Cancel Culture after 9/11 versus in response to the recent Hamas attack
Cancel culture closely resembles the Maoist struggle sessions of the Cultural Revolution. I wrote about my experience at a Demoralized DIEvy League struggle session: https://yuribezmenov.substack.com/p/how-to-groom-commissars-maoist-struggle-session
I am continually flabbergasted the way that some seem to feel that restrictions on free expression will help "marginalized people." Marginalized opinions are the very sorts of expression that most need protecting!
Also, when you silence a person, you only tell the world that you fear what she might say.
Listened to a podcast interview by Chris Williamson with Dr. Cory Clark, a behavioral scientist. Her work and that of others gave me clarity on why universities have become worse. It is that the faculty value protecting feelings over searching for the truth. This fits with my observations in the 90s as a returning student to the university. The fundamental purpose of the university is changing. The undergrads of contemporary times are not going to change opinions much when they leave because there are too many places for them to be protected in their ignorance.
We are in a cycle of institutional crisis. As a holder of 2 BAs, 1 BS and 2 MAs, I think it is time to reorganize our education system. It is archaic, defunct and useless for modern times.
The closest historical analogue to cancel culture is probably the inquisition, and the various religious tests following the Protestant reformation.
Both then and now a new communication technology was disrupting established monopolies of information flow.
I have been listening (audio format) to "The Canceling of the American Mind," which reiterates some of the main themes of "Coddling," and adds very important updates to bright the full story forward. I recommend this book to people of all political shades, because it tells the truth about an extremely dangerous course of transforming culture into a network of mechanisms which strangle free speech and free expression of ideas. We have seen similar revelations about the emergence and stregthening of this repressive cultural orthodoxy from Bari Weiss, Michael Shellenberger, Jesse Singal, Matt Taibbi, Matt Walsh, and many others.
As a Marxist writer, I see this tendency as evidence of the capitalist class trying to fortify its dominant social and political role over the population, and if you want to see how cancel culture is being bankrolled by the wealthy, you can access Jennifer Bilek's research on the subject at her substack:
Consider these possible explanations for the popularity of cancel culture:
-- Strong legal protections for speech leave people grasping for other avenues to resist ideas they find objectionable
-- Calls for cancellation don't really have any hope of driving ideas out of the discourse (the ability to find an audience is just too great today), but they are mostly a means of signaling group affiliation in a time when there are fewer social groups people have ties to in the real world
-- The nature of social media makes calls for cancellation particularly attractive: People in authority overreact to relatively small numbers of low commitment comments (i.e. making a comment is low cost, e.g. in contrast to a hunger strike) on social media. These low costs also make people likely to make more extreme and less considered statements on social media because elements of those low costs include anonymity and lack of physical presence (which would have a moderating influence). I suspect this will change as people develop better intuitions about the nature of social media, but it is also possible that change may be slow and may require other moderating institutions (formal or informal).
I've followed Dennis Prager's axiom: I prefer clarity over agreement. I encountered changes in academia in the 90's when I returned to the university and had to intervene internally on a retaliation against 3 women by a feminist scholar. In this interview, Dr Cory Clark gave me this clarity in how women academics are changing the pursuit of the truth. Good interview:
The surge of cancel culture which emerged in the 1990s and exploded in the 2010s was brilliantly described in "The Coddling of the American Mind." But why did such a catastrophic tendency take hold in the echelons of the elites of culture, and become so adamantly imposed on millions of workers in academia, the arts, the mass media, politics and law -- even the medical and psychiatric fields? There must be a deeper process that helps to determine changes in the culture and politics of the nation -- and far beyond the shores of the US. There is, in fact a severe weakening of the economic system, which is making life much more difficult for tens of millions of workers and striking fear into the hearts of the billionaires who have habitually assumed the permanence of their domination of social and political culture. This tendency came to light when the Democrats went into a panic upon the election of Trump in 2016. The social system is no longer capable of assuring prosperity and stability for working families. See:
Cancel culture is a strategy of the woke, and they are dangerous.
All the best with the book!
This has become in the last week an interesting and terrible conundrum.
I think there are very few real "free speech absolutists", as I believe that each one of us sees a line, the crossing of which is too much to bear. The idea that we must remain serenely indifferent and accepting in front of statements that endorse horrible criminal acts, and do nothing at all against them, is too much to ask of most people except saints.
I do not live in the USA. There is no First Amendment either in Canada, the UK, Italy or Israel, my four homelands. In all of them, hate speech defined in one way or another is a prosecutable crime. And I see a lot of danger for freedom in these legislations, in particular because of their vagueness; and moreover because, thanks to said vagueness, the concepts of hate speech and harmful content have expanded immensely -- to the point that any disagreement may qualify, if one of the parts plays the card of victimhood.
For this reason I am very opposed to any form of government censorship on speech, writing and images.
But the phenomenon of cancel culture, as it manifested in the last 15 years or so, is different than government censorship.
Government censorship is enacted through laws, established by legislative branches and enforced through the courts. It is a process with check and balances where the laws themselves can be questioned and changed if they are recognised unjust.
Cancel culture is enacted through mobs that operate according to ideologies popular in their environment. There is no due process and no recourse. The accused are judged on the basis of primitive tribal justice: the group opprobrium is enough to silence and expel, without any super partes judgement.
So, government censorship comes from the top down, while cancel culture goes from the bottom up -- and because of this, I feel, it is so popular with a certain left: it is a collectivist modality (just the same as lynching). What evades the perception of the activists who engage in it, is that its being collective is a fallacy, for it only serves the interests of those who yell louder.
Censorship is always undesirable.
Yet, in academia and every other public space, some forms of censorship have always existed, for a good reason. Every society and culture draws lines around that which is too much. Some expressions are hard to tolerate and some should not go without consequence, because they are incitement to criminal action.
Basing itself also on this, cancel culture demands the erasure of people from the public discourse because of an expressed opinion that is not welcome and is believed harmful, this erasure to be forever without appeal, retrospectively tainting all of the person's work past and future. It is very much religious anathema.
But I find it hard to agree that revolting against the displays that we have seen in the last week is a form of cancel culture.
I do not ask that those that have engaged in public antisemitic shenanigans in consequence of the Hamas attacks get fired or expelled by their academic institutions. But I would like them to be censured, like it happens in a civil world, and that an apology should be demanded of them from their institutions; I would like to see the faculties of those institutions to clearly and publicly disavow the endorsing of murderous violence DELIBERATELY perpetrated on civilians. I would like to see universities tell their members, employees and students that this is, you know, not done.
And if I were a donor of a private institution, I would exert pressure towards this with my purse. We do not believe, I hope, that before cancel culture we lived in a world where donors did not exert pressure on the institutions they funded. Academic freedom has never really been absolute. Beginning with the original Alma Mater Studiorum, where the families of the students paid the teachers to teach what the families desired taught. Academic freedom, which is a great boon and the main vehicle for the advancement of the sciences, has also been limited by scientific consensus: someone wishing to teach the Ptolemaic system as actual astronomy will not be hired by any reputable institution of learning.
Some balance should exist. There should be no lifelong consequences even for the posters of the disgusting paraglider meme, and the chanters of "Gas the Jews", and the many Twitter haters. But do not take away the right of people to be outraged at them and shun them. Shunning should be allowed, and shunning their lectures and gatherings too. And outraged demands for disavowal should be allowed too without being called cancel culture.
This has always been the democratic way of expressing strong disagreement on principles of basic human decency. Yes, I understand that this is one of the ways, carried to the extreme, in which cancel culture also works. But the 'carried to the extreme' is the key word. There is a median measure in things, also in the censuring of egregious behaviours that are such according to the basic ethic principles that we collectively hold, without going too far.
But perhaps the problem is that we have lost, by now, the commonality of basic ethic principles. I think it happened again just last century, more or less in the same decades. This is my greatest dread.
"This includes Rep. Derrick Van Orden of Wisconsin, who said he will seek 'the removal of all public funding from this anti-American moss covered dump called Harvard,' and Rep. Mike Lawler of New York who argued that any institution that doesn’t discipline students for 'anti-Semitic rants should lose any and all federal funds.'”
Any excuse to stop all funding that comes from taxation is to be welcomed. Federal and state dominance and corruption of universities and colleges, by funding and regulation, constitutes a serious crime against liberty. If universities and colleges were all and only fully voluntaristic, then there would be a greater diversity of competing opinion and research. https://jclester.substack.com/p/the-augean-stables-of-academe
Bought the book, nice read so far. I have to say though that there seem to be cases that are more difficult to adjudicate than many of the absurd examples in the book. I find it hard to believe there shouldn’t be any consequences for a professor who says that the Hamas attacks were “exhilarating.” Similarly for Amy Wax, whose comments from the right seem to be an entirely different thing. It’s true that 1st amendment principles are a good guide but freedom of association, another important right, means we don’t have to tolerate everything.
If freedom of speech and freedom of association are both of equal value it would seem to me that if a person is an open anti-Semite not only is it perfectly legitimate to decide not to hire them but given the odds that such a person might cause grief or a lawsuit in the workforce is an even better argument for a business to back off.
An open letter or a march is a lot different than the odd tweet or a private email. People have the right to think what they want, even bad stuff but if you have a public opinion one must expect the public to react. Freedom to make a decision doesn't free one from consequences of the same.
I suspect a quieter version of this takes place in a lot of HR departments who might eliminate a resume if it highlights the "personal pronouns" being used.
“From a “culture of free speech” perspective, it’s concerning that several business leaders are seeking to create a blacklist of students who joined the Harvard statement supporting the Hamas attacks.”
So just another day ending in the word day.