The Cancellation Conundrum

One of the many divisive issues of the current time is the concept of “cancellation.”

For the sake of argument and expedience, I’m going to use the old rhetorical chestnut and cite Merriam-Webster:

“To cancel someone (usually a celebrity or other well-known figure) means to stop giving support to that person. The act of canceling could entail boycotting an actor’s movies or no longer reading or promoting a writer’s works. The reason for cancellation can vary, but it usually is due to the person in question having expressed an objectionable opinion, or having conducted themselves in a way that is unacceptable, so that continuing to patronize that person’s work leaves a bitter taste.”

I boil this down to the following:

Cancellation consists of publicly condemning someone for an expressed opinion or previously-taken action.

Let’s examine and evaluate each component.

1. “Publicly condemning”

Public condemnation is not inherently wrong. It fits with the principle of free speech, and provably false condemnation is subject to punishment as libel. Meanwhile repeated verbal harassment can result in civil penalties, even if it doesn’t qualify as a crime, and in the case of hate speech, may actually qualify.

2. “Expressed opinion”

Condemning an expressed opinion is legal; both the opinion and the condemnation of the opinion fit with the principle of free speech, and those expressions of opinion are also subject to laws around libel, false advertising, and hate speech.

3. “Previously-taken action”

Actions are subject to criminal and civil proceedings, and can certainly be criticized as long as those criticisms are true.

So what is the real problem here?

Let’s take a look at the most talked-about episode in the cancellation debate, which is “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” published in Harper’s. The entire letter is a quick read, but I will confine myself to quoting what I think is its defining passage:

“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.”

While there is a lot of lofty rhetoric, the key charge is in the final sentence: That the cancellers are able to pressure institutional leaders (e.g. university presidents and editors-in-chief) to deliver “hasty and disproportionate punishments” (e.g. demoting or firing people).

Institutional leaders clearly have the power to punish the employees of the institution, so the only question is whether those punishments are fair.

If the punishments are not fair, the blame for that injustice should be divided between the cancellers that advocate an unfair punishment, and the institutions that give into those unfair demands.

The way to reduce the prevalence of that injustice is to find a way to get the cancellers to adopt a fairer process for determining when to call for punishment, and to get the institutional leaders to resist unfair demands on the back end when front end safeguards fail.

The story doesn’t end there, however; the “Letter” quickly drew a response from The Objective, which published “A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate“. Sadly, this response is not a quick read, but I will focus on its final three paragraphs:

“Under the guise of free speech and free exchange of ideas, the letter appears to be asking for unrestricted freedom to espouse their points of view free from consequence or criticism. There are only so many outlets, and while these individuals have the ability to write in them, they have no intention of sharing that space or acknowledging their role in perpetuating a culture of fear and silence among writers who, for the most part, do not look like the majority of the signatories. When they demand debates, it is on their terms, on their turf.

The signatories call for a refusal of “any false choice between justice and freedom.” It seems at best obtuse and inappropriate, and at worst actively racist, to mention the ongoing protests calling for policing reform and abolition and then proceed to argue that it is the signatories who are “paying the price in greater risk aversion.” It’s particularly insulting that they’ve chosen now, a time marked by, as they describe, “powerful protests for racial and social justice,” to detract from the public conversation about who gets to have a platform.

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. Their letter seeks to uphold a “stifling atmosphere” and prioritizes signal-blasting their discomfort in the face of valid criticism. The intellectual freedom of cis white intellectuals has never been under threat en masse, especially when compared to how writers from marginalized groups have been treated for generations. In fact, they have never faced serious consequences — only momentary discomfort.”

Overall, while I sympathize with the need for historically silenced voices to be heard, I do not think highly of this response. Let’s dive in.

“the letter appears to be asking for unrestricted freedom to espouse their points of view free from consequence or criticism”

The original letter spoke out against “hasty and disproportionate punishment”; it did not call for unrestricted freedom. One could argue that a biased system could cite a need for fairness to grant that unrestricted freedom, but that is not the argument that was made.

“When they demand debates, it is on their terms, on their turf.”

I’m not sure what this means. What does “on their terms, on their turf” even mean? The writers seem to think that their point is self-evident; I welcome possible explanations in the comments of this post.

“It’s particularly insulting that they’ve chosen now, a time marked by, as they describe, “powerful protests for racial and social justice,” to detract from the public conversation about who gets to have a platform.”

I am supportive of a public conversation around the lack of diversity in newsrooms and universities, just as I have been supportive of the public conversation around the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley. But I do not see a strong connection between supporting cancellation and improving the diversity and inclusion of newsrooms and universities. At best, I can see there being an argument for the need for outside pressure, given the unrepresentative nature of the leadership of those institutions, but that does not relieve the pressurers of the moral obligation to limit themselves to fair and provable charges. Nor do I see how a call for avoiding hasty judgment is insulting because it coincides with today’s climate of widespread protests for social justice.

“The intellectual freedom of cis white intellectuals has never been under threat en masse, especially when compared to how writers from marginalized groups have been treated for generations. In fact, they have never faced serious consequences — only momentary discomfort.”

I sound like a broken record, but while I am supportive of the need to amplify the voices of writers from marginalized groups, arguing that demotions and firings are not serious consequences simply because the subjects are white and wealthy strikes me as simply another form of discrimination and dehumanization, albeit pointed at a different target.

I am reminded of an incident from when I was an undergraduate, and we were discussing the life of the writer Kate Chopin, whose most famous work, The Awakening, told the story of a woman’s struggles in an oppressive society, and whose work was not widely appreciated in her lifetime (she died at the age of 54). One of my classmates noted, “I’m not going to feel sorry for her. She was white and rich.” (I know for a fact that this classmate was white, and likely rich as well, so the irony was not lost on me.)

It is hard to build a fairer world, and for individuals to overcome the discrimination they face. Why does it need to be a competition to see who has been discriminated against the most? Yes, we should help those most in need, but attacking the haves (who are likely to be important allies) is not a winning strategy for those of us who want to build a world where no one has to be a have-not.

Conclusion

The core goals of cancellation–to allow the previously silenced to be heard and to punish the guilty who would otherwise escape censure–are largely sympathetic. But like any powerful tool, cancellation can be applied in ways that are harmful.

The cancellers’ claims and demands can be challenged if they are not supported by the facts. Indeed, the first duty lies with the would-be canceller to challenge themselves and build a powerful case. The rule of thumb I like people to follow (though I am usually disappointed) is to strive to apply the same degree of skepticism and scrutiny to one’s own opinions as to others.

This is an area where many cancellers have fallen short; when criticism of a cancellation attempt is grounds for cancellation, we enter a realm of circular reasoning with more than a whiff of the Reign of Terror.

But intelligent people, even when presented with the same information, can and do draw different conclusions, which is why, as an additional safeguard, institutional leaders need to resist unfair demands (while listening to fair demands).

Sadly, this too is circular reasoning–what is fair or unfair? We are quickly reduced to Justice Potter Stewart’s famous test, “I know it when I see it“? The best advice I can give is to be as rigorous with your logic as possible, and recognize that you might be smart, well-informed, conscientious, and wrong.

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