Thoughts on “Cancel Culture”

On Twitter, I’m one of those guys who tweets “At-will employment” every time someone loses their job because they did something stupid enough publicly enough that their employer decides the cost of their continued employment is too high. Lately that stupid thing tends to be something racist, and given the various and sundry ways at-will employment has put people–including myself–out of work in the past, I’m 100% okay with racist deeds being added to the list of things that can make you unemployed. Amy Cooper getting fired from her job at Franklin Templeton because she went viral for calling the cops on Christian Cooper (a black man) under false pretenses isn’t “cancel culture”. That’s the downside of at-will employment.

In October 2017, Juli Briskman was out cycling one weekend in northern Virginia when President Trump’s motorcade passed her on the road. She gave the motorcade the middle finger. When she informed her employer (a government contractor) that she was the woman in the picture that had gone viral on social media, they fired her. That wasn’t “cancel culture” either, just the downside of at-will employment (the wrongful-termination lawsuit she filed the following year was dismissed for that reason). The same is true of the white supremacist and neo-Nazi attendees of the Unite the Right rally who were fired by their employers after being identified. So how do these examples connect to the Letter on Justice and Open Debate?

The signatories of this letter (at least a few of whom went on Twitter to withdraw support from it after they learned who else had signed) purport to be concerned about the weakening of “our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity”. This begs the question of what is being debated, and what differences people are refusing to tolerate in favor of ideological conformity. “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces;” hints at one such example, but gets the key fact wrong. James Bennet, who did not read the Tom Cotton op-ed he chose to publish, resigned as the head of New York Times Opinion–he was not fired. The piece in question was updated with a 317-word editors’ note indicating the piece “fell short of our standards and should not have been published”. Another example “a research is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study”, refers to the firing of David Shor for retweeting the work of Professor Omar Wasow. Jonathan Chait writes about it at length in this piece, and argues far more persuasively against “left illiberalism” than the vague and anodyne Harper’s letter because he is specific. When I first learned of the Shor firing, it seemed unjust to me–and still does. His employer did wrong in firing him, and doing so smacks of precisely the sort of “woke liberalism” that those to the right on the political spectrum often decry.

Another friend of mine asked for my thoughts on J.K. Rowling and Noam Chomsky signing the letter, so I’ll address them specifically here. From the little I’ve seen on Twitter, Rowling is receiving backlash for some tweets and more detailed opinions regarding transgender people that could be characterized as transphobic. To me it is unsurprising that Rowling would sign the Harper’s letter. There is no downside I can discern to signing onto a vague letter about free speech and tolerance for differing views, but it will not prevent those who see Rowling’s positions as transphobic from being any quieter or less vehement in their opposition to her opinion. Chomsky is a scholastic giant who has influenced multiple fields of study. He has been an activist for many causes above and beyond free speech, subjected to multiple arrests, and earned a place on Nixon’s enemies list for that activism, so unlike many others on the list he has demonstrated the courage of his convictions for decades.

I think Mansa Keita was on target regarding the objectives of the Harper’s letter when he tweeted the following:

The term “cancel culture” is simply a rhetorical device meant to control the contours of acceptable speech. The speech and values of those telling you how you should speak is not more privileged than your own.

Another friend of mine quite recently described cancel culture as being “seated somewhere between McCarthyism and market forces”. I find this description quite apt as well.

There are certainly other examples beyond those I’ve listed where the expression of one’s opinion resulted in them losing a job. James Damore’s firing by Google is one example from my line of work. Rush Limbaugh getting fired by ESPN some years ago is another. Twenty years before Colin Kaepernick began the silent protest against police brutality that would ultimately cost him his career, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was suspended by the NBA for refusing to stand during the anthem. Whether “cancellation” for one’s expressed opinion is as prevalent or permanent as some claim is an open question. So is the assertion that many people are self-censoring due to fear of consequences for speaking out. Anecdotes (including those I’ve shared) are not data.

The signatories (all of whom have substantial platforms of their own from which to convey their opinions) seem to be asking for themselves, and presumably other less-powerful people that controversial speech be somehow more privileged than other speech. They seem to be asking for a “freedom from consequences” that Juli Briskman (and certain Unite the Right rally attendees) were not exempt from. This piece on Digg goes much further in exploring that ground, and deals more specifically with some of the letter’s endorsers. If freedom from consequences is at heart what the Harper’s letter is asking for, how do we square that demand with the current nature of at-will employment? Instead of vague open letters in magazines with a vanishingly small total circulation, do we reconsider the current nature of at-will employment? Do we ask employers to be braver? Do we go so far as to change laws? Or do we continue to complain about the status quo?

Academic tenure is the concept I think comes closest to what the endorsers of the Harper’s letter are asking for. The intent of academic tenure as I understand it (not being an academic myself) is to preserve the freedom of academics to hold a variety of views. Academic tenure is not a guaranteed job for life however, though it is purposely difficult to fire a tenured professor. By the same token, academic tenure is exceedingly difficult to achieve. While this does not mean that a tenured professor expressing opinions I find abhorrent would not bother me any less, the difficulty of achieving tenure limits that possibility quite significantly.

Gatekeepers in spheres beyond academia no longer command the same power they once did. First blogging, then social media platforms disintermediated news organizations as ways of getting one’s opinion heard more broadly. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms added virality to the mix. These platforms combined with ubiquitous cellphone cameras have disintermediated the police as the only source of information about their activities, providing brutal documentary evidence of the need for the police reforms the Harper’s letter calls overdue. These platforms also make the letter’s assertion that the free exchange of ideas is becoming more restricted a somewhat dubious one. There is probably more free exchange of ideas than ever–but within echo chambers of the like-minded. Those who believe in all manner of conspiracy theories can easily find their tribe in the same way fans of particular sports teams, musicians, or hobbies can. Those of us on different sides of any number of issues are more likely to talk past each other–or at each other–than with each other. The echo chambers and the absence of a shared set of facts may be as much of a danger–if not more so–than “cancel culture”.