Linguist John McWhorter doesn’t go along with the prescribed narrative of Critical Race Theory, and as an African-American he’s received his share of opprobrium for that. He mentions the pushback in his new piece in Quillette (click on screenshot), but characterizes it as coming with the territory, and sometimes even useful. More important, McWhorter explains why he signed the “letter on justice and open debate” in Harper’s (and four other international publications) decrying “cancel culture.” His publishing this in Quillette will, of course, earn him extra demon points, as Quillette is mistakenly regarded—and called—an “alt right” site by the Offense Crowd.
Below I give a few links to essays that decried the Harper’s letter, mostly because, as McWhorter says, they misunderstood the letter as showing that the signers were “merely whiners—people with impregnable career success, flustered that social media is forcing us to experience unprecedented criticism, particularly in the wake of the Floyd protests.”
Of course if you read the letter, you’ll know that that wasn’t its aim, but the unstoppable momentum of Offense Culture doesn’t worry about niceties like that.The letter says nothing about “cancellation” of the signatories, but makes this general point about the chilling of speech in general among those who write or speak:
Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.
As I’ve said, if you doubt this chilling effect, simply look at the statistics showing how many college students are afraid to speak their minds for fear of being labeled as bigots.
Here are just a few sites that found reason to object to an unobjectionable letter: The Los Angeles Times, Vox (of course), techdirt, The Objective, The Daily Beast, Slate, and In These Times, whose author, Hamilton Nolan, calls the signers “more than 100 of the worst people in the world of public intellectualism.” (That ad hominem itself proves the point of the Harper’s piece.)
At any rate, McWhorter has a good takedown of the critics:
McWhorter first summarizes the real point of the letter:
Discussion of this issue has become mired in semantic quibbles over just what constitutes “cancellation”—the LSA letter signatories were at pains to stress they did not wish to “cancel” Pinker. But the demand that he be shamed and sanctioned sent an unmistakable message to other writers and scholars not protected by his success and reputation. Nor is this simply a debate about “free speech,” or about whether or not it is still permissible to argue the merits of slavery or women’s suffrage. The more pressing problem is that opinions which, until recently, were well within the Overton Window of acceptable discourse are being bracketed under the same umbrella as unambiguously outlandish and hateful opinions that really do now lie beyond the limits of civilized discussion. Today, views deemed insufficiently anti-racist (or also anti-misogynist) are increasingly described as thinly coded expressions of racism and misogyny that we are encouraged to treat as such.
He then gives six examples of people who were subject to career-damaging social-media mobs over what seem trivial issues. Three of these involve relatively powerful people, like a New York Times food columnist, but three others are of non-famous people who lost their jobs after ridiculous kerfuffles. I’ll show the latter three in McWhorter’s words:
- A data analyst at a progressive consulting firm tweeted a link to a study by a black Ivy League political science professor, Omar Wasow, which found that violent black protests during the long hot summers of the late 1960s were more likely than nonviolent protests to make local voters vote Republican. Wasow’s findings had been reported by the Washington Post as far back as 2015 without incident, and the analyst’s intention was clearly progressive—he was not anti-protest, but wanted to draw attention to the fact that violence might harm Democrats’ electoral chances come November. But following the death of George Floyd, criticizing street violence suddenly became taboo in some progressive circles, and so the thread below the analyst’s tweet began to fill with caustic sanctimony. When a random Twitter user tagged his employer with the instruction “come get your boy,” the consulting firm shamefully expelled him.
- Two years ago, a young white woman attended a costume party thrown by the Washington Post. She arrived dressed as Megyn Kelly in blackface, a reference to Kelly’s recent defense of the trope that had resulted in the news anchor’s abrupt exit from NBC. This was hardly a graceful decision regardless of intent, and a number of attendees (including the party’s co-host) made this clear to the guest. She left the party in tears and apologized to the host the next day. But in June of this year, a (white) management consultant and a (black) artist who had both confronted her at the party approached the Post with their story, which two of the paper’s writers somehow managed to work up into a 3,000-word feature. When she warned her employers that a story about her mortifying faux pas would be running in a national newspaper, she was fired.
- A newly hired nursing dean was fired from her position for sending an email which included the newly taboo phrase “everyone’s life matters.” But in the context of her email the phrase could hardly have been more innocuous:
I am writing to express my concern and condemnation of the recent (and past) acts of violence against people of color. Recent events recall a tragic history of racism and bias that continue to thrive in this country. I despair for our future as a nation if we do not stand up against violence against anyone. BLACK LIVES MATTER, but also, EVERYONE’S LIFE MATTERS. No one should have to live in fear that they will be targeted for how they look or what they believe.
An obscure data analyst, a private citizen with no public profile, and the dean of a nursing school hardly have their hands on the levers of power, and yet people like these are as likely to be persecuted under the new mood as the heads of art museums and leading food columnists (if indeed people in public positions like those can reasonably be considered powerful). These are the new norms and the modus operandi that alarm those of us who signed the Harper’s letter, not any perceived threat to our own careers.
These three cases beggar belief. True, the woman fired for showing up in blackface did not act wisely, but her act was meant to mock those who use blackface as a racist trope. The Washington Post‘s decision to make a huge story about it several years after the incident is incomprehensible except that the paper (as we know already) is doing virtue-signaling journalism. And the woman was fired. This tendency to ruin people’s careers in lieu of debate is what “cancel culture” is really about. I never would, and never have, as I recall, tried to get anybody fired.
In the end, McWhorter makes a good point: many people are leveraging the death of George Floyd as a way to settle their own scores. That sounds harsh, but it’s palpably true. The protests over police brutality and murder of people of color are, of course, laudable, but piggybacking on them is a wave of often unhinged Social Justice activism, which has even washed over my own university. As McWhorter says in measured tones, “Get a grip, people.”:
Some people appear to consider attempts to defrock “offensive” thinkers as a natural outgrowth of the Black Lives Matter protests, as if opposition to cancel culture constitutes opposition to any and all objections about police misconduct. This is painfully reductive. We wish to resist a dangerous outgrowth of a development that is, in itself, laudable. The citizens listed above were also the victims of injustices that merit attention and compassion, and any implication that it is tactless to say so while Black Lives Matter has the floor is, frankly, rather antihuman. Those who want to reform American policing and to defenestrate people for rhetorical torts and slip-ups as a part of that project should understand that history needs them for the former but will deride them for the latter. They would do better to focus their energies on matters of genuine societal urgency.