As I’ve said several times during this era of cancellation, renaming, and statue-toppling, I would only favor this kind of “erasure” (usually not by straight erasure, but by giving “context”) when the person at issue fails to fulfill two criteria:
a. Are they being honored for their positive accomplishments? and
b. On balance, did their life and accomplishments make the world a better place?
If “yes”, let them stay. If “no”, erasure might be considered, though I favor the retention of history with, perhaps, an explanatory note.
Now, these are my own criteria, and others differ, but I’d say, for instance, that removing a Jefferson or Theodore Roosevelt statue because they were imperfect humans violates the two criteria above. Both men are “yes”s in a. and b. (I won’t argue about the way Roosevelt was depicted in the New York Statue, but see Gregg Mayer’s view here).
Denaming an animal named after someone who made racist statements is a judgment call (how many statements and what were they?), but a call I’d make using a. and b. above. I tend to be on the lenient side because, after all, we are judging people of the past by the morality of our own time, and what was once acceptable is no longer so.
Slavery is an exception to what I just said. Even in times of slavery, there were many who opposed it, and so it has to be counted as a severe moral deficit in anyone connected to the slave trade or to have had slaves. Slavery can’t be taken as “the general moral view of most people.”
Thisbrings up the matter of two of our most famous Presidents, both of whom were enslavers: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. This issue is part of what led Caleb Francois, a senior at George Washington University in the District of Columbia, to write the following op-ed in the Washington Post. Among other changes that Francois wants in light of what he sees as pervasive structural racism at George Washington University, Francois wants its name changed. Click to read:
I can’t comment on the racial situation at GWU s I haven’t followed it, but I’ll give you Francois’s take on the current issues and then the remedies he proposes:
Today, with Black enrollment at about 10 percent, Black students on campus continue to struggle for community. Despite alleged efforts by administration to enhance diversity, the admissions office continues to fail to ensure a student body with adequate minority representation
Black professorship also remains low, especially in the university’s International Affairs program. Limited Black professors teaching African and African American courses and the continued neglect of Black academia and Black professorship create a campus culture in which European studies and White perspectives are favored over Black perspectives. No African languages are taught at the university, and calls for reforms are often ignored.
These problems are rooted in systemic racism, institutional inequality and white supremacy. There are at least four ways the university could achieve progress: Decolonized university curriculum, increased Black enrollment, the renaming of the university and the selection of an African American President.
Now I’m not sure exactly what a “decolonized university curriculum is”, and I would suggest that more than white supremacy and ongoing systemic racism are involved, though nobody with a brain would deny that underrepresentation of black students and faculty is the result of racism in the past. What I want to address is the renamings Francois plumps for:
Just blocks from the main campus is the Mount Vernon Campus, named for George Washington’s former slave plantation. Every day, hundreds of Black students walk on a campus named after an enslaver of men and study at a site named after dark parts of history. Such sites, among other locations and buildings, are touted as glorified mementos here at GW. The indignity and injustice of such sites remain overlooked. The racist visions of James Madison, Winston Churchill and others are glorified through building names, programs, statues and libraries that honor their memory.
The controversial Winston Churchill Library must go. The university’s contentious colonial moniker must go. Even the university’s name, mascot and motto — “Hail Thee George Washington”— must be replaced. The hypocrisy of GW in not addressing these issues is an example of how Black voices and Black grievances go ignored and highlights the importance of strong Black leadership.
I won’t reiterate the accomplishments of Madison, Washington, Churchill, or Jefferson, but will say that their position of enslavers does count against them strongly, especially in part b. Nevertheless, I think these men are being honored for their positive accomplishments, and by my lights I judge them as having made the world a better place, even though they made the life of their slaves much worse. In my view, George Washington University should stay (and I suspect it will); Francois suggests changing the name to “Frederick Douglass University”. To be sure, Douglass was a great man, but I don’t much cotton to displacing George Washington.
That of course brings up another question: what about the name of the city. If George Washington needs to be removed from the name of the University, why not from “Washington, D. C.” itself? Or from the state of Washington? Or from the Washington Monument? I’d be curious to see what Francois would say about that. After all, wouldn’t it be hypocritical to take the name “Washington” off the University but leave it in many other places?
Cases like these are one instance in which I ask myself this question, “What would Hitchens have thought?”
Whether you think “Cancel Culture” is real depends, of course, on your definition of the term. In this article from The Nation, writer and critic Katha Pollitt, a Leftist and also a distinguished poet, defines “cancel culture” this way:
Cancel culture—which I’m loosely defining here as a climate that encourages disproportionate social and/or work-related punishment for speech. . . .
I think this is pretty accurate: it’s an attempt to smear people’s reputations disproportionately or to cause them to lose their jobs for things that they say. Of course what’s “disproportional” is subjective, but surely trying to get someone fired falls into that class, as does calling them names like “racist” or “transphobe” in an attempt to ruin their credibility instead of using counterspeech. To me, deplatforming someone, trying to get their scheduled speeches shut down, or shouting them down (see FIRE’s “disinvitation database”) are actions also falling into the “cancel culture” class, and this class is growing (follow the number of deplatformings over the years).
As you probably know, there’s a lot of denial that such a culture exists—in spite of the manifest evidence for it. When the Harper’s Letter came out criticizing cancel culture (see my posts here), it was widely criticized by those on the Left for many reasons, and those are the same reasons used to deny Cancel Culture. The denialists are mostly from the Left as well.
Pollitt summarizes the arguments against Cancel Culture:
Well, OK, it exists on the right: Look at what happened to the Dixie Chicks and Colin Kaepernick and that assistant principal in Mississippi who read the picture book I Need a New Butt to his students. Conservatives are always canceling people. But on the left? That’s just people holding you accountable for some awful thing you said. What could be wrong with that? Besides, no one is seriously, irreparably hurt. Look at J.K. Rowling: Despite the best efforts of Twitter, she’s still a billionaire and one of the most popular writers ever.
Those who argue that cancel culture is a myth claim that no one has really been injured by it. A few people might lose their jobs, but they get new ones. Bari Weiss claimed she was bullied out of The New York Times, and now she’s the Queen of Substack. The columnist Suzanne Moore, who left The Guardian after 338 of her colleagues signed a letter clearly aimed at her, accusing the paper of producing “transphobic content,” soon surfaced at The Telegraph. Yes, someone might lose a prize or an opportunity to give a talk or be on a panel, but no one has a right to those things. After the lesbian memoirist Lauren Hough praised her friend’s forthcoming novel, which some tweeters accused of transphobia, and then got into an expletive-filled Twitter fight about it, she was either not nominated or de-nominated for a Lambda Award. But hey, she can always write another book.
The journalist Adam Davidson responded to a rather woolly New York Times editorial decrying cancel culture: “Can one of you believers in cancel culture just write one piece that gives evidence and doesn’t just speak to a feeling you have? Maybe some data that helps your readers know the size and scale of this problem? Also, some examples of people actually fired?”
Here’s Davidson’s tweet:
I hate the NYT Op-ed on cancel culture so so much.
Just one thing: if you are going to confidently assert that cancel culture is a real problem, point to a single example. Then, maybe, another one. And, if you really want people to believe you, a third example!!!!
And so Pollitt describes six examples of real people (not millionaires) being canceled for what they said, a in these cases the people were either fired or cast into limbo. I’ll just list the people and reprise in my words why they were canceled. (Quotes from Pollitt are indented.
a.) Don McNeil, former science writer for the NYT. McNeil used the “n-word” didactically in a discussion with students on an overseas educational trip. He simply asked if that was the word that was used by someone else. For this he was hounded and ultimately fired by the FORMER NYT editor, Dean Baquet. The NYT editorialized that “intent doesn’t matter”: that if someone is offended by even a didactic usage, the user has to go. McNeil no longer has a regular job.
b.) Gilliam Philip, children’s book writer. Her sin was to put #Istandwithjkrowling on her Twitter biography. That was all it took for the social-media tsunami to drown her: she was fired by her publisher.
c.) Don Share
Don Share, the editor of Poetry magazine, made its prestigious pages more inclusive and diverse. But that didn’t help in 2020, when he was attacked for publishing a long poem by Matthew Dickman that included a racial slur uttered by the poet’s demented grandmother. (That pesky use/mention distinction again!) Share issued a self-abasing apology and left. I’ve been unable to find out what he’s doing now.
d.) Gary Garrels, formerly top curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. When he sold a Rothko to finance the acquisition of art by women and minorities, he also said these fatal words: “Don’t worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists”, adding that to not collect work by white men would be “reverse discrimination.” Garrels was fired and is now working as an independent curator.
e.) David Edelstein, a film critic with NPR’s Fresh Air. Pollitt says this:
[He] was fired from his longtime job with NPR’s Fresh Air after he made a tasteless joke on his Facebook page referring to the butter scene in Last Tango in Paris. Furloughed by New York magazine at the start of the pandemic, he is now a freelancer.
You can see the joke at the link, and it is tasteless if you know about the history of that scene. However, Edelstein apologized, not knowing Maria Schneider’s subsequent statements about the scene.
This is the only case which could possibly justify firing, but if the person apologizes, I think the bar for firing them should be pretty high. It’s up to you whether you think Edelstein went too far to stay in his job. Remember, social-media was relentless in going after him, but should NPR always truckle to social media? Let us know what you think.
f.) April Powers, a management specialist. This is the case I find the most odious because she didn’t offend anyone directly, and her “sin” was one of omission. Powers was the director of equity and inclusion at the Society for Children’s Book Writers, and issued a statement condemning anti-Semitism. She resigned after being “furiously attacked” because she didn’t condemn Islamophobia as well. Can you imagine? Would she have gotten attacked if she had condemned Islamophobia but not anti-Semitism? Give me a break. A few Jews might have groused, but there would have been no social-media attack, and you know why.
The attacks on these people came from the Left–my side–and a side that’s supposed to meet speech with counter-speech. You can even call people idiots (I prefer “misguided”), but these social-media mobs went further. They want to damage someone, not argue with him. And, as I wrote the other day, it is the most extreme people on both Left and Right that are also the most vocal. Of these six, only Edelstein comes even close to deserving the opprobrium he got.
Now we all know of other cases like these; I write about them all the time. These are just some obvious examples, and show that yes, Virginia, there is a Cancel Culture. Pollitt ends her piece like this:
You can say these people—and there are many more like them—got what was coming to them. You can say, and many do, that a cancellation was a convenient opportunity to get rid of a problematic boss or colleague. You can say it was a proxy for other problems in the institution: underpaid young staffers, overprivileged higher-ups, hidebound ideas and practices, racism. You can say these incidents are part of a general social transformation that will leave us better off in the long run, and that might even be true.
What you can’t say is that no lasting, measurable damage was done to individuals. You can argue that the damage is worth it, but you should at least admit it’s there.
That “general social transformation”, I think, will leave us worse off in the long run, but it creates an authoritarian atmosphere in which dissent is squelched out of fear, thus stifling free speech. And this transformation, as John Haidt wrote in the Atlantic, is picking up speed. “Cancel Culture” is an attempt to shut up those who disagree with you not by arguing with them, but trying to take them out of action by hurting them professionally or getting them fired.
In a new piece in the Dailiy Beast, authors Komi German and Greg Lukianoff define what they mean by cancel culture (the best definition I’ve yet seen), show how pervasive cancel culture is (and worsening), and identify the Perpetrators of Cancellation. There is, however, one flaw connected with identifying the perps.
Both authors work for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an estimable organization that fights for free speech on campus, and is too often criticized simply because of their identification of free speech as the most important academic value. (The Progressive Left, unlike traditional liberals, isn’t that keen on free speech since it’s said to “harm” some people, and by “harm” they mean “offend”.)
The bona fides from the article:
Komi T. German is a research fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). She earned her bachelor’s degree with highest honors at the University of California, Davis, and her doctorate in social psychology at the University of California, Riverside.
I’m not a credentials-promulgator, but one can at least have confidence in these authors’ statistics, which largely support their contentions.
Click on the screenshot to read.
While people often argue about whether “cancel culture” is real, you don’t often see that term defined. For example, the writers of the famous 2020 letter in Harper’s decrying cancel culture were criticized because many of them were well off and weren’t in danger of being “cancelled”. But the letter’s point was to defend those who were in danger of professional damage from speaking their minds, not to defend the lettter’s signers.
What is “professional damage”? Well, the very concept of free speech not only allows but welcomes pushback. Very few, despite what the New York Times asserts, thinks that “free speech” means “freedom from criticism”—even harsh and ascerbic criticism. Like German and Lukianoff, I prefer civil dialogue rather than social-media pile-ons, but those pile-ons themselves aren’t “cancel culture.” Rather, the definition I prefer is that given by German and Lukianoff (henceforth “G&L”). The bolding below is mine; the definition is theirs:
But just because the term has been grossly overused doesn’t mean we should give up on its popularly understood definition—which aptly describes a real (and growing) problem. This is the measurable uptick, since around 2014, of campaigns to get people fired, disinvited, deplatformed, or otherwise punished for speech that is—or would be—protected by First Amendment standards. That’s “cancel culture.”
Cancel culture, then, is the culture of trying to harm someone’s career or silence or otherwise punish them professionally for issuing legal speech—speech permitted by the First Amendment. Of course private universities don’t have to allow First-Amendment-protected speech, but they should, and we all should insofar as we’re able. Cancel culture exists not to promulgate open debate but to effect retribution and punishment. When you see people trying to shut someone up, cancel a speech, or call for someone’s firing because of what they said, that is cancel culture.
I can’t think of a better definition. Here’s where to draw the line: examples from the authors:
We say “would be” because the First Amendment does not apply to private companies. So, while the NFL was free to punish Colin Kaepernick, and The View was free to suspend Whoopi Goldberg, these are still examples of cancel culture under our definition, because the subjects of each controversy engaged in expression that “would be” protected, were the First Amendment standard to apply.
I would add to that Don McNeil and James Bennet of the NYT, the University of Chicago’s Dorian Abbot (deplatformed), and any number of professors fired or disciplined for speech that offended the woke.
If people call for your firing or disciplining because you committed a crime, or are likely to have committed one, that is not cancel culture. And, I suppose, if what you’re accused of involve acts rather than protected speech, and are so serious as to make your job no longer tenable, that, too, could be cancel culture. But I think the line is fairly clear.
I’m not sure what to do about people whom others want to damage professionally, but who are immune to damage because they’re already wealthy and respected—people like J. K. Rowling and Woody Allen. It’s okay to try to boycott their books, but not so okay to try to get publishers, as in the case of Allen, not to publish their books.
A few points made by G&L (their quotes are indented)
But The New York Times’ claim—that “[h]owever you define cancel culture, Americans know it exists and feel its burden”—was not outlandish. Far from it. Our own research corroborates it.
“Since 2015, there have been 163 investigations, 117 terminations, 109 suspensions, 48 resignations, 45 censorship incidents, 33 demotions, 18 retractions, and 13 mandatory trainings—all for ideological reasons.”
A survey commissioned late last year by FIRE, where we work, found that 73 percent of Americans are familiar with the term “cancel culture.” Of those, nearly 60 percent believe “there is a growing cancel culture that is a threat to our freedom”; only 25 percent do not. Additionally, 70 percent of those surveyed said they were afraid to say what they believe because they were worried it could impact their job or standing in school.
The UK-based Legatum Institute found that 50 percent of academics in the U.S. feel the need to censor their own political beliefs while on campus. These academics are making a prudent decision; more than one in three faculty admit they would discriminate against conservatives when making hiring decisions. Moreover, nearly one in four social science or humanities faculty—and almost one in two social science or humanities Ph.D. students—surveyed in the U.S. supported at least one campaign to dismiss a dissenting academic.
Simply put, study after study decidedly shows cancel culture not only exists, but also that, in too many places, it is thriving.
Cancel culture is getting worse.
The authors give a lot of cases, some of which we know about, that involve true cancellation on campuses. But that doesn’t show the problem is getting worse. The second paragraph below, however, does: in the last two years there have been 283 cancellation attempts, while over the last seven there have been 563 total. That is, almost exactly half of all cancellation attempts over the past seven years have taken place in just the latest two years. If one assumes that cancelation rates are equal over time, that’s surely a statistically significant increase.
Note, however, which direction the cancellations coming from—something the authors downplay in the rest of their article (my bolding below):
Since 2015, we documented 563 attempts (345 from the left, 202 from the right, 16 from neither) to get scholars canceled. Two thirds (362 incidents; 64 percent) of these cancellation attempts were successful, resulting in some form of professional sanction leveled at the scholar, including over one-fifth (117 incidents; 21 percent) resulting in termination.When Greg joined FIRE in 2001, the idea of one tenured professor being fired for protected speech seemed impossible, yet since 2015 there have been 30.
The problem has only gotten worse, particularly over the past few years. Just since the start of 2020, there have been 283 cancellation attempts. Scholars are canceled most often for expressing a personal opinion (338 incidents; 60 percent), encouraging discussion of sensitive material (145 incidents; 26 percent), or presenting a scientific argument (136 incidents; 24 percent).
Actually, it doesn’t concern me too much whether cancellation attempts are getting worse, though they surely are. There are already enough of these attempts to chill speech among a large proportion of college students and professors, not to mention the general public and the media.
But it’s in the next assertion where the authors seem to be a bit evasive.
Where is cancel culture coming from?
G&L seem to imply that the cancellation attempts come mostly from the Right, while the Left claim to be victims. Only in the paragraph above do they say the truth: that cancellation of scholars is mainly from the left (61.2%), while only 35.8% come from the Right. (2.8% come from neither side.). Judging from this, at least on campus it’s mostly the Left promulgating cancel culture.
But G&L spend most of their time indicting the Right—mainly for their attempts to pass “muzzling laws” forbidding teaching stuff like Critical Race Theory (I agree with FIRE that these laws are a bad idea). Here’s what G&L say:
The perpetuation of cancel culture is bipartisan: Conservatives criticize it, while practicing it; progressives deny it, while being victims of it.
Over the past year Republican legislators introduced a series of anti-critical race theory (i.e.,“divisive concepts”) bills seeking to restrict teachers’ ability to teach topics related to race and sexuality. These bills, when applied in higher education contexts, are almost always unconstitutional.
Though conservatives talk a good game about defending “free speech” and decrying “cancel culture,” hypocrisy among the movement is not new. In 2017, three Nebraska Republican legislators sponsored a bill to protect free speech on campus, then called on the University of Nebraska to fire graduate teaching assistant Courtney Lawton for her progressive political activism.
Meanwhile, some progressives remain so committed to denying cancel culture is a problem they won’t even admit it exists even after they themselves are canceled.
But surely the perpetuation of cancel culture rests more on the shoulders of those who cancel others, not those who say they were canceled. It is true that the Right passes most of the muzzling laws, which often prohibit First-Amendment-compatible speech, but G&L blame the Left for perpetuating “cancel culture” only by saying they’re victimized by it. Yet their own data on deplatforming and disinviting given in bold above show that the Left perpetuates cancellation more often than they’re victims of it.
In other words, G&L are downplaying the responsibility of the Left. Why? I have no idea except that The Daily Beast is a Leftist venue that surely doesn’t like to indict its own side.
G&L further give the game away when they talk about the “elites” who really keep Cancel Culture going. Who are the “elites”? Mostly people on the Left:
When elites seek to control the terminology, they often do so for the purpose of signaling in-group membership. Doing so often excludes the vast majority of Americans from the conversation.
For example, although the term “Latinx” is popular within our news media, entertainment industry, corporations, politics, and universities, Pew Research found that only 3 percent of Latino adults use the word. It is an example of what James Carville calls “faculty lounge” language. As author Helen Pluckrose points out, modern social justice advocates derive power from controlling language. As the language changes, people who use an outdated term or phrase are quickly dismissed as ignorant or uneducated.
. . . When elites seek to control the terminology, they often do so for the purpose of signaling in-group membership. Doing so often excludes the vast majority of Americans from the conversation.
This is not just an implicit indictment of the Left’s role in cancel culture, but an explicit one. Who are “social justice advocates” but the Left? Who perpetuates the use of “Latinx” but the Left? Who creates “faculty lounge language”? The Left, as James Carville noted in his refreshing diatribe.
In the end, German and Lukianoff have written a very useful article. It gives the best definition of “cancel culture” that I know of, shows that it’s rampant and growing, and that it damages the First Amendment as well as all civilized discourse. We need to take that to heart and stop trying to get people fired for issuing speech that doesn’t abrogate the First Amendment.
But it’s a crying shame that G&L’s article is marred by what I view as excessive deference to the Left and excessive blaming of the Right. I am not saying the Right is blameless, of course. All the laws they’re passing do perpetuate cancel culture in its true sense. But the Left seems more to blame for the culture as a whole, and at any rate my audience is not on the Righ. I’ve alwaysI see my brief as trying to clean up my end of the political spectrum. Remember, the elections are coming in November. While I can and have called out the Right’s mania to pass laws restricting what can be taught, there are plenty of other people willing to do that. What we need are liberals to keep other liberals from cancellng people.
Over the last few months I’ve reported on misguided attempts to “cancel” the famous biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, who despite making a few statements about race that would considered offensive in today’s world (though some of his “racist” statements actually quote-mined), spent the bulk of his career not only defending Darwinism, but promulgating educational reform, especially for women and those of the working class. He repudiated any racism in the latter part of his life.
Two institutions were engaged in the task of “reevaluating” Huxley’s historic and scientific legacy, a legacy summarized in a scholarly and masterful piece by Nick Matzke at Panda’s Thumb. Matzke’s conclusion is that there is no way in hell that Huxley should be debased, erased, or deplatformed.
Yet he was at one college: Western Washington University (WWU; see my posts here and here). As NIck wrote:
WWU’s Huxley College of the Environment may be renamed after a bizarre report uncritically plagiarising far-right creationist & conspiracist materials gets Thomas Henry Huxley exactly backwards on racism.
And, indeed, after some weaselly waffling, Huxley College of the Environment has been renamed and given the boring name of “College of the Environment“.
But the movement jumped the Atlantic as well, for Imperial College in London (a college which might ponder the rectitude of its own name!) engaged in an investigation of Huxley for the same reasons: his early statements which would be seen as racist today, though Huxley was even more anti-racist than Darwin and was an abolitionist was well. Well, IMPERIAL College not only harbors a Huxley Building, but a bust of Huxley, and both of those came perilously close to being “canceled”. As I reported last October:, quoting the Torygraph:
Imperial College London has been told to remove a bust of slavery abolitionist Thomas Henry Huxley because he “might now be called racist”, following a review into colonial links.
An independent history group for the Russell Group university has recommended that a bust of the renowned 19th century biologist, dubbed “Darwin’s bulldog”, be taken down and the Huxley Building on campus renamed.
The group of 21 academics was launched in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests last year to address Imperial’s “links to the British Empire” and build a “fully inclusive organisation”.
Its final report, published on Tuesday, said that three buildings and lecture rooms named after influential figures should be changed, along with the removal or redesign of two statues.
One is the Huxley building and a sculpture honouring the anthropologist Huxley, who helped form Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and first suggested that birds may be closely related to dinosaurs.
Huxley was a vocal slave abolitionist, but the Imperial report said his paper, Emancipation – Black and White, “espouses a racial hierarchy of intelligence” which helped feed ideas around eugenics, which “falls far short of Imperial’s modern values”.
A group of scientists (many from Imperial), cognizant of the unfair treatment that Huxley was getting at Imperial, wrote a letter to Nature organized by Armand Leroi, objecting to the proposed cancellation. (I was one of the signers.) Nature rejected it, but it was published in full, with all the signers, in the Torygraph. (The introductory Torygraph article is still up for free; the letter has disappeared, but you can find in on the first link in this paragraph.
At any rate, the good news is that Imperial has rethought its plans, and it’s now going to keep the Huxley Building and the Huxley bust. However, it will “contextualize” them, the first by adding another name to the Huxley Building—a scientist from a minority group—and the second by putting some verbiage on a placard near the Huxley bust. Here’s the article from the Imperial College news site; click to read.
The short take:
The College will consider a joint name for its Huxley Building – named after biologist Thomas Henry Huxley – with the aim of adding the name of a pathbreaking scientist from a Black, Asian or other minority ethnic background. While the name and bust of Huxley will be retained, it will be clearly put into a fuller context in order to provide everyone with a more complete understanding of Huxley’s complex character and achievements as well as his flaws, including his racially prejudiced writings. Historical context will also be provided for any person whose name is added jointly.
. . .The names of key buildings, including those named after Thomas Henry Huxley or Alfred and Otto Beit, will be retained, but the College will launch an ambitious project to put these figures into context and clarify their histories, the Board concluded.
The College will find new, prominent ways of ensuring that their complexities are fully understood alongside the College’s modern values. This will include acknowledging both their positive contributions to science and to Imperial in parallel with the ways in which they have furthered historic injustice or hampered progress towards racial equality.
I’ll take that as a victory despite the “contextualization”. I just hope they don’t make Huxley look like an out-and-out racist or slaveholder, which he wasn’t. And it seems a wee bit patronizing to pair Huxley’s name with that of a “Black, Asian, or other minority ethnic background.” I’m not sure what that pairing will accomplish. If the name “Huxley” was harmful because he was a racist, well, that name is still there, and will the harm be palliated by pairing a “racist” with a marginalized person?
At any rate, this is better news than it could have been. But there are skirmishes to come. As Armand noted “Nothing was said about the fate of the Hamilton building at Silwood Park or the Fisher and Haldane lecture theatres. A committee has been appointed to implement these changes.” All of these are part of Imperial College, and none of them deserve to be renamed. The names at issue are the evolutionists W. D. Hamilton, J. B. S. Haldane, and Ronald Fisher (Fisher was also the “father of statistics”).
Here’s the Huxley Building at Imperial College. As I recall, I gave the annual lecture to the British Humanists in this building:
Does intent matter when you use a racial slur, or the offense taken? I think one must consider intent, though the NYT and many other venues take the hard line that if someone’s offended by hearing a racial slur, the slur-er deserves to be sanctioned. (That’s why science writer Donald McNeil was fired for using the n-word didactically in a discussion. The NYT staffers were offended and couldn’t bear it because they were “harmed” and felt endangered.)
And now we have a case in Chicago also involving uttering the n-word in a discussion where it was not intended as a slur. This time it was a teacher in a Catholic school, Mary DeVoto, who suffered the ultimate penalty short of death: she was fired. The article appear in both the Chicago Tribune (paywalled for most) and in NBC News below (click on screenshot):
From the Tribune:
It was one terrible word that ended Mary DeVoto’s nearly 42-year career at Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School on Chicago’s Southwest Side, and she said she wishes she’d never said it.
During a Jan. 28 discussion in her world history class, she used the N-word during a talk about Native American culture, where the conversation with students had evolved into sports team names, such as the former moniker for the Washington, D.C. professional football team. [JAC: The former “Washington Redskins” team, now the “Commanders”.]
A student asked why the former name was offensive, and DeVoto said she was “trying to emphasize that that is as abhorrent (to Native Americans) as the N-word, which I used in full,” she said Thursday.
“I can’t believe it came out of my mouth,” she said.
DeVoto was pulled out of her classroom that day and suspended, then fired this past Monday. An online petition to seek her reinstatement has been established by her family, while some parents of McAuley students are applauding the decision by administration of the all-girls Catholic high school in Chicago’s Mount Greenwood neighborhood to fire DeVoto.
The classroom discussion was captured on an audio recording, which was quickly shared on social media and resulted in DeVoto’s suspension and later dismissal.
School officials declined requests for comment Thursday, but issued a statement to the Southtown saying it “does not condone this language and is deeply saddened by the hurt and pain this has caused our students and community.”
“With the intent to emphasize the abhorrence of slurs, the teacher wrongfully compared and egregiously miscommunicated two racial slurs, including using the N-word in its entirety,” the school statement said.
Devoto met with school administrators offering to apologize or do anything she could to “fix it”, but it was too late. They canned her. The reason they gave was this:
In a statement announcing DeVoto’s termination, the administration said the firing was made more necessary “because of a subsequent conversation with the teacher in which the same racial slur was communicated in its entirety several times despite clear and formal directives to stop.
“The N-word is never acceptable in any gathering of, or setting with, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas,” the school said.
So I guess she uttered the word explaining her actions to the administration. You can bet your bippy that DeVoto would never have used that word again had they kept her on. And the proper sanction for the use of this word is not firing—not unless it’s used as an insult. It wasn’t. She should have been called into the Principal’s Office and told that she should apologize to the school and never say that word again. Is uttering this word, even didactically, enough to end your career. How crazy has this country become when a single word can do this, regardless of intent? At long last, have people no sense of forgiveness and empathy?
Yes, of course the word is deeply offensive. But punishing people severely for using it didactially seems to me extreme, and I say this as a Jew who’s been called various names like “Hebe” and “kike”. I would not ask for someone to be fired who called me any of the many pejorative terms for “Jew.” There must be some understanding, and there must be some forgiveness.
In the end getting a teacher fired who used the n-word didactically, seems to me to be an exercise of power—the power to punish to the utmost someone who says a word that offends you. Yes, if DeVoto told a student she was a “dirty n—“, of course that’s a firing offense. But people seem unable to calibrate different usages here. There are no gradations on the punishment dial.
At the end, in another sad part, DeVoto’s daughter has begged for “retraining”:
DeVoto said she founded a diversity club at the school in the 1980s to “give a voice to children of different ethnic backgrounds.”
In a statement, the school said it has, over the past two years, “enacted a comprehensive, multitiered plan to foster a community that honors the dignity of every individual,” and that faculty and staff have attended training sessions focused on culturally responsive education.
Stephanie Rahman, a 2006 McAuley graduate and one of DeVoto’s three daughters, said she and her family hope the school reconsiders its decision to fire her mother and that, as an alternative to firing, DeVoto could take part in additional training the school has provided.
What kind of “retraining” are they thinking about here? Aversion therapy, as in A Clockwork Orange? Our land is now horribly polarized, and there seems to be no empathy to temper that polarization.
Every day I get more depressed about the future of America.
This paper written by four chemists just appeared in Nachrichten aus der Chemie (“Chemistry News”), the news outlet outlet of the German Chemical Society. It’s in English, and free online, so you should be able to open the paper by clicking the screenshot below. It’s a call for scientists to resist ideological pressures that may distort or reject science, as happened during the “Lysenko affair” in Stalin’s Soviet Union.
The thesis of the paper is this: whereas scientific censorship used to come from the top (cf. Lysenko/Stalin, with “proper” genetics enforced by the government, or Nazi Germany, which decried “Jewish physics”, driving many great physicists out of the country), now the “cancellation” begins on the bottom, with social media sites and readers pressuring journal editors or publishing companies, sometimes resulting in the rejection of sound papers because they contravene an established ideological narrative. And there is also policing of language. This kind of “cancellation,” of course, has to come ultimately from the top, but is propelled by disaffected people on social media.
A few quotes from the paper (indented)
The modern form: cancel culture
Suppression today takes the form of „Cancel Culture“, censorship administered not by repressive governments but by Twitter vigilantes, an „outrage mob“ „whose goal is to sanction or punish … individuals or organization[s] they consider responsible for something that offends, insults, or affronts their beliefs, values, or feelings“.1)
Consider the cancellation of chemist Tomáš Hudlický,4,5) who in 2020 published an essay in Angewandte Chemie discussing the progress of organic synthesis and expressing his views on the hiring practices and training of scientists and the integrity of the literature.
The publication sparked a Twitter firestorm that condemned the article as „offensive“, „inflammatory“; the content as „alienating“, „hurtful“, „xenophobic“; the paper as „abhorrent“, „egregious“; and Hudlický as „racist“, „misogynist“, a „slithering insect“. Sixteen editorial board members resigned in protest of the publication. The journal removed the paper from its website (an unprecedented act), issued an abject apology, suspended two editors, and began an internal investigation. Condemnation ensued in blogs, journals, and statements issued by chemical societies.
We invite readers to read Hudlický’s essay and his elaboration to the National Academy of Scholars.5) Whether one agrees with his views or not, a civilised debate should have ensued, not an avalanche of insults. The journal could have invited a rebuttal; instead it capitulated to the mob.
Hudlický’s cancellation did not end there. A planned special issue of Synthesis in his honour was cancelled, invitations to speak at conferences and to review papers ceased, citations to his papers were deleted, and collaborators were encouraged to dissociate themselves from him.
The cancellation of geophysicist Dorian Abbot is another example of censoring an individual’s scientific contributions because of his views on non-scientific matters.6–8) Abbot had been invited to deliver a public lecture at MIT on „climate and the potential for life on other planets“. But a small group of activists, outraged by Abbot’s advocacy8) for equal opportunity, fairness, merit-based evaluation, and academic freedom, initiated a social media campaign to uninvite him. MIT quickly cancelled the event, violating their own „policy of open research and free interchange of information among scholars“.
These examples underscore authorities’ responsibility to resist outrage mobs: „Although outrage mobs often trigger the punishment process, in Western democracies, mobs no longer actually burn witches at stakes. … Mobs do not get papers retracted; that is the decision of editors and editorial boards. Thus, the key turning point in whether an academic outrage mob is effective at punishing an academic for their ideas is … the action of authorities.“1)
Well, one can argue about whether a civilized debate could have ensued: that may be impossible in these days when people get heated up and censorious so quickly. But what cannot and should not happen is for editors to bow to social-media pressure just to reduce the heat. Yes, they can go back and “look at” a paper to see if it’s sound, but all too often that reexamination is selective, spurred by the social-media mob, and with editors looking for reasons to censor papers or talks.
The Dorian Abbot cancellation, which I’ve written about before (see posts here), is unforgivable (MIT is the culprit). Because Abbot had used social media to oppose DEI initiatives, public outcry made the MIT administration cancel a prestigious invited lecture—one that had nothing to do with DEI. It was a public lecture on global warming and the possibility of alien life.
The point is that science should oppose the incursion of political views into science, though we should not forget, of course, that some science has been done with political ends, and that scientific results have sometimes been warped to meet these ends. Scientists are not purely apolitical animals, and sometimes it affects their work.
But it doesn’t help that journals are now policing science and its language to ensure that people don’t get offended. Get a load of this from the Krylov et al paper (emphasis is mine).
The document elaborates: „The aim of this guidance is to help you to identify and prevent the publication of inappropriate content in our journals and books.… Words, depictions and imagery have the potential to cause offence…. There can be a disparity between the intention of an author and how their content might be received – it is the perception of the recipient that determines offence, regardless of author intent.“
The editors are instructed to be on the lookout for „[a]ny content that could reasonably offend someone on the basis of their age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs, marital or parental status, physical features, national origin, social status or disability“ or are „[l]ikely to be upsetting, insulting or objectionable to some or most people“. These guidelines are so broad as to justify censoring anything in chemistry and beyond.
Note that, like the NYT’s firing of Donald McNeil after he used the “n-word” in a didactic context,the RSC is taking the NYT’s stance that “Intent is irrelevant.” All that matters is how offended someone is by a remark, not what the person who made the remark actually meant or intended. That is not a rational way to deal with conflict, and of course the law distinguishes regularly between intentional and accidental harm.
Krylov et al. end like this:
Censorship is antithetical to science. Rather than turning social media censorship into policy, scientific leadership worldwide should reject cancel culture and defend the core principle of science – the free exchange of ideas in the pursuit of truth.
This kind of censorship happens all the time in the humanities: think of Rebecca Tuvel’s demonization when she wrote a philosophical paper on transracialism vs. transsecualism. She survived that one, but others haven’t.
As a coda here, the editors of Nachrichten were besieged with social-media pushback, especially strong for a paper that isn’t that controversial. There were not only tweets, but phone calls and actual letters to the journal, all complaining about the paper and calling for its retraction. I forgot to mention, and am adding this later, that the overwhelming majority of comments on social media, including tweets, were positive: approving of the paper’s message. There are a whole lot of silent people out there who don’t like cancel culture and abhor the “science needs a reckoning” attitude.
There was a rebuttal published only a couple of days after Krylov et al. came out and accusations that the authors were anti-Semitic because they discussed scientific suppression by the Nazis (the second author of the Krylov et al. piece is Jewish. . .)
The journal is now creating a “portal” for people to weigh in about the paper. But if a paper complaining about cancel culture itself gets so much heated reaction, this bodes very poorly for the future of objective scientific discourse.
I once thought that science would be the last area where the Woke would exercise their policing, but I was wrong. Given the power and respect afforded by many to science, it’s only natural that people who see science as “just another narrative”, or those who want that power and respect to devolve on themselves, would go after science in general. Although individual scientists of the past are being scrutinized for political or moral stands that wouldn’t pass muster today, remember that it is science itself that is being accused of being harmful, racist, and a vehicle for white supremacy, and “colonialism.”
Today we’ll have two posts on how the “Elect”—et’s use that instead of “woke”, so as to conform to John McWhorter’s supposedly non-pejorative word—are changing or banning art to both confirm virtue and prevent others from enjoying good painting, dance, and writing. One source will be the liberal media; the other the conservative media. This first post deals mainly with literature, but I’ve put some “racialization of art” stuff at the very bottom.
Let’s start with the liberal media, which of course reports Elect shenanigans less often than does the liberal “MSM”. In this case, however, the Guardian is the source. This concerns Art Spiegelman’s “graphic novel” Maus, which won the Pulitzer Prize for literature (the “Special Awards and Letters” category) in 1986.
Before I first read Maus, I was disdainful of “graphic novels,” thinking they were just comic books for adults, made for people who wanted to look at pictures rather than read.
Was I wrong! I first saw Maus at the 57th Street Bookstore soon after I arrived in Chicago, and, knowing the plaudits it got, I pulled it off the shelf. I started reading, and then couldn’t stop. The artwork, I found, added immensely to the power of the book, especially the depiction of all characters as animals, though one wouldn’t expect that power in a book about the Holocaust. I bought it, which I rarely do with books due to my groaning shelves, and it’s now one of several graphic novels I own. (The other two are volumes of wonderful series The Rabbi’s Cat, given to me by a friend.) It’s not just that the books have moggies in them; the attraction is, as in Animal Farm, that messages can be driven home more deeply using animals as metaphors than by straight depiction of human actions.
At any rate, everyone should read Maus (and I also recommend The Rabbi’s Cat). But, according to the Guardian the good (?) people on a Tennessee school board have taken it upon themselves to deprive students of this access—for no good reason.
Click on the screenshot below to read the piece. You know it’s gotta be egregious censorship if the woke Guardian reports it!
Why did the school board, which after deciding to redact the book, find it more practical to ban it outright? Because there was a single depiction of nudity OF A MOUSE and a few swear words that kids hear (and use) every day. An excerpt from the article (my emphasis):
A Tennessee school board has banned a Pulitzer prize-winning novel from its classrooms over eight curse words and an illustration of a naked cartoon mouse.
The graphic novel, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by New Yorker Art Spiegelman, uses hand-drawn illustrations of mice and cats to depict how the author’s parents survived Auschwitz during the Holocaust.
The graphic memoir elevated a pulp mass medium to high art when it nabbed a slew of literary awards in 1992 but appears not to have impressed educators in Mcminn county.
Ten board members unanimously agreed in favour of removing the novel from the eighth-grade curriculum, citing its use of the phrase “God Damn” and drawings of “naked pictures” of women, according to minutes taken from a board of education meeting earlier this month.
Here’s the only passage about nudity (OF A MOUSE) in the school board minutes (have a look at the link above):
Mike Cochran- I will start. I went to school here thirteen years. I learned math, English, Reading and History. I never had a book with a naked picture in it, never had one with foul language. In third grade I had one of my classmates come up to me and say hey what’s this word? I sounded it out and it was “damn,” and I was real proud of myself because I sounded it out. She ran straight to the teacher and told her I was cussing. Besides that one book which I think she brought from home, now I’ve seen a cuss word in a textbook at school. So, this idea that we have to have this kind of material in the class in order to teach history, I don’t buy it.
. . .We are talking about teaching ethics to our kids, and it starts out with the dad and the son talking about when the dad lost his virginity. It wasn’t explicit but it was in there. You see the naked pictures, you see the razor, the blade where the mom is cutting herself. You see her laying in a pool of her own blood. You have all this stuff in here, again, reading this to myself it was a decent book until the end. I thought the end was stupid to be honest with you. A lot of the cussing had to do with the son cussing out the father, so I don’t really know how that teaches our kids any kind of ethical stuff. It’s just the opposite, instead of treating his father with some kind of respect, he treated his father like he was the victim.
We don’t need this stuff to teach kids history. We can teach them history and we can teach them graphic history. We can tell them exactly what happened, but we don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.
At least Mickey Mouse had the decency to cover his shame with pants!
At first they thought about just redacting the panels with nudity and cussing, but that would lead to copyright violations:
“There is some rough, objectionable language in this book,” director of school, Lee Parkison, is recorded as saying in the session’s opening remarks.
Parkison continued to say he had “consulted with our attorney” and as a result “we decided the best way to fix or handle the language in this book was to redact it … to get rid of the eight curse words and the picture of the woman that was objected to.”
Board member Tony Allman supported the move to remove the “vulgar and inappropriate” content, arguing: “We don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff.”
. . . After much discussion over the redaction of words the members found objectionable, the board eventually decided that alongside copyright concerns, it would be better to ban the graphic novel altogether.
Eventually they voted to entirely remove the book from the eight-grade curriculum. Those kids are about fourteen years old, and you tell me that none of them has seen a drawing or photo of a naked woman before, or heard (much less used) the words “God damn”.
But apparently the use of animals was said to”brutalize the Holocaust”, as if it wasn’t sufficiently brutal. Indeed, to bring home the nature of the Holocaust, pictures (either photos or artwork) are essential; words alone are insufficient:
Board member Tony Allman supported the move to remove the “vulgar and inappropriate” content, arguing: “We don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff.”
“I am not denying it was horrible, brutal, and cruel,” Allman said in reference to the genocide and murder of six million European Jews during the second world war.
“It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy,” he added.
Allman also took aim at Spiegelman himself, alleging: “I may be wrong, but this guy that created the artwork used to do the graphics for Playboy.”
“You can look at his history, and we’re letting him do graphics in books for students in elementary school. If I had a child in the eighth grade, this ain’t happening. If I had to move him out and homeschool him or put him somewhere else, this is not happening.”
“We are talking about teaching ethics to our kids, and it starts out with the dad and the son talking about when the dad lost his virginity. It wasn’t explicit but it was in there,” Cochran said.
“We don’t need this stuff to teach kids history. We can teach them history and we can teach them graphic history. We can tell them exactly what happened, but we don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.”
Here we have a bunch of Pecksniffian parents making the decision that fourteen-year-olds shouldn’t have access to a famous, powerful, and moving graphic novel.
Spiegelman said he was “baffled” by the outcome in an interview with CNBC on Wednesday. “It’s leaving me with my jaw open, like, ‘What?’” the 73-year-old author said, adding he thought the school board was “Orwellian” for approving the ban.
Spiegelman’s Jewish parents were both sent to Nazi concentration camps and his mother took her own life when he was just 20.
“I’ve met so many young people who … have learned things from my book,” Spiegelman said. “I also understand that Tennessee is obviously demented. There’s something going on very, very haywire there.”
Well of course not all of Tennessee is demented, but there are some school board members who are acting, well, I won’t give my reaction. Let’s just say it’s similar to Neil Gaiman’s:
There's only one kind of people who would vote to ban Maus, whatever they are calling themselves these days. https://t.co/fs1Jl62Qd8
I don’t know where else to put this item, but it appears that Wokeness Electness has invaded the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I don’t know how far the rot has spread, but readers might check for themselves. We know, at least, that David and Canova, were racists. They could at least have depicted Socrates as a person of color!
The letter that a group of us wrote to Nature, protesting Imperial College’s move to cancel Thomas Henry Huxley (they want to relocate his bust, shown below, and remove his name from a building), was of course rejected by the journal on specious grounds. (“We don’t publish petitions.”) I wrote about the issues and reproduced our full letter yesterday evening. But the Telegraph decided to write about our letter.
The Telegraph article was posted early this morning, and you can read it for free by clicking on the link below (if this doesn’t work, just inquire).
Further, our entire letter, with signers, was also published in the letters section here (scroll down).
While some people were scared to death that coverage in a conservative paper would ultimately hurt our cause (i.e., the misguidedness of Imperial’s actions), it turns out that the Telegraph article is temperate, objective, and doesn’t go off about wokeness. It could have appeared in the Guardian—that is, if the Guardian would ever consider publishing a piece on this topic.
I barely need to quote the Telegraph letter since it pretty much reproduces what our letter said, but here are a few bits and bobs:
The history group advised that Huxley’s bust should be removed because he “might now be called racist” and the Huxley Building on campus renamed.
Their report, published in October, explained that while Huxley was an abolitionist he also wrote an essay which “espouses a racial hierarchy of intelligence, a belief system of ‘scientific racism’ that fed the dangerous and false ideology of eugenics”.
It went on to say that this “falls far short of Imperial’s modern values” and as such his bust be removed from display and the Huxley building renamed.
. . .In a letter to The Telegraph, a group of 39 leading scientists – including 17 from Imperial College – are imploring Imperial College not to turn their back on him.
“Huxley was an ardent abolitionist who fought the virulent pro-slavery scientific racism of his day and publicly welcomed the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865,” they say.
The letter acknowledges that early in his career he believed in a hierarchy of races but added that “as he aged he became sceptical of racial stereotypes”.
It goes on to note that Huxley “reformed London’s schools, was a principal of a working men’s college, wrote volumes of journalism, gave lectures for working people and opened his classes to women”.
The letter says: “He was instrumental in founding the Royal College of Science, later Imperial College, the very institution that now seeks to disown him.
. . .Prof Armand Leroi, an expert in evolutionary developmental biology at Imperial College, said the recommendations produced by the history group are “frankly shocking”.
“Many members of staff were quite outraged, especially the biologists,” he said. “Huxley was such a champion of egalitarianism, of access to science, of working class education. These are all things he worked for tirelessly in his life.
“By the standards of the day he was an extraordinarily enlightened man – he fought against the racist scientists of his day who were allied with slavery ideologues in the US. He should be seen in the context and the mood of his time.”
Prof Leroi said that it is “perfectly right” for an institution to examine its own history but added that removing Huxley’s name and bust is a “knee jerk reaction”.
A spokesman for Imperial College said that its governing body – known as the president’s board – will have an update next month about its proposed course of action.
I count this as a win—not that Imperial College will leave Huxley untouched, as they probably won’t—but because it represents public pushback against the historical erasure of great figures that is part of academic wokeness. Push back, push back, against the dying of the light!
Oh, and while they’re busy with their defenestrations, shouldn’t “Imperial College” consider changing its own colonialist name?
UPDATE: I just received a link to this long but enlightening article in Quillette by Stephen Warren, a physicist at Imperial College. Click on the screenshot to read it; it’s about Imperial’s impending cancellation of not just Huxley, but another founder named Alfred Beit:
One general quote from Warren:
The Witt committee [convened at Yale to develop principles for “renaming”] considered the problem of renaming from multiple angles. Its members researched cases of renaming at other universities and in other countries, and they examined carefully the different principles that affect the decision process. These include the fact that the purpose of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge; that erasing a university’s history is antithetical to the spirit of the institution; that history’s memorialisation of the past serves to express values that may change over time; that change is indispensable in a university; and that the genuine inclusion of all groups is necessary to ensure that a university maintain its stature as a centre for research and teaching in years to come.
Committee members also called for input from undergraduates, staff, faculty, and alumni. The views expressed covered a wide range, but a theme emerged: “Running through many comments we received was widespread agreement that the University can and should aim to be diverse and inclusive in a way that emphasizes its traditions of excellence and does not efface the institution’s history.”
The result of this process was a set of proposed principles to follow, not only at Yale but at other institutions as well, in considering questions of renaming, with an accompanying narrative elaborating those principles. Interested readers should read the report in full to appreciate its message. But a general recommendation that emerged is that historical figures should be judged according to the times in which they lived, and that modern observers should focus on a person’s principal legacies, because no one is perfect.
The idea was to create a decision framework that itself would stand the test of time, and would not simply be brushed aside in the future. The report warned that “hubris in undoing past decisions encourages future generations to disrespect the choices of the current generation.” But the recommendations certainly do allow renaming under the right circumstances. And indeed this is what happened to Calhoun College, which is now named after Grace Murray Hopper, a Yale-trained mathematician and computer scientist who, as a US Navy officer, applied her skills to the defeat of fascism during World War II.
The Imperial History Group was fully aware of the Yale report. Unfortunately, its members chose to follow a very different set of principles.. . .
. . . . Reassessing Huxley and Beit by the light of the Yale report recommendations would be a valuable exercise, and would likely lead to different conclusions than those put forward by the History Group at Imperial College. Regardless of what is decided next month by President Gast, it is Yale’s approach, not Imperial’s, that should usefully be adopted as a sector standard in regard to future questions of renaming at other universities.
This is something I not only see happening all the time, but also worry about it happening to myself. The phenomenon is this: someone of a liberal bent gets called out, demonized, or canceled on social media by the Woke, and is more or less blindsided because of it. Then a series of semi-predictable steps occurs, with many stopping before the last step, which corresponds to the lowest circle of Hell.
I won’t give a lot of names, but I’ve given names of people who seem to have stopped at various levels.
1.) Person strikes back either once or not at all at those who have gone after him/her. Remains a liberal. (Example: Nick Cohen)
2.) Person continues to strike back, writing several accounts or emitting several tweets about their cancellation. Person, however, remains liberal. (Examples: J. K. Rowling, Abigail Shrier.)
3.) Person goes into more general critiques of Wokeism, more or less making their living attacking the Woke. Politics begin to move rightward (Example: Bari Weiss.)
4.) Person moves much further towards the right, becoming more or less a conservative (Example: James Lindsay, who voted for Trump, apparently as a reaction to wokeness.) This is akin to having abandoned your ideological principles in the service of revenge, but it never works because the Woke never forgive.
Now of course not everyone goes down this route, but it is a natural pathway, and to me an understandable one: it’s a way of repeatedly striking back at those who, you think, have wronged you. And there are exceptions. Although Andrew Sullivan was center-right, the follies of the Right have moved his politics toward the center. And Sullivan, who’s remarkably open-minded, seems impervious to criticism, and is willing to admit when he missteps.
As for me, I constantly worry about the excesses of the Left moving me towards the Right. (You know the old saying, “A young person who is a conservative has no heart; an old person who is a liberal has no brain.”) And I console myself by saying that I haven’t moved towards the Right; rather, I’ve stayed put while the Democrats have moved leftward. In general I think that’s true, but I always wonder whether, were I to meet my 25-year-old self and exchange political views, the younger Jerry Coyne would be upset at the views of the older one. A tweet by Colin Wright expressing my concerns is mentioned by reader Michael Hart in comment #4 below:
I’ve been a diehard Democrat my whole life, and even voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary. My liberal history when I was younger is known to readers here, but whatever political “activism” remains comes out in this website. (Granted, I spend a lot of time bashing the “Progressive Left,” but that’s because I want to save the classical liberal Left.
I may be missing steps, and am loath to give examples lest I insult people. But feel free to weigh in. Just don’t call me “alt-right” or I’ll ban your tuchas.
I’d forgotten that Abigail Shrier had a Substack column called “The Truth Fairy“, and so I would have missed this wonderful talk (in transcript) had several readers not sent me the link. It is a talk that Shrier gave to a group of students at Princeton, hosted by the Princeton Tory, the Witherspoon Institute, and the Tikvah Fund. It is well worth your time to read this, and will stiffen your resolve against wokeness.
For surely you remember Ms. Shrier, a former writer with the Wall Street Journal and then author of the book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, which I’ve read. It’s an account of the exponential rise in the number of young women and girls who want to transition to becoming transmales; an attempt to explain it partly (but not by any means wholly) as a result of social pressure and mental illness; and a critique of the “affirmation therapy” in which therapists and doctors facilitate these transitions without adequate medical and psychological assessment and supervision.
It’s not a transphobic book, nor is Shrier a transphobe. She is thoughtful and deeply sympathetic to people with gender dysphoria who have given their transitions mature and rational consideration. It is a call for caution towards younger people—women in particular—who might not be getting proper guidance.
For writing this reasonable book, Shrier was demonized, widely called a transphobe (including by the ACLU, one of whose lawyers called for her book to be banned), she’s been disinvited to speak, and major chains wouldn’t carry her book. Science-Based Medicine removed a positive review written about Shrier’s book by Dr. Harriet Hall. I’ve documented much of this on posts on this website.
Here we have Shrier giving the Princeton students the equivalent of a graduation speech: imparting lessons she learned the hard way to try to emphasize the importance of independent thought in a time of liberal conformity. I wish I could reproduce the whole talk, but you can read it by clicking on the screenshot below.
There’s a bit of biography to show how Shrier went down the route to being demonized. First, though, the question she’s answering (all bolding is mine).
The question I get most often—the thing that most interviewers want to know, even when they’re pretending to care about more high-minded things—is: What’s it like to be so hated? I can only assume that’s what some of you rubberneckers want to know as well: What’s it like to be on a GLAAD black list? What’s it like to have top ACLU lawyers come out in favor of banning your book? What’s it like to have prestigious institutions disavow you as an alum? What’s it like to lose the favor of the fancy people who once claimed you as their own?
And then she began writing op-eds for the Wall Street Journal, and the die was cast:
. . . One of those op-eds inspired a reader to contact me and tell me the story of her teen daughter who was rushing into a sudden gender transition. After trying and failing to find an investigative journalist who wanted the assignment, I took it on myself. My investigations turned into a book called Irreversible Damage.
All of which is to say: I’m not a provocateur. I don’t get a rush from making people angry. You don’t have to be a troll to find yourself in the center of controversy. You need only be two things: effective, and unwilling to back down.
Why am I unwilling to back down? Why wouldn’t I prostrate myself before the petulant mobs who insist that my standard journalistic investigation into a medical mystery—specifically, why so many teen girls were suddenly identifying as transgender and clamoring to alter their bodies—makes me a hater? Why on earth would I have chosen to write this book in the first place and am I glad that I wrote it?
And she says she found it freeing to express her opinion even though it went against the grain of most trans activists. There’s a bit of a confusing discussion of “freedom,” as Shrier appears to be a determinist, and her half-page discussion might have been omitted, for, after discussing how our views are manipulated by outside sources like social media sites and Wikipedia articles, which constitutes neuronal wiring completely compatible with determinism, she says this:
If you form views based on those Wikipedia articles or reports by corrupt fact-checkers, if you act based on them, are you exercising freedom of will? Given that you’ve been spun and prodded along to a pre-determined conclusion by hidden persuaders, perhaps you aren’t. Perhaps you’re left in the same sorry state as the Moor of Venice: toyed with, subverted, manipulated. Acting out someone else’s plan, pointed in the direction that he wants you to walk.
We’ve spent a lot of time in the past few years debating whether this kind of manipulation is at the root of our political divisions, but I don’t think we’ve paid enough attention to an even more basic question: how it has interfered with freedom of conscience and ultimately free will.
But she’s strongly questioned whether we even have free will! What she objects to is not unwarranted interference with some dualistic “will,” but unwarranted interference with your brain.
But that doesn’t matter; it’s a small digression in a magnificent talk—but a digression that takes her into territory I inhabit. At any rate, the following words are what’s going to get her into trouble, and the kind of writing that makes me so admire Shrier:
When polled, nearly two out of three Americans (62%) say they are afraid to express an unpopular opinion. That doesn’t sound like a free people in a free country. We are, each day, force-fed falsehoods we are all expected to take seriously, on pain of forfeiting esteem and professional opportunity:
“Some men have periods and get pregnant.” “Hard work and objectivity are hallmarks of whiteness.” “Only a child knows her own true gender.” “Transwomen don’t have an unfair advantage when playing girls’ sports.”
On that final example of a lie, the one about transwomen in girls’ sports, I want you to think for a moment about a young woman here at Princeton. She’s a magnificent athlete named Ellie Marquardt, an all-American swimmer who set an Ivy League record in the 500-meter freestyle event as a freshman. Just before Thanksgiving, Ellie was defeated in the 500-meter, the event she held the record in, by almost 14 seconds [Shrier’s bolding] by a 22 year old biological male at Penn who was competing on the men’s team as recently as November of 2019. That male athlete now holds multiple U.S. records in women’s swimming, erasing the hard work of so many of our best female athletes, and making a mockery of the rights women fought for generations to achieve.
Ellie Marquart swam her heart out for Princeton. When will Princeton fight for her? Where are the student protests to say—enough is enough. When a biological male who has enjoyed the full benefits of male puberty—larger cardiovascular system, 40% more upper body muscle mass, more fast-twitch muscle fiber, more oxygenated blood—decides after three seasons on the men’s team to compete as a woman and smashes the records of the top female swimmers in this country, that is not valor—that’s vandalism.
Where is the outrage? Imagine, for a second, what it must be like to be a female swimmer at Princeton, knowing you must pretend that this is fair—that the NCAA competition is anything other than a joke. Imagine being told to bite your tongue as men lecture you that you just need to swim harder. “Be grateful for your silver medals, ladies, and maybe work harder next time,” is the message. Imagine what that level of repression does to warp the soul.
Now, imagine, instead, the women’s swimmers had all walked out. Imagine they had stood together and said: We will meet any competitor head on. But we will not grant this travesty the honor of our participation. We did not spend our childhoods setting our alarm clocks for 4am every morning, training for hours before and after school, to lend our good names to this fixed fight.
Many of us agree with Shrier (I know I do), but how many of us would say this words, or write these words, publicly? Not many, I warrant.
She goes on to extol and explain the freedom she found in resisting the influences of authoritarians and trans activists (granted, she had no choice about resisting, but resisting did bring her a jolt of endorphin that one wants to experience again). And so a few more excerpts:
I didn’t write Irreversible Damage to be provocative. In a freer world, nothing in my book would have created controversy. I wrote the book because I knew it was truthful and I believed recording what I found—that there was a social contagion leading many teenage girls to irreversible damage—was the right thing to do. I also believe if I hadn’t written it, thousands more girls would be caught up in an identity movement that was not organic to them but would nonetheless lead them to profound self-harm. But I didn’t write it specifically to stop them. I wrote it simply because it was true.
When I testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee back in March, I started by stating that I am proud to live in an America where gay and transgender Americans live with less stigma and fear than at any point in American history. That is the glory of freedom as well—the chance for adults to live authentic lives and guide their own destinies. And allowing mature adults to make those sorts of choices for themselves is absolutely a requirement of a free society. Yes, you can reject the false, dogmatic insistences of Gender Ideology and still wish to see transgender Americans prosper and flourish and fulfill their dreams in America. I do.
I wrote the book because the story of one mom and her teen daughter compelled me, and so did that of the dozens of other parents who then spoke to me—mothers and fathers who sobbed as they described how their daughters had become caught up in a craze that seemed completely inauthentic to the child, but which they were powerless to arrest.
And a conclusion:
I’m 43, which I realize makes me very old to many of you. But not so long from now, you’ll wake up and be 43 yourselves. And when I look back on my life thus far, it occurs to me that the decisions of which I am most proud—the ones that strike like an unexpected kiss—are not the times when I obeyed the algorithm. They’re the times when I defied it and felt, for a moment, the magic and power of being alive. When I felt, even for an instant, the exquisite joy of not being anyone’s subject. When I had the unmistakable sense that I’ve existed for a purpose, that I stood the chance of leaving the world better than I found it. You don’t get any of that through lock-step career achievement and you certainly don’t get that by being the Left’s star pupil.
You feel that frisson when you choose a person to commit yourself to knowing full well that any marriage may fail; when you bring children into a world where there are no guarantees of their safety or success. When you summon the courage to fashion a life, something that will remain after you are gone. When you speak the truth publicly—with care and lucidity. And when you say to the world: you cannot buy me with flattery. Purchase my colleagues or classmates at bulk rate. I am not for sale.
Yes, that frisson isn’t in everyone, but some like Shrier are wired to experience it through rebellion, and to sell that experience to others. And perhaps that itself will rewire the brains of the others. But forget the determinism. The fact is that Shrier spoke the truth as she saw it, not realizing what would happen. But when the shitstorm began, she just put up an umbrella and weathered it. And she continues to fight. Moreover, she has a lot to lose here, though it turns out that the damnation she experienced as a supposed “transphobe” actually brought her more attention and a louder microphone. I can echo her words because I have very little to lose by doing so, but I want to echo her words because they bear repeating, and may echo in other people’s brains.