What Critics Seem To Be Missing About ‘Cancel Culture’

After Harper’s published an open letter signed by many prominent authors, professors and journalists, there has been a fair number of counter-responses and podcast episodes decrying the open letter’s concerns about cancel culture stifling the free exchange of ideas. So far the responses all seem to be employing three or four primary strands of argument, and all of the strands are nothing more than a variation of strawmanning and gaslighting. The fact of the matter is: there is an environment (albeit mostly existing online) of intimidation and fear that is used to silence people who might have a more heterodox, humorous, or contrarian viewpoint about hot-button subjects like race, gender identification, cultural appropriation, sexual dynamics or the relationships between men and women. People who disagree with the above statement, and the Harper’s Letter, more specifically, seem to argue these four basic points:

  1. Cancel Culture Isn’t Real Because Rich People

One of the signatories catching the most flack is J.K. Rowling, author of the “The Bottomless Cash Machine That Wore Round Glasses.” “Harry Potter.” The young adult series and subsequent films have given Rowling a license to print money, and indeed she has. A quick Google search estimates her worth to be somewhere around $750 million. There are other (presumably) wealthy signatories as well: Salman Rushdie, Noam Chomsky, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Wynton Marsalis, Jeffrey Eugenides, ect… I say presumably because I have no idea what’s in their bank account and neither does anyone else. So as an argument that cancel culture doesn’t exist, this one is particularly weak. In other words: stop counting people’s money.

But let’s assume, for sake of argument, that ALL of the signatories are wealthy beyond imagination. So what? While it’s true that wealth provides a parachute, it doesn’t take away the fact that the person is no longer in the aircraft. People are successful at this level because they are passionate and dedicated to their vocation. Many of the signatories are writers, and as a writer, I can assure you, we don’t do this for the money. Most of us recognize that the publishing industry is 98% failure, with 2% of us ripping open the chocolate bar to discover a Golden Ticket inside. Most of us have primary jobs (teachers, journalists, insurance agents) and are writing in our underwear at 1 o’clock in the morning because we care about creating something and offering it to the world. We know full well that most likely, a handful of people will read our books, and three months after publication we’ll drift off into total obscurity having made zero impact on the literary landscape. But our passion, our desire drives us. Having that taken away because of some “problematic” view we expressed on Twitter or Facebook or in our ARCs is petrifying. There are plenty of examples in the publishing world of authors who are not named JK Rowling that have suffered severe disruptions to the things they’re passionate about because a cadre of snitches and schoolmarms launched a campaign to shut them down. That stands for presidents of organizations, volunteers, board members, committee members, or any other role people accept because they love the industry they serve. It’s not just about money; it’s about being able to participate in the communities they care about. The letter speaks for these people, not the prominent and sometimes wealthy signatories who were asked to sign it. 

  1. Cancel Culture Is Just Criticism

Or its variations: “Cancel culture is just accountability culture.” “Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.” “Just because someone is mean to you on Twitter doesn’t make it cancel culture.” All the variations are significantly underestimating the impact these “mean Tweets” have on people who find themselves on the receiving end of this phenomenon. It dovetails nicely with the first dopey argument, because skeptics love to point at Rowling and Noam Chomsky and others as proof that, while they may have suffered some discomfort from being attacked online, they haven’t really suffered any serious damage. This may be true for the signatories, but it’s certainly not true for those of us who experience genuine fear, knowing we don’t have a platform to defend ourselves should the Ringwraiths come for us. For someone like Rowling, maybe it does only sting a little, and perhaps the “consequence” is that she loses a couple hundred thousand fans. But for the average person who wishes to communicate and runs a relatively obscure blog, or is hired as an at-will employee, the “consequences” are often not commensurate with the crime. Allow me to illustrate the difference between Cancel Culture and mere criticism. 

Criticism: 

Person A: “Blah, blah, Problematic thing that might be offensive, blah, blah.”

Persons B through Z: “You’re a creep and a jerk. Fuck all the way off and then go kill yourself!” 

THE END

Cancel Culture: 

Person A: “Blah, blah, Problematic thing that might be offensive, blah, blah.”

Persons B through G: “You’re a creep and a jerk. Fuck all the way off and then go kill yourself!” 

Persons H through T: “Looks like he works for Geico. Do your thing Twitter.”

Persons T through Z: Hey @Geico  Do you realize you have a problematic employee out here denying my existence? Come get your boy.” 

Geico: “Thank you for bringing this employee to our attention. He no longer works for Geico. His words do not reflect the values of our company.” 

Consequences for speech that others find offensive or distasteful or outdated should be that everyone thinks you’re a wanker and doesn’t want to listen to you anymore. You lose followers on Twitter, your YouTube channel goes from 30,000 to 3 views, maybe even your neighbors know what you said and think you’re a douchebag. Those are consequences I think many people would be/should be willing to sign up for if they want to communicate and express themselves publicly. As I write this I am fully aware that the 10 people who read this may drop to 4 next time I post another blog. What shouldn’t happen is that my employer gets bombarded with emails and Tweets, and because they are spineless and frightened, they cut me loose rather than weather the brief storm. That’s when criticism crosses into cancelation, which is what the letter outlines. Any other interpretation is just a cynical strawman. 

  1. My Existence Isn’t Up For Debate

A particularly slimy strawman and the easiest strategy to win any debate. The “My-right-to-exist-isn’t-negotiable” strategy. Theoretically it can be used in just about any scenario. 

Climate Change: “Well, I work for an oil company; that’s how I feed my family. My right to exist isn’t up for debate!”

Abortion: “A child’s right to exist isn’t up for debate!”

Gun Control: “I need guns to defend my family. My right to exist isn’t up for debate!”

Confederate Statues: “My great granddaddy fought under Stonewall Jackson. You’re erasing my existence!” 

Healthcare Reform: “I’m a doctor who expects to be rightly compensated for my labor. My right to exist isn’t up for debate!” “Yeah, well I have diabetes and need affordable healthcare. My right to exist isn’t negotiable!”

This is fun!

I’m not the most versed person when it come to LGBQT issues, I’ve never been the victim of sexual assault, and I have no clue what it’s like to worry about whether or not I’ll survive the ordeal of being pulled over by a cop. But I think there are a lot of cafes and rest stops between the status quo (which isn’t working) and “We don’t think you should exist.” Conversations such as: How should we ensure some degree of due process on college campuses and in the workplace? How do we handle trans individuals who want to engage in combat sports or enter vulnerable spaces such as women’s prisons? What would ‘defunding the police’ actually look like? These are serious topics that we can probably tackle in a way that protects everyone involved while being inclusive and compassionate toward vulnerable members of our population. But some don’t seem to want to even have the conversation. They’d rather strawman the question into a question of one’s right to exist and then intimidate anyone who raises these issues into silence. That’s the most invidious aspect of cancel culture: it puts a stranglehold on conversations, understanding, negotiation and consensus. 

  1. Cancel Culture Isn’t Important Because Trump

When and if you do get a cancel culture skeptic to finally concede that we might have a problem with how we engage one another in public forums, one of their final Hail Marys will be something similar to what the response letter states: “It is impossible to see how these signatories are contributing to “the most vital causes of our time” during this moment of widespread reckoning with oppressive social systems.”

The implication being that cancel culture isn’t a vital issue when compared to concerns such as removing Trump from office, reforming our police system, reforming our criminal justice system, creating equity and inclusion in our industries, and preventing massive rollbacks on reproductive rights now that we have a majority conservative SCOTUS. But I would posit that in order for these issues to be addressed and properly redressed, public conversations, otherwise known as “free speech” need to be upheld until it hurts. Yes, Trump is a human dumpster fire. Yes, we still have kids in cages. Yes, people are being swept off the streets in Portland. Yes, Trump used physical force to clear a path for his church photo-op. Yes, Russia might still be interfering in our elections. Yes, our president might have been aware that Russia was paying bounties for the lives of American soldiers in the Middle East. Yes, these are all major problems that do, in the immediate climate, make getting mobbed by activists on Twitter pale in comparison. But when we talk about cancel culture, we’re really talking about principles. I happen to think that both the right and the left are necessary. The right is there to prevent us from overreaching in our principles and the left is there to prevent corruption from settling into permanent power structures and institutions. It is my sense that we are creeping dangerously toward a one-party outlook, whereby the solutions to our problems can only be solved by either Democrats or Republicans. Both parties can and will become authoritarian under that outlook; history has taught us at least that much. For progress to happen, conversations need to happen between the two opposing forces. Compromise, in some cases, might even be necessary. Instilling fear in people who want to engage in the national conversation, or even make a silly joke about something, is corrosive to the principle of free speech, a free press, the free exchange of ideas. Furthermore, it does little to actually create true change in our society. Think about it: is getting John Doe, FedEx delivery man, fired from his job for saying the n-word on a commuter train going to make him less racist, or just more resentful? Or do you support it simply because it gives you a sense of control over other human beings and their livelihoods? Because, in the aggregate, that might be what we are giving up the most in all this hullabaloo about cancel culture. Maybe opponents of cancel culture, like myself, just don’t want to give random people the tools by which they can control us. 

I sign off with this interesting nugget. Just days before the Covid-19 pandemic shut much of the country down on March 19, the New York Times ran a narrative piece from a female professor who tells a harrowing tale of the absolutely Dante-ian ring of hellfire she went through during a Title IX investigation. The woman was poised to receive a tenure-track position at a new university in a different state where her wife had just received an assignment. Just days from being chosen as the preferred candidate, the hiring university received anonyous emails from a former grad student of the professor, claiming she was subjected to the professor’s unyielding sexual harassment. As is protocol, the university launched an investigation and ultimately decided to go with another candidate, a male professor whom the accused knew personally. As it turns out, this male professor was the author of the anonymous emails. He used false accusations to torpedo this woman’s chances of getting hired, so he could secure the position for himself. When this came to light, the offer was rescinded, and he has been dragged into court for libel, defamation of character and emotional and economic damages. Consequences, right? The NYT piece deliberately did not mention the name of this disgraceful man. However, after the piece ran, a woman with a rather large Twitter following took it upon herself to use context clues, court dates, and the name of the author to unearth the identity of the man and share it with her followers. Apparently, on behalf of this Times author she never met, she wanted more blood than the courts were willing, or perhaps able, to extract. The digital mobbing, which this blue-check user approved, resulted in his current employer being contacted as well as his publishing agent. His agent responded with a statement that they no longer represent him. One of the final, and most chilling, Tweets on this incident occurred just before we all went into lockdown here in the Northeast. A man wrote something to the effect of: ‘Don’t think the coronavirus is going to make us forget about you. We’re coming for you once this is over.’  The woman who started this interrupted avalanche against a man who has been held accountable in court? She was a signatory on the response letter claiming cancel culture doesn’t exist. 

If you took the time to read this, let me know where I’m going wrong. I’m always open to re-think and change my position. Just don’t cancel me.

5 Stupid Things We Say About Colin Kaepernick

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Colin Kaepernick takes a knee during the National Anthem. In the foreground, heartbroken members of the U.S. military stand there, not giving a shit.

This is not a sports article. I’m not about to delve into QB Colin Kaepernick’s stats. I don’t even know Colin Kaepernick’s stats. I know he led the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl and almost won it. That’s about the extent of my Colin Kaepernick knowledge.

I also know that last year he created a storm of controversy when he decided that he would take a knee during the national anthem while he was on the sidelines during 49ers games. His protest of the anthem is inspired by what he perceives as the unjust treatment of blacks at the hands of police, and the subsequent lack of consequences for those officers who cross the line and abuse their power.

Not satisfied with just the standard knee-jerk, faux patriotism of the “love it or leave it” variety, many people have weighed in on social media with the following philosophical nuggets. I would have put them in some sort of Top 5 order, but they’re all equally dumb.

  1. Playing In The NFL Is A Privilege, Not A Right

The Idea: This sentiment is an answer to the argument that Colin Kaepernick, like every American citizen, has the right to freedom of speech and should not be punished for exercising that right.

Why it’s dumb: Working ANYWHERE is a privilege. (Especially in this economy!) The NFL is not some sacred oasis of occupational bliss, where all the employees walk around on some sort of sweet air, smiling away as they toil. Yes, Colin Kaepernick makes a lot of money. Yes, the NFL is a pretty cool place to land a gig. Yes, playing in the NFL is pretty rarefied air. But so what? This means that players have to put their social opinions in their locker before they trot out onto the field to entertain us slobs? That’s not fair. Besides, there’s no room in their locker; it’s filled with weed and guns.

  1. Private Companies Have A Right To Hire or FIre Whomever They Want

The Idea: Rational people think that companies shouldn’t be allowed to fire somebody because they don’t like their opinions on some particular subject. In the public sector, such as education, there is a thing called tenure, that gives teachers a fair shot at defending themselves if something they say either in the classroom or on social media gets them into hot water. It doesn’t always work, but there you have it. In the private sector, however, no such protections exist, and the NFL is no exception. For the most part they can give you the boot without due process. People who tout this little nugget on social media use it to support his firing and criticize the 49ers organization for not drumming him out of the building as part of the halftime show.

Why it’s dumb: While technically true, it’s dumb because it doesn’t end with the NFL. Living in an America where a boss can give you the axe because of your opinions is the democratic-capitalist version of totalitarian regimes (we purportedly hate) who “disappear” people in the middle of the night for the same reason. I’m not suggesting that we are heading in that direction, but just so you’re informed, there are very little (if any) free speech protections on the books aimed at private companies. The Founding Fathers, when they drafted the First Amendment, were primarily concerned with government’s abuse of power, not corporations. Most of the colonists were business owners and tradesmen themselves, not employees of a company. Fast forward 230 years and some corporations in America (like our beloved Vatican City NFL) have power, capital and revenue streams as large as some small countries in the world. Maybe it’s time we start protecting employees who want to write on their socks. No? Then that’s why this is dumb.

  1. Nobody’s Curbing His Freedom of Speech

The idea: He can say whatever he wants, but he doesn’t have to work for the NFL.

Why it’s dumb: While this is also technically true, it’s also dumb because it basically says that we have two choices: shut up and earn a living, or speak out and starve. It’s important to keep in mind that the NFL hasn’t done anything to Kaepernick–they haven’t fined him, they haven’t fired him, they haven’t slapped him with an injunction. They don’t have to. We are doing it for them and we’re enjoying it! Saying you have freedom to do something and then placing such harsh consequences for doing so is like when our parents would tell us: “Go ahead. See what happens to you.” It’s not freedom; it’s a false choice. We absolutely ARE curbing his freedom of speech. Pointing out that he hasn’t been arrested for taking a knee is a pretty low bar to set on such an important freedom, don’t you think?

  1. He Should Take His Message Elsewhere, Not On The Field

The idea: If Kaepernick thinks the cops are pigs and that America is a racist nation, that’s fine. He should just take his protest out on the street, or take part in a march. So long as he is out of his NFL uniform and not doing it an an NFL stadium.

Why it’s dumb: Name one living black activist besides Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton. Go ahead, I’ll wait. The sad fact of the matter is that if Kaepernick doesn’t use his sideline position at NFL games as his platform to express his views, he won’t have a platform. His knee is a message to white America. White America has a sort of spotty record when it comes to listening to black people when they don’t have a ball in their hand or throwing punches in a ring. It’s also dumb because it basically says that NFL stadiums are special, accepted-speech only zones, and the NFL uniform is like the military uniform: everybody should stand in line and keep their mouths shut. In the military it works because it prepares them for warfare. In the NFL it works because? Well, because it allows us the comfort of watching a football game without those icky reminders of the improvements that need to be made in our society.

  1. It’s Great That He’s Trying to Weasel His Way Back Into The NFL

The idea: Ha-ha, nanna-nanna-poo-poo, you’re back-pedaling! This year Kaepernick is on the bubble of the NFL, looking in to see if he can land a job at some other team. In his interviews, he’s been a bit softer in his approach to the million-dollar question: will he take a knee during the anthem this coming year? Or has he learned his little lesson.

Why it’s dumb: Kaepernick’s waffling will soon be our waffling. Our take away from the fact that Kaepernick is being a bit more obtuse when he talks to the press is not supposed to be: ‘what a coward, phony and a hypocrite he is, now that his job is on the line.’ Our take away is supposed to be: ‘what a sad commentary it is on our culture that someone has to hide their social opinions from plain view in order to earn a living.’ This is sort of like laughing with our backs turned to the ocean after a swimmer gets wiped out by a massive wave. A lot of the joy I’m reading about his situation is coming from conservatives. My question to them is: how will you react when your liberal boss threatens to fire you for wearing a Make America Great Again t-shirt? You’ll take off the shirt and never wear it to work again? Fine. But maybe you should be the one not standing during the national anthem, because clearly you don’t embrace the sentiment behind it. The fact is that scores of police officers have committed abuses of their power by using either deadly force or some other means of violence and intimidation since Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee. Most of those officers have not had their livelihood taken away from them. You know who has? Colin Kaepernick. If we continue to revel in an employee being forced to get up off his knee, it will only be a matter of time before we find ourselves on both of ours.

 

Why Are My Fellow Liberals Burning Books?

 

I can’t believe we have to tell liberals of all people to stop this neo-book-burning.

     In the past few weeks both inflammatory trolls Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter were disinvited to speak at reputable college campuses—the most mind-boggling of which was Ann Coulter’s rebuff at what used to be a beacon of free speech, UC Berkley.

bn_freespeechuniversity_540

     These are the most recent, but there are others who have been disinvited, and still others who presented their speech and then were pelted with fists and eggs and everything else on their way out of the building. The alt-right bloggers reacted as expected: calling the protesters “snowflakes” and decrying the onslaught of a “politically correct” agenda. Politically correct, by the way, is generally a person’s way of saying “aw man, I can’t say nigger anymore? I will not stand for this facism!” In short, nothing surprised me about the heat Milo and Ann drew to their event, and nothing surprised me about their response to that heat.

     What does surprise me is the rise of think-pieces, most notably in The New York Times, suggesting that these sometimes violent and certainly mob-like reactions should be celebrated and recognized as our youngest generation “redefining” the parameters of free speech.

     Redefining the parameters? Free speech doesn’t have parameters. Or conditions. That’s why it’s called “free speech.” It’s free. Its properties are implied in the word “free.” A synonym for “free” is “liberal” and yet it’s people who identify as liberal ironically instilling parameters and conditions upon our concept of free speech.

     In the New York Times piece, NYU professor Ulrich Baer suggests that what protesters (and the college administrators who are folding to their pressure) are doing is establishing a type of free speech that protects the greater good, or at the very least, a greater number of people.

     “The recent student demonstrations at Auburn against Spencer’s visit — as well as protests on other campuses against Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos and others — should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people, rather than censorship.”

“The conditions of free speech.”  The only “conditions” we should establish when it comes to free speech is when speech leads to widespread panic that can cost lives, like shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, or saying the city ran out of bike racks in Williamsburg. Even in these cases I’m queasy about acquiescing that kind of interpretive power to the masses. Just a few short months ago, in a conversation with a fellow NYC school teacher, she actually blamed Richard Spencer for getting punched. If Spencer’s views weren’t so abhorrent, she said, he wouldn’t have incited people to the point of violence. The level to which we have become comfortable with justifying violence because we don’t like a speaker’s message astounds and frightens me. The winds can and do change at any point. We have to keep free speech free.

Free speech with conditions isn’t free speech. Characterizing it the way Baer does in the passage above is nothing short of spin. It’s killing women and children and then calling it “collateral damage,” and I think liberals like this NYU professor know it.     

We Live In A Time When We Have More Speech, Not Less

There’s no question that we have a history of delegitimizing whole segments of the world’s population. Baer opens his piece with an anecdote about a female Holocaust survivor who approaches a scholar of the Holocaust. The scholar dismissively says “Madame, you are an experience, not an argument.” Only since the 1990s, Baer asserts, have we began to acknowledge experience as a very powerful form of argument. Fair enough. But in that situation, which occurred around 1985, the female Holocaust survivor had to go home feeling like her voice didn’t matter. Nowadays, that same woman has a myriad of platforms (including college campuses) on which to shout her experiences.

     (Case in point, The New York Times has never heard of me and would never publish this opinion piece, but guess what? You’re reading it!)

     Such is the case with segments of our population who have been marginalized and feel de-legitimized by mainstream culture—ethnic and racial minorities, women, the LGBQT community—there are platforms for all of these voices (including college campuses!) and I think that’s a powerful thing. This can only make for a stronger society.

     So why in hell would we want to put conditions to free speech in an age when technology has allowed literally everybody to be heard? It’s time to ask, who is really being de-legitimized here?

Are We Really Protesting Content?

     Another specious argument coming from the left (I still can’t believe it’s the left doing this) is that there are some topics that are not debatable, or at least not worthy of debate. Topics such as the moral grounds for eugenics, the dangers of miscegenation, or the inferiority/superiority of one race over another: are not up for debate and are not worth discussing. Fine. But are those the topics Ann Coulter or Milo planned to discuss? Or have we decided, simply, that Ann Coulter’s views repulse us, so we’re going to protest them, violently if necessary, and get the intellectual backing of NYU professors in the New York Times? Baer gives these protesters far too much credit. They simply don’t like these speakers’ views (neither do I, for the record), they resent the fact that they have an audience, so they want to shut them down.

     I also take issue with Baer’s premise that speech is intended as a “public good.” Sometimes this is the case, but sometimes it’s not. The Nazi Party march in Skokie, IL did not accomplish any greater good. But it was rightfully protected.

     “The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks.”

     Yes it does. But I’ll let him continue because that’s the kind of guy I am.

     “It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized         members of that community.”

     To which I ask: who was/is stopping these “other members of a given community” from “participating in discourse as fully recognized members of that community?” Those people have every right and every opportunity to speak on a number of platforms. Since when is a college barred from, say, having Ann Coulter speak on a Tuesday at 2 p.m., and an immigrant rights activist, or a transgendered or LGBQT activist speak at 3 p.m.?

     “In today’s age, we also have a simple solution that should appease all those concerned that students are insufficiently exposed to controversial views. It is called the internet, where all kinds of offensive expression flourish unfettered on a vast platform available to nearly all.”

Oh, well that’s convenient. Let’s all thank this man for granting a proper venue for people he doesn’t like to deliver their opinions. How about this: Go piss up a rope. Why don’t you go and chuff your opinions off to the ghettos of the internet? Are we really engaging in this kind of soft-headed approach to the problem, that we’re willing to tolerate speech on the internet, just not on college campuses? Wow.

A Modest Proposal

     Of course the biggest issue with all of this “redefining” and condition-creating is a simple, but large issue: Who gets to decide what’s debatable, acceptable and helpful to the greater good?

     Answer:

     Me.

     I’ll take care of it.

     From now on, all college speeches will be sent to me in advance. I’ll sit down with a panel of people whose judgment I trust, and together we’ll decide whether the speech lends itself to a greater good, legitimizes and validates marginalized people and is therefore worthy for public consumption.

     Sound good? Of course not! It’s insane. So stop it! Stop intellectually burning books and then calling it an act of advocacy for the greater good. We’ve seen this sort of collectivism before. Someone rewind that movie.

    If we’re going to go down this path, let’s not kid ourselves. We’re not “redefining” free speech. These kids aren’t “re-envisioning” the First Amendment. We’re creating a new amendment. Let’s do what George Carlin would have done, and call it what it is. Approved Speech. Free speech is gone. We have Approved Speech. Stop lying to us (and yourselves) with these rationales and euphemisms.

Here’s the Kicker!:

     Baer actually made my point for me just a few short hours after the New York Times published his piece. In the same article where he states “ I am not overly worried that even the shrillest heckler’s vetoes will end free speech in America,” he doubled back to include a legal disclaimer divorcing his views from his employer. Without a shred of irony.