Can you still say “Indian” today? Every year, alleged speaking bans are discussed – and people forget that there is little new in such debates. Literary scholar Adrian Daub, who teaches in Stanford, California, has written a book about this phenomenon. “In the beginning there was the accusation of communism,” he says. Today even Putin is warning of the cancel culture. “For him, too, it has the function of distracting from the actual topic: declaring a culture war if the war is not going so well,” said Daub in an interview with

Daub himself recently experienced how serious the Cancel Culture fighters are about freedom of expression: he was not allowed to attend a conference on this topic in Stanford. Let’s start with the question that is at the heart of the debate about “cancel culture”: what can one still say today?

Adrian Daub: That is of course difficult to answer. Certainly the way we talk and what we talk about and the reaction we provoke has changed over the past thirty years, but that’s normal. Society is constantly going through developments that change what can be said and tolerated in public space. My suspicion is that the trigger for the cancel culture debate is a fairly normal process. We used to use certain words and eventually we stopped using them.

There are no bans?

Times are changing and we are changing with them. There is no conspiracy behind this. The assumption of the warners against a cancel culture – as with the political correctness before it – is that the amount of what can be said is reduced. I don’t think that’s verifiable.

So where does the lawsuit about speaking bans come from?

One reason is that we are more connected. We listen to each other more – if not necessarily better. Thirty years ago, no one noticed how certain groups were talking somewhere. Groups and their communication were more homogeneous and could not be looked up on the Internet. This is certainly a qualitative difference in our world, which understandably evokes a justified fear. For example, we want to communicate openly on the Internet, but we find that such communication is visible to many more people than if we say something quickly in the canteen. We need to extend polite structures that we are used to using in our circle of acquaintances and colleagues to people on the Internet. All this is not without.

You mentioned political correctness: cancel culture has a history. How far back does that go?

In the beginning there was the accusation of communism in the USA: the claim that the universities were hotbeds of Marxist indoctrination.

You mean the McCarthy era of the early 1950s, when actual and alleged communists were persecuted in the United States.

The accusation of Marxist infiltration was never really successful in the US because it is clearly a conspiracy myth. Of course there were Marxist professors in US universities in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, but there was always something quirky about the claim that massive subversion took place there. This was different with the allegation of political correctness. This convinced a majority of Americans that a totalitarian, left-wing orthodoxy was being established in the colleges. The critics of alleged political correctness then no longer appeared as hard anti-communists, but as defenders of liberalism – even if many of them were anything but liberal themselves. Nevertheless, the warning against political correctness was compatible with people who see themselves as left-wing or left-liberal.

That is the powerful thing about the concept of political correctness, which did not appear for nothing in 1990/91, i.e. at the moment when the Cold War was over and the old ideological patterns no longer threatened to emerge: with political correctness, the old could Camp thinking can be reactivated without having to talk like Joe McCarthy in the early 1950s.

In Germany, a scientific freedom network collects examples of “attacks on scientific freedom”. In the latest case there, an article in the FAZ is quoted, according to which a philosophy seminar at the University of Leipzig was “stormed by transgender activists”. Are all the cases the network lists just exceptions?

Of course there are such examples. But I advocate seeing that in perspective. It can be assumed that something is constantly happening somewhere that potentially threatens to curtail one or the other’s freedom of expression. The question is how to deal with it – whether and at what point it is suitable for a broad diagnosis of the present. I think it’s good that there is a network that supports the lecturer and offers help. The aim of such a database, however, is to support the grand narrative that freedom of expression is generally threatened – not just in a specific seminar room in Leipzig, but throughout Germany.

You deny that.

I don’t know the Leipzig case. But in almost every one of these cases, not enough is known. There is definitely a history. Maybe that makes the case worse, maybe less bad. In any case, I would dispute that the aggregate of individual cases shows that there is a general cultural shift. I know that from the US databases. It also states that such cases are increasing. I would argue that they are increasing because people are specifically looking for them. These cases have been collected for a long time, but under the keyword “Cancel Culture” only since 2018/19. I can refer to cases from 2008, 2009 or 2010 that are not listed there. And in many cases that are in there, I know that the representation does not correspond to the truth. The point is: With the current data situation, it is not possible to measure whether freedom of expression at universities in the USA or in Germany is increasingly under threat.

In your book you write that linguistic changes that have been going on for decades are always “experienced as new and sudden”.

In these discourses it is constantly asserted that something happened “well” one way or another, or that it happened “recently”. Then you examine the case and realize that it was several years or even decades ago. Since the 1990s, an increase in political correctness or cancel culture has been suggested. There is constant talk of a future in which one can no longer say anything, in which – in the case of the USA – Shakespeare can no longer be taught at universities because he is an old white man. This specific concern has been around since the 1980s – but Shakespeare is still being taught! Another example: In Germany there was another debate about whether one could say “Indian”. This discussion also dates back to the 1990s: in 1992, an author in the “Zeit” made fun of the fact that one now had to say “Native American”. The same applies to the foam kiss or the schnitzel with paprika sauce: For thirty years we have always had the same discussion about the same words, which are said to always be acutely threatened.

As a rule, behind the accusation of cancel culture is the fear or the accusation that “the left” wants to silence other voices.

That’s the bizarre thing about it: At the end of this fight for freedom of expression, for the right-wing and conservative freedom of expression fighters, there is actually always a curtailment of the freedom of expression of others. On the one hand, that’s paradoxical, but the longer I’ve been involved with the discourse on canceling culture, the more I’ve noticed that not letting others have their say is actually the secret principle behind the complaint about the canceling “clouds”. In the German discourse in particular, it is always pretended that cancel culture is the opposite of debate. But if you look closely, you realize that it’s just a particularly tough debate. This is often not a problem at all.

Do you have an example?

I think it’s entirely plausible that trans people, who are really not doing particularly well in our society, engage in debates a little more. I don’t see how one could debate one’s own existence with Socratic detachment. Just like Black Lives Matter. If a black man says: I don’t want to be murdered – then this demand can be expressed a little more passionately. These are debates that are being fought hard, but they are still debates. And taking that seriously, and taking the other side seriously, saves those who immediately complain about the cancellers. People want to force others out of the debate, deny their ability to satisfy – the “woken”, the trans people, the politically correct.

What does this “woke” actually mean? In Germany you hear the word almost exclusively as a battlefield term.

In Germany, “woke” seems to mean anything. In the USA, wokeness has a long tradition as a term, like canceln it was originally an Afro-American word. It pointed to a feeling for social grievances, especially when the ideology of the majority, when the system is obscuring it. You stayed “awake”, looked closely, didn’t let anyone tell you anything – by the way, not only in relation to politics, in many songs the word appears with a view to a partner who is cheating on you. In the context of the Ferguson protests in 2015, the motto “stay woke” then reached the broader mainstream, especially via social networks. And was then hijacked by the right and conservatives. It is supposed to mean that someone is pursuing identity politics, that they consider themselves morally superior, that they are pseudo-religiously “awakened”.

You also have to explain this: what is identity politics?

Originally, identity politics within the American civil rights movement meant that marginalized identities were explicitly addressed instead of being tacitly included. A classic example: Black workers in the 1960s and 1970s were not helped when politicians talked about improving the situation of “the workers”. An African-American worker struggled and struggles with both socioeconomic injustice and racism. This is exactly what identity politics wants to draw attention to. Likewise in the women’s movement: black women still have their own battles to fight than white women. If they are not thought through, their concerns will get under the wheels.

Didn’t that lead to people saying: only women are allowed to speak about women’s issues, only black people about black issues?

Of course there are people on God’s big earth who say something like that. But I would caution against taking the debate contribution of a Twitter user named “Jennifer_123” more seriously than a fifty-year-old intellectual tradition. And vice versa, one has to say that she is actually critical of a lot of what is commonly associated with identity politics – think of Judith Butler, who actually wants to say: It is difficult to realize a political project for the liberation of women when you adheres to a very narrow understanding of who a woman actually is, yes, what femininity is. For good reason, identity politics has developed an allergy to being shared. The black civil rights movement in the USA already said yes: blacks must speak for blacks. It’s not enough for white people to talk about us. Which of course by no means ruled out alliances.

You can take this approach too far, that’s for sure. But more often the discourse on identity politics is a projection. The “woken” left is accused of making interest-driven politics for individual groups, for women, homosexuals, trans people. Only the famous white man apparently never speaks for himself, but always only for common sense.

Is there also right-wing or conservative identity politics?

For right-wingers and conservatives, those “moved by identity politics” are always the others. But of course there is also conservative identity politics. Even the accusation of identity politics is extremely identity politics. It is supposed to suggest that certain gestures and ideas that you implicitly allow yourself are illegitimate in others.

In preparing for this interview, I came across an event you were having at Stanford, a conference on Cancel Culture, with investor Peter Thiel, a Trump supporter, as a keynote speaker. Have you been there?

I wasn’t allowed in.

I beg your pardon?

(laughs) Apparently I wasn’t free enough to go to the Freedom of Expression Summit. However, I have to say that after widespread criticism of their seclusion, they put a live stream online. But I would have loved to go. I already know Peter Thiel, but I would have liked to have met the psychologist Jordan Peterson, for example, who appears a lot in my book.

The live stream didn’t interest you?

Honestly no. How does Heine say? “I know the tune, I know the text, I also know the authors.” I was actually only interested in the event sociologically. After many years of dealing with the subject, it would have been exciting to get to know a few of these protagonists. Well, maybe I’ll watch the video.

Incidentally, Peter Thiel has also been there for ages, I don’t think people in Germany realize that. In 1995 he co-authored the book The Diversity Myth: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Intolerance at Stanford with David Sacks. The blurb states, “This is a powerful exploration of the crippling impact that politically correct ‘multiculturalism’ is having on higher education and academic freedom in the United States.” You can blame these people for many things, but not that they don’t keep playing the old hits.

Why are they doing this? Don’t conservatives have issues of their own that they could use to move forward positively?

Thiel is a special case. His aim is to discredit university education. His attack on “multiculturalism” is actually an attack on American liberal democracy. Among other things, he criticized women’s suffrage. His point is that certain Americans are not really Americans and should therefore not be included in public discourse and opinion-forming. I have the suspicion that he wants to weaken the cornerstones of a liberal, democratic order. In general, there are some among the cancel-culture warnings whose role models are Orban and Putin.

Putin is now presenting himself as a bulwark against cancel culture.

He’s been doing this for years. He keeps talking about cancel culture or “gender ideology”. The longer the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine lasts, the more. For him, too, it has the function of distracting from the actual topic: declaring a culture war when the war is not going so well. I can’t speak Russian enough to figure out where he got all this from, but he sounds amazingly like a right-wing US Republican. Putin knows all the classics like he’s hanging out in some anti-woken Facebook group. It goes so far that in March he met “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling because she too was allegedly “cancelled”. I could never have imagined that a dictator would justify a war in this way.

Hubertus Volmer spoke to Adrian Daub