Some on the left still claim cancel culture doesn’t exist. Mass firings, they say, are not taking place. Only a few people—who probably deserved it!—have lost their jobs.
But it doesn’t require mass dismissals to put many people in a genuine state of unease and intimidation. A few chilling examples are enough to spread the fear to a lot of people that an inadvertent error can destroy your life. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes, “the goal isn’t to punish everyone, or even very many someones; it’s to shame or scare just enough people to make the rest conform.”
And so dread settles in. Challenging books go untaught. Deep conversations are not had. Friendships are not formed. Classmates and colleagues eye each other with suspicion.
In her 2003 memoir, Azar Nafisi describes secretly teaching Lolita and other forbidden Western books to a small group of female students in Iran. Reading Lolita in Tehran portrays a group of students so committed to the expansion of their minds that they are willing to put their freedom at risk to read a novel.
In her 2019 book, The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars, Meghan Daum asks a colleague who teaches twentieth-century American literature at the University of Iowa whether he still teaches Lolita. “It’s just not worth the risk,” he tells her.