invited speaker. The atmosphere was charged as protesters held signs, heckled, and yelled expletive-laced condemnations.
Nowadays, attempts to cancel speakers at universities have become commonplace whenever students feel “harmed” by the views of an invited guest. In 1966, though, the students at Brown had just cause to protest. The invited speaker was the founder of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell.
Rockwell was invited to Brown to talk about “white backlash” against the civil rights movement. The intention was to provide the Brown community with insight into the opposition.
With good reason, many students and faculty were fiercely opposed to having Rockwell, an outspoken bigot and proponent of “white power,” on campus. After a rash of protests, including a statement from Professor I.J. Kapstein that Rockwell’s presence would be an “insult to the six million who died” in the Holocaust at the hands of Nazis, the president of Brown apologized and withdrew Rockwell’s invitation.
However, some students and faculty felt that “political censorship” was contrary to academic freedom and freedom of speech. A student group, the “Open Mind” club, was formed and reinvited Rockwell. Again, hundreds of protesters, including Holocaust survivors, justifiably protested, but Rockwell’s speech took place without serious impediment.
In a letter to the Brown Daily Herald, current Brown Professor Ken Miller, who attended the 1966 speech as a student, wrote that Rockwell was unexpectedly “charming, funny and, frankly, disarming.”
Miller shared that he learned a critical lesson that night. It was then that he realized that “true fascism doesn’t begin with the shouting, fist-shaking tyrants we see in newsreels of the 1930s. It enters with charm and wit. Its strategy is to beguile and divide, to offer easy answers to problems like crime and poverty. Blame them on the ‘others,’” as scapegoats.
Rockwell’s skillful delivery of offensive and hateful ideas demonstrated to those who attended how dangerous such people could be. Rockwell’s vile ideals, concealed by his polished veneer, forewarned against complacency here in America. Miller wrote that it made him realize, “It could happen here, and it most certainly would happen if we forgot the lessons of history, lessons that Rockwell brought to life with a sinister smile that evening in Alumnae Hall.”
In 1966, Brown was able to host a morally depraved speaker who was unanimously despised by the student body and there was value to it. More recently, Brown students have protested and successfully “cancelled” speakers such as: Ray Kelly, a New York City police commissioner, over disapproval of his “stop and frisk” policies; and Janet Mock, a black transgender activist, because the co-sponsor of that event, Hillel, a Jewish organization, was deemed offensive by a group of students due to its pro-Israel stance.
There are countless incidents like these in today’s “cancel culture.” Christine Lagarde, chief of the International Monetary Fund, withdrew from speaking at Smith College’s commencement due to criticism over the IMF’s policies in poor nations. Condoleezza Rice was “cancelled” from Rutgers’ commencement due to protests regarding her role in the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Not only do these unfortunate incidents represent invaluable lost learning opportunities as in the Rockwell example, but they more importantly sacrifice core American values of free speech and diversity of opinion in the name of avoiding potential “harm” to listeners.
Today, “cancelling” people—speakers, employees, teachers, journalists—is a common occurrence. There has been a regressive shift in society’s values from honoring respectful discourse and diversity of opinion to a woke paradigm of political morality and conformism.
Intent and context no longer matter. It is now considered acceptable to force a New York Times reporter to resign for engaging in a discussion with a high school student about racial rhetoric, using the n-word only while repeating the student’s question verbatim. A New York City high school teacher was put on leave for refusing to “deliberately use language to demonize white children for being born white.” A professor of business communication was fired because he purportedly offended some students when teaching a class on filler words in other languages. He compared saying “er, um, or like” in English to saying, “the common pause word in Chinese is ‘ne ga ne ga ne ga’,” which literally means “that, that, that” and is, to my Chinese ears, colloquially correct.
The problem with cancel culture is that it relies on wholly subjective underpinnings. James Bennet, an editor at the New York Times, was forced to resign due to complaints of “harm” from over 1,000 his colleagues over publishing an op-ed written by Senator Tom Cotton, suggesting a military response to violent uprisings in American cities. While the New York Times claims to be committed to publishing a diversity of views, its hypocrisy is blatant: publishing some views—those of a U.S. Senator no less—is apparently grounds for dismissal.
Cancel culture consistently cites “harm” as the reason for censorship. Relying on the subjective judgements of one group within society is anti-American. As at Brown in 1966, great insights can come from listening to and questioning views contrary to one’s own. The sacrifice we make in trying to protect some from being “offended”—abandoning our ideals of free thought and speech—amounts to much greater harm to us as Americans.
Patricia Pan Connor is a freelance writer and investor. Formerly, she was an investment banker and private equity investor, based in New York City. Patrica currently resides in Montecito, California.