A latter-day Scarlet Letter

September 2, 2021 • 10:00 am

I’m not sure what’s happened to The Atlantic, but it’s publishing a passel of anti-wokeism articles. Perhaps it’s always done so and I haven’t noticed, but it will behoove you to read this new one, which is long but enlightening. Staff writer Anne Applebaum, who has a new and highly regarded book, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianismdiscusses what used to be known as “Cancel Culture”, shows, step by step, how it works, and limns its dangers to our Republic. A highly recommended read, and it’s free if you click on the screenshot below:

Her premise, which is true, is that many Americans, for evincing ideological impurities, have been fired, demonized, shunned, or ostracized—all without any sort of due process. The “court” that does this is social media, and there are no protections like you’d have in a real courtroom. Her narrative is larded with all kinds of horrific stories, many of which (e.g., the firing of Don McNeil) we’ve already read about).

But there are lots of new ones, too, and at any rate the point of the article is not the retelling of stories, but using them to illustrate an illiberal and unfair method of getting rid of people you don’t like, and the likely effect of this on American discourse.

The motivations for cancelation of someone else are many, but they’re often petty: rivalry, jealousy, or even simple dislike of someone. Armed with those emotions, you can ruin someone’s life (or even take it: one person, unjustly accused, committed suicide). First I’ll tell four brief stories I wasn’t familiar with, and then list the steps that, says Applebaum, ensue during a cancelation process. Here’s two tales she recounts.

After Daniel Elder, a prizewinning composer (and a political liberal) posted a statement on Instagram condemning arson in his hometown of Nashville, where Black Lives Matter protesters had set the courthouse on fire after the killing of George Floyd, he discovered that his publisher would not print his music and choirs would not sing it. After the poet Joseph Massey was accused of “harassment and manipulation” by women he’d been romantically involved with, the Academy of American Poets removed all of his poetry from its website, and his publishers removed his books from theirs. Stephen Elliott, a journalist and critic who was accused of rape on the anonymous “Shitty Media Men” list that circulated on the internet at the height of the #MeToo conversation—he is now suing that list’s creator for defamation—has written that, in the aftermath, a published collection of his essays vanished without a trace: Reviews were canceled; The Paris Review aborted a planned interview with him; he was disinvited from book panels, readings, and other events.

This is perhaps the most unjust one:

.After losing his job as editor of The New York Review of Books in a #MeToo-related editorial dispute—he was not accused of assault, just of printing an article by someone who was—Ian Buruma discovered that several of the magazines where he had been writing for three decades would not publish him any longer. One editor said something about “younger staff” at his magazine. Although a group of more than 100 New York Review of Books contributors—among them Joyce Carol Oates, Ian McEwan, Ariel Dorfman, Caryl Phillips, Alfred Brendel (and me)—had signed a public letter in Buruma’s defense, this editor evidently feared his colleagues more than he did Joyce Carol Oates.

Indeed, the person just above accused of sexual assault, Canadian radio broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, was found not guilty in court. But of course that didn’t matter: the editor who published an essay by him was canned.

Elder is one example of how you can lose your livelihood for an Instagram post. Another: Andrew Sullivan was canned by New York Magazine for also decrying the violence accompanying racial protests.  And as for the suicide, Applebaum reports: “David Bucci, the former chair of the Dartmouth brain-sciences department, who was named in a lawsuit against the college though he was not accused of any sexual misconduct, did kill himself after he realized he might never be able to restore his reputation.”

There are many more, and as you read one after the other, if you don’t get angry at how the system enables this kind of ruination without due process, you’re made of stone.

At any rate, here are Applebaum’s stages of what happens when someone’s life is ruined byon social media.Each step is illustrated with a few stories in the article. Quotes from Applebaum are indented:

1.) Your friends and colleagues hear about the accusation and shun you. A few may stand by you, some will demonize you, but most will just avoid you lest they tar themselves by association.

2.) Your lose your ability to do your job.

Even if you have not been suspended, punished, or found guilty of anything, you cannot function in your profession. If you are a professor, no one wants you as a teacher or mentor (“The graduate students made it obvious to me that I was a nonperson and could not possibly be tolerated”). You cannot publish in professional journals. You cannot quit your job, because no one else will hire you. If you are a journalist, then you might find that you cannot publish at all.

3.) The accused tries to apologize, often fulsomely, regardless of the merit of the accusations. These apologies never work, for they’re dissected for their own impurities. Apologies aren’t what the accusers want, anyway: they want to ruin somebody’s life.

4.) Investigations are launched, often prompted by anonymous complaints. The accused often have no power or venue to defend themselves. (Title IX accusations are infamous for this.)

People who are the targets of these investigations, reports Applebaum, are the “odd” ones: either grumpy or, the opposite, overly social. (The latter, as with Biden, may be used in accusations of sexual harassment.)  This, combined with people’s increasing tendency to feel uncomfortable and interpret words or a gesture in the worst way possible results in step 5, which isn’t numbered in the article:

5.) The result: lives and careers are ruined.

Applebaum is writing about this because she feels strongly that this kind of unadjudicated cancelation has a huge negative effect. Whether you’re a liberal or conservative, it acts to chill speech, which of course is exactly what the First Amendment—and our free-speech principles at The University of Chicago—were designed to prevent. People are simply afraid to say anything that could either be misinterpreted or brand you as a racist, transphobe, or sexist.

The censoriousness, the shunning, the ritualized apologies, the public sacrifices—these are rather typical behaviors in illiberal societies with rigid cultural codes, enforced by heavy peer pressure. This is a story of moral panic, of cultural institutions policing or purifying themselves in the face of disapproving crowds. The crowds are no longer literal, as they once were in Salem, but rather online mobs, organized via Twitter, Facebook, or sometimes internal company Slack channels. . . .

. . . .But what gives anyone the conviction that such a measure is necessary? Or that “keeping students safe” means you must violate due process? It is not the law. Nor, strictly speaking, is it politics. Although some have tried to link this social transformation to President Joe Biden or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, anyone who tries to shoehorn these stories into a right-left political framework has to explain why so few of the victims of this shift can be described as “right wing” or conservative. According to one recent poll, 62 percent of Americans, including a majority of self-described moderates and liberals, are afraid to speak their mind about politics. All of those I spoke with are centrist or center-left liberals. Some have unconventional political views, but some have no strong views at all.

And the result, Applebaum fears, is not just an avoidance of discourse but, by removing the “odd” people who make missteps, society will flatten itself into a bare and boring landscape. She mentions new organizations formed to fight this metastasizing desire to wound your enemies (the Academic Freedom Alliance is one, FIRE is another), and hopes that they’re effective. But if they’re not, everybody loses in the end. Applebaum’s last paragraphs:

The alternative, for our cultural institutions and for democratic discourse, is grim. Foundations will do secret background checks on their potential grantees, to make sure they haven’t committed crimes-that-are-not-crimes that could be embarrassing in the future. Anonymous reports and Twitter mobs, not the reasoned judgments of peers, will shape the fate of individuals. Writers and journalists will fear publication. Universities will no longer be dedicated to the creation and dissemination of knowledge but to the promotion of student comfort and the avoidance of social-media attacks.

Worse, if we drive all of the difficult people, the demanding people, and the eccentric people away from the creative professions where they used to thrive, we will become a flatter, duller, less interesting society, a place where manuscripts sit in drawers for fear of arbitrary judgments. The arts, the humanities, and the media will become stiff, predictable, and mediocre. Democratic principles like the rule of law, the right to self-defense, the right to a just trial—even the right to be forgiven—will wither. There will be nothing to do but sit back and wait for the Hawthornes of the future to expose us.

I wonder if I’ll see this kind of behavior, which seems to me a form of lunacy, diminish during my lifetime. Because, you know, it could always get worse.

39 thoughts on “A latter-day Scarlet Letter

  1. “The “court” that does this is social media”

    Indeed.

    But, how can media be called “social” if the media requires its users to point their faces at inanimate objects in order to “use” the media? And which participant is the user and which is the used?

    I offer a more accurate (in my view) term : “anti social media”.

  2. The puritans are exactly that – they are a sort of Taliban. Exactly like the Iranian head dress wearer in the video PCC[E] posted this morning. Bigots. Think they know best. In fact they have little minds, weak intellects, & blinkers.

    PS Passel was a new word to me!

  3. It is interesting (to me anyway) that Applebaum calls this woke cancelation “New Puritanism”. I like this analogy better than McWhorter’s “religion” analogy though I suppose he’s really going after CRT rather than general cancelation. The Puritans are recognizably over the top and I suspect everyone is familiar with them as a sort of Christian Taliban. While they are religious, hardly anyone yearns to be in that kind of society. On the other hand, McWhorter’s analogy almost calls for the reader to dislike religion. That’s ok with me but many might hear it and say to themselves, “Yeah. So what’s wrong with that?”

    I find Applebaum’s work to be fantastic. I always enjoy her appearances on Fareed Zakaria’s show on CNN. I haven’t read any of her books but perhaps I shall.

  4. “Her premise, which is true, is that many Americans, for evincing ideological impurities, have been fired, demonized, shunned, or ostracized—all without any sort of due process.”

    A large part of why this has happened so much in the US is that employment protections generally are so weak. While organizations like universities will at least usually have some semblance of process, they aren’t backed by statutory regulations at a national or even state level. Anyone employed on an at-will basis is even more vulnerable.

  5. I am not here questioning all of the new social codes that have led to their dismissal or their effective isolation. Many of these social changes are clearly positive.

    This strikes me as a cop out, and perhaps even an attempt to avoid cancellation herself. Cancel culture is clearly a part of our Progressive moment, even though it is neither new nor exclusively practiced by the Left. We need to look why the proponents of “these social changes” so easily have recourse to destroying people lives in the service of their goals, and what it says about the world they are conjuring.

  6. There is in truth nothing new about this type of human behavior, and it has long preceded social media, it’s just that the Internet has allowed it to spread faster and wider. But people’s reputations have always been easily destroyed by rumor and innuendo.

    That it is happening in the West is also telling of the impotence and failure of Christianity, one of whose central tenets is supposed to be grace and forgiveness.

  7. It’s worth mentioning that when The Accused tries to explain that they’re a victim of Cancel Culture by using whatever means are available to them — blog posts, magazine article, newspaper interview, talk show, podcast, talks, book, etc. — they’re routinely met with jeering rebuttals that they can’t have been “canceled” because look, they’re whining on a website/magazine/talk show etc. They’re still being heard — and probably making MORE money and becoming MORE famous!

    The loss of a job, a contract, and reputation isn’t enough. Apparently it’s not being “canceled” unless you’re actually in Solitary Confinement.

  8. I’m not sure what’s happened to The Atlantic, but it’s publishing a passel of anti-wokeism articles. Perhaps it’s always done so and I haven’t noticed …

    The Atlantic was where Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt first published the essay that grew into the book The Coddling of the American Mind and is home to staff writer Conor Friedersdorf, so has long given voice to anti-wokeism (although it publishes a wide array of views on the topic).

  9. Think for a moment how Cancel Culture might have emerged and matured if it had developed in the 60s. Of course elements were around then, but what I mean is how would the fuller range of this practice have developed before the hyper amplification and out of control virtue signaling that is possible with the internet and social media? I’m wondering if it would have been still able to cancel the real baddies, but for the lack of Twitter storms and the like, the spreading of CC would not be so able to destroy the lives of young adult fiction writers who failed to stay in their lane, or the average Joes who say “hey, Black lives matter, but did ‘ya really need to loot and burn that Walmart?”

    1. Cancel culture might have been able to sprout on college campuses before social media but clearly social media makes canceling a lot easier. It enables guilt by association to a mass audience possible, or at least much more efficient.

  10. Anne Applebaum has written extensively on the USSR, Ukraine, and eastern Europe under Soviet domination, and has also run academic programs at the LSE and elsewhere on propaganda and disinformation.
    She speaks Polish and Russian, and is married to Radoslaw Sikorski, a Polish journalist/politician who is a member of Donald Tusk’s centrist Civic Platform Party.

    Applebaum is thus uniquely well qualified to analyze the bizarre growth in the US of an atmosphere somewhat like that in the Soviet satellite societies. I will certainly get her new book, in the hope of learning something about how such an atmosphere could have developed here spontaneously. Our new puritans, as she correctly describes them, invariably call themselves “Progressive”—so I suggest that we call them the Leftiban for short.

    1. An interesting related pattern is the notable proportion of antivaxx protesters in my city who are first-generation immigrants from eastern Europe. Many of them are understandably suspicious of government in general, and mistrust pandemic mandates wrt masks, closures, and vaccination in particular. It’s too bad they mistrust a pretty decent government here because they grew up under a relatively awful government elsewhere.

  11. The power of modeling as a teaching tool is unrivaled by any other strategy. It is also largely unconscious.

    What our society learned from Donald Trump and his people, including his media enablers, is that outrage works. If you want to cut someone down to size, scathing criticism, lies, scorn, and hate are the most effective tools. They are also pretty much cost-free.

    So even people who disagree mightily with the Trumpers’ political philosophy have absorbed his strategy for disagreeing with others. It’s not enough to disagree, you must vanquish.

    That mentality is what scared me the most about him, and still does. People who are looking for blood rather than solutions are turning out to be everywhere.

    Is this really the society we want?

    L

  12. See the Sept. 4-10 issue of The Economist. Its cover story is “The threat from the illiberal left.” People are catching on, in other words. After WWII some social scientists and political scientists started writing against authoritarianism, and some folks designed ‘instruments’ to measure authoritarian personality types. It was always authoritarianism on the Right that was under the microscope, though. George Orwell, thankfully, saw the problems on the authoritarian Left, and I think Adlai Stevenson was pretty wise to it, as well. I mention these two as they were clearly Left of Center themselves (Orwell the more so). I’ve asked myself a classic question: Is progress in human affairs possible? My answer: The evidence is mixed, but I think the answer is “no.” We homo sapiens just always resort to what we really are – animals, bent on destruction and loyal only to the Alpha males, that is, until we think we can topple them and become an Alpha male ourselves. Recommended reading here: Totem and Taboo by Freud – this early work was better than later stuff, IMHO.

  13. Unfortunately moral panics will always be with us; they’re part of the irrational side of human social life. But rational people can help stifle them, or limit their damage, by speaking out.

    1. I’ve wondered if a compulsory 48 hour limit before anyone could reply to a social media post might not reduce some of the emotional pile-on that happens. It might also reduce the lure of an intemperate post if there was no feedback ‘reward’ for the two days.

      1. That might reduce the sheer numbers of posts but tweet software already contains features for sending out posts at a future time of the user’s choice. It’s the anonymity that social media allows that seems more the culprit to me.

        A delay in responding would also interfere greatly with the timeliness of social media, Twitter especially. For example I am a fan of the growing commercial space industry. The details of rocket launches are often tweeted out by the companies themselves and allow real-time questions and answers. A forced delay would virtually eliminate this.

        We have to blame the people, not social media. I know free speech protects them and I don’t want to give up on that but irresponsible and uniformed speech is killing us. Something must be done but going back to a pre-internet age is definitely not a solution.

      2. Did you hear that China is going to limit kids younger than 18 from online gaming? They can only play on the weekends and are limited to 3 hours a week. Oh to live under an authoritarian regime.

        I don’t do social media, but our society would be much more healthy if social media users were limited to 3 hours a week. 😉

    2. Yes, they will always with us until there is no more us. Red scares, abducted children, “recovered” memories, muslims behind every bush, to cite some recent ones, we lurch from one boogie man to the next. Same as it ever was.

      It is humbling to remember that we are semi naked apes who, entirely without permission and much to the regret of the rest of the living world, developed these large and occasionally useful brains which are, sadly, profoundly and fundamentally flawed.

  14. I’m currently reading Twelve Who Ruled, an account of the so-called “Committee of Public Safety” during the The Reign of Terror (September 5, 1793 – July 28, 1794). Though nothing in our current cancel culture approaches the guillotine, the following excerpts seem pertinent:

    “The Reign of Terror was by no means the Reign of Darkness. Quite the contrary, it was, among other things, an attempt to force a new enlightenment upon the country.”
    . . . .

    “But the real danger to France, and to the world as it turned out, was rather in the men of inflexible convictions, the conservatives who would accept no change, and the more heated progressives who would accept nothing short of their idea of perfection.”
    ….

    “Perhaps some kind of terror was inescapable in a country so habituated to violence, so demoralized by suspicion and torn by irreconcilable parties.”

  15. I’m currently reading Twelve Who Ruled, an account of the the so-called “Committee of Public Safety” during the The Reign of Terror (September 5, 1793 – July 28, 1794). Though nothing in our current cancel culture approaches the guillotine, the following excerpts seem pertinent:

    “The Reign of Terror was by no means the Reign of Darkness. Quite the contrary, it was, among other things, an attempt to force a new enlightenment upon the country.”
    . . . .

    “But the real danger to France, and to the world as it turned out, was rather in the men of inflexible convictions, the conservatives who would accept no change, and the more heated progressives who would accept nothing short of their idea of perfection.”
    ….

    “Perhaps some kind of terror was inescapable in a country so habituated to violence, so demoralized by suspicion and torn by irreconcilable parties.”

    1. One to file under “sad but true” – zealots everywhere, religious or not, believe that they are the wide-eyed custodians of the underlying reality.

  16. well… in my mind still rises the question about the ‘disliking’ or canceling is, WHAT was the MESSAGE or subject the sender (who got cancelled) was trying to bring across? And.. What was that message? ANd could there be signs of cognitive bias or more neutral;paradoxal information according to both parties the start of a proces of getting into opposite opposing sides? commonground anyone? it is a tactic is my humble opinion..

  17. Again, a stimulating discussion in this forum, thanks to the high quality of WEIT readers, if I do say so myself.😉 Many ideas to comment on, but let me limit myself to social media. As a whole, social media is one of the biggest swindles ever foisted upon humankind. To take Facebook as the leading example of this swindle, users are not FB’s customers, they are its commodities, which it sells to its true customers, its advertisers. I had a Facebook when it first became a cultural phenomenon, tried it out, but I was always ashamed to be on it, as I felt like I was walking around naked in cyberspace. I deleted my account many years ago. Social media is counterfeit socialization. As ThyroidPlanet pointed out above, being on social media is not a real relationship with any other human being; it’s a relationship with a machine. As a former Catholic, I’m thinking of the applicability of the term “occasion of sin” here. This may be a case wherein the Church is right for the wrong reasons. Social media give us occasions to sin in the sense of succumbing to the temptation to take a moral holiday, that is, to believe that we can write or say whatever we want without worrying about its effects on others. Social media appeal to our basest, animalistic instincts, such as the amygdala hijack and dopamine hit. I don’t have any social media accounts, with the exception of LinkedIn, which I consider a quasi-social medium and which I use as a glorified Rolodex, and YouTube, which again is a quasi-social medium and without which I would never have found our host, Jerry Coyne, through a video by the Agatan Foundation.🙂

  18. I’m currently reading Twelve Who Ruled, an account of the the so-called “Committee of Public Safety” during the The Reign of Terror (September 5, 1793 – July 28, 1794). Though nothing in our current cancel culture approaches the guillotine, the following excerpts seem pertinent:

    “The Reign of Terror was by no means the Reign of Darkness. Quite the contrary, it was, among other things, an attempt to force a new enlightenment upon the country.”
    . . . .

    “But the real danger to France, and to the world as it turned out, was rather in the men of inflexible convictions, the conservatives who would accept no change, and the more heated progressives who would accept nothing short of their idea of perfection.”
    ….

    “Perhaps some kind of terror was inescapable in a country so habituated to violence, so demoralized by suspicion and torn by irreconcilable parties.”

  19. Despite actually being a conservative, Ann A. has a first class mind and I read all her stuff – books*, The Atlantic, interviews etc. There are SOME (non-Jesus-y) conservatives I can sit down with.

    I subscribe to The Atlantic and listened to the article yesterday – it is excellent.

    D.A.
    NYC
    *My favorite of hers is probably Gulag from about 20 years ago – an excellent and deep historical dive into the USSR’s horrible system, very well researched. Anne is a Polish and Russian speaker which I think you’d need for such a tome.

    1. I don’t see anything that classifies her as a conservative. She’s written for a lot of publications that conservatives have called liberal, such as the New York Times. The word “conservative” doesn’t appear on her Wikipedia page. I doubt she would like to be labelled one but I obviously don’t know that for a fact.

      1. According Wiki, Anne Applebaum took out Polish citizenship (I assume alongside her US citizenship) a few years ago. Her husband, Radoslaw Sikorski, belongs to the Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska) Party, which is variously described as liberal-conservative and conservative-liberal. Wiki sums it up as follows: “Many PO voters are social liberals who value environmentalism, secularism and Europeanisation. Young people are another voting bloc that support the party, though some of them withdrawed (sic) support after their economic and social situation did not improve significantly when PO was in government. Conservatives used to vote for the party before PO moved sharply to the left on economic (e.g., increase of taxes) and social issues (e.g., support for civil unions).” So, it appears that the Sikorski/Applebaum couple might be described as “Liberal” in the old, European sense, or akin to The Economist magazine, for which
        Anne Applebaum has worked.

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