What’s wrong with “cancel culture”?

by Chris Bertram on July 30, 2020

“Cancel culture” has recently been in the news as a threat to free speech and open debate, most notably with the publication the other week of that open letter in Harpers. Cancelling is essentially a kind of crowdsourced attempt to boycott and ostracise individuals for their words or actions, sometimes including calls for them they be fired from their jobs or denied contracts and opportunities by media organisations. In the democratic space of social media this can sometimes tip over into unpleasant mobbing and sometimes bullying. But is “cancelling” people always wrong? Is the practice always an attack on the norms of free speech and open debate? Might cancelling some people be necessary to ensure others get the voice and platform to which they are entitled?

One objection to “cancellation” is that it chills open debate and makes people self-censor. But the problem with this critique is that some speech should be chilled and sometimes people ought to self-censor. A society that refuses to tolerate speech like David Starkey’s recent racist remarks about “damn blacks” and the slave trade is better for it, and it is a pity that Starkey didn’t think twice before uttering them. Now that he has come out with such language, he’s been cancelled, and rightly so.

It is easy to think about free speech and open debate as just being about whether people are censored or punished by the law. But the cancel culture furore tells us that such a model is inadequate. The barriers to speech are not just about the threat from the state but also about the social atmosphere in which speech is conducted and about who has the standing to speak and what kinds of speech are acceptable to others. People can have their voices amplified or silenced by their wealth, connections or prestige but also by other speech which aims to deny them the right to participate on equal terms with others.

As Jeremy Waldron has argued in his book The Harm in Hate Speech, racist speech aims not just at hurting the feelings of its victims or expressing a view but at reconstituting the public arena of democratic debate and argument so that some people are not seen as forming a proper part of it. It says that those people are not a part of “us” and that their opinions and arguments have no place as we decide where our country should go. Racist speech by some also legitimizes and emboldens racist speech and opinion by others, telling bigots that they are not alone, that others think as they do, and strengthens an ideal of exclusive community based on ethnic or racial lines. Anti-racist speech, has the opposite effect, it affirms a view that those targeted by the racists, be they black, or Asian, or Muslim, are full members of the democratic political community in good standing with as good a right to a say as anyone. It also reinforces a social norm about what may not be said, telling those who are tempted to stigmatize migrants or minorities that they will pay a price for doing so.

The role that speech plays in defining who is and isn’t included in our vision of democratic community can have powerful real-world consequences. If, for example, some people come to be seen as “not really British” on the grounds of their race or religion, notwithstanding their formal citizenship or lifetime participation in society, then their interests matter less in political conversation and it becomes easier to subject them to cruel and exclusionary policies. One way to understand the ease with which the victims of the Windrush scandal could lose their jobs, their homes, their liberty or be deported to far-away countries, is that in the public imaginary that is partly constituted by speech, many people did not see them as proper members with equal standing to others.

Racist speech is just one example that makes clear how the practice of open discussion isn’t simply a matter of unfettered conversation among people who are already present but also involves choices about who gets to speak and involves sensitivity to the way that speech by some has the effect either of depriving others of a voice or of making it impossible for others to hear what they say. A society which is full of highly sexualized messages about women is also a society in which it is harder for women to get a hearing about sexual violence and income inequality. A society where trans people are the objects of constant ridicule, or are represented as dangerous, is one in which it is also more difficult for them to argue for their rights and have their interests taken seriously.

Much of the pushback against cancel culture has come from prominent journalists and intellectuals who perceive every negative reaction from ordinary people on social media as an affront. Ironically, while being quick to take offence themselves they demand that those less powerful than they are should toughen up and not be such “snowflakes”. But if we take seriously the idea that speech can silence speech or make it unhearable, then a concern with whether the heckling of cancel culture makes it harder to say some things also has to take account of the fact that saying those very things can make it harder for other voices to be heard.

A one-sided view of the row about cancellation risks having real-world consequences for open debate and free expression in the UK as writers on the political right, convinced that those who stand up against hate speech only do so because indoctrinated at university by talk of intersectionality and oppression, demand government action in higher education or against the BBC. If such attempts succeed, far from making speech freer, they will cause a narrowing of the space of public discourse and a silencing of significant viewpoints in a way that “cancel culture” has not.

{ 216 comments }

1

casmilus 07.30.20 at 7:19 am

Discrediting and marginalisation already occurred – just look at how David Irving’s status changed over the decades (notoriously, the early book about Dresden is cited in “Slaughterhouse 5”). So we’ve simply accelerated the process in the digital age.

My contrarian take is that “the campus Left” actually had more power in the 70s/80s. In a world with no internet and limited independent publishing and distribution, public meetings were the route to disseminate new ideas, so no-platforming and picketing could have an effect. Look at “The History Man” (the 1981 BBC TV adaptation) for a portrayal of what it was like; all that “soft power” is forgotten because of course Thatcher and Reagan won the grown-up elections. Also note that that was a world where the university as an institution had much less to fear from individual students who might feel discriminated against. In comparison, no one can actually suppress ideas nowadays and even banning books from the libraries leaves them available in the virtual library of websites.

The reality also is that “cancelled” authors acquire new readerships and can move into different circles. Ex-lefties have been doing that since the 1930s: Freida Utley, Eugebe Lyons, James Burnham and of course Whittaker Chambers fell-out and immediately fell-in to bigger audiences.

2

MisterMr 07.30.20 at 7:21 am

“A society which is full of highly sexualized messages about women is also a society in which it is harder for women to get a hearing about sexual violence and income inequality”

Okay, but then also the idea that any sexualized message about women is some sort of antifeminist attack is an exaggeration: people have sexual desires and males will always view women as (among other things) objects of sexual desire.

I understand that in many ways this cancel movement is made by people who up to a short time ago were the canceled ones, however even this has to have a limit.

Could you give an example of some “cancel” attempt that you would find excessive?

3

casmilus 07.30.20 at 7:31 am

Can we please clarify: was Johann Hari “cancelled”?

The thing is:

He was exposed on issues of basic journalistic integrity.
He’s rebuilt his career since and seems to be more successful than ever. Oh of course he doesn’t have a column in a declining newspaper… so what? He’s moved up to writing bestsellers, where he needed to go anyway. The arc of his career is unbent. And as far as I can tell Sam Kriss is doing the same.

4

Sophie Jane 07.30.20 at 7:46 am

I agree with all of this, of course, but I’d particularly like to highlight the points about hate speech and community in view of the “discussions” of trans rights I’ve seen here in comments on a couple of occasions.

5

J-D 07.30.20 at 9:16 am

When I read this, I got the idea that there’d been a related discussion here at Crooked Timber before, and indeed there was!

https://crookedtimber.org/2016/08/27/the-university-of-chicago-is-nothing-more-and-nothing-less-than-a-complex-of-safe-spaces/

6

chrisare 07.30.20 at 9:20 am

I found this piece unconvincing.

“People can have their voices amplified or silenced by their wealth, connections or prestige but also by other speech which aims to deny them the right to participate on equal terms with others.”

It’s unclear if this refers to those at the receiving end of speech the author wants to prevent or the speaker deserving of canceling.

“As Jeremy Waldron has argued in his book The Harm in Hate Speech, racist speech aims not just at hurting the feelings of its victims or expressing a view but at reconstituting the public arena of democratic debate and argument so that some people are not seen as forming a proper part of it.”

It is very dubious that most slurs “aim” to “reconstitute the public arena of democratic debate and argument so that some people are not seen as forming a proper part of it.” Do you have any support for this theory?

“It says that those people are not a part of “us” and that their opinions and arguments have no place as we decide where our country should go.”

It’s not clear how a racial slur “says” any of this. Perhaps the author is reading subtext?

“Racist speech by some also legitimizes and emboldens racist speech and opinion by others, telling bigots that they are not alone, that others think as they do, and strengthens an ideal of exclusive community based on ethnic or racial lines.”

On this point it’s worth quoting Henry Louis Gates Jr: “Why would you entrust authority with enlarged powers of regulating the speech of unpopular minorities unless you were confident that unpopular minorities would be racists, not blacks?”

“Anti-racist speech, has the opposite effect, it affirms a view that those targeted by the racists, be they black, or Asian, or Muslim, are full members of the democratic political community in good standing with as good a right to a say as anyone.

“It also reinforces a social norm about what may not be said, telling those who are tempted to stigmatize migrants or minorities that they will pay a price for doing so.”

It also creates a precedent for excluding views by shaming based on current sentiment. Only someone oblivious to history wouldn’t see the danger in that precedent.

“The role that speech plays in defining who is and isn’t included in our vision of democratic community can have powerful real-world consequence.”

Who to include as part of your community is an important issue that should be discussed openly by all of society. What you’re trying to do is to elevate advance your position without having to defend it.

“One way to understand the ease with which the victims of the Windrush scandal could lose their jobs, their homes, their liberty or be deported to far-away countries, is that in the public imaginary that is partly constituted by speech, many people did not see them as proper members with equal standing to others.”

Were we to do away with everything that had a downside we would have very little good. Therefore arguing that something has potential downsides is not sufficient to establish that it’s not good. Can you argue that free expression and debate by citizenry on the most important issues facing a democratic nation is not good, besides by arguing that there might be some cost?

“Racist speech is just one example that makes clear how the practice of open discussion isn’t simply a matter of unfettered conversation among people who are already present but also involves choices about who gets to speak and involves sensitivity to the way that speech by some has the effect either of depriving others of a voice or of making it impossible for others to hear what they say. A society which is full of highly sexualized messages about women is also a society in which it is harder for women to get a hearing about sexual violence and income inequality. A society where trans people are the objects of constant ridicule, or are represented as dangerous, is one in which it is also more difficult for them to argue for their rights and have their interests taken seriously.”

This implies that the intolerant are the powerful group capable of suppressing minorities with their speech alone. This is disproven by the very fact that anti-racist etc speech is so successful. The success of antiracist codes of social conduct is because the group exercising them is the powerful group. This very fact implies their obsolesce.

“Much of the pushback against cancel culture has come from prominent journalists and intellectuals who perceive every negative reaction from ordinary people on social media as an affront. Ironically, while being quick to take offence themselves they demand that those less powerful than they are should toughen up and not be such “snowflakes”.”

This is an uninformed or dishonest characterization of the pushback against cancel culture. The pushback is due to intolerant enforcement of ideological conformity and homogeneity through threat to job and reputation. And no this is not only ideological conformity in that you can’t say overtly racist things; it’s ideological conformity in that you can’t criticize BLM or cite scientific literature on biological differences between the sexes without risk.

“But if we take seriously the idea that speech can silence speech or make it unhearable, then a concern with whether the heckling of cancel culture makes it harder to say some things also has to take account of the fact that saying those very things can make it harder for other voices to be heard.”

This piece hasn’t given any reason to make us take seriously the idea that speech against one group can silence another, other then through threat to livelihood or reputation. It’s not clear though how for example referencing scientific but currently unpopular claims, criticizing a social movement, having a narrower view on who should be considered a citizen or even using a slur silences people.

7

John Quiggin 07.30.20 at 10:17 am

An important problem is the conflation of public opprobrium actual sanctions like being fired. This is mainly a problem in the US because of employment at will. In most countries, unfair dismissal laws would protect people being sacked because of their political views, unless they related directly to job performance.
https://crookedtimber.org/2018/03/04/free-speech-unfair-dismissal-and-unions/

But the fact that the same example (David Shor) is cited every time the issue is raised suggests that losing your job for breaching left orthodoxy not a major problem in the US, or at least that other possible examples are much less sympathetic (racists fired from Fox, for example).

Mostly, AFAICT, being cancelled means having to read rude things said about you by lots of unimportant people on Twitter, as opposed to engaging in caustic, but civilised, debate with your peers in the pages of little magazines.

8

Tim H. 07.30.20 at 11:21 am

Racism from my perspective, looks like an unwillingness to evaluate people on an individual basis, whether it’s from sloth, contempt or disability and it’s a terrible look for an intellectual.

9

Louis N Proyect 07.30.20 at 11:42 am

Really glad to see John Quiggin taking this position. What’s missing from the Harper’s Open Letter is any representation from radicals except maybe for Noam Chomsky, who is a free speech absolutist who while defending Robert Faurisson from being fired made the mistake of describing this holocaust denier as a “liberal”.

As I mentioned in an article about this in CounterPunch, Thomas Chatterton Williams, the godfather of the letter, wrote that Isaiah Berlin was a major influence on his defense of liberal “marketplace of ideas” liberal values. As he grew older, Isaac Deutscher sought to escape the pressures of journalism through the stability of an academic post. The University of Sussex was ready to hire him, but Berlin, a member of the advisory board at Sussex, Berlin told the vice-chancellor: “The candidate of whom you speak is the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable.” In other words, Berlin canceled one of the most respected Marxist scholars of the late twentieth century.

10

aepxc 07.30.20 at 12:11 pm

The question is who decides? Most readers here would agree that “[a] society that refuses to tolerate speech like David Starkey’s recent racist remarks about “damn blacks” and the slave trade is better for it”, but of the world’s ~8 bln people, I strongly suspect that most would believe that a society would be better off for refusing to tolerate speech about abortions and homosexuality. So do we decide democratically? Through the ethics of enlightened elites? An ever ongoing fight between the majority and the elite? Some other method? Perhaps we fracture into mini-societies, each with their own standards of “better off”, which do not talk to one another?

From my perspective, there is thought and thought-like speech (anything without direct call to action) , which ought to be maximally tolerated for both ethical and practical reasons. Ethical because it dispenses with the requirement for absolute and inviolable knowledge (and disempowers people who would otherwise need to select and enforce “allowed” views. Practical because it encourages transparency (shutting racists up will not stop them from thinking racist thoughts), intellectual development (new ideas can emerge to challenge the existing wisdom) and rigor (having to often hear opposing viewpoints hones your understanding of your own). Not to say that such tolerance has no costs whatsoever (e.g. making it easier for racists to be racist in the short term, that you mention), but that the benefits of such tolerance outweigh the costs.

What cannot be limitlessly tolerated are actions and action-like speech. To use my own nationality as an example, I would have to fight back were a person to decide to try to kill all Russians. For action-like speech, I would also be against an unlimited freedom for a person to stand on the corner shouting “pick up a gun and go find a Russian to kill”. But change the phrasing slightly to “all Russians are evil, sub-human scum, I wish none of them lived” and I would be hurt but okay with that, until and unless the speaker or their listener decided to try to act on the sentiment. Indeed, it would give me a heads up about which person (or people) to avoid. In a less extreme example, “shout that stupid Russian dow, how dare he try to even voice an opinion!” is action-like speech (therefore needs limits), while “I don’t see the need to listen to Russians” is thought-like (and therefore better to be tolerated). The problem with modern cancel culture is that it often responds to thought-like speech with action-like speech.

Obviously, no one owes it to anyone else to listen to them. If you hear something you do not like, you should be free to close the door on that person and never again invite them into your company. But from my perspective it is an intellectually small and fragile mind that looks to exercise this freedom at a mass scale or anything other than a last resort. People who say stupid, hateful or offensive things are not examples to be emulated. This is exactly the reason not to join a crowd saying rude or offensive things back at them. Surely, we can form and promote communities of respect and diversity without needing to destroy communities that are exclusionary and hateful? If we are right about what makes communities better off, we will simply outcompete the latter, which will wither of their own accord.

11

CHETAN R MURTHY 07.30.20 at 1:08 pm

JQ @ 1: The sort of “lose your job for engaging in speech” thing happens in other contexts, too. Companies routinely censor their employees’ speech in ways small and large, and this includes completely non-political speech about purely technical matters. I know of a case where a famous chip designer got up at a conference and said “none of you people talking about Itanium [Intel’s ia64 chip that was the future of microprocessors once upon a time] actually think it’s going to succeed — why don’t any of you admit it?” Within moments he was covered in PR and lawyers basically taping his mouth shut. When I worked in global enterprise I/T, I didn’t post blog comments (neither political nor technical) b/c it was clear that there would always be the possibility of career repercussions for making statements that would have post-hoc repercussions

Companies censor their employees speech before-and-after-the-fact for lots of reasons, sometimes political. This is a fact of life, and you’re very right to point out that if people actually cared about this [as opposed to getting bent-out-of-shape that they can’t be raging bigots] they’d support strong unions.

12

Ralph Musgrave 07.30.20 at 1:13 pm

[This person stood as an election candidate for a far-right party and is not welcome to comment at CT. CB ]

13

SamChevre 07.30.20 at 1:25 pm

This is mainly a problem in the US because of employment at will.

Employment at will may contribute, but a larger part of the problem is that the US laws around free speech are odd. Technically, the government cannot regulate speech at all (with very limited exceptions, not relevant here.) In practice, though, what has happened (via so-called “anti-discrimination” law) is that the government severely punishes employers whose employees speak in ways the government/the identity politics left (they are working together here) dislike, and so effectively outsources speech regulation to employers.

The concern about cancel culture is in my observation largely driven by this dynamic: the frequent tagline right-leaning speech is violence, while left-leaning violence is speech” reflects the fact that getting some particular approach to a topic defined as “discrimination” means that it is severely punished by government, at second-hand.

14

roger gathmann 07.30.20 at 1:38 pm

Weird that Shor has received such celebrity. Can’t we spare a thought for poor Jim DeMint? A true Trumpite, DeMint was appointed director the Heritage Foundation. Then the board booted him for being too close to Trump! Yet the legions of utterly sincere Orwells, desiring free speech for all and putting there lives almost at risk by signing that Harper’s Letter, seem to have forgotten him. They’ve forgoten, as well, Barry Lynn, who was fired by Ann Slaughter from the New America foundation for publishing a paper that was critical of Google. Or Alexander Kirss, who was fired by the Center for the National Interest when he questioned the decision to host a Trump speech. That was in 2016. But I am not seeing these names on the list of martyrs. Strange!

15

Cervantes 07.30.20 at 1:40 pm

I don’t think this is nearly as complicated as some people make it seem. Editors get to choose what they publish, producers get to choose who gets on the public affairs program, and university departments get to choose who the invite to speak, and I have a blog and I get to choose what comments to publish. If a lot of people find what Pemberton Throckmorton says to be offensive, and Pemberton finds he isn’t getting invited on TV any more, that’s how the marketplace of ideas works. Now, if Pemberton is a professor of literature and he makes public comments that disparage some of his students because they are female or gay or Black or whatever, then the university is within its rights to conclude that he can’t provide them with the educational experience to which they are entitled and to fire him.

This won’t necessarily work in your favor — Noam Chomsky isn’t going to get a show on Fox News — but you don’t have to watch it either.

16

Musicismath 07.30.20 at 1:42 pm

One thing that might be useful is distinguishing “cancel culture” as a phenomemon from cancellation more narrowly defined as a tactic. So many of the discussions I’ve seen recently about the issue seem content to operate at the big-picture level, asking whether such a thing as cancel culture even exists (the New Statesman approach) or (if it does) whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. Focussing in on actual cases, and thinking about who (precisely) benefits from individual instances, might instead help us think about the specific function of cancel culture, and the role that language plays in it.

Think about Rebecca Long-Bailey’s recent demotion from the Labour shadow cabinet over a tweet she made. Last month, she retweeted a newspaper interview with prominent Labour-supporting actress Maxine Peake, calling her an “absolute diamond.” The interview included an inaccurate claim from Peake (based apparently on information in a Morning Star article, and which Peake subsequently withdrew when she was challenged on it) that the specific knee restraint used on George Floyd had been taught to Mineapolis police by Israeli secret police consultants. Long-Bailey lost the Shadow Education role, and her political career is likely over, ostensibly on the basis of this one tweet. This, to me, is a fairly clear instance of cancellation at work, but it would be inadequate to leave it at that. The complete lack of commensurability between the transgression and the outcome would be incomprehensible without asking how RLB’s cancellation fits into Labour Party politics; that is, the function of cancelling in this specific instance. Absolutely no one I know thinks this tweet proved Long-Bailey was genuinely antisemitic, or that it was even the primary reason she was demoted. Instead, it’s been broadly (and, I think, correctly) interpreted as a signal from the Starmer wing of the party that the Corbyn faction with which RLB is aligned has no future in Labour. Cancellation, in this case, is a naked piece of power politics: a way of getting political opponents out of the way.

The RLB case also throws a spotlight on language. The various rationales for cancelling listed in the OP — racism, transphobia, or (in this case) antisemitism — are rarely clear-cut in real-world instances. In fact, there’s a kind of homeopathic logic at work, where the more tendentious the attribution is, the more cut-through it often seems to have. This, I would suggest, is also related to power. The purpose of an accusation like this is to demonstrate the power or dominance of the cancelling agent, and to intimidate others by example. (“If RLB got cancelled for this, then how little would I need to do to suffer the same fate?”) As Jonathan Dollimore has pointed out, there’s a certain in-built “linguistic imprecision” in many of the terms that cancellation depends on, and it’s from that imprecision that the capacity for intimidation or fear generation stems from. These concepts are capable of apparently endless linguistic elasticity. Indeed, it’s when they’re at their most extended or diffuse, that these grounds for cancellation seem to have the most signifying power.

17

Trader Joe 07.30.20 at 2:17 pm

“some speech should be chilled and sometimes people ought to self-censor. ”

It amazes me that any academic or any liberal minded person could write this sentence.

Who are you (or any of us) to suggest who should be “chilled” or “self-censored” isn’t that attitude coming from the right EXACTLY why we have what we have today?

Free speech is not a dimmer switch, its on or its off – you can’t have it both ways.

18

bianca steele 07.30.20 at 2:20 pm

I’d be interested in other philosophers’ , or social scientists’, takes on Appiah’s contention, in his advice column in the NYT a couple of weeks ago, that Internet “shaming” is nothing other than the normal process of enforcing community norms by reminding one another of them.

In effect, this is an argument that the Internet, regardless of the structure posed by whichever platform is being used, is not to be distinguished from the face to face of a small town community based grouping. I suppose there may be arguments for this, beginning with Kant’s idea of a single global community.

The idea that some causes for firing are unacceptable, too, would have to come prior to the idea that it’s unacceptable to fire someone because “the people” have shown through Twitter that they think the person should be fired. It seems like a waste of time to argue whether we as people on the outside think this or that person should be fired when on the one hand it hasn’t been settled that firms can’t have their own criteria of exclusion and on the other hand at-will employment is terrible but does exist.

If we are settling on a communitarian, Gemeinschaft oriented view of the global system after all this time, that would be interesting, though probably not on-topic. If that happens, I certainly hope the left is victorious.

19

bianca steele 07.30.20 at 2:35 pm

@16

This is an example of why these discussions are pointless. An MP should read what she’s recommending before recommending it. Obviously the Mossad did not teach the cop who killed George Floyd the technique he used. For a member of the government to say they did affects international relations. For a member of the government not to read what they send to constituents and the public reflects badly on the government and the party. Then we presumably will end up in a debate about whether Labour does and/or should talk about the Israeli government that way on purpose. Since this is only “cancel culture” if one thinks the only reason the firing happened is because “somebody” got their knickers in a twist, “somebody” who has more influence over policy than they ought to have.

Which is the entire debate about “cancel culture,” isn’t it? It’s about the idea that “elites” on Twitter (naturally they’re elites) have more influence than they ought to have.

20

Aardvark Cheeselog 07.30.20 at 2:35 pm

I read OP, and then scanned the comments, searching in vain for a recognition that free and open debate only works when all the interlocutors speak in good faith. Or at any rate with the presence of good-faith interlocutors on all sides. The “marketplace of ideas” collapses when some of the participants in the debate take part with the goal of preventing debate from happening. Which IMO is clearly the goal of basically every “conservative” voice in the US these days, and I see the origins of “cancel culture” as a reaction to that.

Another good post about OP’s topic (with remarks on the Harper’s letter) appeared at The Weekly Sift the other day: Mulder offers the hypothesis that nobody knows what “common sense” is right now because the boundaries of the acceptable are in such flux. Because we’re in the midst of a revolution right now, and revolutions consist of partly of transforming what counts as common sense.

21

Tom Hurka 07.30.20 at 3:01 pm

“Much of the pushback against cancel culture has come from prominent journalists and intellectuals who perceive every negative reaction from ordinary people on social media as an affront.” What’s the evidence for this claim about people’s motives?
A lot depends on how broadly e.g. “racism” is understood. That some clearly racist speech shouldn’t be allowed doesn’t mean that everything that’s nowadays called “racist” shouldn’t be allowed. I would suggest that critics of cancel culture don’t object to all limitations on racist speech, they just don’t think everything the cancelers call “racist” really is that, or really does deserve restriction.

22

EB 07.30.20 at 4:15 pm

The (wealthy, high profile) signers of the Harper’s letter were not complaining on their own behalf; they were complaining on behalf of the millions of people with no power or money who are also threatened with mobbing if they voice divergent (not racist, not transphobic, not misogyist) views. The mobbing may be within their own circles; it may be in a wider context. But if you don’t think that progressives who hold mildly variant opinions on any issue are not very cautious about stirring up even-more-progressive people in their realms, you are not seeing reality. I’m experiencing this right now because I think that “Defund the police” is a motto that helps Trump. Note: I fully support the BLM movement, but I also think it is making a mistake. So I’m a racist, supposedly.

23

Anon For Obvious Reasons 07.30.20 at 5:31 pm

I find this deliberately misleading. “Cancel culture” in practice refers to the idea that you shouldn’t be ostracized by your peers, friends, or professional field for holding and voicing ideas that are essentially mainstream.

Everyone thinks that if you insult someone with a racial slur, there should be consequences.

But after that, what should be the proper “bound” that discourse should not cross? I would argue that “any idea which can be studied rigorously” and “any idea held by a reasonably broad cross section of society” is clearly within the bound, and we do ourselves a huge disservice by refusing to countenance ideas in those sets. Further, as a commenter above notes, most people in the world are not left-wing activists. Setting the norm that you shouldn’t be friends with/work with/hire/buy from people with ideas you find acceptable, but which are not extreme, will be and has been a disaster for gay people, atheists, and many others.

Everyone working in academia, the non-profit sector, and journalism is aware that there are many ideas broadly held which people hesitate to say because they are worried a group of their strident colleagues will try to destroy their career. The Shor example comes up because, as Matt Yglesias pointed out yesterday, it is so obviously ridiculous to lose your job for linking to a paper in APSR by a prominent (young, black) political scientist, and yet there really are many people in that world, progressive political campaigns, who would refuse to work with you if you hired Shor. It wasn’t just his boss or “workplace protections” – he was kicked out of the listserv that is the main vector for finding jobs in that sphere, and his new employer remains anonymous on purpose!

And yes, this is not just a lefty thing. I’m sure that right-wing media sites, and church groups, and the rest all have similar cases. Trump clearly “canceled” Kaepernick, with the NFL’s help. Yet we all agree that is bad! And in the sphere many of us are in, academia, it is unquestionable that “canceling from the left” is a bigger threat from the right.

24

DCA 07.30.20 at 5:54 pm

To expand on the Pemberton Throckmorton example above: who decides if Pemberton has made “public comments that disparage some of his students because they are female or gay or Black”? Which is perhaps to say, who should we take seriously (and how seriously, with what consequences) if they claim to have been disparaged?

25

Chris Bertram 07.30.20 at 6:47 pm

Long comments with the sole purpose of displaying the commenter’s personal free-speech hobby-horses are likely to be deleted. Comments that actually engage with the OP stand the highest chance of not being deleted. (I’m on holiday at the moment so only intermittently engaged in comment moderation.)

26

L2P 07.30.20 at 7:19 pm

“But if we take seriously the idea that speech can silence speech or make it unhearable, then a concern with whether the heckling of cancel culture makes it harder to say some things also has to take account of the fact that saying those very things can make it harder for other voices to be heard.”

This seems to be the key flaw in the anti-“cancel culture” camp. They claim that “cancel culture” makes some opinions harder to be heard, but society has ALWAYS made it harder for some opinions to be heard. Racist speakers may be “cancelled” today, but for decades society “cancelled” anyone asking for reparations or other truly radical solutions to racism. God forbid any American in 2003 challenged the need to go to war in Iraq. Given limited ability to hear all the speech that exists, some speech is always “cancelled.” Why is “cancelling” only an issue when powerful, pro-racist and anti-trans speakers are “cancelled?”

In any event, being “harder to be heard” is the status of 99% of us. The issue isn’t being “harder to be heard,” the issue is whether you face true economic harm from cancel culture. And there’s no evidence anyone (with VERY RARE exceptions) has.

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Peter Dorman 07.30.20 at 7:51 pm

As I understand it, the censoriousness of the left arose at a time when a type of Marxism was hegemonic in those quarters. The idea was that revolutions would be led by a party organized around a “line”, and if the line were wrong in some way the future would be damaged; either the revolution would fail or it would produce a defective New Order. Wrong speech had to be curtailed in order to protect the future.

The new censoriousness has a different basis. Today it is held that “wrong” speech acts cause pain on the part of people with marginalized identities, and that releasing them from such pain is an important part of the larger struggle for equality. Speech with this effect has to be curtailed in order to protect these listeners.

The “snowflake” counterargument is not convincing to me. While no doubt some people overreact to what they hear as hostile speech, language really can hurt, and in any case who is one person to judge what feelings others undergo? Rather, I think the dubious assumption is that the rightness of speech acts should be judged on the basis of whether or not they make others uncomfortable. Whatever your definition of public reason, the comfort of those who participate is not likely to be a criterion.

Sometimes it is a good thing to make people uncomfortable on purpose, which the rhetoric around “difficult coversations” recognizes. Since none of us is free from self-delusion, this should apply to all of us.

Meanwhile, one of the main sources of discomfort is cognitive dissonance, but openness and intellectual growth is all about increasing one’s capacity for it. A lot of the closed-mindedness we associate with dogmatic patriotism, for instance, is simply an acting out of cognitive dissonance avoidance. (“I’m an American, so stories about evil things America has done make me angry and have to be false.”)

What I’m getting at is this: what is really bad about left wing censoriousness is not the actual damage it does to careers and such—there aren’t many instances of this, as the OP points out—but how it disfigures the left and turns it into a force that reinforces rather than undermines the psychological barriers that stand in the way of radical social change.

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John Quiggin 07.30.20 at 8:12 pm

As Sophie Grace Jane suggests above, a lot of the discussion is really about the meta-question “is the status of trans people a legitimate topic for debate, or is transphobia in the same category as racism and homophobia”?

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bianca steele 07.30.20 at 8:34 pm

I think for a certain segment of the people who signed that Harper’s letter, as can be seen in Louis Proyect’s article, the dividing line between liberalism and illiberalism has become generational. The beliefs of their youth and their prime represented liberalism pure and simple, and to challenge them must be liberalism’s opposite. Another segment was quite possibly always more centrist than the wishful thinking of mere readers would have imagined.

It seems the organizers of the letter intended a provocation, as well as a publicity stunt for Chatterton Williams’s new venture, which a number of the signers have also joined, and a provocation is what they got. If the Internet were capable of refusing to make the move from, “okay, let’s discuss some of the less cut and dried episodes” to “aha! you admit you actually agree with Bari Weiss!” there might be some reason not to dismiss it out of hand. As it is, it was intended to produce what the OP describes as a one-sided view of the issue.

The organizers have been cagey about whether they showed the final letter and list of signatures to every signer before they distributed it. But everyone who did sign knew where the lines were drawn and were naive if they thought they could move those lines by participating in something like this. (It seems the entire NY Times op-ed page except
Krugman joined and since their employer was recognized as one of those defended by the letter I imagine they may have been under some pressure not to refuse.)

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Anarcissie 07.30.20 at 8:35 pm

Trader Joe 07.30.20 at 2:17 pm @ 17 —
Remember that the academic institutions in which controversies about ‘cancel culture’ exist are bourgeois institutions, pretty much like corporations. It is a world of authority, hierarchy, and carefully controlled behavior. Obviously there is little expression which may not have adverse consequences. As the power and prestige of the bourgeoisie shrink, the inmates of that particular cage will fight more fiercely for what’s left. One way of fighting is to get someone’s job by turning up something disreputable, such as the use of an apparently racist epithet. This didn’t start yesterday. There is a certain spillover into popcult as students emerge from academia into the outer, also declining world and repeat the patterns which they have observed. Numerous stories areavailable, but I’ll spare you. Anyway, Mr. Taibbi has been ranting well, and you can go there.

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Hidari 07.30.20 at 8:42 pm

@16

Don’t take debates about Israel in the UK at face value. In the UK (unlike the US) nobody gives a shit about Israel. Debates ‘about’ Israel are invariably about other things (to repeat, this is very different from the US, where there are sizeable sectors of the population (mainly white evangelicals) who feel very strongly about Israel). In the UK, practically no one cares, although everyone pretends they do.

Starmer’s firing of RLB had little to do with Israel and everything to do with his desire to purge Labour of Corbynites. RLB had sealed her fate, not with her tweet, but with her desire to stand up for teaching unions, against the Johnson regime’s desire to send teaching staff back to work, whether it was safe or not (i.e. because of Covid-19).

Starmer (obviously) gives de facto support to Johnson (in this as with most other issues), and therefore, RLB was on the way out, whatever happened. All he needed was a causus belli, and the tweet was that. It had little to do with cancel culture, as that phrase is commonly understood.

Starmer fired her for the tweet, but if he hadn’t fired her for that tweet, he would have fired her for something else.

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Chris Bertram 07.30.20 at 8:53 pm

I’ll let that go @Hidari but it strikes me as extremely silly to say that Starmer gives de facto support to Johnson in most issues. But I wanted to register that without starting a sub-discussion on the subject.

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EB 07.30.20 at 9:02 pm

[Sorry, not rerunning the trans/gcf debate here. CB]

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kinnikinick 07.30.20 at 9:08 pm

Surprising to see so little emphasis on social media as the main catalyst. Tribalism is the driver of “engagement” online, and if righteous anger at the out-group gets the clicks, so be it. Consider how any Twitter post can become a tiny gleaming tableau, a battle flag, an allegory of sin or virtue. Context and interpretation cannot be arbiters, and must only serve the self-evident cause of loyalty to one’s synthetic tribe. Faith and bad faith merge; that’s just optimal use of an app’s system of influence. “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us”.
It seems to me that “cancel culture” is based on the infosphere’s equivalent of the technological progress that now allows a small group of determined people with AK-47s to render a region ungovernable. This does not imply that the region’s current government is a good one. It does not imply anything about the group’s views, except that debating them is not likely to be on the agenda when they visit your village. There will no doubt be some unpleasant people among the casualties; perhaps that counts as a silver lining.
The arms dealers don’t care – they sell to everyone, and the more ammunition they sell, the more you’ll need.

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Patrick 07.30.20 at 9:09 pm

When gamergate was a thing, they had this role they called “diggers.” A “digger” was someone who rooted through the social media of the online movement’s enemies in hopes of finding a way to destroy them- usually, a way to get them fired.

The gamergater argument was always that there was nothing wrong with this. After all, the material they found was all online, placed there voluntarily by their targets. And if their target’s employer found it appropriate to fire that person after being shown, say, their employees allegedly problematic sexual ruminations, so be it, right? It’s a free country.

Usually, if you criticized this, they would pick out the worst thing they claimed to have ever found about one of their targets, shove it in your face, and demand to know if you supported this. Why were you apologizing for it? Were you ok with it?

The usual “this” was pedophilia, of course. They’d try to argue that you either had to agree that what they were doing was fine, or else, you were saying that pedophiles should be sheltered.

Did gamergate actually care about pedophilia? Probably not, they selected their targets because of weird video game related drama, then used what they could find. Did they even find any real pedophiles? To answer that you’d need to dig through a thousand hours of idiotic drama, and I was never willing.

But of course the biggest issue, as I saw it, was that building a community around sniffing other people’s panties and screeching about the smell was inevitably awful. It was creating… lets say, a “culture,” built around “cancelling” people for fun, profit, and social approval, that was inevitably a miserable place to be, and a miserable influence on the larger world.

Looking back I was a bit unfair to them. I assumed that they, with their twee names (“digger”) and industrious awfulness, were somehow unique. But now I understand that this was just my first encounter with internet callout drama. The incentives are the same everywhere, so everyone else who is awful on the internet ends up being awful to each other in the same way.

That’s why in 2020 the social justice people are spouting all the same arguments I heard from gamergaters back during the Obama administration, and I’m finding them just as personally repulsive. Except back then it was just a weird little sub community and feeling alienated from it was no big deal because I was never part of it to begin with, and now it’s a huge percentage of left wing political discourse.

It’s practically a script. Someone sees a way to take out someone they hate by flipping out about something silly. It works a little bit, but not perfectly. “Narrative” gets cited a lot, which is about as stark a gamergate flashback as you can get. The person being called out blows the callout off, which is interpreted as a dismissal of the identities of the people on who’s behalf the callout was allegedly launched. But still the callout is dubious, so people start rooting through the target’s twitter history and social media accounts. Suddenly anyone who says that the callout seemed pretty dubious is being screamed at and fed cut and pastes lists of the target’s past crimes, all of which seem awfully out of context… but who has time to dig through all the context? Isn’t it easier just to retreat? And the shrieking hordes marches on, and a year later all anyone remembers is that they’re supposed to hate this or that person because of some thing that they don’t really remember but google will dig up a cut and paste for you.

In theory, cultural solutions to systemic problems created by structural aspects of how we interact are possible… in practice I don’t know.

I tend to believe that the social justice community’s hope of addressing systemic issues caused by structural matters by picking out individual people, transforming them into a symbolic avatar of something they hate, and trying to get them fired is, uh, stupid and awful and obviously doomed.

So I guess I shouldn’t expect to be able to do the same thing to them.

This is just life now.

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Collin Street 07.30.20 at 9:23 pm

The thing about the marketplace of ideas is that useful communication requires access to a coordination channel to communicate that you have something to communicate, and coordination channels are inescapably limited in number and thus capacity: there is a limit of how much communication capacity can be consumed, and that requires an allocation mechanism, and that requires enforcement.

Which is to say, a functional marketplace of ideas requires a shut-the-fuck-up mechanism. With teeth, and ultimately state-controlled gunbarrels. A cancel culture of some sort is inescapable, and arguments against “cancel culture” are really arguments against changes to the cancel culture that people don’t like and thus arguments in favour of the cancel culture that already exists.

(Right-wing arguments so often seem to pivot on the notion that continuing the status-quo is a neutral natural choice)

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Lee A. Arnold 07.30.20 at 9:30 pm

As a rude mechanical, I don’t care for cancel culture, but if you say anything that could imaginably be taken by any children, upon hearing it anywhere, as attacking their nationality, tribe, race, sex, gender, orientation or very being, then I will go beyond cancelling to have you drawn and quartered.

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Richard Melvin 07.30.20 at 9:36 pm

If such attempts succeed, far from making speech freer, they will cause a narrowing of the space of public discourse and a silencing of significant viewpoints in a way that “cancel culture” has not.

My view is that if a tactic causes you to lose, then that is evidence it was a bad tactic.

Charging machine guns waving a stick is not a bad tactic because every so often things miraculously line up so that one of the machine gunners gets some nasty bruises. It is bad because of what happens all the other times.

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Sophie Jane 07.30.20 at 9:44 pm

@John Quiggin a lot of the discussion is really about the meta-question

More generally, I think the meta-question is who gets to decide what’s up for debate and what’s not. Most complaints about “cancel culture” come from people who expected to be addressing the grateful masses from a lofty pulpit and were unpleasantly surprised to find their audience had opinions of their own.

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Fake Dave 07.30.20 at 10:14 pm

I can’t help thinking that this is mostly just typical intellectual elitism/gatekeeping exacerbated by a massive generational divide in how people communicate public ideas. The “woke” set and young people who just want to share ideas online without starting a Twitter shitstorm have spent years refining their language and educating themselves on how to talk about certain issues and identities and are extremely sensitive to dog whistles, microaggressions, and”thought neutralizing cliches.” We pretty much all learned how to argue online in open forums and are completely used to talking back to and correcting people and expect the same treatment if we’re wrong.

Far from being self righteous, a lot of “social justice warriors” are simply embracing the golden rule. If they said something stupid or hateful we’d want to be told too. They may be lefties or not. A lot of “social justice” types are heavily invested and highly sensitive about some issues but clueless on others. That’s natural. Get a group of these people together for a while and they’ll start comparing notes and learning and radicalizing each other and all be better for it. Take a bunch of bright, radical kids who grew up in genuinely democratic intellectual spaces and stick them in the same media ecosystem that rewards proud anti-populists (ie snobs) like David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan and something like this was inevitable.

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faustusnotes 07.30.20 at 11:11 pm

I find this debate deeply depressing. If some idiot like Scruton wants to publish (with tobacco company money) an opinion piece in a major newspaper saying smoking is good, he is engaging in (subsidized) speech. If a million people on twitter then point out what a destructive fool he is, and demand he no longer be able to publish his (subsidized) speech, they are engaging in free speech. If you side with Scruton, you’re privileging one person’s (subsidized) speech over a million people’s free speech. He can go and yell his rubbish in the park, why do you care?

Let’s also note the failure to read “subtext” (as one commenter above put it) is very one-sided here. When someone publishes speech saying trans people shouldn’t be allowed into the bathroom of their choice, the subtext here is that women should get their boyfriends to assault those trans women and remove them. Here speech has power: it is a call for the exclusion of trans women from bathrooms. But the defenders of this speech say no, there’s no subtext, speech has no power. But when a million people go on twitter to say this person shouldn’t be able to say these things, those same subtext warriors claim that this speech is powerful, and dangerous, and we should be careful how we use it, because voices might be censored by this powerful speech. Indeed on this very thread we have someone saying self-censorship is a terrible and dangerous thing, as if the poor, the weak, the non-mainstream and the non-white haven’t always had to self-censor, lest the power of white men’s speech destroy them.

You can’t have it both ways. If my call to stop idiots publishing anti-trans screeds has power, then those anti-trans screeds also have power. When you side with them over Sophie Jane, you are deciding which view matters and who should get to exercise power.

It’s not a coincidence that this opposition to “cancel culture” emerges from the right, that it ignores people like Kapernick who were actually canceled, that it is strongly supported by the kind of journalists who are shmoozy with all the right fascists, and that it emerges in a time when we the people have finally got access to real tools for expressing ourselves publicly. A nobody with a good sense of humour and a sharp turn of phrase can have as much influence on people’s ideas now as Roger Scruton used to have back when speech was protected by high walls of money. These people hate that. This is why they’ve invented this fiction that only the speech of little people has power, and the hollerings of the big boys are harmless fun. This is why they’re hauling Facebook and Twitter execs in front of congress to explain themselves, but not the leaders of Fox and Sinclair.

It’s a transparent power play, and anyone who takes these “concerns” about “cancel culture” seriously is supporting that power play, or is a gullible fool.

42

Murc 07.30.20 at 11:37 pm

@13

<

blockquote cite=”In practice, though, what has happened (via so-called “anti-discrimination” law) is that the government severely punishes employers whose employees speak in ways the government/the identity politics left (they are working together here) dislike”>

This… isn’t true. Like, this doesn’t happen. Anti-discrimination laws prevent concrete actions on the part of employers (and they should; employers should not be allowed to discriminate) but the government certainly does not severely punish employers whose employees, in a non-professional capacity, speak in ways they “dislike” using anti-discrimination law as a cudgel.

At the very least this is such an extraordinary claim that you ought to be able to provide copious examples if it is remotely true.

@17

<

blockquote cite=”Who are you (or any of us) to suggest who should be “chilled” or “self-censored””>

Everyone has an equal right to make the case that someone is saying things that shouldn’t be said aloud and that they should cut that shit out. Whether they’re correct or not in any specific case is a separate matter; but merely making the case is not and should not be out of bounds.

<

blockquote cite=”isn’t that attitude coming from the right EXACTLY why we have what we have today?”>

No. It isn’t. The right wishes to use state power to suppress speech; the left, especially in the US, largely does not. Those are two entirely different attitudes.

<

blockquote cite=”Free speech is not a dimmer switch, its on or its off – you can’t have it both ways.”>

Not only CAN you have it both ways, we have USUALLY had it both ways. These two views are completely compatible: that people should be free to say nearly anything they like (subject to reasonable and minimal time/place/manner restrictions) AND that their fellow citizens are free to say “voicing that opinion makes you a sack of shit that I want nothing to do with and will work to marginalize and make unwelcome within wider society.” There is absolutely no conflict there.

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PatinIowa 07.30.20 at 11:41 pm

Is there any data on any of this? I mean it’s pretty clear that the best way to get yourself murdered over your politics in the US over the last four decades is to anger the right, or to work at a clinic that does abortions. That’s a simple matter of counting.

So, what’s worse for your prospects in academia or journalism or whatever? Being Steven Salaita? Glenn Reynolds? David Brooks? Cary Nelson? David Frum?

Has anyone figured out how to quantify this in any way? Otherwise it gets down too how powerful you think “cultural Marxism,” or identity politics is where you are.

My opinion: not very. But then the people having their lives destroyed where I am are being let go because they’re contingent, not primarily because they’re political. Maybe I’m missing something.

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oldster 07.30.20 at 11:53 pm

[sorry, not re-running the trans/gfc debate here. CB]

45

Kiwanda 07.31.20 at 12:00 am

John Quiggin: “But the fact that the same example (David Shor) is cited every time the issue is raised…” here is one attempt to tabulate cancellations, at least on the left identitarian side; I am not endorsing any particular example. (NB: Sophie Jane in this case, not Sophie Grace.)

I would be curious about whether Henry approves of the suppression of speech as much as the OP does.

Whether justified or not, a significant minority of Americans, across multiple lines, are fearful that their political opinions could endanger their jobs; this suggests the problem might be more than just people getting “bent-out-of-shape that they can’t be raging bigots”.

Purveyors of what-aboutery will probably appreciate that Steve Salita now makes a living as a bus driver; I have no reason to think that the Harpers Letter signers (even Bari Weiss) would regard that situation as any more just than other examples.

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J-D 07.31.20 at 12:05 am

There have been occasions in my life when I have justly and rightly experienced adverse consequences as a result of things that I have said. The proposition that nobody should ever experience adverse consequences as a result of statements made is utterly indefensible.

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J-D 07.31.20 at 1:37 am

As Sophie Grace suggests above …

Sophie Grace? Sophie Jane?

48

de Pony Sum 07.31.20 at 2:16 am

Discussions over “cancellation” can make things unnecessarily difficult because it’s a very hard term to define- exactly how badly does your public reputation have to be before you are cancelled. All too often debates turn into “well so and so wasn’t cancelled because they still have a job/they still have a platform/they’re still living their life.” (Although your post does avoid this by describing it in terms of an attempt instead of outcome) So to avoid ambiguities that attend “cancellation”, I prefer “opprobrium”

My position on this is that individuals shouldn’t face public opprobrium unless there is 1) Clear and convincing evidence they are motivated by fundamentally malicious ends and 2) They have no remorse about it. Even when these conditions are met the opprobrium they receive should be clearly proportional to the wrong they’ve committed. We should relax these rules somewhat for celebrities, and a great deal for politicians, who have implicitly agreed to face criticism as a consequence of their role.

I support this anti-opprobrium position because being shamed publicly is extremely painful. I would rather lose a limb than be widely publicly shamed and reviled, and I think a lot of people feel the same way, so, by the golden rule and all of that…

In terms of the position you outline it seems to me that we’re going to agree on a lot of issues. Pre-meditated use of racial slurs, for example. But I think there are a lot of instances of cancel culture that we won’t agree on.

Here’s some people I think have been unfairly subject to vast amounts of pubic opprobrium that some people would call cancel culture:

The p**nstar ( I won’t spell it out because I’m at work) who killed herself in part because of the criticism she received when tweeted out (homophobically) that she didn’t want to work actors who had done gay male scenes. While criticism would have been appropriate, the torrent of backlash she received was disproportionate.

The woman who went to the Washington Post’s cartoonist party in blackface in a very misguided but not malicious attempt to satirize blackface and subsequently lost her job when the Washington post named her in their paper.

Natalie Wynn of Contrapoints – for many different things.

Glenn Greenwald over the age difference between him and his partner

Now I’m picking cases of opprobrium that came from the left broadly construed, because I think of this as an internal conversation on the left. However, one thing that frustrates me about this debate is that no one is acknowledging that the right are masters of excessive opprobrium. Some examples:

Steven Salaita

Diane Abbott

Norman Finklestein

Matthew Bruenig

But maybe my position amounts to a silly apolitical wish that people would be nice to each other, unless there’s a very, very good reason not to.

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Andres 07.31.20 at 3:07 am

Chris: An interesting case can be made in favor of cancel culture if we start thinking of most political cults including communism, fascism, maga-Trumpism and other types of fake populism as pandemics.

For starters, there is the testing. A positive test result is indicated by (a) the talking points or analysis are exclusionary toward one or more social groups that are being “othered” based on any common aspect other than political actions that are unethical by some well-defined criterion; the extent indicates the severity of the symptoms, and (b) the speaker or commenter is repeating someone else’s talking points or writing rather than their own attempts to understand the issue; the extent indicates the degree of infectiousness.

In that testing sense, cancel culture can be seen as a type of supplementary social defense mechanism compared to the standard immune system response of trying to prove the political cult wrong in the eyes of unbiased observers; in too many historical cases, the immune response is weakened by factors such as adverse economic or geopolitical circumstances (e.g., a lost war). Cancel culture then works as (a) tracking and removal in the form of boycotts and ostracism, in that the infected cells(individuals) are removed from positions of influence, and (b) as a type of lockdown measure (censorship) that is warranted when the infected individual is transmitting patently false versions of current events or past history, and is starting to infect others around him.

I am not in complete agreement with the above political cults-as-pandemics theory, but it has some compelling aspects in exceptional situations. Normally, the political-economic-cultural discourse is sufficiently healthy that the standard “cure for bad speech is more good speech” response is sufficient. Commenters above such as Peter Dorman are assuming that the “body politic” has a healthy and undisrupted immune system, but I would argue that is far from being the case right now; the U.S. is afflicted by oligarchic politics, highly unequal and quasi-feudal economics that make appeals to the free market laughable, and by standard of living deterioration in a large number of inner urban areas as well as mid-tier and small cities. So the patient is immuno-compromised and additional interventions are called for.

As to Peter’s argument that cancel culture disfigures the left, I would add that the only cases where the radical left has seized power took place in the brutal aftermath of right-wing pandemics: e.g. the hyper-nationalism that led Germany and Russia among others to war in 1914, or KMT/warlord attempts to violently and brutally suppress peasant demands in the case of China. In such situations, it is no surprise that the radical left becomes infected with political cultism. The important thing is to know when to apply cancel culture (and other resistance measures including mass disobedience) to left-wing movements that are “infected”. Post-1989 Eastern Europe is a good example, though now it is right-wing pandemics that are taking hold. That is, cancel culture is not just for Lost Cause racism and proto-fascism, but for all political movements that cross the border into cultism and “othering”.

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Aubergine 07.31.20 at 3:14 am

CB:

Much of the pushback against cancel culture has come from prominent journalists and intellectuals who perceive every negative reaction from ordinary people on social media as an affront.

I don’t think this is fair. As EB says @22:

The (wealthy, high profile) signers of the Harper’s letter were not complaining on their own behalf; they were complaining on behalf of the millions of people with no power or money who are also threatened with mobbing if they voice divergent (not racist, not transphobic, not misogyist) views.

JK Rowling is pretty hard to cancel; she has a mountain of cash, and her books are still selling. But people who don’t have a mountain of cash are going to look at examples like children’s author Gillian Philip, who appears to have been “let go” by her publisher after being targetted by a cancellation campaign for tweeting “#ISTANDWITHROWLING”, and think very carefully about whether they can afford to stick their head over the parapet. Personally, I’ve made a number of comments on Crooked Timber which I don’t think were at all outside the bounds of acceptable discourse – certainly not in the same category as the racist speech you refer to (and at least one moderator must have agreed, because they were posted) – but which I simply couldn’t risk making without a pseudonym.

I often detect a bit of motte-and-bailey in the anti-anti-cancel culture argument. The outer bailey is something like “cancel culture isn’t the problem it’s made out to be; it’s just how norms of acceptable behaviour are worked out these days”; the motte is “it’s okay to deplatform hardcore racists and holocaust deniers”.

Between those two positions there’s a large space where people get harassed, threatened, ostracised and silenced for minor slips, reasonable disagreements, details that were lost in translation and failures to recite the correct thought-terminating cliches with sufficient conviction – basically, things that don’t threaten anyone else’s ability to speak. Often this is done with the assistance of the false-flag social media “activist” accounts that right-wing agitators use to pick away at fault lines on the left.

Even when there are no serious real-world consequences this tends to create a narrow, stifling intellectual environment, which is what a large part of the opposition to “cancel culture” is trying to prevent. You do realise, don’t you, that Crooked Timber’s willingness to acknowledge heterodox views, on certain subjects, from the broad left puts it radically out of step with most of the “progressive” Western Internet?

(There are other parts where cancel-culture tactics are used against different targets, such as apostates and feminists in general (not just the wrong kind of feminists), which hopefully we can all agree is not good.)

Basically, I don’t think it’s an adequate response to critique of cancel-culture to pick out the cases where relatively mild tactics were used against acceptable targets, without acknowledging that the critique is much broader than that.

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Aubergine 07.31.20 at 4:00 am

[Sorry, not rerunning the trans/gfc debate in this space. CB]

52

J-D 07.31.20 at 7:13 am

Could you give an example of some “cancel” attempt that you would find excessive?

If you feel the point is important, then surely you should be able to give an example of some attempt that you would find excessive.

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derrida derider 07.31.20 at 7:29 am

“This person stood as an election candidate for a far-right party and is not welcome to comment at CT. CB ”
Ralph Musgrave is one of the better blog commenters around. His comments are usually (IMO) wrong, but never hateful and have often been good enough to make me have to think hard why they are wrong. That you have cancelled him because he (undoubtedly unsuccessfully) stood in an election, not for his actual comment/s, is disgraceful.

No one seems to reflect here that silencing people because of their politics is historically and usually the preserve of those with the power to silence – that is, conservatives. Be careful what you wish for.

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J-D 07.31.20 at 8:10 am

“Racist speech by some also legitimizes and emboldens racist speech and opinion by others, telling bigots that they are not alone, that others think as they do, and strengthens an ideal of exclusive community based on ethnic or racial lines.”

On this point it’s worth quoting Henry Louis Gates Jr: “Why would you entrust authority with enlarged powers of regulating the speech of unpopular minorities unless you were confident that unpopular minorities would be racists, not blacks?”

Chris Bertram is not arguing in favour of entrusting authority with enlarged regulatory powers, but rather the reverse: the last paragraph warns against the danger of demands for government action in higher education or against the BBC.

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Chris Bertram 07.31.20 at 8:30 am

@derrida Musgrave stood as a candidate for the British National Party which is not a “conservative” organisation. I wouldn’t tolerate commenters from the KKK here either. This isn’t a public space, anyway.

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nastywoman 07.31.20 at 9:01 am

And about:

”That you have cancelled him because he (undoubtedly unsuccessfully) stood in an election, not for his actual comment/s, is disgraceful”.

Well –
Perhaps you have noticed – that in these last years some Right-Wing Racists have started to ”dominate” -(as Trump would call it) ”the conversation” –
(especially on the Internet) and thusly – without even calling it ”cancel culture” – these very obvious and very hateful Racist Science Deniers – have nearly completely canceled out ever reasonable debate –

AND so THEY (all) have to be ”canceled” –
Especially since ”cancelling” can’t be at all ”a threat to free speech and open debate”
as Trump and his Trumpers are still tweeting a million tweets a day –
so it’s actually only calling out the STUPID –
with the STUPID complaining to be called STUPID.

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Musicismath 07.31.20 at 9:48 am

@Hidari (31)

I certainly wasn’t advocating taking the Labour leadership’s position on RLB at face value. What I was trying to do instead was to show how a supposedly “cancel-worthy” transgression could be used as a pretext. Cancel culture provides an extremely handy linguistic toolset for dispensing with political (or social) adversaries, and disguising the power play as an act of moral necessity. It also, as @49 also suggests, seems to function well within already abusive or cult-like social and discursive spaces, where behaviour and group allegiance are controlled by means of an ever-shifting or unpredictable set of rules and a fundamental arbitrariness or caprice in the way they’re applied. The capriciousness is in many ways the point: it’s an expression of dominance. Those of us who have been in abusive relationships and/or grew up with abusive parents recognise the dynamic almost instinctively. You never know what tiny thing you do (or don’t do) is going to cause the big blow-up. All you know is that the blow-up is coming at some point, and it will inevitably be your fault.

The other thing to note is that cancellations set a series of escalating benchmarks. What the RLB case does is confirm two of the elements in Emily Yoffe’s taxonomy of fear: “contamination by association” and the idea that “intent doesn’t matter.” People internalise these new benchmarks. Witness, for instance, Owen Jones’s intense and practically tearful Facebook apology for the Wiley captioning error on his Guardian article this week. Six months ago, this wouldn’t have been anything. In the current climate, though, Jones evidently fears cancellation.

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J-D 07.31.20 at 10:50 am

Whether justified or not, a significant minority of Americans, across multiple lines, are fearful that their political opinions could endanger their jobs; this suggests the problem might be more than just people getting “bent-out-of-shape that they can’t be raging bigots”.

Fear that your political opinions might put you in danger of losing your job is not the same problem as actual danger that your political opinions might lose you your job in exactly the same way that fear of crime is not the same problem as crime. There is a crucial difference between a situation where crime is increasing and fear of crime is increasing with it and a situation where crime is decreasing but fear of crime is nevertheless increasing; in the same way, there is a crucial difference between a situation where many people are afraid that their political opinions will lose them their jobs because that is actually so and a situation where many people share that same fear but in fact few or none of them are in any such danger. If many people are afraid of becoming victims of crime the first question to ask is how much danger they are actually in of that happening; if many people are afraid of losing their jobs because of their political opinions the first question to ask is how much danger they are actually in of that happening.

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J-D 07.31.20 at 11:01 am

The p**nstar ( I won’t spell it out because I’m at work) who killed herself in part because of the criticism she received when tweeted out (homophobically) that she didn’t want to work actors who had done gay male scenes. While criticism would have been appropriate, the torrent of backlash she received was disproportionate.

The woman who went to the Washington Post’s cartoonist party in blackface in a very misguided but not malicious attempt to satirize blackface and subsequently lost her job when the Washington post named her in their paper.

Just in case anybody is interested in learning more about these incidents, to make it easier to search for information, the names of the individuals cited are (respectively) August Ames and Sue Schafer. (However, there is another Sue Schafer.)

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J. Bogart 07.31.20 at 11:22 am

“who has standing to speak” — that is an interesting suggestion. Why would there be a question of standing for who may speak? The context seems to be general political and social topics, for which there is no particular condition of expertise in a democratic society — that view is, I take it, mistaken. None of the example in the OP seem to call for special credentials to warrant offering opinions. So is it mistaken?

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Aubergine 07.31.20 at 11:58 am

Me@50:

You do realise, don’t you, that Crooked Timber’s willingness to acknowledge heterodox views, on certain subjects, from the broad left puts it radically out of step with most of the “progressive” Western Internet?

Looks like I spoke too soon! The thing is, not all cancelling is the same – the deplatforming of David Irving was different from the cancellation of Salman Rushdie (and similar cancellations now going on for similar reasons), which was different from student protests against Charles Murray’s racist pseudoscience, which were different from the gamergate doxing/harassment tactics Patrick mentions @35, which were different from the cancellations and attempted cancellations I mentioned @50.

The objections to cancel culture can’t be addressed by decontextualising them and ignoring the real underlying conflicts of interests that are expressed through demands to cancel or silence, and anyone who tries will end up very confused about why so many people who seem to be on the same general side of politics as them are disagreeing, or just drifting away.

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MisterMr 07.31.20 at 12:02 pm

@J-D 52

I think that firing someone for having bad political vews (for example for being an outspoken fascist like in saying that Mussolini was a good politician) should NOT be allowed.

I think that doing speech acts like intimidating racist chants against minorities should be punished legally, but not privately by firing.

Basically I think that nobody should be fired for something he or she did ouside of work .

But I think I could digest the idea of ostracisation if there was some clear rationale about what the limits of this are.

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ph 07.31.20 at 12:30 pm

Interesting discussion and OP.

There’s nothing new about speech codes. Puritans and others refused to employ the Book of Common prayer demanded by the Act of Uniformity of 1662. Scolds and speech police can be found among agnostics, people of faith, and across the political spectrum. Nor is the common sense exercise of good judgement regarding when, or if, to suggest to a friend he, she, or they might like to lose a little weight, or to refrain from pointing out the questionable personal grooming habits of a colleague, client, superior, or family member.

Do I need to declare my beliefs and opinions on every topic freely in every forum. In my own case, no. And there’s a big difference between being shunned and being imprisoned, or executed, for mocking the wrong text or monarch.

As I courtesy, I might well avoid broaching topics I’m aware may distress another. But that’s a far cry from what’s happening in modern old media. Bari Weiss evidently had her privileges to write and edit others freely severely curtailed. And, yes, I’m aware that she had cancellation issues of her own. But forcing James Bennett to resign, who put Ta-Nehisi Coates on the cover of the Atlantic, for permitting a US senator to publish an op-ed in the NYT?

We need a diverse set of values and beliefs, argues Henry, J. S. Mill, and others. The head of Google is just now trying to explain why “Washington Free Beacon, The Blaze, Townhall, The Daily Wire, PragerU, LifeNews, Project Veritas, Judicial Watch, The Resurgent, Breitbart, the Media Research Center, and CNSNews” somehow disappeared from the Google search engine. https://thefederalist.com/2020/07/29/google-ceo-dodges-question-on-blacklisting-of-conservative-websites/

Cancel culture, I suggest, matters most when our ability to access diverse opinion is curtailed as a result of speech policing, either by algorithms or individuals, especially in the run-up to an election. Self-censorship in universities is equally important. When Chomsky signed the Harper’s letter, he reported he receive a great many letters of support from academics terrified of being cancelled.

When punishment for voicing dissenting opinion includes physical assault it doesn’t much matter how rare the actual instances of physical violence are. I spoke with an American colleague employed this week who stated that any dating which is going on among staff and adults of one kind or another on campus is done in secrecy, if at all. Do Democrats feel that they’re better off having thrown Al Franken under the bus?

Adhering to speech codes and surrendering to a tiny, highly vocal mob seems a very bad idea to me, and I suspect, many, many others. We don’t quite know what to do with the screaming adolescents of varying ages, but we wish they’d stop yelling.

The good news is that we live in societies, for the most part, which permit the upset to act out freely. I wonder whether the folks currently trying to burn down the US federal courthouse in Portland believe their rights to privacy must be respected? The double-standards on display roil what should be reasonable debate. It should be possible to disagree civilly with anyone.

Trying to get someone fired, or shunned, for any reason, is about the saddest waste of energy and time I can imagine – I mean, talk about a poverty of imagination. It’s happened to me here on occasion. When the pitchforks come out, I know my opponents ‘got nothing.’ That’s small solace, however, when watching those I’d prefer to respect do their best to stifle debate.

Relative to other nations, we enjoy liberties others can only dream of. These liberties are worth protecting. I’m not sure we’re doing such a good job.

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Trader Joe 07.31.20 at 12:49 pm

@30 Anarcisse
I agree with your point – there is a difference between Prudent speech and Free speech.

I might choose to go into a biker bar and tell the patrons what I think of them in no uncertain terms – I’m Free to do that, even if not prudent and the consequences are mine to accept.

When I self censor – that’s my choice and it may or may not prove wise (maybe the bikers would welcome my considered criticisms).

When someone else censors me on my behalf that’s where I begin to have a problem.

Within academia or any other organization one needs to constantly weigh the risks and rewards of exercising any or all of their rights – I’d still contend that’s an internal debate, not one that someone else can decide for you.

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bianca steele 07.31.20 at 2:57 pm

@35

To set the point of origin of actual things that have been happening with Gamer
Gate — as opposed to the point at which some of them became large enough and egregious enough to arouse indignation among people who’d contentedly ignored anything that came before — would I think be a mistake. I also think Gamer Gate serves that purpose mostly for the Very Online and less for the kind of liberal journalist who writes for the NY Times or the NY Review of Books (whom threats on women journalists credible enough to involve the police are more likely to have shocked).

The idea that these writers are defending the right of people with no pretensions to writing professionally to say what they want on social media, with no editor and no filter, without being attacked (as some commenters have suggested), is absurd. They would be thrilled if Facebook was rejiggered so that anything longer than three paragraphs could only come from an official publication, preferably one that paid their contributors. I would be surprised if ten percent of them perceived a difference between the average social media user discussing what they read for peers and the “troll” who persists in displaying a belief that the writer in question isn’t infallible. This situation creates a grey zone where harassment, gaslighting, and attempts to drive people off social media can take place undetected or under cover of protecting “free speech.” Constantly shifting the debate to the rights and suffering of people at the top of the media hierarchy ensures this will happen.

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kinnikinick 07.31.20 at 3:36 pm

@49 Andres “fake populism as pandemics”

I’m a big fan of biological metaphors; they keep one humble about the inevitability of unintended consequences. The metaphor gets strained when it moves from external viral spread to internal immune response, though; in the former, we’re assuming a team of informed medical professionals, seeing things from the “outside” with the authority implied by specialized and objective knowledge. I’m not sure who these people correspond to in the world we inhabit, where even the real doctors have trouble getting traction.
The internal immune response feels like a closer match, as surface protein markers are proxies for identity, microbes display “false flags” to avoid detection, and auto-immune and inflammatory responses often do more damage than the threats they’re reacting to.
On both levels of metaphor, it seems clear that the structure of social media is explicitly designed to create and exploit “virality”; we need to rethink what this means for us.
More: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/29/social-distancing-social-media-facebook-misinformation

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L2P 07.31.20 at 5:05 pm

“ No one seems to reflect here that silencing people because of their politics is historically and usually the preserve of those with the power to silence – that is, conservatives. Be careful what you wish for.”

And here we have the cancel culture “problem” in a nutshell. The complaint isn’t that Musgrave lost a job or is literally forbidden to speak or even lacks reasonable ways to be heard. The complaint is that blog found him distasteful and doesn’t want him commenting there. This isn’t a right to speak issue, it’s a demand to be heard issue.

Far worse things are done to BLM protesters. Being denied a blog posting? Try being denied the right to even assemble, and shot with tear gas and rubber bullets. That didn’t stop me from protesting. Being denied a blog post and hearing some harsh criticism is nothing.

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engels 07.31.20 at 5:37 pm

I broadly agree with the points about free speech in the post, and Waldron’s arguments, but I don’t think it’s right to equate the debate about “cancel culture” with these issues.

John’s understanding of it is even more dismissive (and imo off-target).

being cancelled means having to read rude things said about you by lots of unimportant people on Twitter, as opposed to engaging in caustic, but civilised, debate with your peers in the pages of little magazines

It seems to me cancel culture is both an ethos and a tactic. The ethos involves a zero tolerance approach to certain ethical transgressions (eg overt expressions of racism) and an absolute devaluation of people who commit them. The tactic is based around achieving cultural change by exerting collective pressure as consumers on managers of corporations (or corporation-like entities, like universities) to terminate transgressors, as a way of incentivising other emplpoyees to fall into line. It seems to me to be heavily shaped by and dependent on American neoliberalism as the ethos is both punitive and consumerist and the tactic is dependent on at-will employment and managers’ deference to customer sentiment, and while most of its current “successes” have been broadly of the Left there’s no reason to assume that will be the case in future. I think it does represent a weakening of liberal norms of freedom of discussion and I think Chomsky’s right to be concerned.

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casmilus 07.31.20 at 5:43 pm

@41

If you’re mentioning Roger Scruton in connection with free speech/cancellation issues then the more pertinent cases are (1) the scandal over headmaster Ray Honeyford, who published an article critical of multiculturalism, in the Scruton-edited “Salisbury Review” in 1984, and (2) Scruton’s own stories about having trouble getting published or heard as a conservative academic in the 70s/80s. In particular his account of the ire (and allegedly attempts to prevent publication) directed at “Thinkers Of The New Left”. You can see that in his article “The Left Establishment” in his collection “Philosopher On Dover Beach” (the original one, not the later anthology).

Yet all those articles and books did get published, and of course Scruton had his own magazine to put out Powellite and Cowlingite views, It was stocked in Waterstones, when they still did those sort of magazines.

The anger and attempts at suppression have been around for quite a while… and haven’t really prevented a conservative comment-sphere existing.

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engels 07.31.20 at 5:53 pm

Oh and since someone mentioned RLB’s (disgraceful) firing, I’d say that was cancel culture in the ethical sense (zero tolerance) but not the tactical (because it came from above).

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Sebastian H 07.31.20 at 7:22 pm

I want to push back very hard against the idea that moving to ‘for cause’ firings fixes the issue. There are a bunch of issues which are related to the culture part of cancel culture which feed into this. I understand that there is going to be an underspecified ‘they’ in this discussion, but I can’t tackle everything simultaneously. For the purposes of the rest of this comment I’m going to use a fuzzy definition of ‘they’ which means somewhere in the zone of ‘people who think cancel/callout culture is mostly good and should extend to firing people’

A. They want to be able to apply pressure to get people who say bad things off the job, fired from their jobs.
B. They believe in VERY expansive definitions of the ‘bad things’ and have very expansive ideas about what counts as evidence of the bad things.
C. They believe that even the act of arguing against the expansive definitions of the ‘bad things’ is engaging in the bad things.
D. They have an odd idea of what it means to be an ‘ally’ which sounds to me a lot more like being a ‘vassal’ or a ‘footsoldier’ in the sense that ‘allies’ apparently aren’t ever supposed to question anything about tactics or aims.

Someone common charges made against people in the current cancel culture world, for which they believe that people should be fired from their jobs (and presumably kept from getting other jobs) is that such people are racist, transphobic, or misogynistic.
The Shor case is instructive both in how it actually played out, and how cancel culture defenders (refuse to) engage with it.

Shor tweeted out some excellent social science research on the question of the differential political impact of violent vs non-violent protests in the US (and especially on who was seen to initiate the violence). He is white. This sparked a huge pileon of people calling him a racist and as almost always with cancel culture pileons there was the direct appeal to his employer: do you want to be known as having a racist on your staff?

The problem for the “it’s an at will employment problem” defense of cancel culture is that as currently defined firing someone for off the job racism is going to be a ‘for cause’ firing and that is of course exactly what they want it to be.

Now in my world, for any non PR mouthpiece job, I would like a rule much closer to “legal off the job behavior can’t be the basis of a ‘for cause firing'”, but that kind of de-linkage between job and off the job behavior isn’t what the cancel culture wants. So you either need to deal with that fact as a problem with cancel culture or you need to realize that merely going to ‘for cause’ firing won’t help. They want to define off the job ‘racism’ as a cause for firing.

This is of course combined with the problem that they also want to define ‘racism’ as essentially anything that doesn’t perfectly align with their moment to moment idea of strategy and tactics. And their idea of evidence is similarly broad.

So the Shor case is especially troubling because it involves trying to get someone fired for racism (and him immediately thereafter getting fired, though under NDA so we can’t get proof of reason for firing) where the evidence for racism is that he cited (without coming to further conclusion) valid social science research on a topic pertinent to the BLM movement.

The ‘culture’ part of cancel culture is that we don’t need much evidence for serious charges of racism or transphobia. And the corollary (accepted by many but not all of those who accept the low evidentiary standards) is that if you are racist or transphobic off the job (under those standards) you deserve to be fired from your job.

We can see similar evidentiary standards at play in the Emily VanDerWerff callout of Matt Yglesias. She accuses him of signing a letter “containing as many dog whistles toward anti-trans positions as it does” and him signing it “makes me feel less safe at Vox”. I won’t get deeply into it here, but the HR alarm bells which go off from “makes me feel less safe at [workplace]” are enormous in US litigation culture. Its hard to believe that a full time

But when asked about what in the world the anti-trans dog whistles were, she comes up with this where someone literally just inserted “about trans people” all over the letter as if that were a dog whistle on the issue.

https://twitter.com/emilyvdw/status/1280661254118322177

The charge that the letter itself contained anti-trans dogwhistles is all over the place, but in no case that I’ve seen is even one dog whistle pointed out, much less explained.

Both this case and the Shor case also exhibited (after the initial accusation is made) the idea that questioning the accusers for details makes one guilty of the accusation yourself (or that defending the accused makes you guilty). The taint by association and/or even partial defense is another part of the way the culture part of cancel culture is ramping up. It is also a key part of the reasoning to attack the job–the belief that everyone associated with someone takes on all the taint of their bad ideas. So an employer must be responsible to police their employee’s off the job behavior or else they deserve to be tarred with the bad things done. Similarly a common charge was that the signers of the Harper’s letter ‘agreed with’ JK Rowling simply because she was also a signer. The guilt by association is a key part of how cancel culture wants to function, so “for cause” isn’t going to stop it. (On the Facebook level for example, queer communities have constant rounds of posts with “We have 75 friends in common with Y who is clearly transphobic, why are you still friends? “. If I have time I ask “just so we know can you provide the worst example you have of them being transphobic” and about half the time it is super ugly, and half the time it is essentially nothing at all.)

Anyway, I totally understand that in reality there are people who only sign on to part of the above. But I think that is actually why talking about it as a cultural issue/problem is appropriate. Culturally we seem to be increasing all of the following, and that seems like a problem:

1) The idea that you should be fired for off the job legal behavior at all.

2) The idea that evidentiary standards for firing you from your job for legal off the job behavior should be VERY low.

3) The idea that category of appropriate things to fire you from your job should be greatly expanded.

All of these things seem to me to be growing on all sides of the political world (even though a lot of people seem to use ‘cancel culture’ only for the left). The number of people who seem to believe in at least two of these things seems to be growing on all sides of the political world.

The whole discussion is annoyingly co-opted by people who just don’t want to be criticized at all (even if their job/livelyhood isn’t under threat).

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Sebastian H 07.31.20 at 7:26 pm

One thing I forgot to mention is two super-clear next steps in a more cancel culture world are going to be:

Pro-Palestinian voices are going to get fired all over the place for ‘racism’ or ‘anti-Semitism’ and if you think it can’t be worse than under the status quo you’re insane.

and

Once the idea that a huge swath of legal off the job behavior is “for cause” justification for firing in every other job in the world, it is going to eat academic privileges in that area alive.

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Jason Weidner 07.31.20 at 9:29 pm

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ph 07.31.20 at 11:56 pm

A good OP produces a great discussion. Cheers to all.

Colin Wright’s account of the conflict between the university department which wanted to hire him, and the ‘too risky’ label affixed to him for his public advocacy of his published academic work makes for interesting reading.

https://quillette.com/2020/07/30/think-cancel-culture-doesnt-exist-my-own-lived-experience-says-otherwise/

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J-D 08.01.20 at 12:15 am

@J-D 52

Thank you, MisterMr, for responding to my question!

I think that firing someone for having bad political vews (for example for being an outspoken fascist like in saying that Mussolini was a good politician) should NOT be allowed.

I think that in cases where people’s political views are incompatible with satisfactory performance of their job duties there may be no good alternative to dismissal. Do you know of any instances in which people were fired for their political views when those views were irrelevant to satisfactory job performance?

I think that doing speech acts like intimidating racist chants against minorities should be punished legally, but not privately by firing.

I think that in cases where speech acts are incompatible with satisfactory performance of job duties there may be no good alternative to dismissal. Do you know of any instances in which people were fired for speech acts which were irrelevant to satisfactory job performance?

Basically I think that nobody should be fired for something he or she did ouside of work.

Although I hope and surmise that instances in which there is no good alternative to firing people for actions outside of work will be unusual exceptions, I think it’s possible for such cases to exist. Do you have any basis for supposing that cases where people are fired for actions outside of work are not unusual exceptions?

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J-D 08.01.20 at 1:07 am

No one seems to reflect here that silencing people because of their politics is historically and usually the preserve of those with the power to silence

Of course all weapons (and all tools) are used only by those with the power to use them; that is tautological.

Strength has been used as a weapon by the strong, not by the weak; that is not an argument against acquiring and using strength.

Bows and arrows have been used by those who have bows and arrows, not by those who don’t; that is not an argument against acquiring and using bows and arrows.

Helmets have been used by those who have helmets, not by those who don’t; that is not an argument against acquiring and using helmets.

Electricity has been used by those who have the power to do so, not by those who don’t; that is not an argument against electrification.

Power is the weapon of the powerful, not the powerless; that is not an argument against empowerment.

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faustusnotes 08.01.20 at 2:15 am

Sebastian H, at the beginning of your comment you write this:

For the purposes of the rest of this comment I’m going to use a fuzzy definition of ‘they’ which means somewhere in the zone of ‘people who think cancel/callout culture is mostly good and should extend to firing people’

This in itself should give you serious pause to think. How can you talk about the culture of a group of people if you can’t define who they are? There is no other situation on earth where you would say “I can’t say who these people are, it’s very hard to explain, but I know exactly what their culture is and it is this”. If you can’t define who has a culture of concern, you should probably first pause to consider whether they exist at all.

Also why do you say the next step is that “pro-palestinian voices are going to get fired” as if it’s not already happening?

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faustusnotes 08.01.20 at 2:16 am

Also yes I meant Sophie Jane not Sophie Grace, sorry!

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J-D 08.01.20 at 2:54 am

My position on this is that individuals shouldn’t face public opprobrium unless there is 1) Clear and convincing evidence they are motivated by fundamentally malicious ends and 2) They have no remorse about it. Even when these conditions are met the opprobrium they receive should be clearly proportional to the wrong they’ve committed. We should relax these rules somewhat for celebrities, and a great deal for politicians, who have implicitly agreed to face criticism as a consequence of their role.

I support this anti-opprobrium position because being shamed publicly is extremely painful. I would rather lose a limb than be widely publicly shamed and reviled, and I think a lot of people feel the same way, so, by the golden rule and all of that…

In your comment, you have attempted to shame publicly the people who publicly shamed August Ames; you have attempted to shame publicly the people who publicly shamed Sue Schafer; you have done this without clear and convincing evidence that they were motivated by fundamentally malicious ends. So your own conduct is not perfectly consistent with the rule you have formulated.

But maybe my position amounts to a silly apolitical wish that people would be nice to each other, unless there’s a very, very good reason not to.

There’s nothing silly in wishing that people would be nice to each other; what would be silly would be to imagine that wishing can make it so. Since people aren’t always nice to each other, no matter how much we wish for it, we are inevitably confronted with the question of what to do about it when people aren’t nice to each other.

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John Quiggin 08.01.20 at 3:10 am

Sebastian @71 As J-D says, you really need to name some names here. Who are the people who have
(a) Justified Shor’s firing as a positive example of cancel culture. As I understand it, not even the firm who fired him is claiming this. They cite unspecified other reasons, which may or not be true. I haven’t found anyone else defending the firing.
(b) Want off-the-job racist views to be a general ground of dismissal for cause, unrelated to specific job requirements, or so broadly related as to cover large groups of workers.

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Collin Street 08.01.20 at 3:37 am

If you’re only in pain because other people know you’re a fuckup or a hypocrite, it’s not shame it’s embarrasment. The pain you don’t feel if your fuckups are kept secret is the pain that comes not from your errors but from other people knowing what you are.

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J-D 08.01.20 at 4:42 am

I want to push back very hard against the idea that moving to ‘for cause’ firings fixes the issue.

Only slight protection would be provided for employees by a rule that an employer had to state a reason for firing an employee.

More significant protection would be provided by a system that required the employer to present evidence and give the employee an opportunity to respond to it before proceeding to dismissal.

This protection would be even stronger if there was potential for the employer’s actions to be reviewed by an independent body (such as a court, but not necessarily a court).

For example, in a situation where it was possible for an employee to be fired for off-the-job racism, there would be substantial protection for the employee if the employer had to be prepared to prove that charge of off-the-job racism in court.

Do you want to say that there is no possible case in which proof in court of off-the-job racism could ever be a justification for dismissal from employment?

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MisterMr 08.01.20 at 9:11 am

@J-D 75

I do not know of such cases in my immediate experience, however I think that this situation can arise quite often: mobbing and cyberbulling do exist, even if I didn’t experience these things in my immediate experience, and I see this cancel thing as something very similar.

I will answer to your @79 too even if it wasn’t directed to me.
No he didn’t shame publicly anyone, he attacked a behaviour, his comment lacked the level of ad personam attack needed to be a form of shaming.
If we think in rationalistic terms the difference is small, but rationality in my opinion is just a thin layer that we place over much stronger emotive reactions, so as a matter of fact the difference is big.

My brother works part time in tutoring for students with problems of various sorts, and recently he had to follw a course about cyberbulling: it seems that we adults underestimate greatly the effects of cyberbulling because younger generations, who were born with social media, have a much stronger commitment to their online persona that we have.

So I think that this kind of cancelling has very similar dinamics to that of circle jerking, and that the effects of this in the social media era are way more serious than they were in the past, including but not limited to being fired.

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faustusnotes 08.01.20 at 9:16 am

I think J-D has a good point here. Are there any cases of cancel culture anyone can cite in countries with employment tribunals, like Australia? As always, a strong union is your best protection, but a lot of the people complaining about cancel culture also refuse to join a union so …

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Quintin Hoare 08.01.20 at 9:25 am

The presence on the list of Harpers signatories of one of the most prominent victims of ‘cancel culture’ in the person of Salman Rushdie – who has happily survived albeit at enormous cost, unlike his translator, the Charlie Hebdo bomb victims, Pim Fortuyn, and so many others – might have served to remind us of what is at stake in this debate.

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rjk 08.01.20 at 10:44 am

We’re coming out of a certain kind of (neo-)liberal consensus in which politics was viewed as a mostly technocratic business of setting laws in the abstract. That perspective was sufficient to get some things right: many blatantly discriminatory laws have been repealed across the Western world over the last 70 years. But it turns out that racism and sexism don’t require explicitly racist or sexist laws on the books: they can subvert neutral-seeming laws to their purposes, and can bias the behaviour of individuals and networks of individuals to the extent that widespread discrimination can continue. To me, “cancel culture” is a response to that problem. What happens if you can’t make the bad things stop just by removing (cancelling!) the bad laws?

It’s notable that there are two related but distinct approaches to the issues raised by BLM. One focuses on the structure and application of state power, in the form of police practices and the practical effect of certain laws, especially drug laws. The associated demands are definite and straightforward: decisive institutional reform, up to and including “defunding” the police, and major revisions to drug policy, up to and including decriminalisation and release of previous convicts. This proceeds from the understanding that while there’s nothing formally racist about the concept of policing or drug criminalisation, both of these institutions are vulnerable to capture by racism and must be reformed in order to remove that possibility.

The other strand focuses on the moral reform of white people. It proceeds from the assumption that the law has only a limited role in moral conduct, and that the evidence of the last 50 years is that removing explicitly racist legislation, and even legislating anti-racism (e.g. affirmative action) isn’t enough to secure good outcomes. If your individual acts have the practical outcome of furthering or defending racist interests, then you are part of the problem. The demands here are much harder to define. Rather than focusing all attention on a specific reform that can be enacted in a single moment by an executive or legislature, attention is cast broadly across all actions occurring at all times by all people. Of course, it is not (yet) possible to determine the exact racism quotient of each individual, so exemplary cancellations are the means of influencing individuals to modify their behaviour. I appreciate that “racism quotient” and “exemplary cancellation” make me sound like one of those right-wing Orwell cosplayers, but I can’t think of a better way of putting it.

All of this intersects with the modern reality of social media: things that “normal” people might be able to say in a bar or a cafe discussion with friends or colleagues are now part of the permanent public record, searchable and viewable by millions. Social media provides excellent tools both for taking things out of context and re-contextualising them. Secondly, “brands” or organisations are now direct participants, and can be subject to public pressure in much more visible ways than previously. To take David Shor’s case as an example: pre-social media, he might have mentioned the academic papers about violence and voting outcomes to his friends or colleagues, who would have understood his context. Even if someone had disagreed, they would have been unlikely to complain to his employer about it, and even if they had it’s unlikely that this could have turned into a publicly-visible campaign. Social media makes it easy to fix on a definite fact (that Shor referred to the research), remove it from whatever context Shor intended, re-contextualise it inside a narrative of criticism of the protesters as a means of undermining their goals, publicise this narrative to others, to identify the pressure point most likely to result in punishment (the employer), and to conduct a public campaign directed at the employer which others can easily join (and can be easily persuaded to do so by the seemingly compelling narrative).

The campaigns for institutional change don’t seem to benefit so much from social media. Identifying the single salient fact to rally people around is harder if that fact is rooted in the “offline” world. De-contextualising and re-contextualising it is harder. Identifying the pressure point is harder, and rallying people to a public campaign is harder not least because it rarely seems to work. Politicians and political parties expect to be lobbied, and won’t generally change policy just because they received a few thousand tweets. They are also much more adept at appearing to acknowledge the campaign whilst doing little or nothing about it.

It is an indictment of social media as a form of political organisation that it makes it easier (and more rewarding!) to pursue vague aims by aggregating a certain amount of anger and channeling it toward individuals as exemplars, rather than by identifying the most meaningful structural change and pursuing it to its conclusion.

Now, perhaps the conclusion ought to be that, in fact, social media is still not very important. Journalists have a bias towards covering it for the same reasons described above: your sources have already handily written the quotes down for you, and you are free to re-contextualise them as you please. Perhaps this makes social media politics and “cancel culture” look like a much bigger thing than it is. But, as a trend, it seems to be growing, and I think it’s reasonable for regular people to be concerned at the possibility that one day, it might be targeted at them. That right-wing grifters are trying to turn this anxiety to their advantage does not seem, to me, to invalidate the anxiety.

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Tm 08.01.20 at 11:14 am

After reading the whole thread, it remains unclear to me what cancel culture is or whether it really exists. But it occurs to me that troll farms are best suited to conduct online shaming or bullying campaigns, and in my experience troll farms are decidedly not a tool used by the Left.

I’ve been trying to read up on David Shor. It seems (correct me if I’m wrong) that nobody on the left has called for his firing or publicity approves it. So what’s going on here? Shor seems to be a dedicated leftist and competent in his trade. Supposed he really lost his job over that Tweet – we simply don’t know – who really had an interest in getting rid of him? I’m well aware that leftists have been known to be turning on each other for petty reasons. That sad tendency is not a product of the internet, only amplified by it. But the internet also makes it possible for hostile actors to seed intra-left division or amplify it. The best example for that of course was the work of right wing troll farms who in 2016 successfully helped undermine Clinton by disguising as left radicals.

Shor btw wasn’t silenced. This interview he gave after leaving Civis. I think it’s well worth reading. Disclaimer for those wont to lay words in other people’s mouths: I don’t agree with everything he says but with a great deal. Some important points he makes:
– „there’s a substantial chance that we’ll find ourselves in a close election. And everybody should treat it that way.“
– „So working-class white people have an enormous amount of political power and they’re trending towards the Republican Party. It would be really ideologically convenient if the reason they’re doing that was because Democrats embraced neoliberalism. But it’s pretty clear that that isn’t true.“ (Can you guess the real reason?)

https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/07/david-shor-cancel-culture-2020-election-theory-polls.html

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engels 08.01.20 at 11:17 am

Are there any cases of cancel culture anyone can cite in countries with employment tribunals, like Australia

The concept of “cancellation” is somewhat nebulous. The “full monty” ideal type (losing your livelihood, after becoming a national pariah, after a mob reputational attack on social media, based on something you said, ages ago, that wasn’t even objectionable) can’t happen to most people in countries with moderately civilised employment laws. But aspects of it export.

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Tm 08.01.20 at 11:29 am

One often wonders whether people around here appreciate the extent to which the Right wants to win. They really want to win and there’s nothing they won’t do for that sake. On the Left, it often seems people are content to quarrel among each other, justify themselves, show how smart they are as opposed to everybody else. The Right doesn’t care, they want to win, and they are more than happy to exploit the leftist circular firing squad phenomenon for their purposes. Make no mistake about that.

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Kiwanda 08.01.20 at 3:32 pm

John Quiggin:

Who are the people who have
(a) Justified Shor’s firing as a positive example of cancel culture. As I understand it, not even the firm who fired him is claiming this. They cite unspecified other reasons, which may or not be true. I haven’t found anyone else defending the firing.

This is a remarkably high standard, and not a necessary condition for cancel culture to be a problem. As discussed here (the link about Shor given here, the list of examples I gave above),

One Civis employee, who requested anonymity for fear of professional repercussions, told me, the only reason for the firing “that was communicated that I heard were the client and staff reactions to the tweet.” The employee also said that at “our company-wide meeting after Shor’s firing blew up on Twitter, [CEO] Dan [Wagner] said something along the lines of freedom of speech is important, but he had to take a stand with our staff, clients, and people of color.

The company’s limited denials notwithstanding, the timing is pretty clear-cut: tweet one day, apologize the next day, fired the day after that. Similar results given here, which notes that Ari Trujillo Wesler said that Shor’s tweet (pointing to research that nonviolent protest is more effective than violent) “reeks of anti-blackness.” Do we really need to see Wesler celebrating that Shor got fired? Is it really necessary for Wesler or others to state “as a matter of principle, I think that Shor should be fired over a tweet that quotes research supporting the greater effectiveness of nonviolent protest in producing political change”?

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Kiwanda 08.01.20 at 3:33 pm

The paragraph “One Civis employee…” should be a blockquote, sorry.

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bianca steele 08.01.20 at 3:55 pm

As pointed out already by Jason @ 73, the “cultural” attitudes listed at the end of @71 represent the legalistic status quo and have for some time. Although there are states in the US where this is not the case, and places where it is not the norm, it is true that those who ask “what does the Constitution say” answer “the Constitution says an employer can use the threat of firing to enforce just about any private behavior on the part of their employees because employees have no rights and there are no limits imposed on the use or abuse of employer power.” (They shouldn’t say this, of course, but something more like “legal advice would be that if you challenged your firing you would lose and I recommend you drop the matter.”) This is true on both right and left because the left prefers structural change and unionism to “liberal” or “neoliberal” means such as norms and courts, the center tends to disbelieve claims that such things happen, as hysterical, and all infer from “this isn’t how things are done in the blue states” that “the blue states aren’t really America.” The charge that “cancel culture” is some “American” importation of lack of job protection to supposedly more civilized countries would I guess be of the same type.

I’d guess the percentage of people who take the naive view that this isn’t done is about the same as it always was, as I don’t know of any reason why it should have changed, contrary to the rhetorical claim that “culturally this seems to have increased.”

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steven t johnson 08.01.20 at 4:19 pm

Like PC, the term cancel culture is an effort by right-wingers to re-brand their own practices as something horrible when they are on the receiving end. As such, if cancel culture were honestly applied what they do, some of us would agree that it is a bad thing. Notably, everyone who has indignantly invoked their private property rights to delete comments, shriek about trolls, ban commenters or even refuse comments, has agreed, whether or not they concede the point, has agreed there is an active harm from it, even when it isn’t rape/death threats to women.

The real problem is not just that things like presumption of guilt, guilt by association, etc. aren’t moral. The real problem is they can’t possibly do the job alleged. Causing mental agony to people, even “bad” people, isn’t political reform. Not only is this kind of thing a diversion from politics, it is totally amenable to misuse, and everybody knows it. Making excuses for Biden while harping about Trump is hypocritical gossip, partisanship, not principle. Bill Cosby’s accomplices got away scot free and Harvey Weinstein’s stooges still have their cheating Oscars! I suppose one of the biggest triumphs of cancel culture is suppressing movies like the Gore Vidal biopic and the movie An Officer and a Spy. But what kinds of victories is joining the anti-Dreyfusards?

To put it another way, cancel culture is the social media equivalent of the criticism/self-criticism sessions on campuses in the Cultural Revolution. Except today’s version lacks any changes in party/state personnel, lacks any significant redirection of resources to the people left behind, lacks any hint of fundamental political differences in the future of the country. This current iteration of this kind of “politics” is even more apt to disguise score settling or even puritanism. As near as I can tell, there isn’t even a strong case to be made that “puritanism” as such was helpful even to the Puritan revolution, not like congregations paying their pastors.

And I don’t think the pleasure of getting “our” own back on the reactionaries is enough to pay for giving up any moral condemnation of the injustice of such methods, any more than building clinics in the countryside in China was helped by criticism/self-criticism sessions.

One link: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/exiting-vampire-castle/ The people outraged at this can be satisfied the miscreant reformed his brain later.

For those who favor cancel culture, here’s a defense, in the particular case of Aristotle:
http://moufawad-paul.blogspot.com/2020/07/apparently-aristotle-is-in-danger-of.html There are a couple of funny things to this, notably the fact that Aristotle is already canceled as far as popular culture goes. For the SF fans here, consider Neal Stephenson’s abuse of “Aristotle” in Anathem. Or the nearly universal assumption in popular discourse that Aristotle was an enemy of science. (See The Lagoon.)

Also, despite being a professional, our Maoist friend seems to think Aristotle was a major philosopher in ancient times, when as near as I can tell from reading Peter Adamson is that Aristotle’s preeminence was a product of Arab/Persian/Central Asian culture, and hence not really a white thing at all. (And Black Athena, while documenting influence from Egypt, is incomplete, neglecting the cultural influences on the Greek cities of Ionia, which were more important originally than Athens.)

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PatinIowa 08.01.20 at 7:16 pm

Kiwanda @45

“Purveyors of what-aboutery will probably appreciate that Steve Salita now makes a living as a bus driver; I have no reason to think that the Harpers Letter signers (even Bari Weiss) would regard that situation as any more just than other examples.”

Here’s Cary Nelson, who signed the Harper’s Letter, defending what Illinois did to Salaita. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2014/08/08/essay-defends-university-illinois-decision-not-hire-steven-salaita.

As for Bari Weiss, I expect she was delighted at the fact that Salaita is out of academia: https://www.nyclu.org/en/press-releases/nyclu-defends-academic-freedom-columbia-university. After all, she tried to get pro-Palestinian professors fired when she was at Columbia, and she has not retracted, as far as I know.

When I pointed this out to a friend who signed the letter, they responded they had no idea who else was signing, and they were irked to see those two names, along with a couple of others. This person has not said this in public, of course and I do not blame her one bit.

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Andres 08.01.20 at 7:46 pm

I may have missed something after a cursory reading of the thread, but neither Chris B. nor any of the commenters have attempted to place strict definitional boundaries on “cancel culture” in order to make the debate more manageable. So not surprisingly we get a bunch of commenters who object to hypothetical extreme examples of the tendency that “cancel culture” is only a narrow subset of.

Some examples of the general tendency that I and most civilized people vehemently oppose:

–Damnatio memoriae (ancient Rome) and un-personhood (communist countries).
–Firing for political opinions held outside of the workplace.
–Hiring blacklisting based on political opinion.
–Death threats and other threats of violence against people with objectionable opinions. (Of course, if the objectionable individual was the first to issue such threats, then it is fully justified to issue retaliatory threats, action movie-style).
–Legalized segregation or physical exile targeting people with objectionable opinions.
–Last, definitely not least and most obviously, the actual genocide of groups based solely on their political opinions or actions (The legalized killing of individuals based on their actions is another matter).

These are what the critics of cancel culture such as Sebastian H seem to have in mind. But either they are projecting their own fears or they are dishonestly using straw men. What we’ve seen of “cancel culture” in the U.S. so far is:

–Attempts in public education to re-write false history, the Lost Cause most prominently.
–Pulling down statues and other memorials of people who should not have been “sainted” in the first place.
–Renaming of places/institutions named after either people who are very far from sainthood (e.g. Bragg and Hood of CSA Army infamy) or objectionable nicknames.
–Calls for boycotts of commercial products or franchises whose CEOs voice anti-democratic cultural or political opinions (e.g. ChickFila and homophobia).
–Along the same lines, the refusal to grant media platforms and public speaking engagements to individuals with such opinions.
–Refusal to allow blog comments from people with a past history of objectionable opinions (e.g., Chris B. rightly keeping Ralph Musgrave away from this comment thread).**
–Social ostracism that is either absolute (refusal to be physically near an objectionable person, especially if such a person has made inflammatory public comments) or more conditional (same refusal, but with the precondition that said person refused to be respectful or to consider other opinions in previous debate).

I would argue that all of these second-list examples are how normal democratic culture and debate should work. So I would argue that a tentative definition of liberal, pro-democracy “cancel culture” would be something along the lines of:

–An anti-social individual shall be defined as one who voices or acts out hostility or superiority towards other groups based on anything other than those other groups’ political opinions or political actions. {Please note that I keep out criminal behavior from being part of this definition; yes criminals have to be punished, but they should not be “canceled” unless they exhibit anti-social behavior. Criminality without anti-social behavior is possible if unlikely}

–“Canceling” consists of the exercising of an individual’s right to (a) not associate with anti-social individuals, provided such ostracism is not accompanied by abusive or violent behavior, (b) refuse to give media, public speaking or internet platforms to anti-social individuals, (c) refuse to purchase products from companies owned or managed by anti-social individuals, (d) change the historical record, including monuments, if such record has been previously re-written or distorted by anti-social individuals, and (e) as a business manager, to fire anti-social individuals, but only if their actions or voiced opinions within the workplace create a hostile work environment for reasons other than those directly relating to the workplace performance of specific individuals (e.g., unionization doesn’t count).

Also I am using “canceling” in quotes so as to conform to the previous debate, but I object to the term (as I do to most word coinages coming from right-wing talking points) because it also connotes the use of the more extreme measures in my first list. To remove anti-social individuals from the social sphere is not the same as canceling them either physically or economically.

A large part of the problem with the U.S. political system is that it simply has not exercised “cancel culture” sufficiently in terms of the above definition. Von Clownstick would never have become president if the news media in its entirety had blacked him out the moment he blanketed Mexicans as rapists and murderers in his campaign announcement speech. And that is just one example.

Going back to my earlier post, “cancel culture” would work much better as a way of arresting political cult pandemics if we could all agree on something like the above definitions, so that we wouldn’t have either confused objections or deliberate concern trolling about the use of “cancel culture”. My own preferred term for “cancel culture” is social exile culture. I really do hope that it gets taken up.

**For anyone not acquainted with Ralph Musgrave outside of his political affiliations as described by Chris B., check out his frequent comment droppings in Chris Dillow’s Stumbling and Mumbling blog (https://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/). Musgrave is not only consistently wrong, but his writing is calculated to troll/piss off most liberal-minded readers, an all too frequent occurrence nowadays. Chris B. definitely did the right thing by keeping him out.

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Gorgonzola Petrovna 08.01.20 at 8:04 pm

Nastywoman @56 is characteristically perceptive, saying:

“specially since ”cancelling” can’t be at all ”a threat to free speech and open debate”
as Trump and his Trumpers are still tweeting a million tweets a day”

Indeed, from what I can tell, a vast majority of those “cancellings” amount to the woke/liberal upper-class society devouring their own. No threat to free speech, and, for an outside observer, great entertainment.

One exception I saw (in Turley’s blog) was Melissa Rolfe. But she was an HR director at a mortgage company, so it’s a bit hard to get sufficiently worked up about her firing.

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anon/portly 08.01.20 at 9:03 pm

48 de Pony Sum

My position on this is that individuals shouldn’t face public opprobrium unless there is 1) Clear and convincing evidence they are motivated by fundamentally malicious ends and 2) They have no remorse about it. Even when these conditions are met the opprobrium they receive should be clearly proportional to the wrong they’ve committed.

….Here’s some people I think have been unfairly subject to vast amounts of pubic opprobrium that some people would call cancel culture:

….The woman who went to the Washington Post’s cartoonist party in blackface in a very misguided but not malicious attempt to satirize blackface [note: not “blackface,” actually a White House or Fox News person] and subsequently lost her job when the Washington post named her in their paper.

79 J-D

In your comment, you have attempted to shame publicly …. the people who publicly shamed Sue Schafer; you have done this without clear and convincing evidence that they were motivated by fundamentally malicious ends. So your own conduct is not perfectly consistent with the rule you have formulated.

That’s a clever point, it could be hypocritical to publicly shame the public shamer if your own shaming efforts don’t meet your own shaming standards, but I’m not sure it really works here.

de Pony Sum in recounting the Sue Schafer incident specifically mentions no individuals, just the Washington Post. Most of the discussion of this incident that I saw involved criticizing the Post as an institution for publishing a 3000 word article about someone’s choice of a Halloween costume two years earlier. I don’t think anyone would aptly describe the mention of the Washington Post in comment 48 as a good example of “cancel culture” or as a “public shaming.”

If nothing else, I don’t think de Pony Sum’s comment is going to get the Washington post collectively fired, at least this seems unlikely.

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Sean McCann 08.01.20 at 10:36 pm

People have very fancy ways of explaining why they only care about norms of deliberation what it seems likely to benefit their side.

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Matt 08.01.20 at 10:50 pm

While unfair dismissal rules certainly help employees, I think it’s easy for people to over-state how much they protect them. This is so for a number of reasons. For one, in many cases they do not protect from summary dismissal if it’s held that there is a reasonable ground for it. What is a reasonable ground varies, but it’s possible to put lots of things into an employment manual or employee handbook, incorporate that into the contract, and then point to a breach of contract as a ground. “Offensive” language can be such a ground. The Australian Fair Work Commission, for example, has held that “‘Culturally insensitive remarks’ provide a valid ground for dismissal, which was not unfair under the Fair Work Act.” (MacQuairrie v Alcoa of Australia). That case involved language at the workplace, but other cases of using “insulting” language outside of the workplace have been found to provide grounds for summary dismissal. With the increase of social media and fear of company reputation, such cases are likely, especially as the Fair Work Commission and Australian courts have held that social media postings can, in principle, be grounds for dismissal. “Breach of professional standards” can also be a ground for summary dismissal, and which standards are “professional standards” will often be set by the employer in an employee handbook.

Australian unfair dismissal laws also apply only in limited ways to “casual” employees. Of course, casuals are a larger and larger portion of the workforce, and are often especially vulnerable. There are also lesser protections for employees of “small businesses” (businesses that employ fewer than 15 workers.)

Additionally, even though making an unfair dismissal claim before the Fair Work Commission is faster and easier than going to court, it is still not fast or easy as such. And, the remedies are limited. Reinstatement is nominally the “preferred” remedy, but in fact it is rarely ordered. So, it’s difficult and rare to get one’s job back. The most common remedy is payment for one’s statutory or contractual “notice” period, capped at a maximum of 6 months pay. The notice period may be as short as two weeks. Getting two weeks pay is better than nothing, but not a huge disincentive for bad action by an employer, especially given that not all people will bring suit, and damages can be limited by mitigation by the employee. Sometimes fines on the employer can be imposed, but I don’t think they are common.

So, such things help. They are a good idea. But, to think that they are a panacea or eliminate potential problems seems to me to be too strong.

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Sean McCann 08.01.20 at 11:06 pm

Personally, I’m very sympathetic to the OP. And yet, I agree with kinnikinnik, Patrick, and Engels that social media has reshaped civic discourse in ways that aren’t really being considered here. That the Shor case is only a single example is only mildly heartening in this context. It’s just one example. But one truly ugly example. It is disheartening to see people who claim to be social scientists and to care about justice abandon basic principles of rational deliberation and embrace mob rule.

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J-D 08.02.20 at 12:02 am

The presence on the list of Harpers signatories of one of the most prominent victims of ‘cancel culture’ in the person of Salman Rushdie – who has happily survived albeit at enormous cost, unlike his translator, the Charlie Hebdo bomb victims, Pim Fortuyn, and so many others – might have served to remind us of what is at stake in this debate.

There is no justification for treating cases where people’s lives are at stake and cases where people’s lives are not at stake as if there is no difference between them.

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J-D 08.02.20 at 12:51 am

I do not know of such cases in my immediate experience, however I think that this situation can arise quite often: mobbing and cyberbulling do exist, even if I didn’t experience these things in my immediate experience, and I see this cancel thing as something very similar.

When I read this, the thought occurred to me that I am aware that cyberbullying exists. Then I stopped to ask myself how I know that cyberbullying exists, and to what extent I would be able to verify it if challenged. I’ve just checked, and unsurprisingly there is a Wikipedia article on the subject, which refers both to a few individual cases and to research studies, and which is extensively footnoted with links to further sources. A Web search also turns up multiple sources which appear reasonably reliable (the list overlapping with the Wikipedia citations).

I haven’t actually gone deeper in order to offer a more substantial basis for the conclusion that cyberbullying is a real phenomenon, because I don’t take that to be actually in dispute here, but in the context of a discussion like this it’s important to think about how claims of this sort can be checked. Not every claim made is readily verifiable, and not every claim made should be treated as if it’s readily verifiable.

By raising the subject of cyberbullying you have changed the subject from a claim that may not be so easy to verify. What I asked about was not cyberbullying but rather the frequency (if any) of the alleged phenomenon of people being unjustly fired for the expression of political opinions and/or other speech acts outside of work. In effect, you have responded by telling me that you can’t verify the claim or claims I was asking about, but here is another claim that you can verify. Being cyberbullied and being fired from a job are two different phenomena.

The example of cyberbullying is, however, relevant in a different way. It offers an excellent example of a point I was making earlier, that sometimes it may be justifiable for a person to be fired for speech acts even when they take place outside work. If an employer discovers that an employee is engaging in cyberbullying of another employee, or of a customer or another person that the business has dealings with, then it is incumbent on the employer to take action, even if the cyberbullying is being carried out entirely on the employee’s own time and without using any of the employer’s IT; and although I’m not sure I would want to say that the action to be taken should automatically be dismissal in every case, I would expect that there would be cases in which it would be justified.

No he didn’t shame publicly anyone, he attacked a behaviour, his comment lacked the level of ad personam attack needed to be a form of shaming.

It wasn’t just an attack on a type of behaviour in the abstract, it was an attack on specific behaviour that took place in specific identified cases. The individuals whose behaviour was being attacked were not named, but it’s not clear in general that the concept of shaming a person is only applicable when the person is identified by name and it’s not clear in this case in particular that the identity of the people is question is sufficiently obscured for it to be considered not shaming of them.

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John Quiggin 08.02.20 at 1:51 am

Kiwanda @90 You’ve completely missed the point. I think it’s highly likely that Shor was fired because of his views. If so, he was treated unjustly.

My point is that, if cancel culture includes (as Sebastian and others claim) a view that people with the wrong opinions should be fired, we would expect to see the company being open about the reason for the firing, and advocates of cancel culture defending it. Instead, the company has lied and (AFAICT) no one has defended it. That suggests that (at least on the left) cancel culture is mainly about public opprobrium. As many have noted, that’s not true in the case of rightwing attacks on supporters of Palestine.

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John Quiggin 08.02.20 at 1:56 am

Matt @95 Good points, and yet more reasons for opposing casualisation. It’s also highly problematic, in the Ridd case, that employer codes of conduct have been held to over-ride enterprise bargains.

To rephrase the point. The big problem is insecure employment. That’s worst in the US, but it’s an increasing problem everywhere.

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Kiwanda 08.02.20 at 3:21 am

PatinIowa:
I was aware of Bari Weiss’s odious activities as an undergraduate, which is why I mentioned her in particular, although indeed I don’t have positive evidence that she is not a hypocrite in this regard, more a matter of hope that she’s grown since then. So that’s two hypocrites regarding that area, fair enough.

When I pointed this out to a friend who signed the letter, they responded they had no idea who else was signing, and they were irked to see those two names, along with a couple of others. This person has not said this in public, of course and I do not blame her one bit.

I don’t see any reason why your friend should not express her poor opinion of some of her co-signers in public; after all, a lack of purity (and even hypocrisy) on their parts doesn’t make the letter any less valid.

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J-D 08.02.20 at 3:25 am

One Civis employee, who requested anonymity for fear of professional repercussions, told me, the only reason for the firing “that was communicated that I heard were the client and staff reactions to the tweet.” The employee also said that at “our company-wide meeting after Shor’s firing blew up on Twitter, [CEO] Dan [Wagner] said something along the lines of freedom of speech is important, but he had to take a stand with our staff, clients, and people of color.

The company’s limited denials notwithstanding, the timing is pretty clear-cut: tweet one day, apologize the next day, fired the day after that. Similar results given here, which notes that Ari Trujillo Wesler said that Shor’s tweet (pointing to research that nonviolent protest is more effective than violent) “reeks of anti-blackness.” Do we really need to see Wesler celebrating that Shor got fired? Is it really necessary for Wesler or others to state “as a matter of principle, I think that Shor should be fired over a tweet that quotes research supporting the greater effectiveness of nonviolent protest in producing political change”?

There is an important difference between saying ‘A tweet can never justify firing somebody from a job’ and saying ‘David Shor’s tweet did not justify firing him from his job’.

I agree that it sometimes happens that people are fired unjustly; I don’t agree that any firing occasioned by a tweet must automatically be unjust.

It is extremely likely that firings for tweeting, and more generally for social media use, and more generally still for Internet activity, have been on the increase, but that’s simply because tweeting, social media use, and Internet activity have all been on the increase.

It is possible that unjust firings have been on the increase, but this would be extremely difficult to test, and since it’s hard to be sure that it’s the case at all any argument that connects any such increase with online culture must be extremely sketchy at best.

107

Suzanne 08.02.20 at 3:29 am

@79: “you have attempted to shame publicly the people who publicly shamed Sue Schafer; you have done this without clear and convincing evidence that they were motivated by fundamentally malicious ends. ”

As has already been pointed out above, de Pony Sum mentioned no individuals, only the craven behavior of The Washington Post. However, there is some indication that Lyric Prince and Lexie Gruber, since we are naming names, did pursue the unfortunate Schafer with, if not “fundamentally malicious ends,” a certain…doggedness, shall we say, even if the fault ultimately lies not with them.

https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/06/why-did-the-washington-post-get-this-woman-fired.html

108

J-D 08.02.20 at 3:41 am

de Pony Sum in recounting the Sue Schafer incident specifically mentions no individuals, just the Washington Post.

It’s not clear that just avoiding explicit mention of individual names makes an important difference. In this case, the names of individuals involved are a matter of public record.

If nothing else, I don’t think de Pony Sum’s comment is going to get the Washington post collectively fired, at least this seems unlikely.

If the standard de Pony Sum were upholding were ‘People should not be publicly shamed if it’s likely to lead their firing’, that would be a pertinent response; but that’s not the standard de Pony Sum was upholding.

109

Jerry Vinokurov 08.02.20 at 4:16 am

The cancel culture agita is nothing but people who are unaccustomed to having the peons talk back to them losing their minds because they got dragged on Twitter.

110

Aubergine 08.02.20 at 4:19 am

John Quiggin @98:

My point is that, if cancel culture includes (as Sebastian and others claim) a view that people with the wrong opinions should be fired, we would expect to see the company being open about the reason for the firing, and advocates of cancel culture defending it.

Not really, because not everyone wants to own up to being part of a twitter mob that got someone fired or whatever, even if that was exactly what they were trying to achieve. The companies involved usually just want the problem to go away, and probably have lawyers telling them to shut up. I can’t think of many (any?) “advocates of cancel culture” who proudly announce that that’s what they are; that would be a bit too obvious, wouldn’t it?

This discussion has gone off into the weeds a bit by focussing on people whose sackings for tweeting links to apparently respectable academic papers get reported in mainstream media outlets. This is part of cancel culture, but a larger part plays out across a wide range of online subcultures, where people scour their targets’ youtube uploads or list of followed twitter accounts or minor publication history for evidence of Bad Thoughts so that they can be marked for exclusion. This kind of activity is often extremely juvenile, tends to be carried out on ephemeral or hard-to-search platforms (e.g. Discourse and Slack), is generally incomprehensible to anyone outside the relevant subculture and rarely gets the attention of the serious media, but it’s often what people are talking about when they complain about “cancel culture” and it does feed back into broader culture to some extent (mostly by limiting the range of ideas and themes that can be safely dealt with in media that might be consumed by young or young-ish people).

There may or may not even be overt demands for anyone to be deplatformed or silenced, and that isn’t necessarily the intended goal; these tactics succeed by creating a series of epistemic bubbles where unwelcome opinions are simply excised, except in the form of caricatures that can be attacked in complete safety. You don’t have to be a free-speech absolutist to think that something is lost when this happens.

Is it ever justified to excise unwelcome opinions? Yes, some speech is genuinely harmful. It’s unsurprising that CB mostly discusses racist speech, because it’s easy to think of cases where racist speech has had seriously harmful consequences. But when you start removing speech that someone claims is harmful, every demand for someone to be silenced will come wrapped in a claim of harm. You still have to draw lines somewhere, and part of the argument is that these lines are being drawn in the wrong places, where is no actual harm or where there is potential harm on both sides but only one of them gets excluded.

111

Kiwanda 08.02.20 at 4:45 am

John Quiggin: Thank you for clarifying, and for the clear statement that it’s highly likely that Shor was treated unjustly.

However, I still don’t understand why you think the distinction being made is significant. Whether or not anybody did a celebratory dance afterward, David Shor, Emmanuel Cafferty, Sue Schafer, Noah Carl, James Damore, Maya Forstater, Jonathan Friedland, Simon Joyner, Leslie Neal-Boylan, Aleksandar Katai were just as much fired; James Bennet, Stan Wischnowski, Ian Buruma, Erika Christakis, Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying all-but-fired; Ronald Sullivan Jr. just as much fired as dean; Stuart Reges just as much on short-term renewal; Jonah Winter, Kosoko Jackson, Amélie Wen Zhao, Laurie Forest as much censored; knitter Nathan Taylor as much hospitalized; Maria Tusken as much losing her knitting business; Majdi Wadi boycotted (over old tweets by his daughter).

112

J-D 08.02.20 at 5:04 am

People have very fancy ways of explaining why they only care about norms of deliberation what it seems likely to benefit their side.

It’s hard to find any value in this as a contribution to the discussion when there’s no attempt at any specification of the norms of deliberation being referred to.

113

John Quiggin 08.02.20 at 6:03 am

@Kiwanda I don’t know most of these cases, but the first couple I checked used the N-word either at work or in a public context directly related to their work. That’s rightly grounds for dismissal in my view. Do you have any more legitimate cases?

114

J-D 08.02.20 at 6:06 am

While unfair dismissal rules certainly help employees, I think it’s easy for people to over-state how much they protect them. This is so for a number of reasons. For one, in many cases they do not protect from summary dismissal if it’s held that there is a reasonable ground for it. What is a reasonable ground varies, but it’s possible to put lots of things into an employment manual or employee handbook, incorporate that into the contract, and then point to a breach of contract as a ground. “Offensive” language can be such a ground. The Australian Fair Work Commission, for example, has held that “‘Culturally insensitive remarks’ provide a valid ground for dismissal, which was not unfair under the Fair Work Act.” (MacQuairrie v Alcoa of Australia). That case involved language at the workplace, but other cases of using “insulting” language outside of the workplace have been found to provide grounds for summary dismissal. With the increase of social media and fear of company reputation, such cases are likely, especially as the Fair Work Commission and Australian courts have held that social media postings can, in principle, be grounds for dismissal. “Breach of professional standards” can also be a ground for summary dismissal, and which standards are “professional standards” will often be set by the employer in an employee handbook.

Australian unfair dismissal laws also apply only in limited ways to “casual” employees. Of course, casuals are a larger and larger portion of the workforce, and are often especially vulnerable. There are also lesser protections for employees of “small businesses” (businesses that employ fewer than 15 workers.)

Additionally, even though making an unfair dismissal claim before the Fair Work Commission is faster and easier than going to court, it is still not fast or easy as such. And, the remedies are limited. Reinstatement is nominally the “preferred” remedy, but in fact it is rarely ordered. So, it’s difficult and rare to get one’s job back. The most common remedy is payment for one’s statutory or contractual “notice” period, capped at a maximum of 6 months pay. The notice period may be as short as two weeks. Getting two weeks pay is better than nothing, but not a huge disincentive for bad action by an employer, especially given that not all people will bring suit, and damages can be limited by mitigation by the employee. Sometimes fines on the employer can be imposed, but I don’t think they are common.

So, such things help. They are a good idea. But, to think that they are a panacea or eliminate potential problems seems to me to be too strong.

When I turn my mind backwards, I think there may well have been a stage in my life during which I believed in panaceas, but I stopped doing so long ago.

I think faustusnotes knows that I am an Australian and therefore related my more general remarks to the specific example of Australian law. But I imagine that there are other countries which also have some kind of legal protection against unfair dismissal, and I find no reason to suppose that, judged by that comparison, Australian laws are the best or even above average. I expect the protection provided by Australian law could be strengthened, and if so I think that would be a good thing.

However, if it’s possible for people to be fired for publicly insulting other people, and if that’s becoming more common, and if an effect of that is that people are (from fear of being fired) restraining themselves more from the public use of insults, I can’t figure how that particular effect is supposed to be a bad thing. If the frequency of public insults declines, that would make the world a better place, not a worse one. If I had a regular habit of insulting my co-workers or other people I deal with in the course of my employment, I would be violating my employer’s code of conduct and in danger of disciplinary action possibly including dismissal, but my employer’s code of conduct on this point is just what it should be and if I indulged in such a habit my employer would absolutely be justified in disciplining me.

I don’t know whether people who complain about ‘cancel culture’ mean ‘I want to insult people publicly but I can’t because I’d get in trouble for it’, but if that is what they mean I would respond ‘if you want to go around insulting people publicly just maybe you should get in trouble for it’.

115

nastywoman 08.02.20 at 6:41 am

Nastywoman @56 is characteristically perceptive, saying:

“specially since ”cancelling” can’t be at all ”a threat to free speech and open debate”
as Trump and his Trumpers are still tweeting a million tweets a day”

@96
Gorgonzola Petrovna:
”Indeed, from what I can tell, a vast majority of those “cancellings” amount to the woke/liberal upper-class society devouring their own. No threat to free speech, and, for an outside observer, great entertainment”.

BUT as it ALL started with a Right Wing Racist Birther – trying to ”cancel” everybody by calling US – ”Nasty” or ”LyingLiddleCreepyCorruptLowEnergyWackyCrazyEtcEtc” and he obviously succeeded by cancelling ME -”the nastywoman” and now we have:
”Double, Double, Trump’s Toil, Our Trouble
AS
”Demon sperm meets alien D.N.A.,
AND
”As the Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt writes: “The tyrant, Macbeth and other plays suggest, is driven by a range of sexual anxieties: a compulsive need to prove his manhood, dread of impotence, a nagging apprehension that he will not be found sufficiently attractive or powerful, a fear of failure. Hence the penchant for bullying, the vicious misogyny, and the explosive violence. Hence, too, the vulnerability to taunts. Especially those bearing a latent or explicit sexual charge.”
Trump’s fear of emasculation led to his de-mask-ulation. Instead of cleaving to science and reason, he stuck with the old, corny Gordon Gekko routine, putting concern for the stock market above all else.
Like Macbeth, the president made tragic errors of judgment and plunged his country into a nightmare. Our trust in government is depleted, and our relationships in the world are tattered. As Fintan O’Toole wrote in The Irish Times, the world has loved, hated and envied the United States. But never before has it pitied us. Until now”.

AND so – okay? – for ”an outside observer, great entertainment”????!
OR –
the rightful and necessary CANCELLING
of the
STUPID RACIST SCIENCE DENYING MINI MACBETH??!

116

Matt 08.02.20 at 7:20 am

J-D in 114 above:
I think you probably mean to refer to me, not faustusnotes, as the text you quote is from me. (Perhaps you still mean to refer to him. ) In any case, I agree that it’s a good thing if people insult each other less, and I hope they will do so. But, I also think, quite strongly, that in the very large majority of cases, what one does outside of working hours should be of no interest to one’s employer. One’s employer should have a good amount of control over what you do at work, but insofar as the action doesn’t have any direct relation to work, that control should end when you stop your working day. The part of so-called “cancel culture” (a term I find much to vague to be useful, in almost all of the discussion here, including in the OP) is when people take it on themselves to make outside of work behavior “relevant” by complaining to the person’s employer, even though it has no direct relation to the person’s work. This is one more way to allow employers to be, in Elizabeth Anderson’s terms, a Private Government . This seems to me like something to be strongly opposed.
(Note that in cases where a person is using racial slurs or similar things at work, or where the action can be directly linked back to work, the calculus changes, in a straight forward way.)

117

Matt 08.02.20 at 7:28 am

Also, I will add that I teach workplace law in Australia, and so am relatively familiar with Australian workplace law and the protections it offers. I am not a practicing workplace lawyer (or even an Australian lawyer) and so do not have the sort of intimate feel for the law that a practicing lawyer does. Australian workplace law is obviously much more protective than US law, but I am not competent to judge on most other jurisdictions. I will say that Australian workplace law textbook authors seem to think that Australian law is significantly more protective than British employment law is, but I don’t have first hand experience with that, and I know very little at all about the rules in the civil law world.

118

Gorgonzola Petrovna 08.02.20 at 8:13 am

@115 “…and he obviously succeeded by cancelling ME -”the nastywoman””

Are you saying you’re Hillary Clinton?

“the rightful and necessary CANCELLING”

Absolutely. “Rightful and necessary” is exactly right. Considering the wider social perspective of each individual case in the context of intensification of the anti-racist struggle and of the resistance of white supremacy at the present moment of history.

But it’s also entertaining to watch. You know, when they beg for forgiveness, and then get cancelled anyway. It’s a good show. First several times a tragedy, and then – finally! – a farce.

119

notGoodenough 08.02.20 at 8:14 am

Kiwanda @ 111, John Quiggin @113

Apologies for butting in on your discourse, and apologies again if this is a bit of a detour, but given that I know Kiwanda is concerned about accuracy I would like to point out (as I did on a previous thread) to the best of my knowledge Maya Forstater was not fired – she was a contract worker whose contract ended and was not renewed. Had she been an actual employee, she would have had far stronger ground but the nature of her employment meant her defence was not accepted (for a much more verbose and detailed discussion see my previous comment [1]). I can’t help but feel this again emphasises the point that having better employee protection (in this case for contract workers) would seem more to be the problem.

Regarding the list of censored people, I am again slightly puzzled. This isn’t a rhetorical device – I am actually confused, partly becuase there doesn’t seem to be agreement on what cancel culture is or to what extent it happens, but also partly by the use of the word censored. I had to look these up, so perhaps I have missed a lot and got this completely wrong, but as far as I can tell (and I welcome correction if I am wrong):

Jonah Winter, to the best of my understanding, was strongly criticised for an inaccurate portrayal of Native Americans in his book “The Secret Project” – yet he was able to defend himself in the New York Times [2] and the book appears to be on sale at Amazon [3] and Goodreads. While I am not defending the criticisms (having not read his book I will make no comment to their validity) I am not sure how this is censoring?

The same is also true of Amélie Wen Zhao’s Blood Heir – initially she self-pulled it from Goodreads, but it can currently still be found there [4] and on Amazon [5] in Kindle, Hardback, Audiobook, and Paperback form. While I haven’t looked in detail, the Amazon reviews of Blood Heir are predominantly positive, and the one-star reviews I could find do not mention the initial controversy – mostly being about not enjoying the book for reasons unrelated to the initial controvesy. Ironically enough, two of the people who made the initial criticisms were not only not calling for the book to be pulled (Gin Jenny has a rather good blog post which seems worth reading [6] as it also has some rather good thoughts on appropriateness of self-censorship from the perspective of an author – whether or not you agree with them, they are at least interesting) but were also subjected to a backlash – with Ellen Oh deleting her twitter due to the harassment (does that also count as a case of cancel culture?), and even the original author Amélie Wen Zhao facing a barrage of harassment for withdrawing the book in the first place (is there a cancel-cancel culture?).

And Laurie Forest’s Black Witch has a 4.7 star rating on Amazon [7] with, as far as I can tell, two sequels currently also in print.

Again to be clear, I am not commenting on the validity of the complaints, or the appropriateness of the reactions, I am genuinely not sure how these examples constitute censorship, or how this fits into the broader cancel culture discussion – perhaps Kiwanda can elaborate?

[1] “GUEST POST: An open letter to JK Rowling’s blog post on Sex and Gender, by Sophie Grace Chappell”, comment 80:
https://crookedtimber.org/2020/06/14/guest-post-an-open-letter-to-jk-rowling-blog-post-on-sex-and-gender-by-sophie-grace-chappell/#comment-801843

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/06/books/amelie-wen-zhao-blood-heir-keira-drake-continent-jonah-winter-secret-project.html

[3] https://www.amazon.com/Secret-Project-Jonah-Winter/dp/1481469134

[4] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/42359583-blood-heir

[5] https://www.amazon.com/Blood-Heir-Am%C3%A9lie-Wen-Zhao/dp/0525707794

[6] https://readingtheend.com/2019/02/02/some-thoughts-on-the-blood-heir-situation/?fbclid=IwAR22Ey5MPIamHUKKRCtYsOuk6ADRLA3GvUfOBtOHUqXjH9_nSO_3JfHIBZs

[7] https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0373212313/ref=x_gr_w_bb_sout?ie=UTF8&tag=x_gr_w_bb_sout-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0373212313&SubscriptionId=1MGPYB6YW3HWK55XCGG2

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MisterMr 08.02.20 at 9:18 am

@J-D 102

You are free to think that cyberbulling and cancel culture are two different things, I however think that “cancel” is a subpart of cyberbulling.

If I look to the Wikipedia entry I see this definition:

“yberbullying is when someone, typically a teenager, bullies or harasses others on the internet and in other digital spaces, particularly on social media sites. Harmful bullying behavior can include posting rumors, threats, sexual remarks, a victims’ personal information, or pejorative labels (i.e. hate speech).[2] Bullying or harassment can be identified by repeated behavior and an intent to harm.”

It seems to me that this definition includes what I mean by “cancel”. This doesn’t include renaming places previously dedicated to confederate guys, but then I have nothing against this (I’m pissed off when people try to rename stuff linked to my side, like Lenin avenue or Stalingrado street in Bologna, but I suppose this is part of normal politics).

Since the part of cancel that pisses me off is that part that I see as a subpart of cyberbulling then of course the emotive level of carachter assassination is a defining part of it, so naming names is important.

This amounts to a definition of the limit I asked for in my first comment, so wow, I got what I asked for!
But this is a distinction that I made prompted by the discussion, so I can’t tell if other people make this distinction or not

121

notGoodenough 08.02.20 at 9:24 am

As a general thought, it seems to me that the discussion regarding cancel culture is much like discussion regarding free speech. While extreme cases can be theorised and proposed, most people live somewhere in the middle ground, and any “rules” (be they legal, social, etc.) are likely going to be unfair to some people, somewhere, at some time. The trick then would seem to be to have as nuanced a view as possible and do the least harm possible – though that is a lot easier said than done.

From my perspective this thread seems to illustrate that this topic is pretty mired in confusion – there is a lot of different perspectives regarding what cancel culture is, how it works, what constitutes cancelling behaviour, when it may or may not be justified, etc. Given that, it seems it will be tricky to have a discussion – it is hard to address a topic when it is difficult to get agreement on what the topic is!

For me, this is one of the issues I have with the Harper’s letter – it is fine to say “I am in favour of free speech and against censorship”, but until you can say what those are, how you are against them, and explain how you envision it working in society, I am not sure it is adding much to the discussion.

Indeed, it puts me in mind of the Lehrer quote from The Folk Song Army – “It takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffee house or a college auditorium and come out in favor of the things that everybody else in the audience is against, like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on.

It is also worth considering, perhaps, that if cancel culture is to mean “attempting to negatively affect a person’s livelihood over disagreement with that person’s positions” (and it may not to everyone), then as far as I can tell this has been going on since the dawn of people having jobs at all. More recently, David Gorski (Orac) has regularly faced attempts to get him dismissed from his job due to his stances on quackery, Michael E. Mann faced considerable attempts to harm his career (both from anonymous people online, and from fairly major newspapers and lobbying bodies), and I’m sure it would be pretty easy to find many similar cases across all divides of politics, social agendas, etc. In that case, artificially restricting the discussion to “the left” (as the Harper’s letter does) would seem to be a bit of a disservice – both to the topic in general, and to the people who face harm.

In practice, I think many people understand that actions have consequences and – rightly or wrongly – these can affect your life. It would be easy to consider the extremes (wearing an “I love Nazis” shirt to a client meeting, or a “Joe Biden for President” badge to an interview to intern for Donald Trump are unlikely to do your career much good), but in principle this also applies to far less extreme cases too (getting drunk at an office party and insulting your boss is also probably also not going to do your career much good). While quantifying cancel culture and who has been affected by it (and to what degree it may be fair/unfair) is something which would seem to be a herculean task, I feel that it is somewhat rash to leap to judgements regarding what is happening in society until we actually have some reliable data.

Indeed, it seems to me that “cancel culture” is not anything new, and the discussions provoked are similar to those ongoing since time immemorial (shouting fire in a crowded theatre, anyone?). And, I can’t help but feel, these sort of discussions (where rights begin and end, what consequences are acceptable or not, etc.) will probably continue for as long as we still have civilisations as societies continually evolve, adapt, and develop now ways of thinking and expression.

I doubt that there will ever be a universally “right” answer, but find the discussion interesting in theory. In the meantime, in principle the people best protected against “being cancelled” are those who are covered by strong labour laws – so perhaps this would be a good place to start (as the left has been advocating for a long time).

122

J-D 08.02.20 at 9:59 am

I think you probably mean to refer to me, not faustusnotes, as the text you quote is from me. (Perhaps you still mean to refer to him. )

Yes, I did, because it was faustusnotes who wrote this:

I think J-D has a good point here. Are there any cases of cancel culture anyone can cite in countries with employment tribunals, like Australia?

I did not recall that you had independent reason to use Australia as a reference point.

I also think, quite strongly, that in the very large majority of cases, what one does outside of working hours should be of no interest to one’s employer. One’s employer should have a good amount of control over what you do at work, but insofar as the action doesn’t have any direct relation to work, that control should end when you stop your working day.

I wrote earlier

Although I hope and surmise that instances in which there is no good alternative to firing people for actions outside of work will be unusual exceptions, I think it’s possible for such cases to exist.

Do you disagree?

123

J-D 08.02.20 at 10:08 am

Also, I will add that I teach workplace law in Australia, and so am relatively familiar with Australian workplace law and the protections it offers. I am not a practicing workplace lawyer (or even an Australian lawyer) and so do not have the sort of intimate feel for the law that a practicing lawyer does. Australian workplace law is obviously much more protective than US law, but I am not competent to judge on most other jurisdictions. I will say that Australian workplace law textbook authors seem to think that Australian law is significantly more protective than British employment law is, but I don’t have first hand experience with that, and I know very little at all about the rules in the civil law world.

For all I know, it’s possible that Australian legal protections are the best in the world and yet still in dire need of significant improvement.

What I am asserting is that if there is a systemic problem of people being unjustly fired (and I expect there is), then the obvious response to the problem is to strengthen legal protection against unfair dismissal, and the logic of this applies in any jurisdiction where such a problem exists: even if existing protections are strong, it’s possible they’re not strong enough.

(Also, people should join unions, but I’ve been telling people that for most of my working life with limited success.)

So if this systemic problem exists (as I expect it does), there are systemic responses available. I don’t know what else is being suggested as a systemic response.

124

Faustusnotes 08.02.20 at 10:28 am

To back up j-d about insults, it’s worth remembering that a little while back the Australian former pm and his mates were pushing to abolish (Or prevent implementation of?) a law that would prevent them using open racial slurs in public discourse. They moved on within moments of that victory to trying to get a media figure sacked for calling them cunts. These people are shameless, they love censorship, they just have specific ideas about who should be censored and why. This is why free speech absolutism is stupid: the people whose speech you’re protecting won’t even thank you before they use their protected speech to get you killed.

125

nastywoman 08.02.20 at 11:18 am

@118
Are you saying you’re Hillary Clinton?

No –
I’m just ”every woman” – Trump -(and his Trumpists) ever insulted – (and grabbed)
and after we rightfully ”cancel” him – BE-cause he insulted (AND grabbed US) –
he still has the nerve to call US ”nastywoman”-
AND after we cancel him for that too –
he (still) has the nerve to complain about some ”cancel culture”.

AS IF his Dad -(or mom) never had taught him – THAT if he says Racist and NASTY and STUPID stuff – he HAS to be send to his room –
and only can come back AFTER he excused himself –
AND promised ”never ever to be a nastyboy again”.

AND –
Yes! –
that could be considered ”a Farce” –
IF – looking at it as some kind of a (NASTY) ”Gesamtkunswerk” –
AND it wouldn’t have killed so many of my fellow Americans –
BE-cause the Nastyboy didn’t stay in his room –
and came out – in order to kill as many Americans
as he (still) can.

126

steven t johnson 08.02.20 at 12:37 pm

Jerry Vinokurov@120 “The cancel culture agita is nothing but people who are unaccustomed to having the peons talk back to them losing their minds because they got dragged on Twitter.”

Just because QAnon and Trump’s tweets are not labeled “cancel culture” doesn’t mean you should make excuses for petty meanness that will never accomplish any of the goals alleged by its practitioners. And there’s a lot more canceled than people wish to admit, though details are not suitable for eyes here.

127

bianca steele 08.02.20 at 3:01 pm

I think Anderson’s book, mentioned by Matt @ 116, has been mentioned here before. I admit I find it a strange argument for a leftist to make (as it’s been presented previously). Apparently it was left to a libertarian (Cowen) to make the empirical argument. The blurb at the page linked above read, “In many workplaces, employers minutely regulate workers’ speech, clothing, and manners, leaving them with little privacy and few other rights.” Searching the ebook preview for the words “clothes”, “clothing,” and “wear” returned no relevant results. This is a very strong argument to the effect that people who work for wages (including salaries) are controlled minutely 24/7, propagandized, socially manipulated into acting against the common good, and so on. Refusing to allow employees bathroom breaks is very bad, and no doubt there’s an argument to be made in favor of more subtle conceptions of domination and freedom, but in an apparently descriptive work like Anderson’s I would expect to see more evidence than this.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in ten years we see “private government” taken as a prescriptive notion.

128

PatinIowa 08.02.20 at 3:43 pm

Kiwanda at 105

“I don’t see any reason why your friend should not express her poor opinion of some of her co-signers in public; after all, a lack of purity (and even hypocrisy) on their parts doesn’t make the letter any less valid.”

I do. Two of my colleagues have been targeted by right-wingers. Based on an admittedly small sample size, I’m willing to generalize as follows: nobody likes being threatened with rape and murder, and then reading their address.

The problem with the letter itself is that it’s platitudinous, and extremely vague. Cary Nelson wasn’t being hypocritical. In his world, vigorous opposition to Likud’s policies (yes, I’m being tendentious, sue me) is anti-Semitic and should be grounds for losing your job. There’s nothing inconsistent between that and claiming that it’s wrong to no-platform, say, John Yoo, just because he advocated for torture.

That’s why what Andres says at 95 is so important. The letter offers no definitional clarity, so Noam Chomsky, a frequent critic of right wing cancelling, and David Brooks, who gets a six-figure sinecure from Yale to teach, get this, “humility,” can both sign. If you want to know what “cancel culture” means, look at the signatories and the people and the opinions they want to defend. If you do that the letter is either purposefully incoherent (my reading), or defending the signers’ self-interest (the cyncial reading).

Once again, we could get a better grip on this in the following manner: 1)
Define “cancel” precisely. And 2) Count. Otherwise, we’ve got duelling anecdotes.

Thye just got rid of fifteen full time faculty members at my institution by not renewing contingent contracts. I know three of them, and I’d position them center-left or full on left. Of course, they didn’t get fired because of their politics. They got fired because they have little to no power.

I’d like to see us focus our energy on that.

129

Donald 08.02.20 at 3:57 pm

For people who want data, here is the longest list of real or alleged cancel culture incidents that I have seen. 156 cases. Have fun analyzing.

I think the list has a mostly rightwing bias, so I didn’t see Finkelstein or Salaita listed ( though maybe I missed it.)

For myself, I would have to look into them before judging, but of the handful that I know something about, some I agree are genuine cases of people being unfairly cancelled, and others I might possibly cancel myself. There are also gray areas.

I found the list via a piece by Cathy Young, but am too lazy to go back and link her piece.

130

Donald 08.02.20 at 3:58 pm

131

oldster 08.02.20 at 4:23 pm

Following up de Pony Sum’s reference to Natalie Wynn, I wound up reading her very interesting thoughts on cancellation, and I recommend them.

She has an interesting analysis of the stages.

https://www.contrapoints.com/transcripts/canceling

132

anon/portly 08.02.20 at 6:12 pm

108 J-D

It’s not clear that just avoiding explicit mention of individual names makes an important difference. In this case, the names of individuals involved are a matter of public record.

Well then it’s also not clear that it does not make an important difference. And one could argue that by mentioning the Washington Post and not mentioning the individuals who went to the party and objected to the costume, de Pony Sum is implicitly suggested that the Washington Post’s conduct meets his or her standards for “cancel culture” and the conduct of the individuals does not.

But anyway even if de Pony Sum in 48 is visiting “public opprobrium” on the individuals who went to the party and raised objections to the costume, and not just on the Washington Post as an institution, the public opprobrium involved is not “public opprobrium that some people would call cancel culture,” which is clearly the type of public opprobrium that de Pony Sum’s standards are meant to address. (Which is why I quoted that part in 97).

The claim in 79 that de Pony Sum’s “conduct is not perfectly consistent with the rule [he or she has] formulated” is simply false.

(That’s my view anyway. Maybe some would argue that the writing of comment 48 has a chance, distinguishable from zero, of impacting in some “cancelling” way the lives of the individuals involved. Or that comment 48 has caused the individuals to be, as 48 clarifies, “widely publicly shamed and reviled.” Who knows? Maybe this thought has already disturbed the sleep of the moderator who approved the comment).

133

bekabot 08.02.20 at 10:27 pm

Were we to do away with everything that had a downside we would have very little good. Therefore arguing that something has potential downsides is not sufficient to establish that it’s not good. Can you argue that free expression and debate by citizenry on the most important issues facing a democratic nation is not good, besides by arguing that there might be some cost?

Less slippery translation: “That’s the price of doing business. People should have the right to discuss things, no matter what they choose to discuss, or how; or whom it affects, or in what way. I have the right to say this because I know I’ll probably never be targeted personally, which means you can trust me to be objective, since I have no skin in the game. Jeopardized people, OTOH, really shouldn’t be listened to, because the danger they’re in renders them emotional and partial and weird. Sure, I know some of this might seem counterintuitive, but the fact that it’s counterintuitive actually indicates that it’s wise. Oh, and let me add one thing before I leave you — if you’re moved to skepticism by any part of this liturgy it just might be because you haven’t got the strength to face the truth. Bye, now. Tah.”

134

kinnikinick 08.02.20 at 10:59 pm

From @130 oldster’s Natalie Wynn link (good find!), I now have a description of “cancel culture” that satisfies me. YMMV.
I lifted these straight from Natalie’s headings – they’re mostly self-explanatory. The whole transcript is well worth reading; the back half has a nightmarish fractal-hall-of-mirrors quality that’s a good illustration of what it describes.

Trope 1: Presumption of Guilt
Trope 2: Abstraction
Trope 3: Essentialism
Trope 4: Pseudo-Moralism or Pseudo-Intellectualism
Trope 5: No Forgiveness
Trope 6: The Transitive Property of Cancellation
Trope 7: Dualism

135

Faustusnotes 08.02.20 at 11:34 pm

Wow Donald! That list has more than 150 examples but didn’t have time to include kaepernick. Also it discusses Rebecca Tuvel who was not canceled, and suggests Stephens left the nyt because of speech issues and not because he couldn’t do his job (he admitted he didn’t read the editorial before publishing it). It also describes Stephens and weis as middle/working class, cute eh. Do you think that list is representative? If not, what does this list tell us about cancel culture and about the political motives of people complaining about the cancellation of “middle class” and supposedly -ownerless people like … the editor of the NYT?

Also it’s worth remembering the op ed Stephens was sacked for. It was published on the 30Th anniversary of tiannanmen square and called for the use of troops against protesters. Like I said above, these people won’t even thank you as they use the speech you defended to get you killed.

136

bekabot 08.02.20 at 11:44 pm

The question is who decides? Most readers here would agree that ‘[a] society that refuses to tolerate speech like David Starkey’s recent racist remarks about ‘damn blacks’ and the slave trade is better for it, but of the world’s ~8 bln people, I strongly suspect that most would believe that a society would be better off for refusing to tolerate speech about abortions and homosexuality.

I’m almost sixty, so I’ve had a chance to wait around for decades for the moment at which the protected speech of a bigot adds one scintilla to the well-being of women or gender-nonconformers. Thus far, it never has. Possibly it ought to, but it never does. Since I’m something close to a free-speech absolutist, I’d go to some lengths to safeguard the right of David Starkey to say what he damn pleases, but I draw the line at having to gather the crowd and pay for the meeting-hall. (Many people find this surprising, and I’m still puzzled as to why.)

137

J-D 08.02.20 at 11:58 pm

And one could argue that by mentioning the Washington Post and not mentioning the individuals who went to the party and objected to the costume

But those aren’t the individuals I was referring to.

de Pony Sum is implicitly suggested that the Washington Post’s conduct meets his or her standards for “cancel culture” and the conduct of the individuals does not.

In every case whatever, not just this one, the conduct of any institution, not just the Washington Post, is necessarily also the conduct of individuals. Sometimes the identity of the individuals, or some of them, is obscured, but in this case, at least the identity of the individuals whose names appear in the byline of the Washington Post story is a matter of public record. The conduct which is being disapproved is the conduct of the Washington Post as an institution; it is also the conduct of (at least) those named individuals.

the public opprobrium involved is not “public opprobrium that some people would call cancel culture,”

The justification for that conclusion is not apparent.

138

Kiwanda 08.03.20 at 12:05 am

John Quiggin

I don’t know most of these cases, but the first couple I checked used the N-word either at work or in a public context directly related to their work. That’s rightly grounds for dismissal in my view. Do you have any more legitimate cases?

A remarkably fortuituous spot check, finding perhaps Jonathan Friedland or Simon Joyner. Maybe try David Shor, Emmanuel Cafferty, Sue Schafer, Noah Carl, James Damore, Maya Forstater, Leslie Neal-Boylan, Aleksandar Katai, James Bennet, Stan Wischnowski, Ian Buruma, Erika Christakis, Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying, Ronald Sullivan Jr., Stuart Reges, Jonah Winter, Kosoko Jackson, Amélie Wen Zhao, Laurie Forest, Nathan Taylor, Maria Tusken, Majdi Wadi.

Actually, a better response to my post would probably be that if decent employment protections were in place, indeed, Sue Schafer would only be a private citizen put into a 3000-word WaPo expose about a private costume party two years prior at which she tried to be Megyn Kelly wearing blackface, an offense for which she apologized then and later: only that, and not also fired. Emmanuel Cafferty would only be a Hispanic utility worker accused of making a white supremacist hand gesture, with dozen of calls to his company calling for his dismissal; only that, and not also fired.

I don’t know if these better protections would be allowed Bret Weinstein to continue teaching, in the face of mobs disrupting his classes, or Majdi Wadi to not lose millions, business locations, and have to lay off at least 46 employees in the face of a boycott campaign motivated by racist social media posts by his daughter in 2012, when she was 14, and in 2016.

139

bekabot 08.03.20 at 12:29 am

@ Patrick; re: gamergate and “diggers”

So I guess I shouldn’t expect to be able to do the same thing to them.

Patrick, you started it.

This is just life now.

Yes, it is just life now. You made it so. Your tactics worked. Congratulations.

Plus, bear in mind, you’re taking the side of guys who write enthusiastically about pedophilia against women who lost their homes and livelihoods for the gaucherie of creating games too many people wanted to play. Some of these women received so many death threats and rape threats they had to go into hiding. While I’m sure that many of the men in question were showing off and were not serious and were posting for squints and giggles, that alone should not protect them from the consequences of their actions. That sort of protection was exactly what their counterparts did not have, then or now, as your post indicates.

140

Kiwanda 08.03.20 at 12:34 am

Me:

I don’t see any reason why your friend should not express her poor opinion of some of her co-signers in public; after all, a lack of purity (and even hypocrisy) on their parts doesn’t make the letter any less valid.

PatinIowa:

I do. Two of my colleagues have been targeted by right-wingers. Based on an admittedly small sample size, I’m willing to generalize as follows: nobody likes being threatened with rape and murder, and then reading their address.

You’re saying that pointing out the hypocrisy of Cary Nelson or Bari Weiss would lead to threats and doxing? Is the implication that Nelson or Weiss would be the right-wingers doing the targeting? I think the latter is very unlikely, except under an dubiously broad idea of “targeting”. In particular, if your friend publicly condemns Nelson and Weiss’s hypocrisy, and they publicly defend themselves, that would not constitute your friend being targeted by Nelson or Weiss.

I condemn violent threats and physical assaults in response to speech, as I’m sure you do. (Sorry, this might be regarded as whataboutery, but at least I would like to be consistent: my condemnation is general.)

141

oldster 08.03.20 at 1:17 am

Natalie Wynn also refers to Jo Freeman’s 1976 piece on “Trashing,” in which she describes her experience of being ostracized by fellow feminists for alleged ideological deviation. The dynamic of cancellation predates the internet.

(I don’t know where a young you-tuber probably not born before the millennium encountered Shulamith Firestone’s old partner in crime, but I am delighted that she did! I know it shows my age, but I think that young activists today could benefit a lot from reading what my generation’s activists wrote. Also, from getting off my lawn.)

142

oldster 08.03.20 at 1:21 am

143

Jerry Vinokurov 08.03.20 at 3:24 am

Just because QAnon and Trump’s tweets are not labeled “cancel culture” doesn’t mean you should make excuses for petty meanness that will never accomplish any of the goals alleged by its practitioners. And there’s a lot more canceled than people wish to admit, though details are not suitable for eyes here.

I’m sorry, I genuinely do not understand what you mean to say here.

144

J-D 08.03.20 at 3:30 am

For people who want data, here is the longest list of real or alleged cancel culture incidents that I have seen. 156 cases.

What is missing from that list is an adequate explanation of what relevant features all those cases are supposed to have in common.

It reminds me slightly of a book I borrowed from the library many years ago, which was a collection of pieces by a journalist. The title, if I remember correctly, was something like Among The Barbarians. The title could easily have been something like ‘Collected Opinions’ or ‘Collected Columns’ or ‘Collected Essays’. The rejection of such a neutral title in favour of something more pointed must, I can only suppose, to have been meant to indicate some common theme that ran through all of them. For the life of me I could not figure out what that was supposed to be, and the author never explained.

In the present instance, a cursory examination suggests that it isn’t even true that they are all instances in which people’s livelihoods have been affected (as the list compiler alleges). It might have been titled ‘A List Of Decisions That I Disagree With’, but what greater relevance would something like that have? If I analysed every case it’s possible I would also disagree with each decision, but so what?

145

Sebastian H 08.03.20 at 4:57 am

I 1000% recommend that Natalie Wynn link. It is an excellent discussion of the queer facebook/twitter/social media cancel culture that I see all the time. The discussion of the step to abstraction plus essentialism is especially good and totally applicable to most of the real cancelations (the step from ‘here is research about violent vs. non-violent protests’ to ‘Shor is racist’ is a classic).

I’m going to provide a lot of examples and I’ll use the Wynn tropes. Not all of them have all of the tropes, but I think it is a true cultural issue, so I’m not sure you need all of them at the same time. One that I won’t mention every time is the Transitive Property of Cancellation. But you should realize that it exists in every case where someone does something off the job, and the cancelers try to get them fired, because the logic is “your company is horribly tainted by have X as a worker”. There are a few cases using words that are forbidden. I’m not going to type them outright only because I don’t want to get dragged into the discussion of the appropriateness of using them directly when discussing them, third hand. However the appropriateness is important to the context (eg “dont call me a N!gg$%” or black artists who deliberately use it to be provacative)

Shor. I won’t recite the fact but the link (along with some of the names that Quiggin wanted) is a good discussion of it. It exhibits problematic Presumption of Guilt, Abstraction, Essentialism

https://www.vox.com/2020/7/29/21340308/david-shor-omar-wasow-speech

Emmanuel Cafferty: power company worker fired because he allegedly gave the OK symbol which is allegedly a white power symbol. This very obviously Hispanic man in San Diego says he has no idea that the OK symbol is a white power symbol and that he was just cracking his knuckles. BTW the OK symbol thing is it’s own area of insanity, where WP groups intentionally troll us to make us look like overreacting ninnies. It requires so much context to explain to the non-hyper-woke that it would be way easier to just never take the bait–because if you can strongly suggest someone is racist without it, just do so. If you can’t it is definitely not worth it. Presumption of Guilt, Abstraction, Essentialism, Dualism

https://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/local/sdge-worker-fired-over-alleged-racist-gesture-says-he-was-cracking-knuckles/2347414/

Dominique Moran fired from Chipotle because she insisted on getting payment from a group of black men who specifically had had their cards declined only 2 days before, and who she had been warned that those specific men had “dine and dashed”. She became an internet exemplar of racism so much so that her mother found out about it across the country. It wasn’t until later that other internet sleuths demonstrated that Chipotle had been set up for an internet anti-racist mob. (Note that the company itself never figured that out on their own). Presumption of Guilt, Essentialism,

https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/25/us/false-racism-internet-mob-chipotle-video/index.html

Marlon Anderson was a [black] security guard at a Wisconsin high school. He was repeatedly taunted as being a N!gg$% by students. He told the students that they absolutely could not call him a N!gg$%. The students accused him of using the word N!gg$%, and he was fired for using racial slurs. The only good news is that this firing is so ridiculous that it has generated some serious pushback. (I could not however find out what happened). Presumption of Guilt, Abstraction, Pseudo-Moralism, No Forgiveness

https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2019/10/19/black-high-school-security-fired-after-telling-student-not-call-him-n-word/

Mary Jane Leach, composer. Concert canceled because she talked about her friend Julius Eastman and his works. He was black and gay and deliberately gave many of his works provocative names such as N!gg$% F@gg)t, Evil N!gg$%, and Gay Guerilla. The discussion discussed that and Eastman’s reasons for using those terms. Essentialism, Pseudo-Moralism, Dualism.

https://quillette.com/2019/06/27/publicly-shaming-a-musician-for-calling-a-composition-by-its-name/

Sarah Silverman fired from her movie because she appeared in blackface in her show from more than a decade before . The piece clearly indicates that white people take blackface too casually and that they are wrong to do so. Abstraction, Essentialism, Pseudo-Moralism, No Forgiveness, Dualism.

https://pagesix.com/2019/08/12/sarah-silverman-fired-from-new-movie-for-blackface-photo/

Israel Morales. Jewish restaurant attacked for being Nazi sympathizers because they didn’t overreact to a patron wearing a shirt with the work “Luftwaffe” on it. The owner didn’t believe it was as clear as the accuser said and tried to stop a confrontation in the restaurant. The most annoying part is the final paragraph “For its part, Kachka’s owners says they fear the rumors could lead racists and neo-Nazis to assume the restaurant is a place that welcomes their views. “Our fear is that this misinformation could cause discriminatory groups to think Kachka is a safe haven, which it most certainly is not,” Israel Morales wrote in a statement to Eater. “We would like to reiterate that we never kicked anyone out for speaking up, we had no idea what the symbol on the shirt meant, and if we had known, we would not have served him.” Presumption of Guilt, Abstraction, Essentialism, Pseudo-Moralism, Dualism, Transitive Property (serving someone in a restaurant must mean you’re a Nazi sympathizer).

https://www.thestranger.com/slog/2018/03/16/25923286/jewish-owned-eatery-in-portland-accused-of-nazi-sympathizing

Ahmad Daraldik accused of anti-Semitism for his comment “stupid jew thinks he is cool” which he posted in response to a photo which is now said to be staged of an Israeli soldier stepping on a child. Daraldik was TWELVE and living in the Palestinian territories at the time. This one is still very much in process as it was just reported in July of 2020. I presume he will not be actually removed from FSU. But it exhibits many of the cancel culture tropes. Abstraction, Essentialism, Pseudo-Moralism, No Forgiveness, Dualism.

https://www.thefire.org/city-of-aventura-demands-florida-state-universitys-administration-remove-student-senate-president-over-social-media-comments/

Neal Caren. UNC associate professor of sociology. Accused of creating an unsafe environment for students of color for asking a white student to role-play a black person in order to try to better understand racial issues. This was reported in early 2020 so it is too soon to tell where the investigation will go. Presumption of Guilt, Abstraction, Essentialism, Pseudo-Intellectualism, Dualism.

https://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2020/07/sociology-professor-racism-allegations-0707

Gary Garrels. Senior curator of painting and sculpture at the SF Museum of Modern Art. Museum employees sent a petition saying “Considering his lengthy tenure at this institution, we ask just how long have his toxic white supremacist beliefs regarding race and equity directed his position curating the content of the museum?” This apparently was in response to his statements that he wanted to increase diversity and “Don’t worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists”.

This may require a new trope of ‘gross exaggeration’, but I guess that is a Presumption of Guilt issue, Abstraction, Essentialism, Pseudo-Moralism, Dualism.

https://news.artnet.com/art-world/gary-garrels-departure-sfmoma-1893964

https://reason.com/2020/07/14/gary-garrels-san-francisco-museum-modern-art-racism/

Jonathan Friedland. Removed from Netflix for saying in a meeting that certain words were not ok to broadcast in comedy and specifically saying that the word N!gg$% was one of them (he said it aloud in the meeting).

This one might not be directly cancel culture in that there was no internet furor, but it exhibits many of the tropes so I included it. Essentialism, Dualism, No Forgiveness. It also took place on the job, so I understand that it is more of an edge case.

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/jonathan-friedland-exits-netflix-1122675

Gordon Klein. Currently suspended from teaching at UCLA for the following response to an ask that exams be delayed for black students to allow participation in local BLM rallies (which continued every day for more than a month). He contributed a rather snarky response which I will copy here in full so that no one accuses me of hiding it. But not a firing/suspension offense.

Thanks for your suggestion in your email below that I give black students special treatment, given the tragedy in Minnesota. Do you know the names of the classmates that are black? How can I identify them since we’ve been having online classes only? Are there any students that may be of mixed parentage, such as half black-half Asian? What do you suggest I do with respect to them? A full concession or just half? Also, do you have any idea if any students are from Minneapolis? I assume that they probably are especially devastated as well. I am thinking that a white student from there might be possibly even more devastated by this, especially because some might think that they’re racist even if they are not. My TA is from Minneapolis, so if you don’t know, I can probably ask her. Can you guide me on how you think I should achieve a “no-harm” outcome since our sole course grade is from a final exam only? One last thing strikes me: Remember that MLK famously said that people should not be evaluated based on the “color of their skin.” Do you think that your request would run afoul of MLK’s admonition? Thanks, G. Klein

He also noted elsewhere that “previously he had received a directive from his supervisor in the undergraduate Accounting program that instructors should only adjust final exam policies and protocols based on standard university practices regarding grading[:] {“If students ask for accommodations such as assignment delays or exam cancellations, I strongly encourage you to follow the normal procedures (accommodations from the CAE office, death/illness in the family, religious observance, etc.).”

Essentialism, Pseudo-Moralism, Transitive Property, Dualism

https://reason.com/2020/06/10/ucla-business-school-lecturer-placed-on-leave-for-e-mail-to-student-rejecting-request-for-exam-leniency-for-black-students/

Gibson’s Bakery. Black Oberlin student detained for shoplifting, Oberlin school hierarchy involved in an attempt to portray the Bakery as racist. The good news is that school’s behavior was terrible enough to cause them to lose a lawsuit over it. The bad news is that it was that terrible.

https://archive.vn/KUuHM

Kathleen Lowrey. Forced out of her job in the University of Alberta as undergraduate programs chair for what she believes are her views on gender. Shockingly the school won’t even tell her who accused her or exactly of what.

https://nationalpost.com/news/university-of-alberta-loses-admin-role-over-views-on-gender

Niel Golightly. Boeing communication officer, resigned after pressure centering around a 33 year old article he wrote objecting to women in combat. He said that the dialogue around that article 33 years ago changed his mind on the issue. This one is interesting because it is in one of the few kinds of positions that I might believe off the job behavior could be relevant. But I tend to think that 33 year old articles (of fairly common positions for the time) might not be enough. Essentialism, No Forgiveness, Dualism.

https://nypost.com/2020/07/03/boeing-communications-boss-niel-golightly-resigns-over-article/

Iranian-Canadian atheist (raised Muslim) fired for being anti-Islamic in his personal facebook page rant against honor killings. “In response to these killings, Corey wrote ‘F*** Islam. F*** honour killing. And f*** you if you believe in any of these barbaric stone age ideologies.'” The response after ordering him to take down the post (he complied) “Despite Corey’s compliance, Wray responded “Your anti-Islamic social media post is in direct contradiction with Mulgrave School’s and Canadian values. It is racist and highly offensive. As a result, I am immediately terminating any further relationship with you. You will no longer be allowed to [do business with our school] and you should not enter the school building under any circumstances.””

This report has been anonymized, so I understand if you want to take it as less demonstrative.

https://thepostmillennial.com/man-fired-for-speaking-out-against-honour-killings

Brian Leach was fired for sharing on Facebook a Billy Connolly sketch which colleagues complained was anti-Islamic.

It was from Connolly’s “Religion is Over” stage act, and if you listen to it is just as hard on Christians as it is on Islam. It is essentially an atheistic rant. (The link has the clip)

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7174761/Grandfather-sacked-Asda-sharing-anti-Islamic-Billy-Connolly-sketch-Facebook.html

This discussion is on the bizarre article run by the Washington Post which got a woman of no public interest fired for wearing blackface to try to make fun of Megan Kelly’s stupid comments about blackface. It has Abstraction, Essentialism, No Forgiveness, Transitive Property (via 3rd parties! this was apparently newsworthy because the person who threw the party that the costumed person showed up at also works at a newspaper!) and dualism.

https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/06/why-did-the-washington-post-get-this-woman-fired.html

And finally the Vagina Monologues. Not inclusive enough to be valuable in the discussion of sexual abuse, sexuality, and violence against women.

https://temple-news.com/vagina-monologues-canceled-due-inclusivity-issues/

146

Sebastian H 08.03.20 at 5:09 am

I forgot to include the Vox accusations. They have a bunch of the tropes.

Emily VanDerWerff accuses Matt Yglesias of making her feel less safe at work as a trans person for signing the Harper’s letter which she asserts contains “many dog whistles toward anti-trans positions”.

Her definition of anti trans dog whistles is included at the link. It has huge Presumption of Guilt and Abstraction problems. She claims to not want any consequences for Yglesias, but if that is the case she shouldn’t have used “feel less safe at work” which is less of a dog whistle and more of an alarm bell for Human Resources to immediately open an investigation into the (for cause) firing of someone.

https://twitter.com/emilyvdw/status/1280661254118322177

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Robespierre 08.03.20 at 5:43 am

It’s not so much that rightists get canceled: there is already an alternative audience and ecosystem that willsupport them and listen to them, to whom being canceled is a badge of honour. Call them the Deplorables if you want.

Cancel culture mostly acts to restrict what liberals say (and allow themselves to think), as long as they fear ostracism by fellow liberals. Ot isa tool of power within liberal circles because there will always be someone more orthodox, and because public opinion has shifted so much that most people over, say, 30 have at some point thought or said something that would get them kicked out. They wither all extraordinarily changed their mind completely or are pretending.

148

casmilus 08.03.20 at 7:06 am

I saw the new Eva Green film “Proxima” yesterday. There’s a bit where she puts her spacesuit on and does the OK signal to show it’s ok, responding to the American astronaut played by Matt Dillon.

If you want a reason to boycott the film, that’ll do.

149

Gorgonzola Petrovna 08.03.20 at 8:21 am

nastywoman @125
“IF – looking at it as some kind of a (NASTY) ”Gesamtkunswerk””

Hmm. How do I explain this?

Okay. My daughter (in her 20s) sent me this video. She is very upset. For her, it’s a tragedy. For her, you would be one of the ominous “they”.

But if you watched the video, tell me it’s not life imitating Monty Python? Slapstick comedy. That’s how I see it.

150

J-D 08.03.20 at 8:54 am

Cancel culture mostly acts to restrict what liberals say (and allow themselves to think), as long as they fear ostracism by fellow liberals.

I am sure that people restricting what they say because of a fear of ostracism is a thing that happens, but there’s no reason to suppose that this is restricted to liberals, or more common among liberals. I bet there are many UK Conservatives who restrict what they say about Brexit because they fear ostracism; I bet there are many US Republicans who restrict what they say about Donald Trump because they fear ostracism; I bet there are many people in conservative white evangelical churches in the US (and probably other countries as well) who restrict what they say about many subjects because they fear ostracism.

151

faustusnotes 08.03.20 at 9:32 am

Sebastian H, I don’t have the time to go through every one of your accusation list there but at least the Kachka one seems a little hyperbolic. The restaurant appears to be still doing business and selling merchandise, there’s no evidence it has been cancelled, but one of the original table of 4 who started the showdown has had to remove all their online presence because of doxxing and harassment. In fact it appears the “cancel” side have suffered a lot more damage than the cancelee, ironically through the application of a strategy you identify with cancel culture. As for Matt Yglesias, he suffered no negative consequences at all from Emily VanDerWerff’s letter, which explicitly stated that she didn’t want him to suffer any consequences.

With regard to the Harper’s letter, there’s a lot of careful elision of subtext here. It’s really obvious that trans rights and black rights are the trigger for that letter (indeed the first two paragraphs basically try to tie cancel culture to BLM), and to pretend that it’s not about that is very naive. Yglesias signed up to a letter that was a plea from a bunch of cancel culture participants (like Weis and the instigator himself, who canceled his friend in France!) to be exempt from rules of polite debate when discussing black and trans Americans. Let’s remember that Weis resigned from the NYT a few weeks later and gave as her explicit reason the fact that NYT wouldn’t censor her colleagues in internal discussion. They’re hypocrites, and I’ll say for the third time: they will use the speech you defend to get you killed, and won’t waste their breath thanking you as they do it.

152

Tm 08.03.20 at 9:49 am

Sebastian, you are providing a list of incidents most of which appear to be unjustifiable but by what definition are they related to cancel culture? In the case of Cafferty, to take just one example, there appears to have been a single posting on social media based on a misunderstanding. The rest is an employer acting abusively. Which strengthens JQs argument that the real issue is the lack of employee protections.

Many of the cancel culture claims circulating are pure and simple lies. See Faustusnotes at 135. Painting Stephens and Weiss as victims of cancel culture is very clearly and verifiably a boldfaced lie and so are many other examples. Which raises the question why the self-styled defenders of free speech have to lie so often in order to make their case. (That is not meant to include Sebastian, in case the context suggests that interpretation). This btw is by no means a new phenomenon. Before cancel culture, it was called PC, but the charge of a left wing threat to freedom of speech was always based on a bunch of lies plus a few edge cases, together with a bold leap of illogic (to wit: if you claim to be a free speech absolutist, you have to accept that publicly calling for shaming or even firing your opponent is perfectly legitimate speech). This combined with silence over the Salaitas, and you have a toxic mixture of right wing tropes. The signers of that Harpers letter are naive at best but many of them are demonstrably hypocrites. Any true liberal should be ashamed of taking part in this charade.

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faustusnotes 08.03.20 at 9:50 am

Also since when is “I don’t want my university to host a play” cancel culture? Is there some law that every theatre should be required to host certain plays every year? Which plays are on the list? Can I write a play and get it on the list? If I choose tonight not to watch a Woody Allen movie because I don’t like the way he portrays women am I cancelling him? Should I be forced to eat meat too, lest I be accused of canceling farmers?

That list posted by someone else up above includes Scarlett Johansson as a victim of cancel culture because she has chosen not to take on a part as a trans woman. So what now, if she applies for any part on earth and gets a no that’s cancel culture? SJ is canceled now? She played a famous Asian character and didn’t get canceled, she did a movie with Woody Allen and didn’t get canceled, why on earth should we believe she’s been canceled this time? It’s ridiculous, you can’t even define cancellation and yet we have to discuss it with you as if it’s a real and serious issue!

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oldster 08.03.20 at 11:39 am

I wanted to highlight this observation from Jo Freeman. She makes the point about trashing in the women’s liberation movement, but I suspect it applies to cancellation by lots of progressive movements (and right-wimg movements).
“Not all women or women’s organizations trash, at least not to the same extent. It is much more prevalent among those who call themselves radical than among those who don’t; among those who stress personal changes than among those who stress institutional ones; among those who can see no victories short of revolution than among those who can be satisfied with smaller successes; and among those in groups with vague goals than those in groups with concrete ones.”

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engels 08.03.20 at 12:25 pm

If I choose tonight not to watch a Woody Allen movie because I don’t like the way he portrays women am I cancelling him?

As various commenters have remarked, CC isn’t well-defined. Maybe it’s a family resemblance concept (look it up). I wouldn’t call that “cancelling” Woody Allen but it does share some features of it (focus on a director’s personal morality rather than the interest of his films when deciding whether to watch them).

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oldster 08.03.20 at 1:08 pm

Courtesy of Yglesias:
A US university firing a lecturer for criticizing the police:

https://www.al.com/news/montgomery/2020/07/auburn-lecturers-anti-cop-tweets-inexcusable-as-university-continues-to-assess-his-future.html

Look, I find Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens and James Bennett entirely unsympathetic. Weiss quit, and she was simply bad at her job. Now she is going to get rich on the wing-nut welfare circuit. Stephens and Bennett, pretty much the same. I have no sympathy for them, and when they complain about being cancelled, my response is that they amply deserved to lose their positions of public prominence, they deserved to be held up to public ridicule, and they deserved to lose their jobs — not for their views, but for their incompetence.
And if that’s all there were to complaints of cancel culture — namely, rich incompetents whining about losing status — then I would say “bring me more cancel culture.”

But there is another dynamic at work here which is very different — non-rich, non-incompetent people suffering real harms for minor mistakes or even alleged transgressions, which by the steps that Wynn itemizes, are soon transformed into capital crimes.

The high school security guard fired for asking students not to call him the n-word. The lineman whose hand-gesture is misconstrued as a white power sign.

These people are victims of a pernicious and irrational social dynamic. And if you don’t want to call it “cancel culture”, because that phrase has been appropriated by the Bari Weisses of the world, then call it what you like “purity pony pollution purging,” perhaps.

Because that is part of the problem: when movements for social change adopt the logic of taboo and miasma instead of amelioration and harm-reduction, they start damaging their own cause. The damages come through cannibalism, and also through creating openings for hostile attack. Show me your in-group taboos, and now I know how to sow dissension, now I know how to accuse your leaders of hypocrisy.

Call it what you like; read Natalie Wynn to see why it matters.

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steven t johnson 08.03.20 at 2:01 pm

Jerry Vinokurov@143 wrote: “I’m sorry, I genuinely do not understand what you mean to say here.”

How curious…Well then, to be blunt, defending “dragged on Twitter” is defending a storm of abuse as useful political speech, which is ridiculous. It’s defending the storm of abuse by gamers of women, for one thing. Pretending it’s not because those kind of people only want to pretend this kind of rotten politics is only a problem when people they perceive as “left” do it, doesn’t change that. The same tactics used by the right to, for example, demonize Hilary Clinton for thirty years may not be called PC or cancel culture, but that’s what it is.

The implicit claim is that the good people, or at least the people with good taste and good manners, will abuse the bad people out of power is the social media version of “The King’s advisors are corrupt!” The political “analysis” which reduces everything to the personal malice of your enemies and their conspiracies and all we need to do is the same politics that says all we need is good Christian leaders, except the morally trivial difference of who “we” are deemed to be. Moral reformation by abuse is not going to work. Frankly, the actual irrelevance of this to ownership of the country is one reason why it is allowed, a way to neuter real opposition. It prevents solidarity between the lowers, while fostering illusions about select masters. Wasn’t there some guy who actually wrote about the Obama presidency under the title We Were Eight Years in Power?

And, by the way, if politics were simply just personal morality, then using the immoral methods you advocate is actively immoral in itself. Like Heinlein in Starship Troopers arguing that the whipping post was actually fairer, you’re arguing the social media equivalent of pillory and stocks are fairer!

You think for some reason stuff like some guy pulling a Norwegian flag because somebody complained about a Confederate flag being displayed isn’t a problem? Even worse, you really think pulling Confederate flags is a real solution to anything? You think a judge who ruled that Ashley Judd could sue Harvey Weinstein for retaliation and defamation (as in blacklisting her,) but couldn’t sue him for employer harassment when she wasn’t his employee should be purged from the judiciary? And that of course a judge should rule that Judd should be able to sue him for employer abuse when she wasn’t employed by him because that will allow fishing expeditions into every employee’s work history? You think the movie An Office and A Spy should be canceled but that doesn’t make you an anti-Dreyfusard?

Probably the pretense is that none of this was intended. But reducing the whole issue of the current reliance on moral scandals about individuals in lieu of any principled politics to nothing more than the personal pique of the privileged (who alleged power is as likely to be imaginary as real, incidentally,) by waving away the problems, this is exactly what you are endorsing.

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Musicismath 08.03.20 at 2:29 pm

I am sure that people restricting what they say because of a fear of ostracism is a thing that happens, but there’s no reason to suppose that this is restricted to liberals, or more common among liberals …

@147; @150: There is, apparently, some recent data on this. According to a survey conducted in 2019, a full 40% of Americans “don’t feel free to speak their minds.” (The corresponding figures were 48% in 2015, and 13% in 1954, at the height of McCarthyism. There are no figures for 2020.) Other relevant findings from that study: equal numbers of R and D voters feel unable to speak their minds; but uneasiness about speaking freely correlates most strongly with higher levels of education:

Among Americans without a high school diploma, for example, 27 percent self-censor. Among Americans who completed high school, this goes up to 34 percent. And among those who have attended college for at least a few years, 45 percent do. This suggests that Americans are socialized into learning to keep their mouth shut: the longer you spend in the educational system, the more you learn that it is appropriate to express some views, but not others.

This finding (if valid) would seem to vindicate the functionalist interpretation of self-censorship laid out by @150: that its purpose is to control the range of expression permissible within the college-educated, broadly liberal PMC.

The figure in the Persuasion piece suggests that it’s based on a longer paper. If it’s this one, then it’s still a preprint. But, still: at least something to go on.

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bob mcmanus 08.03.20 at 3:03 pm

130 is as said before excellent and instructive

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/aug/03/taylor-swift-folklore-hardcore-pop-fans-abusing-critics-stan

I see this kind of thing multiple times every day. I suppose because these reviewers haven’t yet been shot and killed, this isn’t really “cancel culture,” not serious, I’m making it up.

There is some strenuous gaslighting going on in this thread.

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NickS 08.03.20 at 3:13 pm

The Natalie Wynn transcript is very good, and I hadn’t seen that before. Thank you.

It’s worth wrestling with a bit, because it has the advantage of not framing the question in terms of Free Speech. I think that the free speech framing often pushes people to draw bright lines that confuse rather than clarify the debate. For example, various statements that I’ve seen by Yascha Monk he tries to make a clear distinction between, “being dragged on twitter” (which is not a free speech concern, in his opinion) and suffering employment consequences. But that’s a difficult distinction to maintain, and Natalie Wynn is, correctly, concerned about to problems of being harassed on twitter.

I read her essay as being less about, “see how this suppresses speech” and more about, “look at the way in which twitter encourages/amplifies/leans towards” bad arguments. That people are engaging in speech but are doing it badly because they are being lazy or careless, or just not inclined to see the people they’re arguing with as persons.

Take these two passages (which I’m quoting in reverse order from which they appear in the original).

I recently read a book by Sarah Schulman called Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair. Basically Schulman’s argument is that, in various contexts from romantic relationships to community infighting to international politics, the overstatement of harm is used as a justification for cruelty and for escalating conflict.

So I encourage my audience to go watch some non-binary YouTubers who have criticized me and criticized Buck Angel. For example, go check out non-binary YouTuber Luxanders’s video about me and non-binary YouTuber Korviday’s video about Buck Angel.

I think YouTube as a platform is better at producing criticism rather than canceling. And I think that’s because, at least in the vlog format, making a video forces you to confront the fact that you’re a human being with a face and a name who can be held accountable for the things that you say.

Both of those are about the difference between well and badly done criticism. That doesn’t lend itself to regulation (there’s no way to outlaw badly done criticism) but it is an important call for people to do better.

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Sebastian H 08.03.20 at 3:25 pm

Faustusnotes. It’s fine if you don’t want to read the Natalie Wynn piece, it’s long and from a left wing point of view which will probably annoy people who think that talking about cancel culture is just a right wing worry. But among the many good points she makes: yes powerful people often survive interactions with cancel culture, that doesn’t make it healthy any more than the fact that lots of people survive bad encounters with the police makes our current policing methods good.

It’s the accusations with no sense of proportion.

It’s the burden of proof where signaling that you’re listening overrides truth concerns.

It’s the free flowing guilt by association, often with super tenuous associations.

It’s the abstraction from arguably odd phrasing to definitely racist.

Its a cultural issue because there are a bunch of threads that are getting uglier and uglier. When ALL of them appear together at once you get Shor. But the Shor situation only seems surprising and mysterious if you refuse to notice the different threads that have been building.

For me the Yglesias situation is interesting because VanDerWerff is highly literate, well positioned, and knowledgeable about trans issues. Yet she apparently inhabits a cultural spot where she (correctly) believes that she will get lots of support for making evidence free accusations. When pushed on it she thinks that it’s a good explanation to literally insert “about trans people” after every declarative sentence and pretend that’s a dog whistle—and again she’s right that in her cultural zone she will get a bunch of support for that (and surprisingly little pushback from people who clearly can see that it’s ridiculous (say here for example). Sure Matt himself will probably survive this one because it is so utterly ridiculous. The cancel culture question is why did someone like Emily think that was a defensible attack? And why was she correct that such a silly attack would get such a big cultural defense (if you read the comments at least half seem to support her, many of them all in on the idea that he engaged in a transparently anti trans attack). I’ve read her for years. She’s perfectly capable of doing close textual readings.

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bob mcmanus 08.03.20 at 3:25 pm

Or this, 5 minutes later

https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/the-diversity-trap-jilani

“Just look at the case of Denise Young Smith. Young Smith spent almost two decades working her way up in Apple, becoming one of the few black people to ever reach its executive team. She was named vice president of diversity and inclusion…

…Then she uttered the sentence that really got her into trouble: “And I’ve often told people a story—there can be 12 white blue-eyed blond men in a room and they are going to be diverse too because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation,” she noted.

Within a week, the uproar over her comments forced Young Smith to write an apology. A few weeks later, her departure from the company was announced. She was replaced by Christie Smith, a white woman.”

Every day, many times a day. As far as I am concerned. cancel culture is the overall environment, the habitus, the totality of 2010+ media and communication. We all can get ostracized and isolated at any time.

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kinnikinick 08.03.20 at 4:01 pm

Back to the OP: What’s wrong with “cancel culture”?

Reading Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals”, one of the ideas that hit me hardest was that ground-level politics needs to be fun – there’s no way to sustain a grassroots movement with just an abstract sense of doing the right thing. Just as striking was the realization that this is really hard to do effectively; there are many ways to make things fun, and they can be more or less aligned with the larger aims of the project they’re linked to. New flavors of fun have emerged from social media, and some of them can support a layer of motivated reasoning. You can participate in a massive online scavenger hunt, thrill vicariously as someone (not you; you’re safe for now) is cast out, and strike a blow for justice all at the same time!
I think about these systems in terms of framing and ingroups and structured choices, but although from the outside it’s a behavioral gradient descent, from the inside it’s a ride, not just a slide. People “want” to do these things, just as they do not want to take notes at city council meetings. Look at those old postcards depicting lynchings in the American South – everyone (with one exception) is having a great time as they enact the brutal theater of systematic white supremacy. No ludonarrative dissonance there; the intent and the method are perfectly aligned.
So, further questions might be: what intents can we expect to align with the activities that drive “cancel culture”?
What does this game teach us to expect from one another?

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bianca steele 08.03.20 at 4:11 pm

“I am sure that people restricting what they say because of a fear of ostracism is a thing that happens, but there’s no reason to suppose that this is restricted to liberals, or more common among liberals.”

Indeed, it’s common for those on the right to use liberals as an excuse: I have to keep the door open because feminists will claim I tried to seduce them, I have to take this picture of a naked lady down because PC, I can’t do my trademarked shtick where I do Elvis hips as I walk around the classroom thrusting at the girls to get a laugh because no one has a sense of humor anymore, people don’t like my novel where I said democracy is destroying the ability of great artists like me to be cool, people won’t hire or “debate” me when I got a perfectly valid Ph.D. on the thesis that some “ethnic groups” are biologically inferior to others, etc. They often seem remarkably gleeful as they conform to these requirements, as long as they get to say loudly, at the same time, that liberals are at fault.

(Whereas liberals who conform, reluctantly, to right-wing codes when they’re required to do so frequently mutter darkly to one another about the system and the impossibility of doing otherwise. \snark)

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Sean McCann 08.03.20 at 5:35 pm

“a letter that was a plea from a bunch of cancel culture participants (like Weis and the instigator himself, who canceled his friend in France!) to be exempt from rules of polite debate when discussing black and trans Americans.”

signed by Sheri Berman, Drucilla Cornell, Adam Hochschild, Arlie Russell Hochschild, Matthew Karp, Wynton Marsalis, Uday Mehta, Nell Irvin Painter, Orlando Patterson, Katha Pollitt, Claire Bond Potter, Daryll Michael Scott, and Zephyr Teachout, among others.

it is a weird view that sees all these people as stupid apologists for the powerful.

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Kiwanda 08.03.20 at 5:46 pm

notGoodenough writes:

to the best of my knowledge Maya Forstater was not fired – she was a contract worker whose contract ended and was not renewed.

In her statement on this, Forstater said:

Despite writing in my own time on my personal Twitter account, over the course of the next few months these tweets, the draft article I was writing and informal conversations I’d had with others were investigated and my future at CGD was thrown into uncertainty. It was eventually found that I had not violated the organisation’s bullying and harassment policy, but nevertheless as a result of expressing my belief, in March this year I was told my appointment as a Visiting Fellow at CGD would not be renewed, even though I was named in a successful funding proposal for a two-year research project, building on the work I had been developing over the previous two and a half years working as part of the team at CGD.

The employment impact was significantly more than an end-of-contract “the work is done, time to move on” situation. Not literally “fired”, but as a brief description, “fired” seems close enough to me, if not to you.

She had been engaging in discussions of gender issues on her own time on her personal account; there was an HR warning that “a lot of people would find my tweets offensive and exclusionary”; she was investigated by HR for bullying and harassment, and found not in violation of policy; she was nevertheless separated from her position. The employment issue here was not lack of employment protection (or good clean public opprobrium), but more the weaponization of HR.

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NickS 08.03.20 at 8:57 pm

Apologies for misspelling Yascha Mounk’s name in 156.

I’ve been continuing to mull various ideas prompted by Natalie Wynn’s piece, and here’s another attempt.

Presume, for the same of argument that “Cancel Culture” is definable, exists, and is a problem. What should be done about it? As far as I can tell there’s no obvious good solution.

Sebastian H has brought up Emily VanDerWerff a couple of times, and even if you think that she was wrong to write, send to HR, and post on twitter her response to the Harper’s letter (and I don’t know that I do), surely having a bunch of people harass her on twitter is not the best way to resolve that problem.

It may be true that the correct response to free speech is more speech, but it seems wrong that the correct response to speech which overstates harms is to generate more harms (and more fear of potential but nebulous harms).

The two obvious places to start from, in thinking about what should be done are (1) how to protect people from suffering harms when they’re attacked on the internet or (2) how to stop people from attacking others on the internet and trying to cause them harm.

The importance of both of those questions was made obvious by Gamergate (there are plenty of prior examples, but Gamergate happened on such a massive scale that it was hard to ignore). I’m not aware of any good solutions that have been proposed in the meantime.

The Natalie Wynn piece poses the question, for me, how do we make public debate (and, specifically, social media), less friendly for that sort of behavior. How can we, collectively, cultivate a better argument culture.

There’s no obvious solution to that either. It’s nothing new, and nothing surprising that people who nominally support liberal ideas sometimes behave in illiberal ways (it is unsurprising that, “ sometimes even Harvard professors act in ways they aren’t entirely proud of.“).

If I have any idea it is: figure out a way to celebrate and signal-boost people who succeed in elevating the standards of argument and criticism. Rather than looking for victims or villains look for heroes — who is taking and receiving criticism well, and can we acknowledge the amount of effort and patience it takes to do so.

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Tm 08.03.20 at 9:55 pm

I reread the Harper’s letter and I have to say it appears really weak with its unspecific claims, imprecise language heavy on rhetorics, and ahistorical hyperbole. I wonder if the signers will be willing to engage with criticism? Wouldn’t that demonstrate their commitment to robust, controversial debate?

For example this counter-letter:
https://theobjective.substack.com/p/a-more-specific-letter-on-justice/ (linked by https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/7/22/21325942/free-speech-harpers-letter-bari-weiss-andrew-sullivan). The comment section btw is a sight to behold, as full of hate as any I have seen, labeling the counter letter signers „pro censorship“, „dangerous“, „Nazis“ as well as „trash“.

In the course of BLM protests, there were hundreds of incidents of the police attacking journalists or preventing them from doing their jobs. In this Situation, some of our most prominent liberal authors complain that the First Amendment is under threat – not from the fascists, not from excessive state violence, but from BLM and other minorities speaking up. Sad.

One point I forgot to make about Bari Weiss. In the Tom Cotton controversy, she twittered lies about her then colleagues at NYT, claiming the “mostly young” journalists were throwing freedom of speech under the bus. She was called out for that lie immediately, as can be read in this Vox piece: https://www.vox.com/2020/6/5/21280425/new-york-times-tom-cotton-send-troops-staff-revolt. It is worth nothing that her attack was precisely an attempt at shaming and silencing those colleagues. That she didn’t name names doesn’t make it better. On the one hand, the attacked are recognizable as a group, at the same time, unspecific attacks are more difficult to defend against.

I find this also true to some extent for the Harper’s letter. It doesn’t name names of either alleged perpetrators or victims but the suggestions and insinuations are clear enough. Yet unspecific allegations are impossible to rebut.

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notGoodenough 08.03.20 at 10:37 pm

Kiwanda @ 161

Out of interest, did you read my comment on the previous thread I gave the reference to (this isn’t being snarky, I just don’t want to make assumptions as I know sometimes I’m not the best communicator).

The reason I pointed out Maya Forstater was not fired is not to split hairs, but because I think it is rather an important point – particularly as several people have mentioned that better labour laws might well be an antidote to such “cancel culture” extremes as may exist. Moreover, as I noted previously, this is actually a significant distinction, as saying she was fired implies that someone who is not a contract worker could also be fired under similar circumstances – which is, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, painting a rather inaccurate picture. As I said in the previous thread:

“it makes for a legal and linguistic distinction – in short the decision tells us little about what would happen if employees were dismissed for expressing a belief like Forstaters. Indeed, were the case about dismissal the analysis would change considerably. If Forstater were an employee, she could argue that her dismissal was unfair under s98 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. Moreover, following X v Y (2004), the Act’s test of fairness must be interpreted compatibly with her right to freedom of expression under the ECHR, article 10 (though a court would have to address competing rights of trans people).”

So, with respect, saying Forstater was fired is not only inaccurate, but also gives an impression that employees have far less protection under the law than they might in fact have. And, given that the discussion is about cancel culture as a whole, I would hope you agree that it is important not to give the wrong impression about what may or may not be possible under UK law with regard to the treatment of its citizens – otherwise you risk making it sound more extreme than it may in fact be. I am sure you do not intend to be misleading, but people could nevertheless be misled.

You also say:

“She had been engaging in discussions of gender issues on her own time on her personal account; there was an HR warning that “a lot of people would find my tweets offensive and exclusionary”; she was investigated by HR for bullying and harassment, and found not in violation of policy; she was nevertheless separated from her position. The employment issue here was not lack of employment protection (or good clean public opprobrium), but more the weaponization of HR.”

Again, I must take issue with this. It is very unfair to characterise this as though she had no protection due to making statements on purely personal time using purely personal social media. The reason I say this is because in her employee tribunal, quoting Forstater herself:

“ she stated: “I had simply forgotten that this man demands to be referred to by the plural pronouns “they” and “them”,” and that “I reserve the right to use the pronouns “he” and “him” to refer to male people. While I may choose to use alternative pronouns as a courtesy, no one has the right to compel others to make statements they do not believe.[89]

YMMV, but I take that last sentence as meaning that while she might use alternative pronouns, she did not feel any obligation to do so regardless of circumstance. In short, she did not consider that she would necessarily have to refer to trans people using their adopted pronouns even in the workplace. I hope you would agree that someone claiming the right to refer to not use preferred pronouns (even in a workplace) is very different to merely expressing views on gender in your own time. And indeed, that would seem to be the principle reason that the tribunal ruled against her – had it merely been a case of offering her perspectives on social media it is quite likely that the Judge would not have ruled her views absolutist, and she would not have failed the last of the Grainger criteria:

“the Claimant is absolutist in her view of sex and it is a core component of her belief that she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.” [90], and that “The Claimant could generally avoid the huge offense caused by calling a trans woman a man without having to refer to her as a woman, as it is often not necessary to refer to a person sex at all. However, where it is, I consider requiring the Claimant to refer to a trans woman as a woman is justified to avoid harassment of that person. Similarly, I do not accept that there is a failure to engage with the importance of the Claimant’s qualified right to freedom of expression, as it is legitimate to exclude a belief that necessarily harms the rights of others through refusal to accept the full effect of a Gender Recognition Certificate or causing harassment to trans women by insisting they are men and trans men by insisting they are women. The human rights balancing exercise goes against the Claimant because of the absolutist approach she adopts.[91].

Indeed, furthermore the ruling states “It is also a slight of hand to suggest that the Claimant merely does not hold the belief that transwomen are women. She positively believes that they are men; and will say so whenever she wishes. Put either as a belief or lack of belief, the view held by the Claimant fails the Grainger criteria and so she does not have the protected characteristic of philosophical belief.”

Now I am not a lawyer, but it seems to me that had Forstater not taken an absolutist approach to her views and claimed the right to cause offense is a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act (which the Judge disagreed with), she would not have failed the Grainger criteria. Put simply, this would likely have meant the Judge would have sided with her and she would have had a valid legal defence.

Thus, while perhaps I am wrong, it would seem to me that if the situation were entirely as you described Forstater would either have had her contract renewed or had legal redress. Instead, by insisting that she could use the pronouns and terminology she deemed appropriate (even if it were to a client in a workplace) she ventured beyond the bounds of legal protection.

Do you think this is an inaccurate assessment of Forstater’s statements regarding her beliefs or the ruling? If so, perhaps you could elaborate?

Moreover, if you have time (and this is by no means a demand) I would be much obliged if you were to offer your perspective on how exactly Amélie Wen Zhao was censored?

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Faustusnotes 08.03.20 at 10:42 pm

I’m pretty sure Yascha Mounk was lying about the results of the 1954 survey in his twitter thread on it. I don’t have the survey myself but digitized reviews of it all express shock at how supportive Americans were of censoring communists and driving them out of public life. But along with hypocrisy, these free speech absolutists are also pretty fast and loose with the truth, so it wouldn’t surprise me.

Sean McCann, everyone makes mistakes. Siding with known cancellers like Weiss and Williams is an obvious one. Why would you jump on board with a letter about cancel culture with someone who is known to have tried to cancel people, and who just a week later gave as her explicit reason for resigning that nyt wouldn’t censor her colleagues? Or Stephens of bedbug fame? These people aren’t our friends and you can’t win by working with them.

Musicismath, why do you infer from those data that the self censorers are scared of the liberal thought police? The only time the cancelers came for me it was right wing people putting photos of me and my partner online and threatening me at my work. Why should I assume it’s all the left driving this?

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notGoodenough 08.03.20 at 10:44 pm

apologies to the OP, but could you delete my previous comment as I messed up the HTML codes?

Kiwanda @ 161

Out of interest, did you read my previous comment I gave the reference to (this isn’t being snarky, I just don’t want to make assumptions as I know sometimes I’m not the best communicator).

The reason I pointed out Maya Forstater was not fired is not to split hairs, but because I think it is rather an important point – particularly as several people have mentioned that better labour laws might well be an antidote to such “cancel culture” extremes as may exist. Moreover, as I noted previously, this is actually a significant distinction, as saying she was fired implies that someone who is not a contract worker could also be fired under similar circumstances – which is, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, painting a rather inaccurate picture. As I said in the previous thread:

“it makes for a legal and linguistic distinction – in short the decision tells us little about what would happen if employees were dismissed for expressing a belief like Forstaters. Indeed, were the case about dismissal the analysis would change considerably. If Forstater were an employee, she could argue that her dismissal was unfair under s98 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. Moreover, following X v Y (2004), the Act’s test of fairness must be interpreted compatibly with her right to freedom of expression under the ECHR, article 10 (though a court would have to address competing rights of trans people).”

So, with respect, saying Forstater was fired is not only inaccurate, but also gives an impression that employees have far less protection under the law than they might in fact have. And, given that the discussion is about cancel culture as a whole, I would hope you agree that it is important not to give the wrong impression about what may or may not be possible under UK law with regard to the treatment of its citizens – otherwise you risk making it sound more extreme than it may in fact be. I am sure you do not intend to be misleading, but people could nevertheless be misled.

You also say:

“She had been engaging in discussions of gender issues on her own time on her personal account; there was an HR warning that “a lot of people would find my tweets offensive and exclusionary”; she was investigated by HR for bullying and harassment, and found not in violation of policy; she was nevertheless separated from her position. The employment issue here was not lack of employment protection (or good clean public opprobrium), but more the weaponization of HR.”

Again, I must take issue with this. It is very unfair to characterise this as though she had no protection due to statements on purely personal time using purely personal social media. The reason I say this is because in her employee tribunal, quoting Forstater herself:

“ she stated: “I had simply forgotten that this man demands to be referred to by the plural pronouns “they” and “them”,” and that “I reserve the right to use the pronouns “he” and “him” to refer to male people. While I may choose to use alternative pronouns as a courtesy, no one has the right to compel others to make statements they do not believe.[89]

YMMV, but I take that last sentence as meaning that while she might use alternative pronouns, she did not feel any obligation to do so regardless of circumstance. In short, she did not consider that she would necessarily have to refer to trans people using their adopted pronouns even in the workplace. I hope you would agree that someone claiming the right to refer to trans women as men and trans men as women even in a workplace is very different to merely expressing views on your own time. And indeed, that would seem to be the principle reason that the tribunal ruled against her – had it merely been a case of offering her perspectives on social media it is quite likely that the Judge would not have ruled her views absolutist, and she would not have failed the Grainger criteria:

“the Claimant is absolutist in her view of sex and it is a core component of her belief that she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.” [90], and that “The Claimant could generally avoid the huge offense caused by calling a trans woman a man without having to refer to her as a woman, as it is often not necessary to refer to a person sex at all. However, where it is, I consider requiring the Claimant to refer to a trans woman as a woman is justified to avoid harassment of that person. Similarly, I do not accept that there is a failure to engage with the importance of the Claimant’s qualified right to freedom of expression, as it is legitimate to exclude a belief that necessarily harms the rights of others through refusal to accept the full effect of a Gender Recognition Certificate or causing harassment to trans women by insisting they are men and trans men by insisting they are women. The human rights balancing exercise goes against the Claimant because of the absolutist approach she adopts.[91].

Indeed, furthermore the ruling states “It is also a slight of hand to suggest that the Claimant merely does not hold the belief that transwomen are women. She positively believes that they are men; and will say so whenever she wishes. Put either as a belief or lack of belief, the view held by the Claimant fails the Grainger criteria and so she does not have the protected characteristic of philosophical belief.”

Now I am not a lawyer, but it seems to me that had Forstater not taken an absolutist approach to her views and claimed the right to cause offense is a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act (which the Judge disagreed with), she would not have failed the Grainger criteria. Put simply, this would likely have meant the Judge would have sided with her and she would have had a valid legal defence.

Thus, while perhaps I am wrong, it would seem to me that if the situation were entirely as you described Forstater would either have had her contract renewed or had legal redress. Instead, by insisting that she could use the pronouns and terminology she deemed appropriate (even if it were to a client in a workplace) she ventured beyond the bounds of legal protection.

Do you think this is an inaccurate assessment of Forstater’s statements regarding her beliefs or the ruling? If so, perhaps you could elaborate?

Moreover, if you have time (and this is by no means a demand) I would be much obliged if you were to offer your perspective on how exactly Amélie Wen Zhao was censored?

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J-D 08.04.20 at 12:18 am

This suggests that Americans are socialized into learning to keep their mouth shut: the longer you spend in the educational system, the more you learn that it is appropriate to express some views, but not others.

It’s true that it’s appropriate to express some views but not others. If people are learning that from the educational system, that’s a good thing.

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faustusnotes 08.04.20 at 5:18 am

In addition to the fallacy man people are falling for here, that only left wing people do cancel culture, the idea that it is a recent invention of twitter and the online yoof is also very misguided. Someone above mentions Wynn’s reference to a 70s feminist book, and anyone who was born before the noughties will be able to remember that cancel culture was an important part of hate radio and right wing politics generally. In Australia it was a fixture of hate radio and the TV shows A Current Affair and 60 Minutes. Just off the top of my head I’m remembering a couple of unemployed kids (the Paxtons?) who were set up viciously by one of those TV shows, and two women who had a hobby of pulling stupid poses at statues and got absolutely wrecked in the public eye because they did it at a war memorial. In the 1990s Alan Jones broadcast the address of an environmental movement camp and encouraged his listeners to go attack it, and when student activists went to Armidale to help the University of New England unionize they were attacked in the streets by right wing thugs. Unhinged rants on hate radio aimed at destroying the lives of ordinary people were common and they were whipped up through call-ins, where ordinary people would phone into the radio station and add their voice to the rage. These people were so full of hate and rage that their spittle was almost projecting through your radio set. I vividly remember when a health service was shut down by a concerted attack on it by hate radio and some broadsheet media. These stations specialized in attacking student groups and whipping their elderly listeners into a frenzy over any new thing that was being done on campus or in the art world, and their stock-in-trade was hateful language and rage. They were an important part of the 1980s and early-90s culture of gay-bashing in Australia (let’s not forget how Alan Jones was caught in a toilet in the UK during his rugby coaching days), and they held huge political power. Alan Jones could get rugby coaches canceled in a day, and fear of his voice influenced politics across Australia. I think one of those hate radio shock jocks was responsible for spoiling a gang-rape trial through his intemperate actions, and Derryn Hinch had to go to prison for breaching a court order on revealing identities of alleged criminals. If those boys declared you a paedophile your life was basically over, and they weren’t shy of doing it. Senior politicians would pay court to them and policy was affected by their behavior. If one of them turned on your work as an academic you were in deep trouble and my line of work in Oz – connected with injecting drug use and harm reduction – had to be super careful of their ire. Maybe in the halcyon modern era of twitterstorms some of you guys have forgotten how viscerally hateful and dangerous those people could be, and the antics their pet politicians performed to please them?

I know a lot of the people here criticizing online cancel culture, a lot of the signatories of that Harpers letter, and many others who benefit from maintaining cancel culture as a bugbear are old enough to remember hate radio and the brand of doorstep confrontation media exemplified by 60 Minutes and A Current Affair. I wonder then why they’re so focused on the most modern version of it, and on pretending it’s a left wing thing? Where were the voices of dissent back when hate radio was fomenting violence against anyone who didn’t toe the right wing line?

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J-D 08.04.20 at 9:22 am

… Just off the top of my head I’m remembering a couple of unemployed kids (the Paxtons?) who were set up viciously by one of those TV shows …

It’s probably decades since I’ve thought about the Paxtons but the reference was vaguely familiar to me as soon as I read the name. I never watched A Current Affair, and I probably avoided paying attention to anything I heard about their stories, but something must have got through to me. Maybe I saw the Media Watch coverage:

A bit of a response to the hype came from media monitors and probing journos, most notably in the form of Stuart Littlemore’s critique of the media coverage on his TV show, Media Watch.

https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/why-paxtons-were-framed

Where were the voices of dissent back when hate radio was fomenting violence against anyone who didn’t toe the right wing line?

An interesting question in the context of the Paxtons:

Paul Barber, a journalist at the Melbourne radio station 3AW, attacked A Current Affair’s treatment of the Paxtons and urged a public boycott. He was then sacked when Channel 9 withdrew $300,000 worth of advertising.

Was that ‘cancel culture’ before its (alleged) time?

Faustusnotes is not the only one with a long memory: even after all these years, apparently some people still think the Paxtons are worth dragging out for another kicking while they’re down:
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6502535/Centrelink-scrounger-Shane-Paxton-dole-bludging-family-living-mum.html

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faustusnotes 08.04.20 at 9:36 am

The case notGoodEnough and Kiwanda are discussing raises an interesting point. If Maya Forstater can’t be sacked for choosing to refer to trans women by their chosen gender, then obviously it should be impossible to sack some arsehole middle-aged bully who decides to refer to the junior office boy only in the female gender. This was a pretty standard form of bullying when I was young, and this kind of misgendering if done by a man to a man would be considered out-and-out bullying. But if Kiwanda is to be believed, this should be okay. After all, if it’s wrong to sack someone for referring to a trans woman as “he” it should be equally wrong to sack someone for referring to a cis man as “she”.

I doubt Kiwanda has worked or studied in the kind of environment where this behavior is commonplace, but I bet Kiwanda would last 5 seconds under such bullying. Yet implicit in the outrage over this particular case is the idea that this is okay.

This leads us to the ridiculous position that people at work can say anything they want to each other, no matter how vicious and abusive, as often as they want, and suffer no consequences. As someone who has experienced bullying at work (not, fortunately, gender-based), I know exactly what you can do with that idea.

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Matt 08.04.20 at 10:37 am

Here’s an in-progress case worth considering:

https://reason.com/2020/08/03/extramural-speech-at-auburn/

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Musicismath 08.04.20 at 10:38 am

faustusnotes @170: I’m pretty sure Yascha Mounk was lying about the results of the 1954 survey in his twitter thread on it.

Why would you assume that? The paper he presumably based that tweet thread on (Gibson and Sutherland, 2020) is linked above in my comment @154 (and in the Twitter thread) and easily cross-checked. And more to the point, the original source for the survey, Stouffer (1955), is freely available online via Google Books. The tables with the responses to the interview question “do you or don’t you feel as free to speak your mind as you used to?” are on p. 80 and confirm the 13% figure given by Mounk. (Interestingly, only 1% of respondents reported a fear of speaking out due to being “seen as too radical.”) Stouffer provides a discussion about the figures and their significance on pp. 81-2, which is a lot more insightful than the 90-character dunkings of Mounk on Twitter at the bottom of the original thread, most of which seem informed by hazy memories of old Mad Men episodes rather than any actual knowledge of the 1950s, and assume all sorts of things about the 1954 survey that weren’t actually true (such as that it must have excluded African Americans).

But along with hypocrisy, these free speech absolutists are also pretty fast and loose with the truth, so it wouldn’t surprise me.

It’s pretty remarkable to me that you go from a breezy admission that you have no evidence (“I don’t have the survey to hand”), despite the fact that Stouffer (1955) is right there on Google Books, to a false accusation of lying, and then in the next sentence a generalisation of that initial attribution error to the entire population of “free speech absolutists.”

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J-D 08.04.20 at 11:27 am

The more I think about it, the more I feel that Chris Bertram had the essential point right from the very beginning:

One objection to “cancellation” is that it chills open debate and makes people self-censor. But the problem with this critique is that some speech should be chilled and sometimes people ought to self-censor.

In other words, whatever it is that people mean by ‘cancellation’ (and maybe some people do have a clear meaning in mind, even if others are vaguer), sometimes people should be cancelled!

If that’s the essential point, then it’s beside the point to demonstrate in specific instances that a cancellation that occurred was monstrous and unjust. There’s no indication that Chris Bertram was suggesting that cancellation is always right, only that it’s sometimes right; and Chris Bertram even offered one illustrative example:

A society that refuses to tolerate speech like David Starkey’s recent racist remarks about “damn blacks” and the slave trade is better for it, and it is a pity that Starkey didn’t think twice before uttering them. Now that he has come out with such language, he’s been cancelled, and rightly so.

At this point I’m going to mention that I know nothing whatever about that particular instance; I don’t even know who David Starkey is. I’m going to look it up, but only after I’ve finished writing this comment.

However, anybody who cannot deny that David Starkey was rightly cancelled must, by logical necessity, concede that Chris Bertram was right about the essential point. If Chris Bertram asserts that sometimes people are rightly cancelled, as in the case of David Starkey, then any response which consists only of saying, in effect, ‘But in all these other cases people were wrongly cancelled’ is beside the point.

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Aubergine 08.04.20 at 12:39 pm

faustusnotes@173:

I know a lot of the people here criticizing online cancel culture, a lot of the signatories of that Harpers letter, and many others who benefit from maintaining cancel culture as a bugbear are old enough to remember hate radio and the brand of doorstep confrontation media exemplified by 60 Minutes and A Current Affair.

I remember it! But I also remember the time when it was customary to mock rightwingers for living inside a series of epistemic bubbles generated by talk-back radio, the Murdoch press, fundamentalist religion, conservative attitudes to sexuality, fear of difference in general, etc. etc., where dissent was forbidden for fear that it would pop the bubbles and force their occupants to face up to reality.

At the time we tended to think that part of the strength of the left was that we didn’t have to hide in these bubbles; if we disagreed with someone we should be able to understand what they were saying and explain why they were wrong, and if we wanted to exclude a particular point of view from the conversation we needed to be able to give a pretty good account of what harm we would be avoiding by doing so, and be willing to defend it. Or at least be able to point to someone who had already made the argument for us.

Were we wrong? Over time, the prevalence of trolling and other disruptive behaviours did mean that defences needed to be raised, to some extent. But now bubbles seem to be closing up everywhere, and more and more they take on a quasi-religious flavour: to be accepted you must proclaim your faith (whether or not you really believe in what you know you need to say), confess your sins and grovel for forgiveness, strenuously avoid seeing so much as a word of disagreement lest you be tempted from the path of righteousness, always be watchful for signs of heresy in others and never, ever let your guard down around someone who could turn out to be a witch. I mean, some of the stuff Contrapoints covers in that video might as well be one of those late-antique controversies over the triune nature of god for all the sense that it makes outside the bubble.

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Tm 08.04.20 at 4:17 pm

Musicismath 158, Faustusnotes 170

I’m not surprised that only 14% of Americans during McCarthyism claimed “not to feel free to speak their minds”. Most Americans were indeed free to heap abuse on leftists, to openly express racism, misogyny, homophoby etc. The rest had very good reason to be fearful to speak their minds because anything that could be construed to remotely resemble socialist views could get their lives destroyed. Everybody knew it, the vast majority was completely okay with it, a minority suffered incredibly. (I strongly recommend Barbara Kingsolver’s Lacuna, the novel makes the cruel atmosphere of the time palpable.)

It genuinely puzzles me why anybody would interpret this survey as evidence that freedom of speech has declined. Of course it hasn’t, the excesses of the 1950s don’t happen any more. If Americans’ perceptions appear to starkly contradict empirical reality, we should ask what shapes these perceptions. I suspect that most respondents who claim to not feel free to speak their minds say so because they have heard it on Fox News.

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Tm 08.04.20 at 4:19 pm

Musicismath 158, Faustusnotes 170

I’m not surprised that only 13% of Americans during McCarthyism claimed “not to feel free to speak their minds”. Most Americans were indeed free to speak – to heap abuse on leftists, to openly express racism, misogyny, homophoby etc. The rest had very good reason to be fearful to speak their minds because anything that could be construed to remotely resemble socialist views could get their lives destroyed. Everybody knew it, the vast majority was completely okay with it, a minority suffered incredibly. (I strongly recommend Barbara Kingsolver’s Lacuna, the novel makes the cruel atmosphere of the time palpable.)

It genuinely puzzles me why anybody would interpret this survey as evidence that freedom of speech has declined. Of course it hasn’t, the excesses of the 1950s don’t happen any more. If Americans’ perceptions appear to starkly contradict empirical reality, we should ask what shapes these perceptions. I suspect that most respondents who claim to not feel free to speak their minds say so because they have heard it on Fox News.

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PatinIowa 08.04.20 at 4:44 pm

Kiwanda @ 140

“You’re saying that pointing out the hypocrisy of Cary Nelson or Bari Weiss would lead to threats and doxing? Is the implication that Nelson or Weiss would be the right-wingers doing the targeting? ”

What I’m saying is that if they retracted their support for the letter, they have good reason to fear retaliation from the right. In addition to teaching at a university, I also volunteer at an feminist clinic that performs abortions. Right wing threats and violence are pretty much constant on and off campus.

However, if I implied that Nelson and Weiss would do that personally, I did not intend to do so, and I apologize. That’s not what I think. I think it’d come from their less stable fans, especially people who read this: https://professorwatchlist.org.

To be clear, my friend is not at Iowa, and not on the list.

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PatinIowa 08.04.20 at 4:58 pm

Also to be clear:

I condemn violent threats and physical assaults in response to speech, as I’m sure you do. (Sorry, this might be regarded as whataboutery, but at least I would like to be consistent: my condemnation is general.)

You could ask my draft board about my attitude towards violence. The example cited is disgusting. The question is, is anti-TERF violence a greater threat than anti-left violence?

Here’s an imperfect analogy: A trailer park and the carriage house of (why not?) Alan Dershowitz’s mansion are both on fire. I want more urgency given to the trailer park fire. In my view, the Harper’s letter is a bunch of people jumping up and down, pointing at the carriage house. Yeah, it’s really on fire, and we should do something about it, but it’s not the worst fire in the county, and it’s not the greatest danger to people’s lives and livelihoods.

Maybe I’m wrong about that. But it will take data, not anecdotes, to convince me.

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Andres 08.04.20 at 5:50 pm

This thread is getting way too much into the weeds (Forstater, Weiss, Zhao, VanDerWerff, etc.) whereas I would prefer that we start talking about the essential parts of the local biome.

Tm and faustusnotes have an important point that “cancel culture” is not limited to the left wing of politics. Thanks to their greater control of corporate entities, the right wing in America has been practicing “cancel culture” for decades in the form of firing and blacklisting due to the voicing of political opinions outside of the workplace. The most well-known episode in U.S. history is McCarthyism and the blacklisting of screenwriters, but that small episode is most likely the tip of a huge iceberg. To take another well-known example, heterodox and left-wing economists have had to create their own peer-reviewed journals due to the near-impossibility of publishing any sort of non-mainstream analysis in the mainstream journals (AER, JEL, etc.). So conservative claims that left-wingers are a censorious bunch have an almost durian-like reek of hypocrisy.

The claims are not only hypocritical, they are wrong as a general rule. As far as I can tell, Peter Dorman, Sebastian H, and kiwanda are not right-wing trolls but are genuinely concerned about the free-speech effects of the current political backlash against Trumpism/police violence, etc. The very fact that we have a 170+ comment debate on this issue that hasn’t degenerated into name calling is a refutation of this claim (Tm: the infighting you lament is a necessary indication that we are the good guys and the Trumpistas are not; the right-wing has occasional infighting but closes ranks as soon as any liberal or socialist enters the debate; we don’t necessarily do likewise).

What we (i.e., those of us who want to use social pressure as well as electioneering in order to fight racism, Trumpism, etc.) do need is a genuine consensus about which “canceling” tactics are ethically acceptable and which are not. That is, we need to have a well-defined social exile culture (see @95) that is grounded in individual rights but operates through collective action, and that avoids the excesses that Peter Dorman and Sebastian H among others are worried about. But some sort of social exile culture is desperately needed: The Trumps, Bannons, Cummingses, etc. could never have made headway if they had been socially exiled from media and internet coverage.

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Sebastian H 08.04.20 at 6:25 pm

“Why should I assume it’s all the left driving this?”

There seems to be a lot of this sentiment. Letting the culture wars be the only focus of this isn’t helpful. You shouldn’t assume the left is driving this. You shouldn’t assume that the people who assert that either side is driving this are right. The problem is a cultural problem. The problem involves some level of increased ostracism on decreased burden of proof, plus increased network ability to broadcast and amplify the ostracism, plus a bunch of not actually knowing the people involved so not having a shared sense of what counts as beyond the pale, plus an increased ability to actually attack people’s livelihood.

There are a bunch of right wing cases that have parts of it. As faustusnotes points out, talk radio has a bunch of the markers. Qanon has a bunch of the markers (though I think at this point you could say that Qanon has a bunch of proto-religious markers).

“Sebastian H has brought up Emily VanDerWerff a couple of times, and even if you think that she was wrong to write, send to HR, and post on twitter her response to the Harper’s letter (and I don’t know that I do), surely having a bunch of people harass her on twitter is not the best way to resolve that problem.”

I’m not asking anyone to harass her, or even link to her job or anything. For the purposes of this discussion I’m merely asking people to look at her argument from the point of view that she appears to think that the evidence she gives counts toward the accusation of “many dog whistles toward anti-trans positions” is strong enough to make a public accusation that signing a letter with those ‘many dog whistles toward anti-trans positions’ is likely to make her less safe at vox. She appears to believe that she inhabits a culture where that level of evidence is all that is necessary for that level of accusation. And from what I can see, she is correct that there will be a fairly large number of people in her circle willing to defend that.

That is a cultural issue.

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Sophie Jane 08.04.20 at 6:52 pm

Like many people here, I can remember when the same complaints were trotted out against “political correctness”, and more recently against “call-out culture”. Teen Vogue, though, has a deeper – if American-centric – history of the phenomenon:

https://www.teenvogue.com/story/free-speech-fights-target-progressives

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Kiwanda 08.04.20 at 6:57 pm

faustusnotes:

In addition to the fallacy man people are falling for here, that only left wing people do cancel culture

Who are these people here, who are falling for this fallacy? I haven’t read the whole thread, but I haven’t come across any; examples would be helpful.

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Sebastian H 08.04.20 at 7:11 pm

Similarly with the Shor case, there doesn’t seem to be very many people here willing to wrestle with the fact that a bunch of people argued that Shor was racist for tweeting out research about the efficacy of violent vs. non violent protests in the US, and that who got blamed for starting violence ends up shaping public opinion.

Why did so many people think that was racist? You won’t wrestle with that so I have to and I’m almost certainly going to get yelled at for strawmanning. But the arguments (probably not all held by the same people at the same time) I’ve actually seen are along these lines:

It is racist to characterize protests as violent or non-violent.
It is racist to minimize black pain by trying to make people think about electoral effects.
It is racist to be white and try to talk about the issue of black centered protests.
It is racist to force black people to go through the emotional labor of trying to be non violent in these circumstances.
It is racist to blame black people for the violence.
It is racist to think that black people are being violent.

So there appears to be a culture in which these arguments are considered coherent/valid responses to someone pointing to social science literature on the question of the efficacy of violence and non violence and on the importance of who gets seen as starting the violence. And that culture appears to be strong enough that an employer will be worried about racism by association on that basis.

This has essentially all of the tropes identified by Natalie Wynn. We have the quick presumption of guilt. We have multiple levels of abstraction to get to ‘racism’. We have essentialism about Shor’s whiteness (and depending on the argument about other people’s whiteness), we have pseudo-moralism about the timing of the comments, we have the lack of forgiveness when he tried to apologize (which on some level is the most amazing, because he went through the ritual apology after doing no real wrong and still got slammed repeatedly), there is the transitive property of cancelation (with people suggesting his racism tainted his employer), and a heavy dose of dualism.

We should analyze this like we do rape culture: not only by the completed cancelations, but by the culture of protecting and encouraging the bad actors.

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lathrop 08.05.20 at 12:52 am

I can only imagine what lead Mark Twain to write this; undoubtedly one of his own opinions he forbore from publishing from the need to preserve his own book sales:

“In our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either.”

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faustusnotes 08.05.20 at 8:25 am

musicismath, I made the point that commentaries on the survey reported their surprise at the portion of Americans who supported censoring the free speech of communists. This is consistent with Tm’s point that the 14% who are scared of speaking their mind are leftists. You haven’t bothered to interrogate that and neither has Yascha Mounk.

There’s an interesting two step going on here, where people post links to lists of cancellations that are almost entirely apparently by left wing people in favour of left wing ideas, ignore right-wing cancellations (e.g. no one is talking about Kapaernick) and then deny that they’re saying left wing people do it. Constant links to right-wing attack sites like FIRE and Reason, but then the pretense at genuine confusion that anyone would think they’re defending a biased right-wing agenda. Followed by confusion about the possibility that the Harpers letter might have had subtle messages or dog whistles.

And Aubergine, if right wing hate radio is encouraging violence against leftists, gunning for their jobs, lying about what they say and riling up mobs against them, the correct response is not to welcome them into your intellectual life in the interests of openness. The correct response is to throw up walls.

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Musicismath 08.05.20 at 9:17 am

tm, @180-1: I suspect that most respondents who claim to not feel free to speak their minds say so because they have heard it on Fox News.

But how does that tally with the data in Gibson and Sutherland, 2020, which indicate that one’s tendency to self-censor correlates positively with higher levels of education?

In the 2019 data, the strongest bivariate relationship with self-censorship is level of education. Among those with no high school diploma, 27% self-censor; the comparable figures for those with only a high school degree and at least some college are 34% and 45%, respectively. (p. 8)

Are you suggesting that Fox News viewers have higher levels of college education than the rest of the American population? That’s certainly not borne out in survey data about Fox News viewership. You’re conflating the attitudes of two separate populations here, I think.

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SusanC 08.05.20 at 12:33 pm

It’s been frequently alleged that the Israel issue is one that hardly anyone actually cares about (not most of the voters; probably not Rebecca Long-Bailey, whose sin was to make reference to an inrterview that mentioned Israel in passing when RLB was seeking to make a point about something else; possibly Kier Starmer doesn’t actually care either).

Apart from whether or not its true that most of the protagonists mostly don’t actually care, I wonder whether this makes it an exception (i.e. not really an example of the kind of phenomenon we’re trying to identify), or whether its a common feature of these controversies that something few people actually care about gets given undue prominence. (e.g. transsexuals themselves and a certain subsets of feminists might care about trans rights for or against, but most everyone else doesn’t have a big issue with trans people).

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SusanC 08.05.20 at 12:42 pm

Some possibly related effects:

a) The Lesser Evil Argument

In this, a politician, rather than campaigning on the basis of their positive qualities (maybe because they don’t have any…) instead chooses to focus on how terrible their opponent is, thus making themselves look good in comparison. This naturally leads to absurdly overblown allegations of evilness, and sometimes degenerates to some kind of allegation that the opponent in the next Adolph Hitler. Thus: Jeremy Corbyn must be made out to be some kind of Hitlerian menace, because otherwise his opponents — who might be merely mediocre — fail to look good in comparison.

This strategy maybe works in a two party first past the post system. Its risky in an internal leadership election. because if the strategy works and convinces the electorate that Corbyn is a Hitlerian menance while leaving unassailled the belief that the right of the Labour party are useless mediocrities, the voters can always go vote for Boris Johnson instead.

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SusanC 08.05.20 at 1:00 pm

Possible effect (b): concentrating on your opponents weakness, even if its not all that important to the voters.

e.g. If a politician decides that their unique selling proposition is that they are less critical of Israel than their opponent, this must be made out to be the key election issue, because this is their only good point. (See also: being for/against trans rights)

Effect (c). The addictiveness of anger.

Political blogs etc, become a haven for people who really enjoy getting angry about something, even when the issue doesn’t really merit it. So when a new issue emerges they pile on getting very very angry about it.

A counterargument: some people might really be in good faith concerened about the direction the anti-Israel argument is taking politics. As a starting point, consider Hofstadters classic essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics,

A common feature of populist rhetoric is that all problems get blamed on some enemy, that is felt (by the popilists) to be malign and foreign, e.g. believing that all problems are the fault of the European Union, regardless of how plausible it is that its the |EUs fault. Someone who is concerned about this style of rhetoric might also be concerned that the populists movements will blame Jews next when Brexit fails to deliver the promised paradise, and will become even more concerned when discovering that the populist movements are already getting a bit conspiracy-theory paranoid about Israel.

[Of course, the Brexiteers will say that they are are not in fact closet racists and antisemtites. But this (possibly hypothetical) remainer acting in good faith genuinely fears that they are. The Frank Field position — viz beingfor Brexit but leaving the party over alleged antisemitism — requites somewhat more mental gymnastics to square]

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oldster 08.05.20 at 1:59 pm

Whenever there is a real social problem that affects many people, then rich, entitled elites will attempt to commandeer it in order to consolidate their privilege.

If the sentencing guidelines are draconian and cruel, sending poor people to prison for their lives, then white-collar criminals will complain that their 6-month sentence is a gross injustice that proves they should be let out on bail.

If housing prices are so high that ordinary workers cannot afford the rent, then millionaires will complain that they can no longer afford to keep a third home.

It’s a predictable phenomenon. Elites will pretend that their minor inconveniences are epic agonies, in order to be spared even minor inconveniences. We know this.

But we also know that the mere fact of elite whinging is no evidence that there is not a real problem for non-elites.

In fact, the sentencing guidelines are unconscionably harsh: a man in Louisiana has been sent to jail for life, for stealing a pair of secateurs, and the Louisiana supreme court has declined to intervene.
In fact, housing is too expensive, and ordinary people are suffering on a massive scale from artificial scarcity designed to entrench real-estate wealth. The rent is too damned high.

This is the lens through which I see so-called cancel culture: there is a real problem, for ordinary people, of having your life severely damaged by a trivial offense, or by no offense at all. And of course, predictably, elite whiners want to hijack this real concern in order to maintain their impunity.

But the elites are a parasitical epiphenomenon: they are attempting to take advantage of a pre-existing problem that hurts other people far more than it hurts them. And our justifiable contempt for the elites should not blind us to the existence of a real social problem that affects non-elites.

The pre-existing problems are those that Natalie Wynn enumerates: assumptions of guilt, essentializing moves from a single bad act to a wicked character, guilt by association, impossibility of forgiveness, and so on. These patterns pre-exist the internet, and are probably to be found in even small-scale societies. They are pathologies that are closely related to healthy and functional mechanisms of social cohesion, as tumor-growth is related to tissue-growth.

So, shed no tears for Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens. They do not need protecting — they are already coddled far too much. When the OP focuses on their plights as examples of “cancel culture,” then cancel culture, so-described, looks like a well-deserved comeuppance, a refreshing chink in the armor of elite impunity.

Fine: I agree with all of that. I also agree that I would love to see white-collar criminals go to jail for 20-50 years, and I’d love to see millionaires unable to afford a third house.

But it would be crazy to move from that stance to saying, “and I’d love to see petty thieves sent to jail for life, and I’d love to see minimum wage workers evicted from their homes because they cannot make the rent.”

So, elite suffering is a side-show here (as it so often is). Focus on the lives of the non-elite. Their suffering should control our responses to the situation. Focus on the contingent academics fired from their jobs for speaking their minds. On the worker falsely accused of a white-power sign.

And what should be done after we focus on these things? Not what the right-wing zealots say, under the false flag of “free speech”: not bringing back a regime in which the powerful can use slurs to subjugate the powerless.

No: if someone repeatedly uses the n-word in order to inflict pain and humiliation on others, then they should suffer real consequences. I totally agree with that. If someone repeatedly addresses a co-worker with the pronouns that offend them, and does so knowing that it will offend them, then they should suffer real consequences.

But I reject zero-tolerance regimes. A black school-guard asking students not to use the n-word should not be punished at all for mentioning the n-word. A well-meaning and supportive co-worker who mistakenly uses the wrong pronoun on one occasion should not be punished at all for that faux pas.

And along with zero-tolerance regimes, we should also get rid of the parade of abuses that Natalie Wynn lists: assumptions of guilt without evidence, guilt by association, refusal of forgiveness, and so on.

That’s a practical agenda that allows for us to make fun of elite opinion makers as much as we like, allows us to hurl twitter tomatoes at J.K Rowling all day long, and in no way interferes with any notion of free speech worth defending.

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NickS 08.05.20 at 3:47 pm

Sebastian H: “I’m not asking anyone to harass [Emily VDW], or even link to her job or anything. ”

“Similarly with the Shor case, there doesn’t seem to be very many people here willing to wrestle with the fact that a bunch of people argued that Shor was racist for tweeting out research about the efficacy of violent vs. non violent protests in the US, and that who got blamed for starting violence ends up shaping public opinion.”

“We should analyze this like we do rape culture: not only by the completed cancelations, but by the culture of protecting and encouraging the bad actors.”

We’re talking past each other a bit, and I’m not sure how to resolve that.

Part of where I’m stuck is at — let’s say I agreed with you that there’s a problem, what’s the next step? That’s sort of an unfair question because we’re dealing with big, diffuse cultural issues and there is no single next step, but I’m really not convinced that people who are talking about “cancel culture” are even pointed in the right direction of a next step.

Part of why I have a hard time taking the Harper’s letter seriously, for example, is that it was a performative act — presumably it was done to try to achieve an end — and it seems so unlikely to have a positive impact. Even if you agree with the concerns the train of thought from, “these are concerning patterns” to “composing and publicizing this letter is a good way to respond to to those patterns” is hard for me to empathize with.

To make a dumb analogy it’s like if somebody thought graffiti was a problem and they responded by taking out a newspaper ad saying, “graffiti is ugly and reflects poorly on our city.” That is a reasonable opinion and a newspaper ad isn’t going affect graffiti one way or the other.

In this case you might not be calling for anybody to harass Emily VDW, but that’s exactly what happened, and I’m pointing to that as an example of, “perhaps the Harper’s letter people haven’t thought very hard about how to best engage with the problem they purport to have identified.”

As far as the questions you pose, I (mostly) followed the back-and-forth about Emily VDW’s tweets as they were happening and my sympathy was largely with her. I don’t agree with everything she said, but, in that particular case, I feel strongly that her critics were much engaging in much more overstating of harms than she was.

I have way less context for the David Shor example. I essentially only know what Chait and Yglesias have written about the case and, based on that, I don’t have much sympathy for the people upset about his tweet — but I also don’t feel like I know how they would understand their own intentions. But, provisionally, I’m happy to say that was an example of people behaving badly. I don’t know what follows from that. How do we distinguish between, “somebody is wrong on the internet” vs “this is the tip of an iceberg which is floating towards all of us.”

Let’s say I agree completely that a lot of argumentation on the internet is very poorly done — it is lazy and vague and really sloppy with evidence and logic. I’d love to see that improved. If I had my way I’d hope that for every major controversy online there would be the equivalent of a four-thousand word John Holbo post that everyone could agree was the most precise statement of the case (or, heck, two or three four-thousand word Holbo-esque posts that are the most precise statements of different perspectives on the issues). That’s never going to happen.

I’m not trying to present an unreasonable standard (“you must solve all problems of communication on the internet, or I don’t care about what you have to say.”) but I am curious how you would try to improve the situation.

I was thinking again about GamerGate, after my last comment, and I’d say again that what was starting about GamerGate was just how quickly it happened and how many people suffered. It was a vivid illustration of how malign internet culture could be. In the intervening years I don’t think anybody has a clear solution for what would prevent that from happening again, but I also think that would be a great place to start for anybody thinking about free expression online.

Go back and read Felicia Day’s post (for which she was doxed) and ask, “what would have to be different for her to be free to write that without getting trashed?”

You mention “rape culture” and that might be a good analogy, and it just points towards how long a process we’re talking about. The first “Take Back The Night” march was in the 70’s. My approximate sense is that by the end of the 80s people were generally starting to take domestic violence seriously as a problem, and not as something to joke about and accept. People have been talking about “rape culture” for decades and it’s starting to get to the point at which the concept is a familiar idea for many people (and it’s both a disputed concept, in that there’s a wide range of how people would define “rape culture” and certainly not a solved problem). Cultural change is hard.

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bianca steele 08.05.20 at 4:19 pm

The current frouhaha about a well known pop star with initials TS seems relevant. The idea seems to be this: Low-status people should not be allowed to say “mean” things about higher-status people. On the contrary, lower-status people are virtuous when they attack other low-status people who criticize higher-status people. Therefore, fans of (high-status) pop stars should gang up on (obviously at best mid-status) music critics.

Along the same lines, professors should not be allowed to say mean things about NY Times columnists. Activists and journalists at mid-status venues should not criticize the NYT for giving a soapbox to someone calling for violence against US citizens.

(A.O. Scott found himself ganged up on online after giving a bad review to an action movie. I don’t believe he signed the letter as his NYT colleagues did. I wouldn’t be surprised if the organizers didn’t even think to ask him.)

The political half of the question is very different. This involves, in many cases, mid-status activists and writers criticizing other mid-status activists and writers on a more or less level playing field, which is the same field their writing and activism takes place on. That Twitter is a terrible place for this field to be located on is irrelevant, because most of them have a love/hate relationship to the platform but continue to insist it’s integral to their lives.

I think it’s likely the case that the signers of the letter who pointed to Shor, for the most part, would prefer to influence ongoing protests to move away from a direction they don’t like. If his case goes too far for them, it’s because they recognize that he was attempting to influence ongoing protests and they agree with his attempted intervention. There may have been other cases, say, where they were more willing to let a pile-on go by in the name of allyship or tactics.

I doubt there’s anyone on the list who thinks they signed because of “free speech” (as opposed to thinking something, whatever you call it, has “gone too far,” at long last) who doesn’t also think randos on social media have too much liberty and should be stifled one way or another, in a way that restores traditional media to its rightful place.

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oldster 08.05.20 at 8:14 pm

The dialectic on this thread is hard to follow, and I cannot always tell who is disagreeing with whom. I can certainly say that I have been surprised to find myself in agreement with Sebastian H, and with Bob McManus!

And I have the sense that Faustusnotes disagrees with me, but I’m not sure why. So, let me register some points of agreement with him or her.

The threat to free speech and to a functioning culture of speech that comes from the right wing is far more dangerous than any threat from the left. I agree with this quote from Andres at 184:

“Thanks to their greater control of corporate entities, the right wing in America has been practicing “cancel culture” for decades in the form of firing and blacklisting due to the voicing of political opinions outside of the workplace.”

Yes: the rightwing has more power, and fewer scruples about using it, than any elements of the progressive left. Furthermore, the progressive left always seems more willing to eat its own, where the right-wing is more politically effective in tolerating difference if it will advance their political goals. (This is why evangelicals immediately fell in line behind the human incarnation of Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Vanity, and Apostasy — they were willing to overlook his sins if he could advance their agenda).

I also agree that we should be talking more about Colin Kaepernick — the way that he lost his livelihood because of his speech is a classically ugly case of right-wing repression of free speech.

Another case of classic rightwing mobbing came when O’Keefe pranked Acorn, and then Hannity, Limbaugh, and the rest of the Fox empire unleashed a million screaming bigots on the offices of congress people. The Democrats did not abandon their defense of Acorn merely because they are spineless (though they certainly can be spineless!), but because the right-wing media ecosystem — what Duncan Black calls “the puke funnel” — mobilized a mob of callers, emailers, visitors, yellers and screamers, that successfully terrorized Democratic officials. In the Acorn episode we can see several of the Wynn stages — accepting accusations with insufficient evidence; extrapolating from a single episode to a pattern of behavior and thence to essentialized claims (amplified by racist stereotypes); guilt by association; insistence that anything but the strongest condemnation is equivalent to complicity; and so on.

So — I hope that nothing that I have said above will be construed as suggesting that the left-wing is more guilty of bad behavior than the right-wing is. Nope; the number of people who get involved in on-line fusses between sub-factions of the People’s Front is trivial compared to the number of people that Limbaugh can whistle up in a day, and the damage done to JK Rowling by left-wing attempts to shame her is trivial compared to the damage done by the right-wing to Salaita, Kaepernick, and so on.

I also agree that the right-wing is attempting to use legitimate concerns for nefarious ends’ and that many of the signatories of the Harper’s letter fall into that camp. I certainly do not want to further their nefarious ends by appearing to portray the left as the source of the troubles.

Okay — those are a number of points that I hope will be common ground between me and Faustusnotes.

I do, though, have a question for the OP. If the stance in the OP is that “some speech should be chilled and sometimes people ought to self-censor,” then can the OP have any formal objection to Kaepernick’s treatment? By “formal” I mean: not on the merits of his position. Kaepernick knelt for racial justice, and in protest against police brutality, and on their merits, those are messages that I believe should be amplified.

But is there any formal principle that can justify one attitude toward a Starkey and a different one towards Kaepernick?

When Kaepernick said “I oppose police brutality,” the right wing said of him what the OP says of Starkey: “some speech should be chilled and sometimes people ought to self-censor; it is a pity that Kaepernick didn’t think twice before uttering those words. Now that he has come out with such language, he’s been cancelled, and rightly so.”

Is this simply a disagreement about substantive politics? Can we say anything about the permissible consequences for free speech?

And notice that the Kaepernick case is not one in which Wynn’s parade of abuses are at issue: Kaepernick is not falsely accused of anti-racism; he did not accidentally say something anti-racist; he was not anti-racist only on one occasion. He is repeatedly, proudly, and (in my opinion) heroically anti-racist. So cleaning up the Wynn abuses would not help to prevent the damage to Kaepernick’s career.

So I agree with Faustusnotes that we should be talking more about Kaepernick. But what lessons do we draw from that case for the OP’s principle that everyone may rightly be held accountable for their speech?

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bianca steele 08.05.20 at 8:39 pm

I have no idea whether any of the signers of the letter had trans issues in mind. What any of the signers would or should have known is that Harper’s has been branding itself as the place to publish the genre “long anti-PC essay by sadder but wiser centrist or (twice) Lionel Shriver,” on the topics of #MeToo, cultural appropriation (iow Lionel Shriver’s right to pwn liberals by wearing a Mexican hat with tassels) and some I’ve probably forgotten, and that the magazine has promoted these all heavily and got lots of social media play for them. If they’d previously published anything that could be seen as anti-trans, however, I wasn’t aware of it.

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Tm 08.05.20 at 9:16 pm

Musicismath 191: I would be careful with characterizing these survey respondents as “self-censoring”. Forgive my pedantry but asserting that one does not feel free to speak one’s mind is not the same as asserting that they were actually self-censoring. And we never know to what extent survey respondents actually tell the truth. All we know is how they responded to a survey question.

To make sense of this survey, we need much more detailed information, ideally from in-depth surveys as well as structured interviews. Not having more information, I would speculate that people who responded in this way likely did so for a variety of reasons. Further I would speculate that the increase in the share of respondents observed over the last decades reflects more their perception of public discourse than their lived reality (similar to surveys about crime rates). It seems obvious that freedom of speech is now far better protected than it was in the 1950s but at the same time, has become a topic of much more intense media discourse, driven I think in large part by the right wing media and their mostly fabricated claims but obviously taken up by the likes of NYT and Harper’s as well, who mostly accepted the right wing framing, as is crystal clear when you read the Harper’s letter.

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Kiwanda 08.05.20 at 11:22 pm

notGoodenough:

Moreover, as I noted previously, this is actually a significant distinction, as saying she was fired implies that someone who is not a contract worker could also be fired under similar circumstances – which is, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, painting a rather inaccurate picture.

To reiterate: as best I understand, she had a reasonable expectation of continued employment: “I was told my appointment as a Visiting Fellow at CGD would not be renewed, even though I was named in a successful funding proposal for a two-year research project,….”, as I quoted above. She had a reasonable expectation of continued employment, and had not been found by HR to have any policy violations, and nonetheless was not renewed. Whether her status as a contract worker implies, that, in a narrow technical sense, she was not fired, I’m (still) comfortable with putting her on a list of people said to be fired.

The quote from the judge at her tribunal:

It is also a slight of hand to suggest that the Claimant merely does not hold the belief that transwomen are women. She positively believes that they are men; and will say so whenever she wishes.

…is certainly serious, and I agree that is could well be true that “…by insisting that she could use the pronouns and terminology she deemed appropriate (even if it were to a client in a workplace) she ventured beyond the bounds of legal protection.” I would guess that would hold whether she was a contract worker or a more protected category of employee.

Although: had she actually used improper pronouns, on the job or elsewhere? Had she insisted, on the job in particular, that she had the right do so, before she was fired? There’s an aspect of proportionality here: should someone be fired for insisting they should have the right to use the pronouns they wish, even if they don’t use any improper ones? (For that matter, if I state that no should be fired for so insisting, should I be fired? What if I ask the question? But whatever.)

It seems to me that you say both that she wasn’t fired, because a contract worker, and should’ve been fired, even if in a more protected class. Both can be true, but if so, the former insistence seems particularly irrelevant.

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Kiwanda 08.05.20 at 11:37 pm

bianca steele:
To quote myself: “you have a remarkable knowledge of what [these people] are really thinking. This is a common rhetorical dodge [not only by you]: don’t address the particular arguments or examples, attack unstated motives that you impute.” This was from back in ancient times (2015) when a man received good clean public opprobrium from thousands for wearing an inappropriate, arguably offensive, shirt, while acting as spokesman for a scientific institution; he made a tearful public apology, as I recall. These days who knows what would happen to him.

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J-D 08.11.20 at 11:06 am

I do, though, have a question for the OP. If the stance in the OP is that “some speech should be chilled and sometimes people ought to self-censor,” then can the OP have any formal objection to Kaepernick’s treatment? By “formal” I mean: not on the merits of his position. Kaepernick knelt for racial justice, and in protest against police brutality, and on their merits, those are messages that I believe should be amplified.

But is there any formal principle that can justify one attitude toward a Starkey and a different one towards Kaepernick?

When Kaepernick said “I oppose police brutality,” the right wing said of him what the OP says of Starkey: “some speech should be chilled and sometimes people ought to self-censor; it is a pity that Kaepernick didn’t think twice before uttering those words. Now that he has come out with such language, he’s been cancelled, and rightly so.”

Is this simply a disagreement about substantive politics? Can we say anything about the permissible consequences for free speech?

And notice that the Kaepernick case is not one in which Wynn’s parade of abuses are at issue: Kaepernick is not falsely accused of anti-racism; he did not accidentally say something anti-racist; he was not anti-racist only on one occasion. He is repeatedly, proudly, and (in my opinion) heroically anti-racist. So cleaning up the Wynn abuses would not help to prevent the damage to Kaepernick’s career.

So I agree with Faustusnotes that we should be talking more about Kaepernick. But what lessons do we draw from that case for the OP’s principle that everyone may rightly be held accountable for their speech?

You touch on a critical point.

I understand the impulse to search for ways to settle contested issues by formal rules that don’t touch on the merits of substantive issues. It does simplify things when you can do that. I feel that impulse too.

But much of the time that impulse cannot be satisfied. Sometimes speech should be restricted and sometimes it shouldn’t and the boundaries between the two categories cannot be settled solely on formal grounds; a lot of the time, if not all the time, the substantive merits have to be considered.

Here’s an example which I posted on John Quiggin’s Open Thread before this one was reopened:

A member of the Alabama legislature has received a negative reaction for giving the invocation for an annual celebration of the birthday of Nathan Bedford Forrest, and has attributed it to ‘cancel culture’.

Is that ‘cancel culture’? Does it matter? Nathan Bedford Forrest should not be forgotten, but he should not be celebrated; there are some things which should be cancelled, like celebrations of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s birthday.

If you try to judge a case like that purely on formal grounds, you have to say that a celebration of a historical figure’s birthday shouldn’t be cancelled. But in fact sometimes the celebration of a historical figure’s birthday should be cancelled, and there’s no way to distinguish the cases where cancellation is justified on purely formal grounds. To evaluate a case like this, you have to take a position on the substantive record of Nathan Bedford Forrest and the merits of what it stands for, for or against. (Spoiler: you should be against.) Anybody who tries to settle the question without discussion of the substantive merits is trying to dodge the essence of the issue.

The conclusion for the Kaepernick case is that the consequences for him should reflect the substantive merits of his case. (Another spoiler: that means they should be positive.)

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notGoodenough 08.11.20 at 2:30 pm

Kiwanda @ 201

Thank you for your response. I think, at this point, it will be helpful to me (if you are agreeable) to take a bit of a step back.

One of the principle reasons for my engaging in a dialogue is to understand your perspective better, and to see your train of thought. While I may not end up ultimately agreeing, it would – I feel – be very beneficial in seeing where you are coming from. If you are amenable, I think it would be helpful if you could clarify your position and help me understand how you’ve arrived there – I want to avoid talking past each other due to misunderstandings.

So, from your listing of Forstater as someone fired (in response to JQ’s query), I took it to mean that she was unfairly removed from her work. From your comment at 166 where you mention the “weaponization of HR” I believe your position is also that the loss of work was not only unjust but a direct result of a motivated attack on her which, to some degree, was intended to cause her harm (i.e. some amount of inconvenience up to, and possibly including, her loss of work). From the context of this discussion with respect to cancel culture, I further infer that you think this is, at least to some extent, symptomatic of a broader trend.

To summarise, my understanding of your position is:

1) Forstater was (to some extent) unjustly deprived of work
2) This was due to her being targeted for remarks regarding gender issues
3) Those remarks were not significantly offensive (or, if so, not to an extent warranting being deprived of work)
4) This is part of a broader trend of silencing opinions

Firstly, could you clarify if that is a fair summary of your positions or, if not, what your position actually is? Secondly, could you offer your context in how you came to arrive at the position you do hold?

I think if we are to have a fruitful conversation, this would be very helpful. While I will respond to your latest comment, would you kindly clarify this first before we continue the discussion further? It would be much appreciated.

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notGoodenough 08.11.20 at 2:31 pm

Kiwanda @ 201

As mentioned in my previous response to this comment I don’t want to end up talking at cross purposes to you, so perhaps you could address that post first before considering this one. However, as I didn’t want to completely avoid responding to your comment, I will quickly comment in brief.

Firstly I am a little puzzled by this remark:

“It seems to me that you say both that she wasn’t fired, because a contract worker, and should’ve been fired, even if in a more protected class.”

Given the only thing I have said regarding the hypothetical situation of being a more protected class is that “she would have likely had stronger protection under the law”, I am baffled as to why you think I am arguing that she should have been fired in the case of being a more protected worker (as opposed to the not-having-contract-renewed “fired”).

To clarify, my position regarding the justification of the hypothetical being fired is “I don´t know”. Given I am not a legal expert (and so would not presume to offer my personal opinion regarding such a complex topic as employment laws) and that I am not in the position of asking clarifying questions of any of the individuals involved, I think it would be very unwise to speculate without access to all the information. Indeed, I restrain from speculating even in the actual case of being “fired” – I only report the legal case and invite a response from those who disagree with it (my position, to the extent I hold one, would be “I don’t know, but the legal ruling suggests some degree of justification given her stated views – though personally I am wary as I have concerns regarding the lack of employee protection for contract workers”).

Secondly, regarding this comment:

“I would guess that would hold whether she was a contract worker or a more protected category of employee.”

Actually, not necessarily. As I mentioned in my previous comments, and the principle reason I have been trying to make the fired vs. “fired” distinction, to the best of my knowledge it isn´t clear that if she were under a permanent contract that it would hold – indeed, she would seem to have more ground to argue against it being an unfair dismissal, and unless and until such an analogous case were to pass through UK courts I certainly would not assume that it would be the case (I don’t argue the it would or wouldn’t – to me it is sufficiently complex that I would be reluctant to say either way).

Thirdly, you have some queries regarding behaviour during employment. I cannot honestly comment because I am not privy to what she did or didn’t say within work. I am afraid I have little time (or, frankly, motivation) to read through the several thousand tweets made during the intermittent periods she was employed there (and also feel it would be a little – creepy? for want of a better word – to scrutinise her social media to that obsessive extent). And I would be firmly opposed to looking past what is publically available at present (I believe that that would in fact be a gross violation of her privacy).

I would, however, draw your attention to this remark by the Judge:

“I bear in mind the fact I must consider the belief held by the Claimant at the date of the alleged treatment, not thereafter. However, views expressed after the alleged treatment could demonstrate the view that were held before. The Claimant has not contended that her views have changed.[33]

I would also note that her colleagues were concerned enough to lodge a complaint with HR – though you seem to believe this was a “weaponisation” so perhaps you feel that it isn’t indicative? Until you comment on what you mean by that I can’t really say, but I am under the impression you believe that the complaint is not proportionate to her views.

To make a broader comment though, I would also note that every time I have highlighted the case notes it was in response to the assertion you made:

“She had been engaging in discussions of gender issues on her own time on her personal account; there was an HR warning that “a lot of people would find my tweets offensive and exclusionary”; she was investigated by HR for bullying and harassment, and found not in violation of policy; she was nevertheless separated from her position. The employment issue here was not lack of employment protection (or good clean public opprobrium), but more the weaponization of HR.

Because again, my position is not “Forstater was fairly treated by her employers” – I have repeatedly said that I think expanding protections would be a good idea as contract employees are particularly vulnerable to poor treatment (speaking as someone who was a contract worker, did successfully apply for a grant, and did not garner any of the benefits due to not having their contract renewed – though not to my knowledge due to any comments I made), and I would be wary about drawing conclusions solely from this rather limited ruling. Moreover, my position is also not “there can be no objections to the court decision” (indeed, I invite dissenting remarks, though I note you haven’t really offered a critique yet).

Instead, my position is rather “Kiwanda appears to assert Forstater was unfairly fired due to weaponisation of HR against them as a result of “cancel culture”, that greater employment protection would be irrelevant, and I am interested in seeing how they arrived at that conclusion”. I am hopeful you will provide some clarity regarding this – otherwise, and I hope you won’t take this as an insult as it is not intended that way, it feels as though you are shifting the burden of proof a little and trying to get me to justify positions I do not necessarily hold.

Finally, to address your broader point:

“There’s an aspect of proportionality here: should someone be fired for insisting they should have the right to use the pronouns they wish, even if they don’t use any improper ones? (For that matter, if I state that no should be fired for so insisting, should I be fired? What if I ask the question? But whatever.)”

I fully agree. Proportionality is important, as is context. That is why I am hoping you will justify why you believe Forstater was unfairly fired due to cancel culture. Or why and in what way you believe Amélie Wen Zhao was censored. Otherwise, you are providing little context for the assertions you appear to have made (hence why I wanted to make a “deeper dive” into a specific case I know a little about, as I assume you have studied it sufficiently so as to be confident of your original assertions).

Cancel culture, as I noted previously, does not (at least to me) appear to be anything particularly new. It would be, I suspect, easy to point to extremes to validate whichever position you may be taking on a topic, but it is only by looking at the more nuanced cases and really teasing out the position that I think any progress may be made. Or, to put it another way: pointing to a kindly grandmother who loses their job for wishing someone merry Christmas or to a neo-Nazi who isn’t fired despite repeatedly making their co-workers feel threatened is hardly useful – it is perhaps more instructive to examine people who are not easily caricatured and considering them in that context.

To that extent, I didn’t find your list of names of people you feel unfairly treated particularly helpful in understanding you views – it would be more useful if you provide your context. And, given that you don’t appear to think better protection for workers is necessarily the best remedy for any “extreme cancel culture” (to whatever extent it may exist), perhaps you could explain what you think the best way to proceed is and why?

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J-D 08.12.20 at 5:33 am

Although: had she actually used improper pronouns, on the job or elsewhere? Had she insisted, on the job in particular, that she had the right do so, before she was fired? There’s an aspect of proportionality here: should someone be fired for insisting they should have the right to use the pronouns they wish, even if they don’t use any improper ones?

Obviously there is a difference between somebody announcing an intention to do something and actually doing it, but exactly what difference it makes varies with the circumstances.

For example, an announcement by somebody whose job it is to interact with the public at an enquiry counter along the lines of ‘The next time that mob at the counter get on my nerves, I’m jolly well going to give them a damn good piece of my mind’ could, at least in some contexts, reasonably be taken as announcing an intention to be abusive towards people at the counter, which obviously is inconsistent with job requirements; and it would not be reasonable to say that management can’t doing anything about that until the employee actually acts on the announced intention. What’s more, management action would be justified at least sometimes even if the announcement were made outside working hours.

It’s a very similar case if somebody announces ‘I am going to refer to people by whichever pronouns I think are appropriate, never mind what they say they want’, it’s not reasonable to say that this announcement of intention can’t possibly justify management action until it’s acted on. Again, it depends on all the circumstances: for example, if there’s a qualification added to the announcement ‘Of course at work I’ll follow the organisation’s policy, but on my own time it’s different’, that could make a big difference. But at least some of the time the announcement, even without the action, could be enough to justify management action (although again exactly what management action is justified would depend on all the circumstances).

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Aubergine 08.13.20 at 2:36 am

notGoodenough: I’m not Kiwanda, but the responses to the Forstater case that I’m aware of tend to focus on two aspects.

One is this set of passages from the judgment:

While the Claimant will as a matter of courtesy use preferred pronouns she will not as part of her belief ever accept that a trans woman is a woman or a trans man a man, however hurtful it is to others.

… she stated… “I reserve the right to use the pronouns “he” and “him” to refer to male people. While I may choose to use alternative pronouns as a courtesy, no one has the right to compel others to make statements they do not believe.”

I conclude from this, and the totality of the evidence, that the Claimant is absolutist in her view of sex and it is a core component of her belief that she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. The approach is not worthy of respect in a democratic society.

…The Claimant could generally avoid the huge offense caused by calling a trans woman a man without having to refer to her as a woman, as it is often not necessary to refer to a person sex at all. However, where it is, I consider requiring the Claimant to refer to a trans woman as a woman is justified to avoid harassment of that person.

Clearly if one agrees with Forstater on this, one might be troubled by an official finding that this belief is “not worthy of respect in a democratic society”. Indeed, this kind of finding might be seen as troubling even by someone who doesn’t entirely agree with Forstater.

If you don’t understand why Forstater et al might be willing to defer to other people’s preferred identities as a matter of courtesy, but still wish to reserve the right to refer to people as they see them in at least some circumstances, even if doing so might be perceived as “hurtful” or offensive etc., you could look up the UK court case in which a judge told the feminist Maria MacLachlan to refer to a trans woman whom she was testifying against (for allegedly assaulting her) as “he”. According to the logic of the Forstater case, which allows for no exceptions, not only was the judge correct to do this, but to disagree would be “not worthy of respect in a democratic society”. It’s not hard to see why some women are concerned about where this particular slippery slope might take them (in a common law system, of course, the slippery slope is not so much a fallacy as a guidebook and map).

That said, the Forstater case, like many of the other examples from US racial politics raised above, is actually not a very good example of “cancel culture”; as far as I know, it lacks most of the features of cancel culture discussed in the Contrapoints piece linked above (and I have to say that it’s disappointing that nobody taking the “this isn’t a real problem” line in this thread seems to have bothered to engaged with the Contrapoints piece, which gives a very good account of what many of the people who complain about “cancel culture” are actually talking about). But the other aspect of the response to the case is to see it as a small part of a broad movement, of which “cancel culture” forms another part, to silence and intimidate women who dare to think and speak for themselves.

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J-D 08.13.20 at 7:06 am

If you don’t understand why Forstater et al might be willing to defer to other people’s preferred identities as a matter of courtesy, but still wish to reserve the right to refer to people as they see them in at least some circumstances, even if doing so might be perceived as “hurtful” or offensive etc., you could look up the UK court case in which a judge told the feminist Maria MacLachlan to refer to a trans woman whom she was testifying against (for allegedly assaulting her) as “he”. According to the logic of the Forstater case, which allows for no exceptions, not only was the judge correct to do this, but to disagree would be “not worthy of respect in a democratic society”.

According to this account, the judge didn’t give Maria MacLachlan a direction about which pronouns to use, he suggested that she might consider using the defendant’s preferred pronouns.

He looked mortified in the dock — his head down, sulking with his arms folded — though he perked up a bit when the judge — an older white upper-middle class man — corrected MacLachlan’s use of male pronouns, saying, “The defendant wished to be referred to as a woman, so perhaps you could refer to her as ‘she’ for the purpose of the proceedings.”

MacLachlan replied, “I’m used to thinking of this person who is a male as male.” She did try, after that point, to refer to Wolf as “she” or “the defendant,” but simply kept forgetting. By the time Julia Long, one of the speakers at the meeting, testified, the judge had stopped correcting pronouns.

What’s the problem with that?

The judge suggested that Maria MacLachlan try to avoid language which was known to be unwelcome to the person she was referring to. Good on him for making the suggestion.

Maria MacLachlan did make an effort (according to that account). Good on her. Maybe she could have tried harder, and maybe it would have been better if she had, but it’s understandable that it would have been difficult to keep it up while giving evidence in a court against somebody accused of assaulting her.

(‘The defendant’ is, obviously, less ambiguous than any pronoun, which in a court proceeding is worth considering. I expect that both judges asking witnesses to restrict themselves to more formal language and witnesses struggling to do so are common phenomena in courts.)
https://www.feministcurrent.com/2018/04/27/trans-identified-male-tara-wolf-charged-assault-hyde-park-attack/

I have to say that it’s disappointing that nobody taking the “this isn’t a real problem” line in this thread seems to have bothered to engaged with the Contrapoints piece, which gives a very good account of what many of the people who complain about “cancel culture” are actually talking about

I don’t know what other commenters on this thread would say, but for myself I think (although I might not have put this across as clearly as I should have) that what comes closer to my position is not ‘this isn’t a real problem’ but ‘Can you explain more clearly and precisely the nature of the problem you’re concerned about, and also what remedial action you think is worth considering?’

The broad outline of the kind of response I would give to this question in relation to the Contrapoints piece is this:
Natalie Wynn (of Contrapoints) and also some people who support or are associated with her have suffered negative consequences (financial and psychological/emotional) as a result of things that people have posted/written/said about her, or that were related to her (and she gives details).
She makes no explicit suggestions about remedial action (as far as I can tell), but to my way of thinking the appropriate kind of remedial action for situations like the one she describes is, in general terms, this:
People should strive to be mindful of the potential effects of their actions (including their use of words) on other people, and to regard negative effects on other people–well, to regard them negatively!
People should not think, or be encouraged to think, that the effect on other people of their use of words is something they shouldn’t be concerned about.
Thus, I should not take the position that I will say whatever I like regardless of how it makes other people feel, and you should not take the position that you will say whatever you like regardless of how it makes other people feel.

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notGoodenough 08.13.20 at 10:50 am

Aubergine @ 207

Thank you for your comment – as I say am I interested in trying to understand people’s perspectives, so I welcome yours too. That said, I am wary of extending too far as I believe the OP has already said that this is not the thread to discuss the trans/gcf debate (indeed, in one of your comments!). To that end I will try to thread the needle a little by discussing the case in its general sense predominantly with respect to the topic of the OP rather than the trans/gcf debate, but we may have to curtail the conversation if it strays too far away from the boundaries of this thread.

As I understand it, your position is that this case isn’t necessarily a good example of cancel culture, but is troubling nevertheless in terms of the implications? Is that a fair summary of your thoughts? If so, I find it interesting as Kiwanda appears to believe it is a good example of cancel culture, so it would seem there is some discussion to be had here.

To reply more specifically to your remarks, you say:

“Clearly if one agrees with Forstater on this, one might be troubled by an official finding that this belief is “not worthy of respect in a democratic society”. Indeed, this kind of finding might be seen as troubling even by someone who doesn’t entirely agree with Forstater.”

Well, as Forstater was arguing her views should be protected under the EqA, it might be worth considering (regardless of whether or not you share her views) what the broader result of that would be. Let’s look at the exact language together again:

“she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.”

I’m afraid, and perhaps you disagree (which I would be interested in), I don’t think being able to refer to a person using whatever sex you consider appropriate under any circumstances – even if it is intimidating, hostile, degrading, etc. – should be a protected belief, as that position seems somewhat extreme. While J-D @ 206 goes into more detail on this, I would state for brevity that I would broadly agree that the circumstances in which you might apply the free speech is important, and that is the demand for the universal nature which I find most objectionable. And while Forstater has said she would use preferred pronouns as a matter of courtesy, to the best of my knowledge that isn’t the right she was claiming – had her case been successful there would be no imperative to use people’s preferred pronouns, and she (and indeed anyone else) would have been legally correct to call not only trans men and trans women by their non-preferred pronouns but also cis men and cis women (regardless of circumstances). While I can certainly see reasons why Forstater would like wish to reserve that right (and indeed, she may even intend to apply it judiciously and rarely), had Forstater been successful there would be no such actual limitations. If you don’t see any potential problems with that being the case, I would invite you to consider that the flip side – i.e. a cis man being called feminine pronouns or a cis women being called masculine pronouns – has been bullying tactics for some while, and I would certainly be concerned if this were to be protected as enshrined in law.

Indeed, it is worth noting that, as far as I can tell the belief “not worthy of respect in a democratic society” was not Forstater’s belief that trans men are female and trans women are male, but rather that she should have the right (regardless of her intent to use it) to express that under any circumstances. And, while I wouldn’t necessarily use that language, I would tend to agree that the absolutist nature of that is something I doubt I would want protected in law.

“…the Forstater case, which allows for no exceptions,…”

I take issue with this, as the ruling does not appear to address the right to express these views under certain circumstances, merely under all circumstances. The ruling does not appear consider Forstater’s rights to express her position (indeed, the Judge notes it would satisfy the majority of the Grainger criteria), but instead her right to express her position under any circumstances. I think “allows no exceptions” is a bit of an unfair characterisation of a very limited ruling. However, if you do believe that the ruling has such a broad remit as to comprehensively prevent anyone from expressing Forstater’s views please could you refer me to where that is? I would certainly want to know if the ruling is far more expansive than it appears to be to me or (more importantly) the legal experts writing briefs relating to this.

Indeed, as far as I can tell, there is nothing to stop Forstater from writing articles or letters, campaigning on the basis of her views, or arguing against the GRA, etc. This ruling still allows people to acknowledge different types of gender-related discrimination due to appearance, body type and genitals. It also does not stop people discussing GRA reform or advocating for certain spaces to exclude trans people. The judge emphasised that it is possible to do these things without having the ‘absolutist’ belief ([86]). So I am not sure the slippery slope argument is necessarily valid here – though perhaps you can elaborate?

I am also puzzled by your final remark:

“But the other aspect of the response to the case is to see it as a small part of a broad movement, of which “cancel culture” forms another part, to silence and intimidate women who dare to think and speak for themselves.”

Why are you convinced that this ruling is part of a broad movement to silence and intimidate women who dare to think and speak for themselves? What do you actually mean by this? Firstly, silence and intimidate is very strong language – I don’t see anything in this ruling that does either (unless you think not being able to say whatever you wish whenever you wish free of consequences is silencing). I also would say that I don’t see that this ruling (or indeed any rulings relating to the trans/gcf debate) are targeting women specifically – both men and women are on both sides of the debate. You also seem to be implying that only the women who are gcf are those daring to think and speak for themselves – what about those who disagree with that view (regardless of whether or not you agree with their positions)?

Finally, as a matter of clarification, you seem to imply that I am taking a “this isn’t a problem” view. I will note that I have several times stated that I can see several problems with what people appear to mean as cancel culture – I just don’t see that they are anything new or that they are necessarily divided along specific lines (while some issues may be, the problems themselves are not). While I am generally in favour of free expression, I do think it is also appropriate to have limitations – as far as I can tell, most people would agree and the major discussion is over where and when those limitations should be.

In a more general sense, I apprecate that words impact others. I try to be mindful of that, and to respect people if not their ideas (I don’t always succeed, but generally seek to improve when I fail). I would also prefer it if people generally reciprocated. For me, being able to express ideas is indeed a fundemental right. Being able to express yourself, regardless of circumstances, and to be free of any consequences is not. And the practicalities of that is where a major discussion is to be had.

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Aubergine 08.13.20 at 1:37 pm

The broad outline of the kind of response I would give to this question in relation to the Contrapoints piece is this:
Natalie Wynn (of Contrapoints) and also some people who support or are associated with her have suffered negative consequences (financial and psychological/emotional) as a result of things that people have posted/written/said about her, or that were related to her (and she gives details).
She makes no explicit suggestions about remedial action (as far as I can tell)

I read it quite differently; less “I don’t like this because it had negative consequences for me and my friends” (although there’s a bit of that) than “I don’t like this because it represents the left eating itself from the inside”. The remedial action is Contrapoints’ audience, many of whom inhabit the cultural space in which cancel culture thrives and probably do a bit of it themselves, hopefully having second thoughts about engaging in this behaviour in future.

What’s the problem with that?

The judge suggested that Maria MacLachlan try to avoid language which was known to be unwelcome to the person she was referring to. Good on him for making the suggestion.

When a judge speaking from the bench says something starting with “so perhaps you could…”, it’s reasonable to take that as an instruction; that’s how MacLachlan says she took it, anyway. In any case, the judge later cited her lack of gracious compliance as one of the reasons for denying her compensation for the assault, and a suggestion that turns out to have consequences built in was never really a suggestion.

It’s likely that the judge was following the guidance in the Transgender Offenders section of the Judicial College’s “Equal Treatment Bench Book”, which has a lot more to say about protecting trans identities than it does about the reasons that a victim might have for wanting the characteristic nature of male-on-female violence to be acknowledged and addressed. As usual, the idea that there might be a conflict of interests and rights here that doesn’t have easy answers must be exiled from the conscious mind. But:

‘The defendant’ is, obviously, less ambiguous than any pronoun, which in a court proceeding is worth considering.

… in this case, it looks like the victim was using male pronouns precisely to avoid ambiguity. After all, when a group of people gangs up to assault someone, it’s surely relevant that the victim was a 60-year-old woman with osteoporosis and the gang who beat her to the ground and robbed her was mostly made up of much younger, much larger, much stronger males, and that the defendant in particular has an unfortunate tendency to publish misogynist threats of violence against women, and that this is part of a broader movement in which people claiming to be anti-fascists target and silence feminists using tactics eerily reminiscent of the far right. From the piece you linked:

Two dozen individuals — mostly men with masks on, some in full combat gear — accompanied Wolf to court. Many were wearing the all black uniform of Antifa, replete with bandanas and sunglasses.
… Many of those present on the first day of the trial had also been at the original Hyde Park incident where MacLachlan was attacked. Three of Wolf’s supporters brought fighting dogs (Dobermans and Mastiffs), as well as a huge sound system blaring death metal. Half stayed outside the court, half came in. The machismo of it all was palpable.

Does anyone really believe that the sex of the people involved here, on both sides, is irrelevant? Really?

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J-D 08.14.20 at 1:57 am

I read it quite differently; less “I don’t like this because it had negative consequences for me and my friends” (although there’s a bit of that) than “I don’t like this because it represents the left eating itself from the inside”.

I took another look, and I can’t make the connection between what I read and ‘this represents the left eating itself from the inside’. I don’t know whether you are able to provide exposition which will make that clear to me.

The remedial action is Contrapoints’ audience, many of whom inhabit the cultural space in which cancel culture thrives and probably do a bit of it themselves, hopefully having second thoughts about engaging in this behaviour in future.

I don’t know in what way, if any, you think there is conflict or tension between that recommendation and the one which I provided in my previous comment, and which I repeat here for clarity:

People should strive to be mindful of the potential effects of their actions (including their use of words) on other people, and to regard negative effects on other people–well, to regard them negatively!
People should not think, or be encouraged to think, that the effect on other people of their use of words is something they shouldn’t be concerned about.

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faustusnotes 08.14.20 at 4:49 am

Aubergine, if the defendant in the dock was a nazi who insisted on referring to a female witness as “he” because that witness was a butch lesbian, do you think it would be wrong for the judge to insist on the correct pronouns? Why in this case is it wrong? What is the salient difference?

When TERFs complain that they’re being canceled by being “forced” to use the correct pronouns it almost always turns out that they weren’t being forced to do anything, that they would certainly insist on forcing people to use the correct pronouns when talking about cis women, and the real reason they feel they’re being canceled is that they are no longer able to openly say that transgender people shouldn’t exist. If your fundamental political position is that a group of people should be driven out of society and forced to hide themselves, don’t be surprised when people try to cancel your public expression of that ideal.

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oldster 08.14.20 at 12:39 pm

I thought we were not going to talk trans issues on this thread?

Given that one of my posts was literally cancelled up above for saying mild and innocuous things about trans issues, I am dismayed that Faustusnotes is allowed to post false and inflammatory things on the same topic.

Chris, I expect you to show a more even hand than that.

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J-D 08.15.20 at 2:48 am

Two dozen individuals — mostly men with masks on, some in full combat gear — accompanied Wolf to court. Many were wearing the all black uniform of Antifa, replete with bandanas and sunglasses.
… Many of those present on the first day of the trial had also been at the original Hyde Park incident where MacLachlan was attacked. Three of Wolf’s supporters brought fighting dogs (Dobermans and Mastiffs), as well as a huge sound system blaring death metal. Half stayed outside the court, half came in. The machismo of it all was palpable.

Does anyone really believe that the sex of the people involved here, on both sides, is irrelevant? Really?

I’m not denying the relevance of sex, but what I’m missing here is your explanation of the particular kind of relevance sex has in this particular case.

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John Quiggin 08.15.20 at 3:42 am

Apologies for somewhat arbitrary decisions on posting. I’ve been doing most of the moderation amid a pile of other work and I’m prone to missing nuance.

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NickS 08.17.20 at 9:42 pm

I appreciate you re-opening comments. I’m still trying to work through my own perspective on this.

In my earlier comments I emphasized the question of, “what do you think should be done” (other than, as J-D says, to just encourage people to be nicer and more patient with strangers on the internet). I think it matters because it helps explain how one diagnoses the problem.

The more I think about it, people raising concerns about “cancel culture” are implicitly making three claims (1) there’s an identifiable cluster of behavior that can be identified as “cancel culture” (2) that cluster of behavior is (net) harmful, (3) we have existing social or theoretical structures which are sufficient to know how to identify and mitigate those harms.

Much of the criticism has focused on the first two — and it’s good to be cautious about both of those claims — but I think it’s worth being critical about the third as well. Much of what I’ve seen reads as if they believe that if we could have the ghost of Nat Hentoff show up he’d be able to tell us what to do.

Consider various possible statements of a problem which present different challenges in how we would respond (and most likely they combine and reinforce).

1) With more and more disagreements taking place on social media they are more visible and it is too easy for people around the country, who were not part of the original disagreement to weigh in and become involved, and this discourages reasonableness and (often) rewards unreasonableness.

2) It is too easy for groups on social media (particularly twitter) to inflict disproportionate harm on individuals (here is where I think gamergate is a crucial example but there are many).

3) Employers and social institutions are too willing to react to external criticism and should be more willing to avoid making decisions in response to external pressure.

4) That, in any political coalition, some people are destructive or hurtful and people should be more willing to criticize or restrain hurtful behavior by people in the same political coalition (this is extremely broad, but we’ll see some narrower versions of this as we go on).

5) That liberals, in particular, are losing faith in, and undervalue the strength and relevance of the liberal tradition (and would benefit from works like Adam Gopnik’s latest book).

6) Contemporary left politics includes both liberals and leftists who are not interested in the specific values of the liberal tradition, and that leads to various shifting alliances, and liberals should be more assertive in those alliances.

7) The last 25 years of American politics are historically unusual for how closely balanced the two parties are in terms of control of congress, and how often control has switched. This increases the stakes of each election, and makes American politics more contentious and argumentative.

8) Social media makes the public sphere more contentious and argumentative, because it is built to monetize outrage and conflict.

9) Social media has, in important ways, amplified the voices of people (and ideas) which had been shut out of the public sphere, and there is friction as people adjust to a public sphere containing a wider range of voices.

Personally, many criticisms of “cancel culture” read to me as if they are most concerned about (6) the ways in which liberals interact and with with the illiberal left, and that is both unconvincing (or far too limited) as a diagnosis, and politically motivated.

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