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“Am I gagged or not?”

Responding to speech stifling in a cancel culture world


Critiques of “cancel culture” speech ­stifling often overflow with generalizations, but here’s a specific story. It’s not about calling out an individual: It’s about a life-and-death issue becoming out-of-bounds.

I received in June an invitation from Ben Fox, an internet entrepreneur with a new website on which hundreds of authors recommend their favorite books. Fox asked me to write about “the five best books on a topic you are passionate about. … The topic/theme is entirely up to you.”

Fox’s website now includes book lists on “African Cultures” and “American Civil War,” but one A-list topic was missing, so I inquired about recommending “The Best Books on Abortion.” Fox (or his assistant) replied, “That is a great topic.”

I then recommended five books: two by defenders of life, two on the other side who nevertheless provide evocative street-level detail, and one published in 1875 that describes women suffering from what we call today “post-abortion syndrome.” (Some abortion proponents say that’s a new, made-up ailment.)

Gag rules concerning abortion now exist on many college campuses.

Ben Fox responded at 3:30 p.m. on June 13, “Your approach to this topic is from a pro-life Christian point of view. … This topic is so wrapped up in politics and power and religion that frankly, it is one I am not sure how to handle. … I’d like to meditate on this a bit and what value we might bring to this topic through this platform.”

His meditation didn’t take long. Twelve hours and 15 minutes later, at 3:45 a.m., Fox wrote, “I talked to a few people last night to help get my thoughts in order. I do not believe my website can add anything to the subject that hasn’t already been said. I think that the politics of abortion has significantly hurt this country and should have remained purely a medical decision by doctors combined with the personal choice by individuals based on their beliefs and faith. I am not going to publish any book lists around abortion in relation to politics or religion. I hope you can respect my decision.”

I responded, “I do not respect your decision. You could ask an abortion proponent to write an alternative list and publish both. Ignoring the issue is cowardly.” Fox wrote back, “I do not believe my website can add anything to the subject that hasn’t already been said. In fact, I don’t think it merits debate.”

Fox’s dogmatic denial of the need for discussion may not be an outlier. In 2000 the average newspaper in the largest online newspaper archive, Newspapers.com, had 344 articles that included the words “abortion,” “fetus,” “unborn child,” or “unborn baby.” In 2020 the average number was 79, a 77 percent decline. Measured similarly, The New York Times did less sweeping under the rug: It registered only a 22 percent decline.

In 1836 Speaker of the House (and future president) James K. Polk of Tennessee refused to recognize Rep. John Quincy Adams when the former president rose to speak about slavery. Adams finally said, “I am aware there is a slave-holding speaker in the chair. … Mr. Speaker, am I gagged or not?”

That became a rallying cry for those with compassion for slaves. Northerners increasingly opposed cancel culture slaveholders. When Adams on Dec. 3, 1844, introduced a motion to rescind the gag rule, it passed 108 to 80. Adams remained in Congress for four years until he collapsed at his desk in 1848 and died in the Speaker’s office two days later. Rep. Abraham Lincoln was an honorary pallbearer at the funeral.

Gag rules concerning abortion now exist on many college campuses: One closeted pro-life professor told me he dare not speak on the subject. Journalists who cover both sides often face extreme editing. Some editors have said they won’t print any readers’ letters on abortion.

Let’s minimize both ostracism of life defenders and ostrichlike ignoring of unborn children’s endangerment. How about making Dec. 3, 2021, an anti-gag day of remembrance?

—Note: See “A sorrowful history” in this issue for my five book recommendations. Expect to see many more articles in WORLD as the Supreme Court reenters the abortion debate this fall. We will not be gagged.


Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.

@MarvinOlasky

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