You may not be eager to listen to advice from a conservative about how the Left is tearing itself apart, but all Stephens is saying in his latest NYT column (click on screenshot) is what I’ve been saying for a while: it’s not going to help the Left further its agenda if it keeps engaging in internecine struggles between the “progressives” and the centrists. Since Americans have just proven themselves more willing to support the centrist program, you can’t argue that the centrists should step aside for people like Bernie Sanders or “the squad”. (I hasten to add that some of their ideas are good ones, like universal healthcare and parts of the Green New Deal, but their program as a whole won’t help the center hold. Nor will demonizing everyone who voted for Trump.)
Ergo, I suggest that the best tactic is not only to adopt a less-extreme Democratic agenda, but also (and this may be futile) try compromising more with right-centrists (compromise with most Republicans, though, is hopeless). I’ll let you read Stephens’s op-ed yourself, and then I’ll give a few quote, and let you hash it out while I’m getting drilled:
What, today, is leftism, at least when it comes to intellectual life? Not what it used to be. Once it was predominantly liberal, albeit with radical fringes. Now it is predominantly progressive, or woke, with centrist liberals in dissent. Once it was irreverent. Now it is pious. Once it believed that truth was best discovered by engaging opposing points of view. Now it believes that truth can be established by eliminating them. Once it cared about process. Now it is obsessed with outcomes. Once it understood, with Walt Whitman, that we contain multitudes. Now it is into dualities: We are privileged or powerless, white or of color, racist or anti-racist, oppressor or oppressed.
The list goes on. But the central difference is this: The old liberal left paid attention to complexity, ambiguity, the gray areas. A sense of complexity induced a measure of doubt, including self-doubt. The new left typically seeks to reduce things to elements such as race, class and gender, in ways that erase ambiguity and doubt. The new left is a factory of certitudes.
And what? A conservative shows some humor?:
For the new left — and the publications that champion it — the loss is much greater. It makes them predictable, smug and dull. It alienates readers. A current article on the New York magazine website is titled, “I Think About Björk’s Creativity Animal a Lot.” For gems such as this they got rid of Sullivan?
But I think Stephens has a point, not just about Björk, but about the Left in general. The polarization that’s occurred, largely at the instigation of the take-no-prisoners “progressives”, has made liberal political progress harder. If you’re white but not a racist (yes, they exist, contra Robin DiAngelo), being called a racist or someone filled with unconscious bias makes you take a harder stand on “anti-racism”. Similarly, damning all who voted for Trump as “racists” and “deplorables” is a losing strategy, particularly given the large numbers of women, blacks, and Hispanics who voted for Trump this time around. This is why Biden keeps harping on his desire for compromise and comity, and emphasizing that, Republicans or Democrats, we’re all Americans.
Perhaps this is pie in the sky. But it’s worth a try. Stephens:
The apparent inability of many on the left to entertain the thought that decent human beings might have voted for Trump for sensible reasons — to take one example, the unemployment rate reached record lows before the pandemic hit — amounts to an epic failure to see their fellow Americans with understanding, much less with empathy. It repels the 73 million Trump voters who cannot see anything of themselves in media caricatures of them as fragile, bigoted, greedy and somewhat stupid white people.
It also motivates them. The surest way to fuel the politics of resentment — the politics that gave us the Tea Party, Brexit and Trump, and will continue to furnish more of the same — is to give people something to resent. Jeering moral condescension from entitled elites is among the things most people tend to resent.
Which brings me back to the flight of the contrarians. As the left (and the institutions that represent it) increasingly becomes an intellectual monoculture, it will do more than just drive away talent, as well as significant parts of its audience. It will become more self-certain, more obnoxious to those who don’t share its assumptions, more blinkered and more frequently wrong.
To the enemies of the left, the self-harm that left-leaning institutions do with their increasingly frequent excommunications is, ultimately, good news. The mystery is why liberals would do it to themselves.
Of course the Right is far from immune to this kind of intranecine fighting (remember the “Lincoln Project’?), and they engage in their own form of demonizing their opponents. But we can be better than our opponents.
Eve Fairbanks is a journalist from South Africa, and her national origins play a substantial part in this rather weak essay on free speech in the Washington Post (click on the screenshot).
Increasingly, I find long-form op-eds in both the New York Times and the Washington Post—the two sources I’m subscribed to besides Andrew Sullivan’s website—that are written so poorly, so discursively, and so loosely, that you can’t ascertain what the point is. Or, at least, if I do see a point, it could have been conveyed in half the allotted space. Such is the “outlook” piece above.
As far as I can see from hacking my way through Fairbanks’s logorrhea, she argues that the liberals who decry “cancel culture,” like the ones who signed the Harper’s letter, are in effect “bullies” trying to police people in the guise of promoting free speech. On the other side stands the social justice group who “historically have been cut out of publishing, policymaking, and institutional leadership.” Not that the first group doesn’t have a point, Fairbanks argues. And of course only bigots or conservatives would oppose the second group.
It’s just that there’s a third way—Fairbanks’s way—and the way, she says, that South Africa has gone to a salubrious end. And this way is the best way, because it worked. Here’s her Third Way:
But there’s also a third group, one that may be quieter than the other two. These are American liberals who have, indeed, witnessed events or exchanges that made them feel uneasy — online debates in which a speaker’s character is inferred from one or a handful of tweets out of 16,000; episodes in which authors agree to withdraw upcoming books after accusations of insensitivity. This third group of liberals recognizes that some of what troubles the Harper’s letter-writers is happening. Simultaneously, though, they think that the problems identified by the first group are real: Whole groups of people have been underrepresented in American life and should, at this juncture, be listened to more attentively.
In fact, I’m not sure that Fairbanks even gave the Harper’s letter a fair reading. For it begins with precisely the same trope:
Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second.
Throughout the piece, she tries to denigrate the Harper’s letter on several grounds, none of which hold up. For one things, we read above that the signatories of that letter do recognize the need for “greater equity and inclusion,” and several have a history of that kind of work, so we can dismiss Fairbank’s “third way” complaint on those grounds alone.
What about the “bullying”? That, too, is bizarre.
What’s more, these liberals — I’m one of them — often have the frustrating sense that they’re being bullied by the very people who claim that their motivation is to uphold free speech. It’s inescapable, the observation that the pro-free-speech activists exhibit the behavior they ostensibly claim to be fighting: invoking blinding moral certainty, belittling people who disagree with them or threatening them with lawsuits. They claim to celebrate debate but don’t countenance any disagreement about the degree of threat to free speech.
Check out the two links that supposedly show bullying: one is a petulant tweet, the other Bari Weiss speculating about a workplace harassment complaint at the New York Times. The latter is illegal, and so the “blinding moral certainty” can be adjudicated by the courts should Weiss bring a lawsuit, which I suspect she won’t. Two links like that do not give powerful support for “bullying”. In contrast, there is real and substantial evidence for the bullying of cancel culture participants, like that of Rebecca Tuvel, threatened and professionally humiliated for merely drawing philosophical comparisons between transsexualism and transracism.
As for the last sentence of the paragraph above, that’s complete bullpuckey. It’s not as if the advocates of free speech assert it as an unarguable right, for many of them, including Steve Pinker, and, formerly Christopher Hitchens (not a signatory), have actually explained why free speech is necessary in its “hard” form. (I’ve argued that, too, but wasn’t a signatory.) Fairbanks’s claim to the contrary is wrong. There is article after article by liberals explaining the need for and virtues of free speech.
Fairbanks goes on (and on and on), but then raises a very bizarre argument, saying that other people whom we find odious have also argued for free speech, including George Wallace and Rush Limbaugh. And yes, they may have made these arguments in the service of bigotry, but this is basically a kind of ad hominem argument: because reprobates have argued for free speech, there must be something wrong with it.
Fairbanks’s last argument is this:
I came to feel that the speech argument was often wielded by people who worried that their points may be weak. I’ve felt that way about its use on the left, too. Think about its equivalent, rhetorically, in a marital fight: “I can’t believe you’re upset about this.” Such a statement positions the speaker as the rational one and burdens the other party to hedge himself so as not to sound hysterical. It also deflects the argument from its true subject to a dispute over its form — the other person’s way of presenting their complaint. In the Harper’s letter, and in other recent exhortations to the left to protect free speech, there’s a striking absence of any ideas. What propositions do these writers wish they were able to offer? But naming those ideas would open them up again to scrutiny and discussion.
Sorry, but this is also misguided on two fronts. While free-speech advocates do call out people for engaging in bizarre forms of cancellation (the General Tso’s chicken kerfuffle at Oberlin and the Kimono Kerfuffle at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts are two examples), but they do more then highlight the abuses of cancel culture: they explain why they are ludicrous. Need I mention the many people who have defended “cultural appropriation” as a virtue rather than a vice, and done so with actual arguments? T
But the Harper’s letter was meant to highlight a more serious problem: people losing their jobs and reputations for being ideologically impure, often in a trivial way. And “absence of ideas”? What about the idea that we need to ratchet down a culture that tries to hurt people’s lives and reputations for words that don’t deserve such treatment? What does Fairbanks want the signatories to do? The letter was meant to prompt discussion about a problem, not to solve it. But I can offer one solution: inculcate all college first-year students with a unit on free speech.
In the end, Fairbanks raises her own country as an example of how the Third Way succeeded:
As in America, South Africans who resisted the firing of a columnist or the renaming of a building expressed the most alarm not for the present but for a putative future. They treated these events as harbingers of much more extreme reprisals to come: Give the people who want to “cancel” things a hand, they said, and they’ll take the whole arm, and eventually we’ll be living in a “1984”-like dystopia. You have to push back hard and early.
I believe that many who made this fearful argument really did harbor this concern. The discrimination against South Africans of color was so great over such a long time that — if they truly were liberated from social norms to be cordial — the assumption was that they would seek a comprehensive revenge. But they didn’t. Their demands to rename buildings or exclude offensive rhetoric were not mere bitter performances. Once some buildings were renamed and some academics’ reputations downgraded, they, and the country, mostly moved on.
Now I can’t speak directly to how things are going there, as I know little about the culture or, in particular, South Africa’s cancel culture. Grania, were she alive, would have something to say about this.
Clearly the “truth and reconciliation” attitude achieved great things in South Africa, but that was about apartheid and its enforcers, and surely the employment of “cancel culture” would have had a much more violent and divisive effect. A liberal attitude, however, might mandate the very actions of which Fairbanks approves.
Her “solution” is apparently to let the mob tear down statues and impose censorship on “hate speech” and, never fear, cancel culture will vanish of its own accord. Well, what we get is vandalism of Gandhi statues because of his one-time (and self repudiated) bigoted statements), and calls to “decolonize” (i.e., destroy) science by empowering superstition as another way of knowing.” This is a well known video from the University of Cape Town:
Like all the criticisms of the Harper’s letter, Fairbanks’s seems overly captious and misguided. After all, the gist of the letter is simply “treat people fairly, be charitable, and don’t try to injure their lives and reputations for trivialities.” How much is there to object to in that? But to say “not much” is to misunderstand the Authoritarian Left or, in this case, Fairbanks’s so-called Third Way.
Like many scientific journals and societies, the journal Nature is getting woker, larding its pages with letters and articles that often indict science or STEM for “systemic racism”. One letter, which appeared in Nature three days ago, is of that ilk.
While it would be foolish to deny that there are bigots and racists working in science, as there are in all areas, it’s a different matter to indict the discipline itself (including my own field of evolutionary biology) for “systemic racism,” at least in present days. That implies, depending on whose definition of the term “systemic racism” you use, that the field either has formal or informal structures in place to impede the advancement of ethnic minorities. This used to be the case, of course, and, as we know, science (i.e., “received scientific wisdom”) once gave its imprimatur to unsubstantiated and racist areas like eugenics, racial hierarchies, and so on. Even Darwin, an abolitionist, made statements about non-white groups that would be rejected as racist today.
But things have changed in a big way as society has advanced morally, and now science departments and fields are desperately seeking to redress the balance by looking for graduate students and faculty from minority groups. There are scholarships and grants directed at those groups, and I can truthfully say that in my entire career in science, I’ve encountered only one individual with attitudes I’d consider racist (that person will remain unnamed). Yes, there’s a dearth of minorities in science compared to the general population, but I strongly doubt that you can ascribe that to racism at the level of colleges, graduate schools, or faculty. Part of that may be a matter of preferences, but I suspect the main issue is that the pipeline to science is, for minorities, constricted beginning at the elementary-school level. We simply don’t have many minority applicants for graduate-school or faculty positions, and those we have are usually “Hispanic,” a broad term that can even include privileged individuals from Spain who are “white” by any account. If there’s any discipline that is trying hard to achieve equity, it’s science.
Thus I bridle when I hear science in general accused of “systemic racism”, either built into science or as a general attitude within science. Yes, there’s individual racism, and that can manifest itself as biased treatment, but letters like the one below seem a bit extreme (you can see the letter in situ by clicking on the screenshot):
As I said, hiring and acceptance policies are already in place, as are scholarships and special grants and initiatives to promote ethnic diversity (see here and here for examples). But that is not enough for Gore-Felton et al. They want not just equal opportunity, nor even equal outcome, but requiring “compulsory courses on the Black disapora” for every department in every elite institution of learning. This is a form of compulsory indoctrination. Further, the authors argue that no longer should advancement and tenure be based on merit (which of course always includes departmental and university service), but must be based on “excellence in diversity efforts.” This implies that if you’re not engaged in such efforts, you’re not going to get promotion and tenure.
This goes too far, and is a form of authoritarianism to which I objected this morning. Forced courses on the Black diaspora—and we know what these will be like—as well as denial of promotion or tenure if you don’t achieve excellence in fostering diversity (they of course mean racial diversity rather than any other kind of diversity) are ways of employing science for social engineering. Now scientists should participate ensuring that all groups, be they based on ethnicity or sex, have equal opportunity for entry and are treated like everyone else in graduate school and as faculty, but this is not what these initiatives are doing. They are insisting that scientists engage in political activities that have nothing to do with science, and then get marinated in ideologies that have nothing to do with science.
The piece above is a letter, not an official statement by Nature, but believe me, official statements resembling the one above are not only already in place in some science departments, but more are on the way. And it’s a sign of the times that Nature took these bizarre suggestions seriously enough to publish them.
I’ve now finished Pluckrose’s and Lindsay’s new book, and can recommend it to readers (it has a pretty good position on Amazon though it won’t come out till August 25). Click on screenshot to go to the Amazon site:
It’s more academic than I imagined and less of a screed against Social Justice (which they capitalize to indicate the woke version against classical “liberal” social justice), but I found that emphasis refreshing. While casting aspersions on the value of “Social Justice”, they spend much more time drawing out its roots in Postmodernism, which transformed itself into what they call “Theory”: the postmodern philosophy of activism that has two tenets. Their characterization of “modern” postmodernism involve these propositions (quoted from p. 31 of their book):
The postmodern knowledge principle. Radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.
The postmodern political principle. A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.
We can dismiss the first one for reasons I’ve discussed before; the second is the basis for all “Social Justice” activism.
Their schema involves four “themes” of postmodernism: the blurring of boundaries, the power of language, cultural relativism, and the loss of the individual and the universal. The last principle involves a vision of society as a mixture of identity groups competing for power: a zero-sum jockeying to oppress others, with cis white males currently on top.
And this last idea, the replacement of the universal and the individual with competing groups, made me think (the book is good at promoting thought), and then realize why, when I was such a big advocate of the goals of the Civil Rights movement of the Sixties—at least instantiated by Martin Luther King and his followers—I am much more dubious about today’s Civil Rights movement as embodied in the Black Lives Matter program. Although I abhor the use of violence to attain any political goal, and there’s a lot of tacit endorsement or ignoring of demonstrators’ violence in the modern movement (I’m not exculpating the police here), in contrast with the foundational nonviolence of Dr. King, that’s not the main reason I am less enthusiastic about the current wave of antiracism. Yes, the goal of both movements was equality, but the modern movement comes with an emphasis on group identities that I see as repellant and ultimately divisive.
The passage below from Cynical Theories (p. 261) was sort of an epiphany for me, and I’ve copied it out:
. . . the critical approach to Social Justice encourages tribalism and hostility by its aggressively divisive approach. Whereas the Civil Right Movements worked so well because they used a universalist approach—everybody should have equal rights—that appealed to human intuitions of fairness and empathy, Social Justice uses a simplistic identity politics approach which ascribes collective blame to dominant groups—white people are racist, men are sexist, and straight people are homophobic. This explicitly goes against the established liberal value of not judging people by their race, gender, or sexuality, and it is incredibly naive to expect it not to produce a counter-revival of old right-wing identity politics. Arguments that it is acceptable to be prejudices against white people, men, straight, or cisgender people because of historical power imbalances do not work well with human intuitions of reciprocity.
If a majority feels threatened by a vocal minority with institutional power, it is likely to try to change those institutions, and not merely because of paranoid fears about losing dominance and privilege once had. If it becomes socially acceptable to speak of “whiteness” and call for punishment of anyone who can be interpreted as expressing “anti-blackness,” this will be experienced as unfair by white people. If it becomes acceptable to pathologize masculinity and speak hatefully of men while being hypersensitive to anything that can be called “misogyny,” almost half the population (as well as much of the other half who loves them), is likely to take this badly. If cisgender people, who are 99.5 percent of the population, are accused of transphobia for simply existing, failing to use the correct terminology, allowing genitals to influence their dating preferences, or even having non-queer Theory beliefs about gender, this is likely to result in much unfair antagonism against trans people (most of whom do not believe in this either).
As a classical liberal (or so I see myself), I have an instinctive revulsion towards the practice of dividing society up into competing groups and demonizing them on an oppression scale. Yes, of course we need to work towards equity, for the residual effects of slavery and bigotry are still bloody obvious in society. Dr. King’s tactics went a long way toward rectifying inequalities: who can deny that minorities are better off now than, say, in 1960?
Still, I fear that division and identity politics won’t be so efficacious—for reasons outlined by the authors above. (They also discuss the “negative stereotypes” created by Theory, including the infantilization of women and the “soft bigotry” against blacks as instantiated by the “white culture” posters at the National Museum of African American History & Culture and the patronizing tone of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragilitycriticized by John McWhorter in his review of the book.)
And I resent any movement that makes the untestable claim that all white people not only have benefited from “privilege”, but are imbued with often unconscious bigotry. Or that males are inherently misogynistic, and we inhabit a “rape culture.” You wouldn’t hear Dr. King making divisive claims like that, for his appeal was to unity: to universal sentiments that were not personal attacks but irresistible appeals to justice.
Now many of us (Including to some extent me) have been cowed by Social Justice advocates into silence, for who wants to be labeled a bigot, a sexist, or a transphobe? Further, I constantly hear that we’re wasting our time on criticizing our own side: that we have bigger fish to fry, including a large smelly one named Trump. Why don’t I just become like HuffPost and write about the odiousness of Trump all the time? But divisiveness is just want Trump wants; he uses it all the time to try to promote his moribund campaign for President. More important, when the Democrats win in the fall, and the college students have moved on to grasp the levers of power in the media and government, I don’t want to face fighting an Authoritarianism of the Left, with its cancel culture, demands, and policing of speech. To prevent that, we need to start pushing back now on the extreme Left.
So I was heartened by Pluckrose and Lindsay’s final couple of pages in which they promote not only open criticism of the pernicious and authoritarian form of Social Justice, but put forth positive principles of classical liberalism. You can, and should, read that for yourself. I’ll quote only one more paragraph:
The solution is liberalism, both political (universal liberalism is an antidote to the postmodern political principle) and in terms of knowledge production (Jonathan Rauch’s “liberal science” is the remedy for the postmodern knowledge principle). You don’t need to become an expert on Jonathan Rauch’s work, or on John Stuart Mill, or on any of the great liberal thinkers. Nor do you need to become well versed in Theory and Social Justice scholarship, so that you can confidently refute it. But you do need to have a little bit of courage to stand up to something with a lot of power. You need to recognize Theory when you see it, and side with the liberal responses to it—which might be no more complicated than saying, “No, that’s your ideological belief, and I don’t have to go along with it.”
This book will help you recognize Theory when you see it, and then you’ll start seeing it everywhere: in the New York Times, in the Washington Post, in the petulant acts of cancel culture, and on most every college campus in America.
A reader recommended that I read some stuff by Matt Taibbi, a podcaster, writer, and contributing editor for Rolling Stone. I was advised that I might find Taibbi ideologically compatible (indeed, he appears to specialize in calling out the excesses of the Left), although you’ll have to pay if you want to subscribe to his site. In particular, I was urged to read the piece below (click on the screenshot), and while I found it intriguing and in line with my own views, I also found it a bit incoherent, and so haven’t been enthused by this single specimen of his writing.
Taibbi’s thesis, embodied in the title, is that the Authoritarian Left has become as humorless, hectoring, and Pecksniffian as the Right has been for a while, and I agree with that. But the article is curiously disjointed, beginning with a long and largely irrelevant discussion of Taibbi’s coverage of the Dover Intelligent-Design suit, which the Dover School District lost. Taibbi’s point is that the Left is now guilty of Doverism:
Fifteen years later, America is a thousand Dovers, and the press response is silence. This time it’s not a few Podunk school boards under assault by junk science and crackpot theologies, but Princeton University, the New York Times, the Smithsonian, and a hundred other institutions.
When the absurdity factor rocketed past Dover levels this week, the nation’s leading press organs barely commented, much less laughed. Doing so would have meant opening the floodgates on a story most everyone in media sees but no one is allowed to comment upon: that the political right and left in America have traded villainous cultural pathologies. Things we once despised about the right have been amplified a thousand-fold on the flip.
The thing is, Dover was about the Right ignoring established science to foist a creationist scenario on its schoolchildren, while many of the examples Taibbi gives have at best a tangential connection with science. Rather, they’re about Cancel Culture, and we get a parade of familiar examples: the “white culture” posters at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture, recent articles on Robin DiAngelo and her anti-racism seminars, blind auditions rethought for orchestra members, the elimination of standardized tests for college admission, and so on. Most of this doesn’t have to do with science, although empirical evidence does apply in some cases. (Remember, though, that the Cancel Culture, heavily marinated in postmodernism, generally eschews evidence in favor of “lived experience.”) However, there are a few gems in Taibbi’s list that I either didn’t know about or didn’t write about. Here’s one I knew about but didn’t write about—a recent fracas at Princeton University:
At Princeton, the situation was even more bizarre. On July 4th, hundreds of faculty members and staff at Princeton University signed a group letter calling for radical changes.
Some demands seem reasonable, like requests to remedy University-wide underrepresentation among faculty members of color. Much of the rest of the letter read like someone drunk-tweeting their way through a Critical Theory seminar. [JAC: that’s a good sentence!] Signatories asked the University to establish differing compensation levels according to race, demanding “course relief,” “summer salary,” “one additional semester of sabbatical,” and “additional human resources” for “faculty of color,” a term left undefined. That this would be grossly illegal didn’t seem to bother the 300-plus signatories of one of America’s most prestigious learning institutions.
The Princeton letter didn’t make much news until a Classics professor named Joshua Katz wrote a public “Declaration of Independence” from the letter. Playing the same role as the Dover science teacher who feebly warned that teaching Intelligent Design would put the district at odds with a long list of Supreme Court decisions, Katz said it boggled his mind that anyone could ask for compensation “perks” based on race, especially for “extraordinarily privileged people already, let me point out: Princeton professors.”
Katz also complained about the letter’s support for a group called the Black Justice League, which he described as a “local terrorist organization” that had recently engaged in an Instagram Live version of a kind of struggle session involving two students accused of an ancient racist conversation. Katz called it “one of the most evil things I have ever witnessed.” The video appears to have been deleted, though I spoke with another Princeton faculty member who described seeing the same event in roughly the same terms.
In response, University President Christopher Eisengruber “personally” denounced Katz for using the word “terrorist.” Katz was also denounced by his Classics department, which in a statement on the department web page insisted his act had “heedlessly put our Black colleagues, students, and alums at serious risk,” while hastening to add “we gratefully acknowledge all the forms of anti-racist work that members of our community have done.”
That statement was only [sic] signed by four people, though there are twenty faculty members in the Classics department, but the signees all had titles: department Chair, Director of Graduate Studies, Director of Undergraduate Studies, head of the Diversity and Equity Committee. The pattern of administrative leaders not only not rejecting but adopting the preposterous infantilizing language of new activism – I am physically threatened by your mild disagreement – held once again. Not one institutional leader in America, it seems, has summoned the courage to laugh in this argument’s face.
It’s unthinkable that the President of the University of Chicago would denounce a faculty member in this way, though our school is becoming increasingly woke, pondering statements on departmental web pages that violate the University’s pledge to remain ideologically neutral as an institution.
To Taibbi, all these examples show (and I agree) that this isn’t about the Democratic party moving to the Right, becoming censorious like Republicans, but “about a change in the personality profile of the party’s most animated, engaged followers.” But we already knew that: it’s called “cancel culture.” And who disagrees that the CC set is humorless, hectoring, and annoying, and is putting classical liberals like me in a bind?
Now that same inconsolable paranoiac [he’s referring to Republicans of yore] comes at you with left politics, and isn’t content with ruining the odd holiday dinner, blind date, or shared cab. He or she does this infuriating interrogating at the office, in school, and in government agencies, in places where you can’t fake a headache and quietly leave the table.
This is all taking place at a time when the only organized opposition to such thinking also supports federal troops rounding up protesters for open-ended detention, going maskless to own the libs, and other equivalent madnesses. If you’re not a Trump fan and can’t reason with the other thing either, what’s left?
What’s Left, indeed? It’s up to the Left to criticize our own side lest Fox News and Trump do it, making centrists and Republicans think that Democrats are all a bunch of bowdlerizing loons.
Taibbi’s article is good for catching up on the latest malfeasances of the misnamed Progressive Left, but others have pointed out before the “horseshoe” convergence of Left and Right in this way. I’ll move along, but will read some more Taibbi to see if he can challenge me to think.
This letter in Areo (click on screenshot) gets the point of the Harper’s letter in a way that many outraged people and offended intellectuals didn’t. The author, who asserts that he’s a “nobody”, isn’t really: his Areo bio says this:
Angel Eduardo is writer, musician, photographer, and designer in New York City. He has been published in The Ocean State Review, The Caribbean Writer, and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, among other publications. See more of his work at angeleduardo.com.
But never mind who he is. His point is that, as Steve Pinker mentioned, the letter wasn’t there to protect the speech and hegemony of the many intellectuals who signed the letter; it was to call attention to a culture that demonizes and, worse, injures the livelihoods of “regular” people who committed ideological transgressions, usually on the Internet. This isn’t in the interest of debate or of producing “counterspeech”, but in the interest of hurting your opponent.
Eduardo now has put his career in danger, for in the Areo letter he says that while he believes in the principles of Black Lives Matter, he often finds their rhetoric “confused, dishonest, and based on misinterpretations of the data.” Also, while supporting trans people, he says “I cannot deny my own understanding of the science behind biological sex.” Those two statements—or even one of them—are sufficient to stuff him into the meat grinder of cancel culture. Now, he says, A target is on his back, but he had sufficient courage to write the article, and to say this:
That’s the fulcrum on which the Harper’s letter turns: I could be wrong about everything, and I am willing to hear the reasons why, but I must be given the chance to be wrong. I must be able to not only express my opinions, but to know that my life won’t crumble around me because I happen to be in disagreement with the crowd. We must grant one another compassion and the benefit of the doubt, despite our basest instincts and the social media platforms that cynically incentivize them. I’ve been wrong nearly every day of my life, and there hasn’t been one instance in which I didn’t become a better person for having learned through compassionate correction. If I’d been afraid to speak or act, or if I’d been met with righteous anger instead, I might have never learned at all.
There’s more, but you can read it for yourself. I want instead to highlight one of the links Eduardo gives below:
In the wake of the Harper’s letter, I’ve witnessed flabbergasting displays of casuistry. Critics have attacked the motives and character of certain signatories, as though accusations of hypocrisy—whether justified or not—could invalidate the principles within the letter itself. Many have argued that the cancel culture the letter decries doesn’t even exist, despite seemingly unending examples.
Of course I had to see the link, for many critics of the Harper’s letter beefed about the nonexistence of cancel culture. After all, they wrote uncomprehendingly, all those people who signed the letter didn’t get canceled; they were just defending their right to oppress others who—the beefers claimed—couldn’t speak up because they were marginalized. (The idea that marginalized people have no voice cannot be supported given the outcry and changes following the murder of George Floyd.)
Anyway, the author of the list, who runs the EverythingOppresses Twitter site, put up ten examples of “cancel culture” (non-famous people having their lives and careers damaged, mostly through firings), and then offered to give ten other examples for each 1,000 followers he/she accrued—up to 150. There are now about 7500 followers, and at the site below (click on screenshot), you can see the list.
There are now 101 examples, and I’ve looked at them all. While some don’t really fill the bill (semi-famous people simply being attacked, with calls for them to be fired), and other folks weren’t really fired but were piled on by social-media mobs, most of them do count as real examples of “cancel culture.” Not only were people’s businesses wrecked and their careers damaged, or they got fired, but I can’t imagine any of this happening 30 years ago. The closest example I can think of in our time is the red-baiting that took place during the McCarthy era. But even that wasn’t comparable because the career-wrecking was mostly done by the government and Congress, not by private citizens.
You’re already familiar with many of these examples if you’ve read this site, but I’ll give a few, and if you click on the screenshots you can read the evidence. Some of them are truly horrific examples of mob mentality. Yes, you can be attacked by the outraged if you criticize the MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, or if you say something that, however obliquely, can be interpreted as racist, but counterspeech is simply a demonstration of free speech. Pushback on social media is often distressing, but I can’t say I oppose it. What makes these examples odious are the blatant attempts to ruin people’s livelihoods by communicating Ideological Malfeasance to people’s bosses. And yes, boycotts aren’t illegal, but they can be misguided and overblown, as many in the list are.
Here are a few examples (again, click on screenshots to go to the relevant news article). Remember the Burrito Truck Cancellation?
I wrote about this one, too:
One link here to represent all four cases:
You know of this incident:
Although there’s controversy about why Google fired James Damore, it seems pretty clear it was his response to the “diversity memo” that did him in. Regardless of whether he conformed to “received wisdom,” he shouldn’t have been fired:
Young adult fiction is a hotbed of Cancel Culture activity. The author gives a number of examples, but here’s an overview:
Remember this one?
Surprisingly, one of the most fertile hunting grounds for the Offense Police is the “knitting culture”: social-media websites connecting those who knit. Here’s one ludicrous example of hounding after an innocuous statement (another example is here):
And you surely remember the Gibson’s Bakery incident, in which Oberlin College decided to rouse its students by accusing the bakery of racism when in fact there was no racism in evidence (the bakery won a huge judgement against Oberlin, which behaved despicably). There are two screenshots with separate links:
Don’t forget how Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying were hounded out of The Evergreen State College (NYT story by Bari Weiss):
Are ten examples enough? (Remember, there are over a hundred.) Let’s make it an even dozen. The next one is particularly odious, and you may not know of it:
To finish off, let’s not forget how Harvard Law Professor Ronald Sullivan was kicked out as head of an undergraduate residential house for having the temerity to join Harvey Weinstein’s defense team. No matter than Sullivan had done a lot in the past for marginalized students; his presence was making students at Winthrop House feel “unsafe” (a word that should raise a red flag):
These, and most of the rest of the examples, clearly show that people’s lives have been damaged or even ruined by social-justice mobs not even offering counterspeech (they often take their positions as un-debatable), but simply baying instead for people’s jobs.
I don’t have a strategy to counteract this kind of climate; all I can suggest is that we stand up against it every time we see it. Given that the liberal media and many other powerful positions are now occupied by woke students who imbibed their ideology in woke colleges like Oberlin and Harvard, it’s going to be a long battle.
This now seems to have been inevitable, but it’s very sad, especially for the NYT, which has lost a powerful voice and a counterweight to the paper’s fulminating wokeness—an ideological groupthink that has so degraded its quality. Click on the screenshot to read the CNN report:
Weiss generated controversy for her criticism of aspects of progressive culture, particularly with regards to free speech. Last week, she was one of the dozens of writers who signed an open letter published in Harper’s Magazine that spoke out against so-called cancel culture.
Weiss faced criticism in June when the newspaper faced backlash over the publication of Republican Sen. Tom Cotton’s op-ed, which argued for sending in military troops to U.S. cities to quash unrest that had broken out in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. In a series of tweets, Weiss tweeted that there was a “civil war” that has been “raging” inside The Times between the “wokes” and older “liberals.” The tweets drew public backlash from some of Weiss’ own colleagues.
Weiss said in her resignation letter that she was subject to “constant bullying” by her colleagues at The Times who disagreed with her views. She wrote that colleagues have called her a Nazi and racist and that she was “demeaned on company-wide Slack channels.”
“There, some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly ‘inclusive’ one, while others post ax emojis next to my name,” Weiss wrote. “Still other New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action. They never are.”
Eileen Murphy, a spokesperson for The Times, did not respond to the specifics of Weiss’ resignation letter. But Murphy said, “We’re committed to fostering an environment of honest, searching and empathetic dialogue between colleagues, one where mutual respect is required of all.”
Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions. I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.
My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist; I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m “writing about the Jews again.” Several colleagues perceived to be friendly with me were badgered by coworkers. My work and my character are openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in. There, some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly “inclusive” one, while others post ax emojis next to my name. Still other New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action. They never are.
There are terms for all of this: unlawful discrimination, hostile work environment, and constructive discharge. I’m no legal expert. But I know that this is wrong.
I do not understand how you have allowed this kind of behavior to go on inside your company in full view of the paper’s entire staff and the public. And I certainly can’t square how you and other Times leaders have stood by while simultaneously praising me in private for my courage. Showing up for work as a centrist at an American newspaper should not require bravery.
Kudos to Weiss for calling out the paper’s wokeness, which I’ve long touted. She won’t get hired there again, or at the Washington Post or anywhere where Twitter runs the show. I only hope she finds a good niche where she can purvey her left-centrism and have it be read by those who need it.
I don’t know if Weiss will sue on “hostile workplace” grounds, but the New York Times should be ashamed for allowing one of its best columnists to be treated this way. She was not a conservative, not a Bret Stephens nor a Ross Douthat. She was to the left of center. Of course if a columnist is hired, she or he should be supported, regardless of their position on the ideological spectrum. Weiss was further attacked because she often took the part of Israel. This alone is reason to get you demonized these days. But demonized at the “paper of record”? Truly, it’s the “paper of discord” now, and and deserves the name The New Woke Times.
I used to think of Slate and Salon as brother sites, with Salon being the slightly unhinged and woker younger brother and Slate being the more serious elder. Well, Salon has gone down the drain of wokeness, and Slate is no longer nearly as interesting as it used to be, full as it is now with advice columns and celebrity gossip. I mourn the days when Hitchens, for instance, used to write great pieces at Slate. I was even impressed enough to pitch and publish two pieces there (here and here).
When I looked at the latest version of Slate, I was a bit distressed to see that the site, along with others on the Left, had taken a stand against the letter in Harper’s that’s excited so much discussion. Or rather, without engaging in (or even mentioning) the letter, the author, Lili Loofbourow, argues that the thesis of the Harper’s letter—the existence of a chilled climate for expressing your opinions because of fear of mob destruction of your reputation or of your job—is incomplete. (I just discovered another more explicit attack on the Harper’s letter in Slate, which you can see here, though it says very little).
Loofbourow’s thesis is the the Harper’s letter missed a critical element in why the climate of chilled discourse is so ubiquitous. It’s Twitter, Jake!
But there’s something crucial missing in these analyses, which grow vague and blame “the present climate” when they draw their comparisons to Orwell’s 1984. To hear them say it, it’s this climate that is responsible for unjust firings, even more than the actual employers. This climate is angry. This climate won’t be reasoned with. But what I think is largely responsible for this phenomenon they’re observing—without understanding—is Twitter. And the internet at large. And how years of arguing on social platforms, mixed with the incentives that they supply, has distorted not just the way most of us talk about things but also the way we manage ideological dissent. In short: Political discourse has been warped less because of “cancel culture” or “illiberalism” than by the way social media platforms have been poisoned, like wells, that poison us in turn.
Loofborouow goes on at length to parse the dynamics of Twitter: how the same argument arises again and again, always with predictable consequences, a feature that puts “a lot of people at the end of their rope.” This leads people to “presume bad faith”, and “meta-argue,” talking past each other.
The flaw in Loofbourow’s argument is that she doesn’t connect the dots between this dynamic and the problem raised by the Harper’s letter: a mob mentality that simply wants to punish people for their ideas. Note that the Harper’s letter just describes the phenomenon without diagnosing its causes, a step that would have caused the letter to be overly long, producing unproductive disagreements among the authors:
But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. 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.
Well, I don’t want to go into the Slate piece in detail. It sloppily written, full of jargon, and not worthy of a full rebuttal. Just let me say a few things.
First of all, Twitter may be a proximate cause of many of the acts of social-media mobs that have poisoned the climate for free discussion, but behind that is a lot of human psychology that goes undiscussed. There’s the anonymity of using social media, the lack of the face-to-face contact that inhibits more vile statements, the ubiquity of confirmation bias, the inability of many people to focus attention on longer arguments, a fault not of Twitter, but of the Internet), a political tribalism increased in the U.S. by the election of Trump and in England by Brexit, Boris Johnson, and so on. I’m sure readers can think of other reasons, and by all means proffer them below.
Further, a great deal of the real damage to free discourse has little to do with Twitter, although the Internet makes that damage occur faster. The deplatformings of speakers at colleges (mostly deriving from the Left), the walkout by Hachette employees that led to that firm’s reneging on its agreement to publish Woody Allen’s memoirs, the pushback against the NYT’s publication of Tom Cotton’s editorial by Times staffers who claimed they felt “unsafe”—this has little to do with Twitter, or at least not with any mindset produced by Twitter. There’s a whole psychology behind Twitter, one effectively described by Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in The Coddling of the American Mind.
Yes, Twitter makes it easier to bully people, organize mobs, and threaten themselves and their livelihoods, but Twitter by itself is not an explanation for such bullyings, firings, and so on. There are deeper reasons. I’ve advanced a few here, but the Harper’s letter wisely refrained. Before we can fix the problem, we have to agree that the problem exists. Loofbourow seems to think it does, but her diagnosis is like a doctor saying that the problem is an itch when the ultimate cause is infection with parasitic flukes (“swimmer’s itch“, which I got a case of then I went into the pond to rescue an orphaned duckling.) Many others on the Left deny that there is a problem of “cancel culture.”
And I’m not sure that we need to understand exactly why people act as bullies and harassers to curb that behavior. Perhaps it would be useful, but perhaps as well it’s easier to cure the bullying than, say, repair the split between Democrats and Republicans in America that underlies tribalism. We could start by not firing people for exercising their freedom of speech, and being more charitable towards our fellow humans, flawed just as we are.
Over the past few days I’ve read a number of pieces both in favor of and against the letter, though one would think that a standard call for freedom of speech, and against “cancellation” (hounding, bullying, and trying to ruin people’s reputations and careers in place of debate and counterspeech) wouldn’t be that controversial. But to think that would be to underestimate the prickliness and capacity for outrage of the Woke.
Today I want to call your attention to two short articles in favor of The Letter, but first I’ll summarize the objections that I’ve seen, which I’ve put in bold (my answers are in plain type).
1.) The signers of the letters were famous, rich, and entitled, and had nothing to fear from calling for free speech. This completely misunderstands the purpose of the letter, which was to have powerful voices stand up on behalf of those who have no such power, and who have been cowed into silence by the mob. The answer is simple, and was given by Steve Pinker in this tweet:
Attackers of the free speech letter signed by Rowling, Chomsky et al miss the point: It’s not about us. It’s about the writers, scientists, & artists who are told ”NIce career you go there. Would be a real shame if something happened to it.” https://t.co/38lD25z0X4
2. The signers of the letter were not silenced; after all, they published a big letter that got a lot of attention.They were beefing about nothing. Response: see #1. They weren’t complaining about their own cancellation.
3. Many of the signers, while calling for free speech and open debate, tried in the past to suppress other people’s speech, so they were hypocrites. I have no knowledge of any such attempts, but even if there were one or a few, it’s the principle of the letter itself that was being endorsed. Indeed, you could do a pot/kettle thing here and note that at least two people who worked for Vox complained on Twitter about one colleague, Matt Yglesias, who signed the letter. One of the Vox employees, a trans woman named Emily VanDerWerff, sent an email to her and Yglesias’s boss, which she posted on Twitter, saying that Yglesias signed a transphobic letter that made her feel “unsafe.” The letter was not transphobic, and I can’t imagine how VanDerWerff felt “unsafe” (I tend to be dubious about such claims.)
4. Nevertheless, Ezra Klein, a co-founder of Vox and an editor-at-large, issued this tweet raising another canard: the signers of the letter were merely trying to gain power and glory by publishing it. The pushback from the Woke was merely a call for them to debate rather than tout themselves and “cancel” others.
Klein’s “dog whistle” (LOL):
A lot of debates that sell themselves as being about free speech are actually about power. And there's *a lot* of power in being able to claim, and hold, the mantle of free speech defender.
And Klein got some well-deserved pushback. Claims of “feeling unsafe” are all too often a way to call attention to yourself and your feelings, thereby avoiding debate.
I wonder whether @ezraklein would admit that a lot of complaints about injustice or "feeling unsafe" are also about power. After all, there's *a lot* of power in being able to claim, and hold, the mantle of victim. https://t.co/Dwj9P02eMn
One of the exponents of this view is the reliably Woke (and obtuse) Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who apparently missed the point of The Letter:
5. Bad people (e.g., J. K. Rowling) signed the letter, rendering its message completely worthless. See the response of Wendy Kaminer below. Here’s an example of hyperbole from a piece criticizing The Letter in In These Times:
I say this, of course, in the context of today’s letter, published in Harper’s and signed by more than 100 of the worst people in the world of public intellectualism, titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.”
Seriously? “Worst people in the world?” I’d rather hang out with these people any day than with the writers at Vox.
6. The Letter was full of right-wing and anti-trans “dog whistles”. This claim is based on no evidence, existing solely in the Pecksniffian minds of the critics. The letter doesn’t mention anything that approximates “dog whistles” criticizing transsexual people or pandering to conservatives. If you don’t believe me, read it again.
7. The letter didn’t give examples of “cancel culture” transgressions. Rightly so, and for a reason—it was making a larger point and didn’t want to get bogged down in specific details. As we’ve seen in several rebuttals, any example of “cancellation” given can always lead to an argument by the woke about how it was really something else, and those arguments become unending, mired in minutiae. In fact, there’s no doubt, except among the Woke, that there is indeed a new a climate of chilled discourse in America and the UK. The evidence for that, which I cited yesterday, is that a large fraction of college students, especially conservatives, are simply afraid to open their mouths on campus. It resembles the chilling of the McCarthy era when people were sniffing out “communists” everywhere.
8. The letter called out the Left but not the Right for suppressing speech. This claim is palpably ridiculous; read the letter again. It explicitly mentions the Right and Trump, but does concentrate on cancellations by the Left, which are those that are most frequent and get most of the attention, playing into the hands of Trump and Faux News, which report on this stuff regularly. And nearly all the signers I’d classify as on the Left.
9. The letter was motivated by racism: to suppress marginalized people who were “punching up”, so that those who called for free speech were the elitist signers, not the oppressed. This is a claim that might have been expected given the ubiquity and power of calling people racists. One example of this accusation is below:
A more simplified way to frame what's happening now: This isn't cancel culture. This is consequence culture. And some people hate the sudden accountability while others worry the focus will turn to them because they have much to be accountable for.
This is a ridiculous assertion with no evidence behind it. Further, many of the signers were from minority groups, which makes the accusation even more ludicrous. But since when have the Woke cared about accuracy?
On to a brief mention of the two articles defending The Letter. They’re by two people whose writings I always enjoy: Wendy Kaminer and Nick Cohen. Although I rarely disagree with them, I still read them religiously because they often have fresh viewpoints, and Cohen gives the viewpoint of a journalist working in Britain. Here’s Cohen writing in The Guardian:
I’ll quote him only briefly, as his piece, and Kaminer’s, deserve full reading. I cite this bit because it reprises, in the third paragraph below, the ridiculous obsession of the Washington Post with a “blackface” incident that wasn’t racist but was meant to call out racism: the racism of Megyn Kelly. Truly, showing up in blackface is not a good move, but the motivations of the woman, a government employee who got fired two years after the incident, weren’t even considered. The Post went nuts writing long articles about her:
I’m surprised such a statement of the obvious could be controversial. No honest observer can deny that the dominant factions in the modern progressive movement reject freedom of speech. They punish opinions they disagree with when they have power; and the more power they have, the more they will punish. You may think the censorship justified, but to deny its existence is absurd. Tellingly, few bother to deny it now. Occasionally, you can see them raise the exhausted excuse from the grave that only the state can censor. On this reading, Islamists killing cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, or CEOs firing whistleblowers, are not censoring because they are not civil servants. More popular in the past week has been the claim that writers with the reach of Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, JK Rowling and Salman Rushdie cannot take a moral stand because no one can suppress their thought – even though their critics give every impression of wanting to do just that.
Leave aside their belief that ad hominem and ad feminam attacks can refute an argument, and consider that the worst of the old elite directed its attention to silencing the marginalised because it knew that their voice was often the only weapon the latter possessed. Then look around. Now as then, people without access to lawyers and influential friends suffer the most.
To take an example of that encapsulates the cowardice of our times: the Washington Post, a newspaper I admire and have written for, went to enormous lengths to destroy the life of one Sue Schafer, a middle-aged woman who made a mistake. She turned up to a Halloween party at the home of one of its cartoonists in blackface. She did not mean to insult African Americans but had come dressed as a ghoul in the guise of a conservative morning show host who had defended whites blacking up. The joke didn’t work, as several guests forcefully told her. Because the words “Washington Post” and “blackface” could be said in the same sentence, and because several guests looked as if they might go public two years later, the paper gave 3,000 words to the “story” – the amount of space normally reserved for a terrorist attack or declaration of war. Her employer, a government contractor, fired her. Everyone’s back was covered except Schafer’s and, frankly, she was a woman of no importance.
Panic at the fear of denunciation and bad faith posing as rectitude can be found across the west. A comparison with the right shows how deep the decay has reached. Conservatives know there are thoughts they cannot whisper – Brexit is a mistake comparable to Munich and Suez, anti-black and anti-Muslim racism are tangible evils, poverty makes a nonsense of equality of opportunity. Likewise on the liberal left, the canny careerist takes care to avoid being caught on the “wrong side” of arguments about trans and women’s rights, leftwing antisemitism, and bigotry in ethnic minorities. The canniest decide the best course is to say nothing at all.
There’s a lot more, and a good rationale for the Left calling out its own, but I’m running out of time and space.
Do read Kaminer’s piece in spiked (click on screenshot):
Two brief excerpts of a brief article:
‘I rest my case’, I’m tempted to say, reviewing the unhinged responses of cancel-culture fans intent on cancelling the judicious defence of free speech in our ‘Letter on Justice and Open Debate’, published by Harper’s this week. I signed emphatically, which makes me one of ‘the worst people in the world of public intellectualism’, according to In These Times. What’s so bad about defending ‘the free exchange of information and ideas’ and critiquing ‘intolerance for opposing views’ and ‘a vogue for public shaming and ostracism’? In doing so we were not really defending the right to debate and criticise, according to In These Times: we were trying to squelch debate and censor our own critics, exhibiting a ‘bizarre aversion to being argued against … [that] now borders on the pathological’.
This is what citizens of cancel culture have apparently learned from Donald Trump: confound your critics by accusing them of precisely the sins you’re busy committing. Social-justice warriors have long demanded protection from the ‘trauma’ of hearing speech they deem offensive, calling for suppression of the speech and shunning of the speaker. So, employing Trumpian tactics, they accuse free-speech advocates of the censoriousness and psychic fragility that’s the raison d’être of their movement.
. . .I saw only a partial list of signatories when I agreed to sign and didn’t pay it much attention. I focused on the text, not the names endorsing it. I’m not responsible for their views (which I don’t always share), and they’re not responsible for mine. The refusal to endorse a statement you support and consider important because it will be endorsed by people with whom you sometimes differ reflects the intolerance for debate that the letter addresses.
I disagree with many of spiked’s writers, for example, and they, no doubt, disagree often with me, but in my view that’s what makes spiked interesting. I have no desire to speak only with or to people who applaud me.
This apparently contrasts with the Woke opponents of the letter, who desire to converse only with those who agree with them. The others they shout down, and, if possible, ruin their careers. Kaminer is spot on when she notes that it is the censors who most loudly accuse The Letter’s signers of censorship.
HuffPo, one of the biggest exponents of “cancel culture”, now has published one of its longest articles claiming that such a culture doesn’t exist. The piece is a long and unconvincing response to the letter published last week in Harper’s (and four other international venues). That letter was simply a call for open debate, and “cancel culture” (CC) was defined implicitly in the piece. I’ll reproduce just a small section of that letter, and I’ve put the characteristics of “cancel culture” in bold. Note that the letter calls out these characteristics on both the Right and on the Left, though the signers, mostly Leftists, concentrate on their own end of the political spectrum:
. . . .The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. 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.
In other words, the “cancel culture” represents the cumulative effect of bullying and intimidation that, in the end, makes people who oppose the reigning ideologies afraid to speak. The culture prizes intimidation above discussion, seeing everything, à la critical theory, in terms of power imbalances. The culture is enacted by threatening the reputations and livelihoods of those who say what you don’t like to hear.
The Harper‘s letter deliberately omitted specific examples of CC transgressions, but it’s not hard to think of some. Those opposed to this reasonable letter were peeved that no examples were given, but that would have derailed the discussion into the pros and cons of specific cases—indeed, that’s what HuffPo does in its piece—rather than decrying a climate of increasing censoriousness and, on the Left, the hardening of ideological positions into those for which no dissent is permitted. The punishing of those who dissent from “approved ideology” is what CC is all about. One instantiation, not mentioned in the letter, is the recent tendency to pull down statues, even those of the Founding Fathers, because those founders transgressed modern norms (e.g. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and even statues, like “Progress” at the Wisconsin state Capitol, that have no connection to ideology at all).
On Monday, 153 prominent writers, academics and public figures signed their names to a statement entitled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” According to the signatories, “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.”
While the letter itself, published by the magazine Harper’s, doesn’t use the term, the statement represents a bleak apogee in the yearslong, increasingly contentious debate over “cancel culture.” The American left, we are told, is imposing an Orwellian set of restrictions on which views can be expressed in public. Institutions at every level are supposedly gripped by fears of social media mobs and dire professional consequences if their members express so much as a single statement of wrongthink.
This is false. Every statement of fact in the Harper’s letter is either wildly exaggerated or plainly untrue. More broadly, the controversy over “cancel culture” is a straightforward moral panic. While there are indeed real cases of ordinary Americans plucked from obscurity and harassed into unemployment, this rare, isolated phenomenon is being blown up far beyond its importance.
Here are Hobbes’s beefs against the letter. I won’t quote him extensively as you can check my contentions yourself. Any quotes are indented, while my words are flush left.
1.) Cancel culture is a “reactionary backlash” by the “conservative elites” who try to magnify their grievances into a national crisis.
This is of course complete bunk. The signers of the letter were, by and large, on the Left, and decry actions by others on the Left. And, as the letter notes, the Right has long been guilty of restricting ideas itself, although the bulk of CC actions limned in the letter come from the Left. For an example, go through the last decade of college-speaker deplatformings at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. If there is ever such a thing as a “cancellation”—which HuffPo denies exists)—it is the silencing of speakers by deplatforming them. The majority of deplatformings in recent years have come from the Left, though around a third are from the Right.
2.) The examples of cancellation given in the Harper’s letter are bogus, representing something other than cancellation. First, that letter doesn’t even use the words “cancel culture.” More important, it gave no examples—deliberately. But that doesn’t stop HuffPost from guessing about what the writers were thinking of. One was James Bennet, the op-ed editor of the New York Times, given his walking papers after publishing an editorial (one that the paper initially defended) by Senator Tom Cotton. Cotton endorsed the use of the military to monitor demonstrations and quash violence—a stand that I opposed, but one worth debating. After enormous social-media pushback from readers, as well as a laughable claim by some NYT staffers that Cotton’s editorial made them feel “unsafe” (this is the trump card of the Perpetually Offended), the paper put in caveats and then fired Bennet.
HuffPo writer Hobbes says this isn’t “cancellation” because the paper admitted (after the pushback!) that it had erred, so Bennet’s firing represented not cancellation of his job, but due diligence by the paper. What a joke!
While the op-ed did inspire widespread criticism, Bennet’s resignation is not a case of social-media censorship. The Times’ itself admitted that the piece “fell short of our standards” and represented a “breakdown” in the paper’s editorial process. Bennet eventually admitted that he hadn’t even read it before publishing it.
Yes—after staffers beefed and the public kvetched. Absent that, Bennet would still have his job.
But it gets worse: Hobbes says that Bennet wasn’t canceled because, after all, he’d transgressed before by publishing ideologically unsavory views:
And beyond Bennet’s incompetence, there is the simple question of accountability. Even before the Cotton op-ed, Bennet hired climate change deniers, neglected fact-checking and printed “pro-mercenary” articles by private military contractors. Are the signatories to the Harper’s letter really saying that Times readers and employees should not have expressed their frustration with these obvious breaches of ethics?
No, the signatories aren’t saying at all that people shouldn’t be able to speak up against what they dislike. Remember, the Harper’s letter says this: “We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.” Is that not clear enough, Mr. Hobbes? The signatories are saying that people’s jobs and reputations shouldn’t be on the line for bringing up issues that are worthy (to some) of debate.
Hobbes cites other examples, only to knock them down, but his view that this is just robust debate is not supported. Debating someone like Cotton is not the same as firing the person who publishes his words.
3.) Rich people or public figures aren’t subject to cancelation anyway because they get their views expressed. Hobbes:
Consider the following two examples of “cancel culture” run amok:
David Shor, a polling researcher, is fired from his job for sending a tweet summarizing the findings of an academic study.
Gillian Philip, a children’s book author, is fired by her publisher after adding “I stand with J.K. Rowling” to her Twitter profile.
While they may look similar on the surface, these cases in fact have little in common.
First, the person being “canceled.” It makes no sense to apply the same standard to public figures and random citizens alike. Philip, unlike Shor, is a public figure. She is a bestselling author and is surely aware that her political statements will affect her standing among her target audience and her publisher. Let’s not be coy about this: Declaring support for J.K. Rowling in July of 2020 is a de facto statement that you agree with her controversial, unpopular views on transgender people.
Public figures certainly have a right to express their controversial views. Readers have the right to react accordingly, and publishers have the right to take these views into account when deciding which books to publish. That’s why it’s called, as “cancel culture” critics love to point out, the “marketplace of ideas.”
So far, there is no indication that private citizens are being held to the same standard as bestselling authors.
Of course they are! Do I need to name James Damore, Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying, Peter Tatchell, and many others to show how private citizens are treated when they transgress? Many of the damned expressed views with which I disagree, but firing or demonizing them is not the way debate is supposed to happen. Further, the attacks on both public figures and private ones, with the public figures still remaining rich (e.g., J. K. Rowling), all help create that climate of intimidation so pervasive in the U.S. (especially on campuses) and the U.K. Campus surveys repeatedly show that conservative students are afraid to speak their minds (see here, for instance). Why, if not for cancel culture?
4.) The actions that constitute cancel culture are limited to the Left. Hobbes is lying here, as a simple reading of the letter shows.
5.) The authors of the Harper’s letter propose no solutions to ending cancel culture. I would have thought that the solutions were clear: stop bullying people on social media or firing people, or, like Vox writer Emily VanEerWerff, trying to resolve disputes by getting your opponent—a colleague in her case—demonized and fired.
In the end, Hobbes admits that he has a chip on his shoulder, for his own attempts to promulgate the “truth” were ignored by the “gatekeepers of the elite media”—a group he characterizes as “overwhelmingly white, male, straight, and cis.” What happened is when the “Ebonics” kerfuffle happened some years ago (“Ebonics” is the name for African-American English, which some schools proposed to teach), Hobbes tried to show that the controversy was overblown. The elite media ignored him, and that left him with a bad taste about a group of editors who confected, says Hobbes, a “moral panic.”
So he’s got a beef. But what that has to do with the signers of the Harper’s letter, who are not editors of elite media, but public figures, eludes me.
Hobbes ends with this rant:
“Cancel culture” is nothing more than the latest repackaging of the argument that the true threat to liberalism resides not in lawmakers or large corporations but in overly sensitive college students and random social media users. It is no more sophisticated than the “war on Christmas” and has the same goal: to imply that those pushing back against injustice are equivalent to the injustice itself.
Some of the signatories of the Harper’s letter know this and some of them don’t. All of them should have known better.
My response is to quote Andrew Sullivan: “We are all on campus now.”
For another far-Left attack on the Harper’s letter, see this piece in In These Times. A quote from author Hamilton Nolan, who shows that he has no understanding of what the letter was trying to say.
I say this, of course, in the context of today’s letter, published in Harper’s and signed by more than 100 of the worst people in the world of public intellectualism, titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The letter is certainly not about any reasonable definition of “Justice,” and is about Open Debate only to the extent that people who make very healthy salaries arguing in public for a living seem to have a bizarre aversion to being argued against. This aversion, I’m afraid, now borders on the pathological. We have entered a brave new world in which those waving the banner of “Free Speech” accuse their opponents of being unable to take criticism while waging a histrionic campaign against anyone who dares to criticize them. Accusing your opponents of doing exactly what you are yourself guilty of is a classic propaganda technique. It works well, unfortunately.