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The fundamental incoherence of “cancel culture”


Thomas Chatterton Williams is the latest person to think it’s a good idea to sit down with Isaac Chotiner, and things proceed roughly as you would expect:

What was the genesis of the letter?

It’s no secret. No one is trying to be evasive, but it came out of conversations that the five of us—[the Atlantic staff writer and former New Yorker staff writer] George Packer, myself, [the Columbia professor of humanities] Mark Lilla, [the journalist] Robert F. Worth, and [the historian and professor of journalism] David Greenberg—started on an e-mail chain five or six weeks ago, talking about something that I’ve been talking about with some of them for years.

That Mark Lilla was at the heart of this thing tells you pretty much all you need to know, really.

To get to the meat of it, when asked for actual examples of “cancel culture” — as opposed to “people being fired for perfectly good reasons” — from the left, he cites the case of David Shor, which almost everyone agrees (assuming this reporting is accurate) was bad. The result is a highly instructive self-own:

This is not my personal example, but I think there was a great amount of debate over [the resignation of former New York Times opinion editor] James Bennet. I wasn’t organizing a letter around something like that, because I think that gets in the way of making a larger point.

There have been many, many academics who have been silenced. There was a U.C.L.A. professor who got in serious trouble for just reading “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” [William Peris, a lecturer in political science, reportedly came into conflict with students over his decision to read aloud the N-word in King’s letter and show a documentary about lynching. U.C.L.A. told The New Yorker that there was no formal investigation, but that the situation was being “reviewed.”] There is an academic at the University of Chicago who questioned some aspects of the orthodoxy on Black Lives Matter. [Harald Uhlig, a professor of economics, compared Black Lives Matter activists to “flat-earthers and creationists.” A student then claimed that Uhlig had made racially discriminatory remarks in his classroom. The university conducted an investigation and found that there was no basis for further proceedings.]

These are indeed the canonical examples of the recent “cancel culture” hysteria. And it’s telling that trying to make them sound problematic requires (as Chotinier’s inserts make clear) ridiculous mischaracterizations of the relevant events:

  • As Williams implicitly concedes, an editor being forced out for soliciting a fascist op-ed from a hack politician and then publishing it unread is not “cancel culture” unless you think that firing powerful people for cause is “cancel culture.” The idea that the process by which Bennet chooses and edits (or doesn’t edit) what appears in his page isn’t relevant to whether he should be able to keep doing it is flatly absurd.
  • I’ve been teaching “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” to undergrads for 15 years, and this has never led to a controversy because I DON’T SAY THE N-WORD for the obvious reason that it would be morally and pedagogically wrong for me to do that in an undergrad survey course. That a white instructor repeatedly and gratuitously using the n-word and then dismissing students who were very understandably and predictably upset about it has become one of the top cases for “cancel culture” is an object illustration of the incoherence of the concept. At bottom it always comes down to “powerful people should be able to say anything they want and everyone else should shut up.”
  • Needless to say, this also applies to the professor who compared BLM to the Charlottesville Nazis and the Klan. And as Chotiner observes, neither of these instructors lost their jobs, so the “cancellation” being objected to seems to consist of nothing but “offended students expressing themselves.”

I’m sure some of your readers on Twitter can already imagine, like, laughing that it’s anecdotal, but I have tons of people who tell me they wouldn’t write certain things, that they wouldn’t say certain things, that they’re not comfortable even entering into a conversation on Black Lives Matter, on Israel, or any of these things, because they didn’t feel that they could even get into a conversation without enormous repercussions that would be detrimental, because they don’t possess the identity that gives them what I would say is the epistemological authority to even weigh in, and so it’s just a land mine. You must possess a particular identity to be able to participate in certain conversations or you face a backlash that comes at you so fast that you can’t even defend yourself against it. It penetrates your workplace.

If I might be permitted to state the obvious, there has never been a time in which you could be free to say anything you want without provoking an adverse reaction from people. People “censor” themselves all the time, and that is a good thing!

I will concede, however, that there is some real campus activism that has sought to sanction critics of Israel.

You are, but the world that I feel like is taking hold—and I don’t want to get into hyperbole. I think that I’m using that language that sounds hyperbolic only when repeated back, because that’s actually language that comes in the critique of our letter. They say Black people have always been cancelled. I wouldn’t start with that. I’m responding to that assertion. My dad comes from a culture of having felt that you could be cancelled. I don’t want to extend that insecurity as far as we can. I always write from the position that we are not in the same country that my father was and that none of this is the same as it used to be, and we should all step back from hyperbolic language that overestimates the challenges we face in light of the challenges that we’ve already overcome.

Um…OK. And another illustration of how incoherent this all is:

Did you follow the case of Blake Neff, who worked for Tucker Carlson’s show and was fired for posting horribly racist things on a message board unrelated to his work?

A little bit, yeah. I think that once your employer—here’s the thing about cancel culture. It’s not about you violating your employer’s clear rules. I’m sure that what Blake did was against the rules of his employment. Cancel culture also operates on another level that makes it very difficult to defend against, which is that the rules are changing. Part of it is that you have broken some rule that is not specified yet or clearly in your employment contract or even necessarily in our public understanding of norms. You’ve tripped a new wire, and you’re being made an example of. Being fired for bad performance or for having an alter ego that posts incredibly racist stuff is not cancel culture.

Obviously, I think Neff being fired is fine, but I don’t really understand the position that it’s bad to fire people for saying bad things…unless there’s a clear rule against it, even assuming arguendo that there was.

There’s a lot more, but essentially any attempt to drill down on what “cancel culture” actually means ends up with you staring at a puddle of melted Jell-O.

….by Erik’s request, allow me to quote this masterpiece of self-ownage:

I know there was a funny thing that went around Twitter about you kicking someone out of your house, or someone “self-ejecting” from your house, for saying something not nice about Bari Weiss. Do you want to just, for the record, tell people what happened?

That got more attention than I can believe. Can I just say something that might not completely satisfy you? I really can’t comment on that for the sanctity of my own household sanity.

Free and Robust Discourse!

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