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 Authoritarianism, discusses 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.