February 3, 2023

Sigal Ben-Porath

Harvard Book Store and the Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics welcome SIGAL BEN-PORATH of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania for a discussion of her new book Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Promote Inclusion, and Renew Democracy. She will be joined in conversation by JANE KAMENSKY—Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History at Harvard University.


College campuses have become flashpoints of the current culture war and, consequently, much ink has been spilled over the relationship between universities and the cultivation or coddling of young American minds. Philosopher Sigal R. Ben-Porath takes head-on arguments that infantilize students who speak out against violent and racist discourse on campus or rehash interpretations of the First Amendment. Ben-Porath sets out to demonstrate the role of the university in American society and, specifically, how it can model free speech in ways that promote democratic ideals.

In Cancel Wars, she argues that the escalating struggles over “cancel culture,” “safe spaces,” and free speech on campus are a manifestation of broader democratic erosion in the United States. At the same time, she takes a nuanced approach to the legitimate claims of harm put forward by those who are targeted by hate speech. Ben-Porath’s focus on the boundaries of acceptable speech (and on the disproportional impact that hate speech has on marginalized groups) sheds light on the responsibility of institutions to respond to extreme speech in ways that proactively establish conversations across difference. Establishing these conversations has profound implications for political discourse beyond the boundaries of collegiate institutions. If we can draw on the truth, expertise, and reliable sources of information that are within the work of academic institutions, we might harness the shared construction of knowledge that takes place at schools, colleges, and universities against truth decay. Of interest to teachers and school leaders, this book shows that by expanding and disseminating knowledge, universities can help rekindle the civic trust that is necessary for revitalizing democracy.

About Author(s)

Sigal Ben-Porath is professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is also a member of the philosophy and the political science departments, and a fellow at the Institute for Law and Philosophy. She received her doctorate in political philosophy from Tel-Aviv university in 2000, and was a fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values, Tel-Aviv University’s Safra Center for Ethics, and the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. She chaired Penn's Committee on Open Expression 2015-2019, and serves on the board of the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy.
Jane Kamensky earned her BA (1985) and PhD (1993) in history from Yale University. She is Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History at Harvard University and Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard Radcliffe Institute. A historian of British America and the United States, she is the author of numerous books, including A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley (2016), which won four major prizes and was a finalist for several others. She is currently completing her next book, Candida Royalle and the Sexual Revolution, as a Leon Levy Biography Fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center. A former Commissioner of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Kamensky serves as a Trustee of the Museum of the American Revolution, and as one of the principal investigators on the NEH/ Department of Education-funded initiative, Educating for American Democracy.