Book Review: 'Cancel Wars' calls for 'inclusive freedom approach to speech'

'Cancel Wars' by University of Pennsylvania professor Sigal Ben-Porath argues that free speech and inclusion are not only compatible but are also necessary conditions for a healthy democracy.

A new book by University of Pennsylvania professor Sigal Ben-Porath addresses the free speech crisis on college campuses by dispensing with the idea that there’s a tension between speech and inclusion. 

“Quite the contrary,” she writes, “[a]n inclusive freedom approach to speech” would help campuses “accomplish the goals of free inquiry, open-minded research, and equal access to learning and civic development.”

In Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Promote Inclusion, and Renew Democracy, Ben-Porath calls cancel culture a “moral panic” but one where both sides of the issue are deeply invested. On one side of the cancel wars are those who express concerns about inclusion and safety, and on the other are those who are likely to dismiss those concerns in an attempt to air diverse viewpoints. 

Ben-Porath appears to fall somewhere in between the two, offering what she calls “a more productive approach” to handling campus speech. By making concessions to woke and anti-woke alike, she suggests speech policies and practices that could satisfy both. 

Ben-Porath’s Twitter feed shows an ongoing tour on college campuses to promote Cancel Wars, published by the University of Chicago Press in Jan. 2023. Cancel Wars focuses on college campuses as places of knowledge production and as “civic labs,” though the book makes a broader argument for the importance of free speech at any institution. Ben-Porath argues that speech “is a key aspect of democracy.”  

In her democratic attempt to accommodate diverse viewpoints, Ben-Porath does, at times, veer into “soft wokeism” by taking subjective claims–including the claim that speech constitutes harm–too seriously. Her accommodation risks free speech relativism because it treats the action of the most histrionic leftist student as just one of many accepted speech acts–even when it disrupts others’ First Amendment rights. 

Ben-Porath, for example, seems to support a “properly tailored” policy aimed at the “heckler’s veto” rather than one that prohibits it altogether. On campus, the heckler’s veto entails students shouting down or otherwise disrupting speakers without punishment, a set of tactics that liberals are more likely to support than conservatives, according to a 2022 report from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). 

She also says that the “civic mission” of universities “requires limits on ideas that are exclusionary … or challenge members’ belonging to the learning community on account of their social identities or immutable characteristics.” 

Examples suggest that Ben-Porath is not only describing racism or other conduct that reasonable people find objectionable. She issued an implicit criticism of a professor who refused to use a student’s preferred pronouns because of his religious beliefs. “[H]is choice of words,” Ben-Porath wrote, “arguably created an unequal or hostile learning environment … and put [the student’s] gender identity–and their dignity–into question.” 

Never mind that the professor’s university threatened to punish him using its pronoun policies, which would have required him to violate his conscience in response to the student’s subjective claims of harm. 

Yet, Ben-Porath goes on to acknowledge that “slopes are slippery” when it comes to the “demand to cleanse the public sphere of one type of speaker” through firing, “public shaming,” and other acts of cancelation. 

She demonstrates throughout the book that she is less inclined to support top-down policies from government officials and university administrators that delineate acceptable speech. Instead, her recommended speech policies call for nuance and deliberation. 

Bias reporting systems, for instance, “cause more harm than good,” she writes. Ben-Porath later suggests “Free Speech Observers,” a strategy that would facilitate speech for the kinds of people on both sides of the cancel wars. 

Free Speech Observers involve teams of faculty, staff, and students who provide reminders of speech policies, especially at events where speakers could clash with protesters. 

While the Observers risk being another case of soft wokeism, serving as a less punitive version of bias reporting systems, Ben-Porath said that they are usually invited by host organizations to facilitate the exchange of ideas. 

In her compromise between both sides of the cancel wars, Ben-Porath offers solutions to overcome the tendency to cancel. The book ends by depicting a discussion in her class on one of the most divisive topics: teaching concepts related to critical race theory (CRT). 

Florida’s present battle over the legislative assault on CRT has both sides calling for cancellation, whether it is the students protesting DeSantis or the DeSantis-backed HB 999, which would effectively ban CRT in general education courses. 

Ben-Porath’s class, where she implemented practices to promote inclusion and free speech simultaneously, hosted a discussion on CRT that she called “lively, animated, [and] sometimes fierce.” 

“No one ended up being canceled,” she continued. 

Cancel Wars imagines, however quixotically, classrooms where both sides of the CRT debate coexist. 

Campus Reform contacted the author and the University of Pennsylvania for comment and will update this article accordingly. 


Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.