The two noteworthy incidents in Cancel Culture this week—a term that the woke hate but seems pretty accurate to me—were the attempted demonization of Steve Pinker, involving a letter demanding that the Linguistics Society of America rescind two of its honors to Steve, and a letter in Harper’s and four other international magazines calling out attempts of both Right and Left to prevent free speech and discussion by deploying or inciting Internet mobs. (There’s a good half-hour video of Pinker discussing both issues.)
As the controversy winds down, with, I think, the woke getting pretty badly pummeled despite their loudness on Twitter, we have one more item to read: a piece by Jesse Singal, former editor at New York Magazine and signer of the Harper’s letter, at Reason.com. There’s some new stuff in Singal’s piece about the ridiculous pushback against a letter simply calling for an end of social-justice bullying and for the promulgation of open discussion on contentious issues. It also has a few bits of sarcasm that are lovely.
Click the screenshot to read.
I’ve lumped the stuff that interested me into a few topics. Singal’s words are indented.
1.) The general reaction. I didn’t predict the pushback, but then I constantly underestimate the capabilities of the Easily Offended. Some of the loudest criticisms—and the most ludicrous—were that the letter didn’t go into detail about specific examples of “canceling” rather than its tactic of describing in a general way what happens to the ideologically impure.
I kept thinking about this expression as I watched a sizable subset of the online progressive intelligentsia respond with intense fury, disbelief, and indignation to an open letter published online yesterday by Harper’s magazine. The letter, which will also appear in the magazine’s October issue, was simply a stout defense of liberal values from people primarily on the left at a time it feels like these values are under threat
. . .The letter was crafted with sufficient care that it attracted a large number of signatories who one might not usually associate with concerns about “cancel culture” and the like—and it also bridged certain ideological lines. Both J.K. Rowling and New York Times writer and English professor Jennifer Boylan (who is transgender and recently wrote a column critical of Rowling’s views on trans issues), for example, added their names to the list, as did famous figures like Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, Steven Pinker, Salman Rushdie, and Garry Kasparov, and some less famous ones—like me.
Because the American left is basically a war zone at the moment—or online it is, at least—what happened next shouldn’t surprise anyone: A group of us posted the letter and celebrated it, while another much angrier group denounced it and held it up as proof of…well, whatever it is they hate about us and want to get us fired over (this crowd likes calling the manager). Now, it shouldn’t have surprised me—I have been through multiple rounds of this stuff—but I have to admit it did.
2.) Specific beefs by The Offended:
One such reaction came from Parker Molloy, a staffer at the left-leaning Media Matters, who insisted, of a letter that includes Rushdie and Kasparov, “not a single one of them have been censored anytime in recent history.” In the subsequent tweetstorm, she said of the signatories:
“They want you to sit down.
They want you to shut up.
They want you to do as you’re told.
By them. Specifically.”
“They are totalitarians in the waiting,” she wrote. “They are bad people.”
Umm. . . well, if “recent history” includes 30 years, Rushdie has been censored. In fact, the fatwa against him is still in place! And only six years ago Kasparov’s internet site was blocked by the Russian government because of his criticisms of Putin.
But wait! There’s more!
Another example of the hit-dog-hollering principle in action yesterday: “i really wonder if some of the people who signed this thought long and hard about whose names they’d appear next to,” tweeted Matt Gabriele, who teaches medieval studies and chairs the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech.
Again, the amount of stuff being revealed, right in the open, if you only care to look, is surprising: Gabriele, who holds an important, gatekeeping position at a major American university, wants people to think “long and hard” before putting their names on an unobjectionable expression of liberal values, lest someone come along and wrongly judge through the lens of some ridiculous guilt-by-association standard. The writer Oliver Traldi calls this style of discourse “rhextortion“: It would be a shame if someone unfairly judged you as a result of the names on this letter rather than the content of its text itself.
And yet many people have objected to the letter because, while they might like some of the signers, others (most often J. K. Rowling) are beyond the pale. That, to me, is ridiculous. If you’re trying to make a general point, and a good one, and you’re in there with a number of signers, surely some of them will have been deemed “impure”. If you agree with what the letter says, it’s dumb to refuse to sign or remove your name after the pushback comes (see below), and blame some of the signers.
But the most ridiculous pushback came from Emily VanDerWerff, a writer at Vox, who criticized one of the signers who was a work colleague. Singal’s sarcasm is delicious:
Then, finally, there’s Emily VanDerWerff, a critic at large for Vox who happens to be trans. One of her colleagues, Matt Yglesias, signed the letter, and VanDerWerff didn’t like the letter, so she did the only reasonable, adult thing: She sent him a quick DM asking if they could talk the matter over.
Kidding! She publicly announced that she had reported Yglesias to his editors for signing the letter. She posted a version of the note on Twitter, and in it she claims the letter was “signed by prominent anti-trans voices” and contains “many dog whistles toward anti-trans positions.” “Dog whistles” used to mean something like coded, racist appeals of the sort Richard Nixon employed but has more recently, on Twitter at least, taken a definition closer to referring to an accusation I don’t want to provide evidence for. That Yglesias signed a document with such signatories and dog whistles “makes me feel less safe at Vox,” she wrote.
The note contains some boilerplate closing language about not wanting to get Yglesias in trouble, suggesting an interesting strategy that makes perfect sense: After all, when I don’t want to get a colleague in trouble, the first thing I do is send their bosses an email about how something they have done has made me feel less safe, and the second thing I do is post that note publicly to Twitter. It’s just a classic example of not wanting to get a colleague in trouble, if I ever saw one.
Meow! This reminds me of the disingenuous statement by those who tried to cancel Pinker at the LSA: “We want to note here that we have no desire to judge Dr. Pinker’s actions in moral terms, or claim to know what his aims are.” Both statements are lies; they clearly were judging Pinker as immoral—as a bigot and racist, and said he used “dog whistles” against blacks, which is clearly an attribution of aims.
3.) Signers think twice and apologize. I believe several of them did, and for reasons that aren’t clear to me except that they might not have been able to face any social-media pushback. Singal mentions one:
And so on. It was an exhausting day on Twitter. Near the end of it, Boylan, one of the signatories whose name helped show how widely concerns over the climate of free speech span, publicly apologized for having signed a document that also has the names of people with which she disagrees. “I did not know who else had signed that letter,” she tweeted. “I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company. The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.”
I am so sorry. That sums it up nicely. There’s no real problem with any of this stuff in the left-of-center universe: It’s just that if anyone expresses unvarnished pro-liberal sentiments, they will be cast as a bigot trying to shut up marginalized people, and if you sign such a letter, you may be hearing from HR because your colleagues are watching you. To quote a certain internet-famous dog: This is fine.
Boylan is identified as “New York Times writer and English professor Jennifer Boylan (who is transgender and recently wrote a column critical of Rowling’s views on trans issues).” So she looked at the letter, liked its contents and felt good about a few signers, but presumably missed those deemed “transphobes,” like J. K. Rowling. For that Boylan got slammed, but her behavior of being ashamed (where’s the paper dunce hat and sign around her neck?) is reprehensible.
4.) Overall take. From Singal, who’s right about free speech. The mantra of Cancel Culture is “Free speech for me but not for thee—and you’d better shut up.”
The reason people are so mad at the pro-free-speech letter is that they aren’t really in favor of free speech. Not when it comes to anyone who isn’t their ally, at least. They can make up other reasons to be mad, of course; they can complain that people they view as transphobic signed it (Rowling, to take the most obvious example, though a subset of people have also lobbed that accusation at both myself and my podcast co-host, Katie Herzog, who is also a signatory), or that it’s unfair Harper’s published a letter about free and open speech while not paying its interns (a separate issue)—but at root, their beef is ideological.
. . and from Freddie de Boer, who explains why the article omitted discussion of specific instances of “canceling”:
The leftist writer Freddie de Boer’s take nicely clarifies the obvious: The people furious at this letter largely have genuine ideological problems with liberal norms and laws regarding free speech. “Please, think for a minute and consider: what does it say when a completely generic endorsement of free speech and open debate is in and of itself immediately diagnosed as anti-progressive, as anti-left?” he wrote. (Emphasis his.) “There is literally no specific instance discussed in that open letter, no real-world incident about which there might be specific and tangible controversy.” He goes on to explain, accurately: “Of course Yelling Woke Twitter hates free speech! Of course social justice liberals would prevent expression they disagree with if they could! How could any honest person observe our political discourse for any length of time and come to any other conclusion?”
The reaction to the Harper’s letter is a touchstone of where one stands in the culture wars on the Left (and there is a culture war, as Steve notes in his video). If you grouse about the letter, you aren’t really in favor of free speech.