Anatomy of a Cancellation
This essay was originally published by First Things in its January 2023 edition.
It all began at the National Conservatism conference in Orlando on Halloween 2021. I spoke on family decline and what to do about it. For generations, conservatives have tried to promote the interests of families while respecting the goals of feminists and sexual liberationists. “Compassionate conservatism,” the approach was eventually called. Family decline has only accelerated since conservatives acquiesced in this peace treaty.
My speech proposed a more thoroughgoing conservatism. America stigmatizes “toxic masculinity” and endlessly celebrates careerist women. Universities, the “citadels of gynocracy” as I called them, are especially implicated in this disastrous system of honor and shame. I concluded by calling for institutions to adopt sex-role realism—an unapologetic celebration of the fact that men and women want and do different things.
Weeks passed. Some former students told me over Thanksgiving break that a video criticizing my speech was trending on social media. I paid little heed, because I was not interested in the social-media world. But the social-media world was interested in me.
As I sat down early on Monday, November 29 to prepare to teach my classes at Boise State, five emails arrived in quick succession. They were full of name-calling, with quasi-threatening tones. I knew that a cancellation was on, since this was not my first. Four years earlier, a storm had erupted over an article of mine arguing that transgender rights, when promoted by school authorities, threatened parental rights—a thesis that is painfully obvious now. The university complained. I got nasty emails and bitter phone messages. Student groups protested with signs saying that I had blood on my hands. The outcry went nowhere, for the most part. The faculty senate tabled the motions against me. I waged a successful public relations campaign to defend myself. Ben Shapiro and the late Mike Adams took up my cause. I appeared on Tucker Carlson.
My first was the boyhood of cancellation attempts. Both cancellations were coordinated, but with the second, the breadth expanded exponentially. Senders created email accounts with names like [email protected] and [email protected]. They challenged my manhood and questioned my ability to reproduce. (I have five kids.) Phone messages were startling in their frequency, intensity, and vulgarity. People spiked Amazon reviews for my latest book, The Recovery of Family Life, and for my previous books. They spiked my teaching reviews on Rate My Professor and elsewhere. They signed me up for newsletters from Planned Parenthood, National Organization for Women, Them, and other left-wing groups. Someone sent on my behalf an application for admission to the University of Phoenix, and admissions counsellors hounded me to complete it. Attempts were made to hack my social media and financial accounts. Emails arrived daily, beckoning me to click on the link to the “intimate photos” I had, they said, asked for.
My dear wife was not exempt from such attacks. Miscreants sent her vulgar, threatening messages on social media. Calls were made to her employer. “Is Scott Yenor married?” trended on Google. Though many of our friends rallied to my cause, many of my wife’s acquaintances avoided her or avoided the topic of the speech. Some ducked behind doors when she approached. Others stopped calling. Fewer lunch dates. More insecurity and anxiety. The social costs my wife bore could have led to bitterness and marital strife. But we were not without support and love. Text messages from our kids, and their wives, kept a smile on her face. Other friends kept her spirits up. Cancellations test marriages. They test friendships. Mine tested my ability to command myself. In all of life’s challenges, a Christian father and husband finds purpose in managing how the strife affects his family. By no means am I perfect at this, but I am getting ample opportunities to improve.
The most concerning complaints were from evangelical acquaintances. Some came in the form of letters demanding my resignation from the Ambrose School, a classical Christian school on whose board of directors I have served for twenty years. These evangelicals equated being winsome with being Christian. Defending the family is one thing, but my words had been “neither respectful nor gentle.” I did not meet the “general requirements” to be an elder—in fact, my “remarks were hurtful, sexist, discriminatory, degrading, and demeaning.” Nearly every one of these letters presumed a secular feminist worldview.
Soon, I fear, the Church will cancel its own teachings in order to be seen as “respectful and gentle” by today’s cancelling swarms. Members of the Ambrose board knew what time it was. Convinced that the Christian family and its defenders were to be defended, it refused to cave to those who demanded my resignation. A heartening development. May more such institutions read the times and act accordingly. Nothing strengthens courage like the courage of others exercised on your behalf.
Cancellers know what they are doing when they exert stress on friendships, families, churches, and Christian schools. Friends, united by common loves, pursue common projects as part of their life’s missions. Schools and churches are organized around missions. A husband and wife prioritize home and family as a joint mission. Without stability, these common projects cannot easily be brought to successful conclusions. Stability, wrote James Madison, is “one of the chief blessings of civil society.” People must be dependable and respectable in order to deserve responsibility. Legal and moral environments must be dependable, too. Words must have the same meaning today that they had yesterday.
Cancellation undermines the stability necessary for common projects. My first thought was for my family. Many people depend on my steady employment, and I could not let them down. Next, I thought about my professional future. The life of a tenured professor has its advantages, and I never would have considered giving it up before this controversy. My teachers had made sacrifices to help me through my programs. I love teaching, and I am pretty good at it. And then there were the projects I had helped to shape as a leader in several communities, projects now at risk of being stigmatized by my participation. The fear of becoming a drag on my family, a stumbling block to my adult children, and a liability to the communities I served was at times overwhelming.
Cancelling swarms know the stakes, so they use media megaphones to increase the pressure. In my case, local media—and then national media—picked up stories and ginned up on-the-ground outrage. Local reporters found former students who were willing to lie about me. One student claimed to a local news website that I “never gave her constructive criticism or feedback on how she engaged with the material,” whereas I had challenged men and gone to bat for male students. Another spun this yarn: “I remember the very first day of class and he went around the room and he purposefully called the women Mrs. Whatever and he’d pick a last name, but he wouldn’t say your last name . . . If I corrected him, he would tell me it didn’t matter because it wasn’t really my last name anyway, it was my husband’s.”
The libel machine transformed the proposal of my National Conservatism presentation from “Do not recruit women into male-dominated majors” to “Keep women out of certain majors” to “Keep women out of certain professions,” and finally to “Keep women out of all professions.” What had begun as a defense of part-time work allowing the prioritization of motherhood was transformed into a prohibition on women’s leaving the house. Trying to correct these people was futile: They were not interested in the truth.
Boise State joined the swarm. One female faculty member in my department, a person I had evaluated favorably enough in every circumstance since she’d been hired, joined the call-out in the media: “How am I supposed to go back to work knowing that someone who is directly responsible for evaluating my tenure profile thinks women shouldn’t be working?” University leaders sent out statements to everyone on campus but me. Andrew Finstuen, the Honors College dean, sent a note to honors students: The Honors College “heartily endorses and encourages women to pursue their education, interests, careers, and dreams,” even if “Prof. Scott Yenor has articulated a very different view.” Finstuen, a professing Christian, set up counseling sessions in which Honors College professionals would help students through what was widely described as a great trauma. Similar things happened in the Engineering College, the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Public Service, and other parts of the university. And in my own department.
Complaints were couched in sober-seeming appeals concerning “discrimination” or “student safety” or “trauma.” As my old dean had said during my first cancellation, “People are hurting!” These are just retail arguments. The real goal is victory for the ideologues. Public shaming of scapegoats modifies behavior. Thousands notice when certain topics and opinions become taboo. No one at Boise State who cares about his reputation and influence will ever again raise taboo questions and provide dissident answers. Professors at other universities notice, too, as do students who might be interested in joining the professorate.
This is how radical feminism wins. This is how sexual liberation wins. This is how Critical Race Theory wins. This is how climate alarmism wins. This is how the broader left plans to win. The threat of public shame for violating sacred principles and the concomitant need for social-media approval drive the modern university and shape its agendas for research, course development, and institution-building.
Boise State made a show of defending academic freedom against the swarm. Their media relations flunky, Mike Sharp, released a statement affirming free speech, but also urging all who felt that they had been discriminated against or harassed to file charges. Within days I received a Notice of Investigation and Allegations from Boise State, alleging that I had “graded women lower than their male peers based solely on sex and not performance” and that I had not “engaged with women in class to the same degree” as I had with men. Monitors would attend my classes to ensure that I did not discriminate against or harass students. Someone would contact me about the investigation soon. More charges might be forthcoming.
The Title IX charges marked an escalation and, strangely, a path to quasi-victory. Until then, the cancellation had been social, a campaign to make me feel confused, isolated, irrelevant, and weak, as if I had no friends or allies. A fight against public opinion never yields clear results.
Alexis de Tocqueville knew of democratic social tyranny, but he did not anticipate its exact mechanisms. Ancient despots had exiled, killed, or maimed people who thought differently. Democratic republics, Tocqueville writes, have created a tyranny that leaves the body, striking instead at the soul. Under democracy, the social master says, “You are free not to think as I do; your life, your goods, everything remains to you; but from this day on, you are a stranger among us . . . those who believe in your innocence, even they shall abandon you.” Democratic social tyranny extends beyond national borders. Those who are cancelled in one democratic country are often cancelled in all, and those in other lands may participate in a ritualized cancellation taking place in America.
Tocqueville did not imagine the particular system of civil rights laws that supports our democratic despotism. With my Title IX investigation, a great deal was on the line. A “conviction” could lead to the loss of my job as a tenured professor and make me unemployable in academia. But exoneration would, one hoped, prove that my forbidden opinions did not compromise my ability to do my job on terms acceptable to my accusers.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal aid. From the beginning, Title IX has empowered judges and administrators to define what discrimination is and how discrimination is proved. Since the Obama era, Title IX has become a power base for ideological policing on campus. Under its banner, policies and culture are changed to secure equal outcomes among groups, or equity, or a “safe learning environment.” University charges of harassment and discrimination are used to silence dissenting professors without, officially, disturbing free speech at all. Professors can say what they want—but certain questions or statements will invite discrimination or harassment charges. Just ask Joshua Katz, Laura Kipnis, Amy Wax, Roland Fryer, or Charles Negy, to name a few.
Title IX tribunals are not traditional trials. In my case, the witnesses and accusers were not named. The accusers could not be cross-examined; their motives were never explored. The investigator, in fact, seemed duty-bound to assume that the accusers had pure motives (never a personal or ideological vendetta). The investigator and the judge were the same person. Charges could be dropped or modified as new evidence rolled in. Evidence might matter, but that depends on the charges, the lawyer, and the investigator.
Boise State offered a counselor to help me. But accepting representation from people who want to fire you is stupid. I needed my own lawyer. Friends established a legal defense fund through which $25,000 was raised within hours. Others pledged more if I needed it. Their financial and emotional support I will never forget. Samantha Harris, an attorney with long experience in campus discipline and Title IX cases, agreed to serve as my counsel, an inspired choice. She advised me to gather documentation concerning the charges over Christmas break.
This task was time-consuming, but I had been preparing for it for years, knowing that someone who treads on controversial topics such as the family and feminism would eventually face the ire of the university’s civil rights regime. All my lectures for the past five years are recorded and stored. All student communications and grades are saved. I had kept detailed records on whom I called on during each class.
Officially, of course, the charges and legal proceedings against me had nothing to do with my National Conservatism speech. All complaints were “unsolicited” in the official record. But only a child or a Title IX investigator could believe that. Title IX rules encourage students to make false charges against the disfavored. Boise State had solicited the charges against me, even enabled false charges, by allowing students to make accusations and then stop cooperating with the investigation so as not to be responsible for perjurious testimony. (If I had accused students of providing false testimony, I would have been charged with “retaliation” under Boise State’s Title IX policy.) Eventually there were no accusers left, so Boise State itself became the complainant.
My hearing arrived on February 10. All the charges were rebutted with actual evidence. Accusers had claimed that I graded women more harshly than men—but statistics showed otherwise.Others had claimed that I provided comments for papers written by male students but not for papers written by female students—and I presented emailed comments that put the lie to that charge. It was said that I called on male students more than on female students—and I exposed the lie with detailed records. Discussing other accusations would make me vulnerable to “retaliation” charges, but suffice it to say that the accusing students had lied repeatedly, and I had the receipts to prove it. At the end of the hearing, the investigator said she would recommend that no charges be filed, unless something additional came up. Samantha had never heard of such a thing.
Sure enough, exoneration, or what passed for it, arrived later. The investigator found “insufficient evidence” to support Boise State’s charges. Only after I pestered them for an answer did Boise State let me know that they had accepted the investigator’s report. The legal cancellation was over. For now. The results have been public for months. So far, not one person who accused me of something has apologized. I’m not holding my breath.
I bang my head against the wall sometimes. A political philosopher should have known better. Every political community narrows the horizon of opinion. The friend-enemy distinction is a reality in political life, even if it is not the final word. Socrates was put to death for questioning the city’s gods. Plato likened the education of citizens to a cave wherein the chained citizens see only shadows projected on a wall. Nietzsche noticed that all political communities have something about which people are not permitted to laugh. Every culture is a cancel culture that honors certain opinions at the expense of others. Traversing sacred opinions is always dangerous. There is nothing John Stuart Mill can do about it. I know all this—and yet I spoke against America’s sacred opinions and will continue to speak.
I determined from the start never to defend myself on the grounds of “academic freedom” or “free speech.” I do not want to be tolerated: I want to witness to the truth. I think that the body shapes an individual’s destiny, because it manifestly does. I think that more women should spend more time minding the home, because women are likelier than men to prioritize such work and do it well, so that without mostly women making homes, fewer homes will exist. I think that men need self-respect and accomplishment in order to be attractive as husbands, and that demanding service from men without honoring that service is counterproductive. I think that our institutions, in the grip of feminist ideology, dishonor traditional manly virtues and offer little encouragement to men. I think that societal health cannot be sustained on the unstable ground of feminism. Maybe I’m wrong on these points. I’m open to correction. But they seem true to me, and it’s my job as an academic to say what I understand to be true.
We can talk about free speech. It’s important. But cancel culture is inhumane and corrupting less because it cancels than because of what it cancels. Anyone who thinks the life of a loving mother is akin to a “comfortable concentration camp” (as Betty Friedan wrote, though she later regretted it) should be laughed out of polite society. Comparing motherhood to slavery and childbirth to defecating a pumpkin should occasion opprobrium, not debate or applause. Anyone who calls marital love “the pivot of women’s oppression,” as Shulamith Firestone did, should be unemployable in institutions that value truth. Friedan wrote that “the only kind of work which permits an able woman to realize her abilities fully” is “the lifelong commitment to an art or science, to politics or profession.” For that slur on the lives of a great majority of women in my mother’s generation, a decent culture would boycott Friedan’s publisher. Many women have imbibed these feminist falsehoods, and they have done unspeakable damage to Christendom.
Most American churches have yet to be captured by such ideology. But there is reason to worry. Assumptions about the sexual revolution are corroding habits of faith and the commitment to motherhood and chastity among evangelicals, especially women. Though evangelical women attend church more often than men do, they are also more committed to the sexual revolution. David Ayers reports on this transformation in After the Revolution: Sex and the Single Evangelical. Evangelicals are abandoning Christian sexual ethics in thought, word, and deed—as mainline Protestants and many Catholics have done already. Not only do more American Christians than ever regard sex before marriage, cohabitation, and homosexuality as acceptable, but they are increasingly practicing the new liberationist gospel: More than 15 percent of young evangelical females have had sex with another female, and 37 percent have had sex by the age of seventeen. St. Paul exhorted the believers of Corinth to separate themselves from pagan perversity and pursue chastity as a distinctive Christian virtue, but today’s Christians are increasingly indistinguishable from their pagan peers.
Churches and other Christian institutions must serve as supports for family life, just as they have done for two thousand years. The same culture that tries to silence university professors and public intellectuals affects pastors, too. Pastors have been targeted for speaking the truth about Christian sexual ethics. Many have faced cancellation for opposing same-sex marriage. But the erosion of sexual ethics also happens quietly: A young couple is shacked up but still wants a church wedding; the pastor objects; the parents of the betrothed must choose between upholding the faith and endorsing the kids’ cohabitation. Too often, blood is thicker than doctrine. Speaking the truth and acting on it has costs. Protestants must constitute elder boards and vestries that are willing to withstand the pressures that are being exerted on pastors. A cascade of capitulation starts with the caving of a few elder boards. If elder boards and vestries cannot be counted on, steel-spined pastors may never seek ordination in the first place, and those in the field already will lose morale.
Churches have a duty to cultivate in their flocks a spirit of martyrdom, a willingness to pay the price for Christian witness. A church of “cultural engagement,” emphasizing niceness at the expense of doctrine, inculcates the innocence of doves without the wisdom of serpents. Supporting controversial witness is a necessity in an orthodox Christian church. The gospel is a sword; so is the law. While my cancellation was afoot, I received many handwritten notes of encouragement from my fellow parishioners. Other parishioners were solicitous for my family and my mental state when I encountered them at worship. Just as my fellow board members at Ambrose stood firm in our mission, so did my church. I am grateful.
Though churches should not teach their parishioners to run full-steam into machine-gun nests, the beauty of the martyrs is a story as old as Christendom. St. Ambrose’s courage to refuse Communion to Theodosius over the Massacre of Thessalonica was possible only because he feared God more than he feared man. As did St. Stephen in the face of stoning; as did Justin Martyr, beheaded for witnessing to Christ among the Romans; as did so many others. Such examples of faithfulness are crucial. Cancellation is not martyrdom, of course, but it is in the odor of it. And churches that recognize its nobility are much more likely to be rallying points for all that is central to Christian faith.