Is an Intelligent Cancel Culture Discussion Possible?

Maybe. But we’ll have to cut through a lot of nonsense first.

In case you missed previous posts like “Why You Can’t Understand Conservative Rhetoric” and “Silly Season in the Culture Wars“, here’s what I’ve concluded: The rhetoric on “cancel culture” is wildly overblown, and articles denouncing it almost invariably

  • fail to define what they’re talking about, making me wonder if “cancel culture” is really a thing at all,
  • use a bunch of imaginary examples that fall apart as soon as you look at them, like the “cancellation” of Mr. Potato Head or Dr. Seuss. [1]

Mostly this is a debate between the Right and the Left, with conservatives prophesying the fall of civilization and liberals wondering what the problem is. But a segment of the mainstream commentariat has tried to stake out a middle position, recognizing that Green Eggs and Ham is in no danger and Pepe Le Pew should have disappeared a long time ago, but still repeating right-wing talking points about the Jacobin nature of the “woke mob”.

Bai and Hennessey. Case in point: Matt Bai, warning in Friday’s Washington Post about the dangers of the ongoing “cultural revolution” (and admitting that he’s invoking Mao intentionally). He brushes off the Fox News freakout about Mr. Potato Head, but then takes aim at people like me. [2]

the overwhelming leftist response to Republican hysteria has been to say that there is no such thing as “cancel culture,” no actual threat to free expression. It’s all just a lot of Trumpian nonsense, propagated by racists and sexists.

This isn’t true, and it isn’t helpful.

You know what would be helpful? If folks like Bai would define their terms and offer actual examples that can be be analyzed and compared, so readers don’t just have to take his word for what is or isn’t true. But instead, he makes this sweeping but totally unsupported claim:

A culture of self-censorship pervades media and the arts — a fear that using the wrong word or recommending the wrong book can derail a career.

We are, in fact, witnessing the most direct assault on free expression in my lifetime, mainly because a loud segment of younger activists view free expression as a convenient excuse for perpetuating oppression.

Despite the once-in-a-lifetime gravity of this situation, Bai does not find it necessary to identify a single career that has actually been derailed for “using the wrong word or recommending the wrong book”.

So what exactly is he talking about? If I don’t already know, he’s not going to tell me.

Most sensible liberals I talk to — in politics, news, entertainment or academia — understand this. But there’s a palpable fear of getting on the wrong side of the woke mob, and it doesn’t seem worth the risk.

Who is in this “woke mob”? He doesn’t say, beyond “younger activists” (which, sad to say, leaves me out as I research my Medicare options). But apparently my advanced age has not made me “sensible”, because I have no idea what he means.

Bai is not an isolated example. One of my unimpeachably liberal Facebook friends linked approvingly to this New York Post article by Matthew Hennessey, which tries to rally Gen-Xers against cancel culture’s “millennial Maoists”. (What is it about Mao?) Predictably, Hennessey also doesn’t define “cancel culture”, and (unlike Bai) recites the right-wing litany of imaginary examples. (The article’s illustrations include images from The Cat in the Hat and Gone With the Wind, both of which remain readily available.) And he perversely advocates fighting back against cancel culture by canceling anti-racists:

We will have to engage in a thousand tiny battles every day and it will be terribly uncomfortable. It’ll be hard standing up to school administrators pushing an ‘anti-racist’ curriculum on your kids.

Yeah, how dare the still-unidentified “woke mob” try to teach your children about slavery or structural racism? You absolutely need to protect freedom of speech by censoring that curriculum before the kids ever learn anything from it.

OK, I’ve got that out of my system now. Let’s see if it’s possible to find something here we can think about with some amount of rigor.

Outlines of a reasonable discussion. I suspect the term “cancel culture” is now poisoned beyond recovery. But let’s see if we can tease some kernel of legitimate concern out of the mass of nonsense. Let’s begin with some ground rules.

The phenomenon we end up discussing can’t have political bias built into it, as “cancel culture” currently does. I’m not willing to adopt a frame in which, by definition, only conservatives can have a grievance. If Gina Carano is a victim of whatever-it-is, then so are Colin Kaepernick and the Dixie Chicks.

Whatever-it-is has something to do with the proper limits of free speech. And that discussion needs to start by acknowledging that some limits, both legal and cultural, are necessary and proper. For example, there is room to argue about whether Trump’s January 6 speech should qualify as an illegal “incitement to riot”. But if he had openly said, “Now go to the Capitol and do whatever you need to do to stop Congress from counting the electoral votes”, he should go to jail. Freedom of speech can’t be absolute.

As for cultural limits, consider the example of an announcer’s I-didn’t-know-the-mic-was-live moment at a girls high-school basketball game in Oklahoma Thursday night. (When some of the student athletes knelt during the national anthem, he commented: “Fucking niggers.” [3]) I don’t think you have to be a Maoist to believe he should be fired for that. Not jailed, not lynched — but there should be consequences when somebody goes that far over the line.

And finally, there’s a difference between tolerating someone’s right to say something and providing them a platform so they can say it again. That’s another aspect of the basketball-announcer example. If a guy sitting in a bar makes the same comment to the TV screen, the people who hear it should give him strange looks, and that might well be the end of it. But should a network keep giving this guy a microphone?

To give another example, The Birth of a Nation is a racist movie from 1915, which you can watch in its entirety on YouTube. I’m fine with that, and I’d also be fine with Google (which owns YouTube) deciding not to host it. I would oppose a law that made distributing or watching the movie illegal.

But providing a public venue to screen the movie is a more complex discussion. If I were part of a university community — as either faculty or student — I’d be fine with an on-campus group showing it as part of a larger conversation about racism in film, one that allowed for discussion of the ways it misrepresents the Reconstruction Era. But I would protest if the movie were brought to campus without any context, in a hey-you-might-like-this way, or in any other way that used the university as a platform to promote the film’s racist point of view. [4]

So: It would be valuable for American culture to have a broad conversation about the proper limits of free speech and the proper ways of responding to offensive speech. A worthy goal would be to develop impartial standards that balance what I can do against what can be done to me, regardless of whether I am liberal or conservative.

Another valuable conversation would involve how we want to look at our history. How should we judge people who lived in other eras, when cultural values were different? What points of view have been systematically excluded from our history, and how does the story change when we let those points of view in?

I’ve heard a lot of people claim that eventually we’ll be renaming the Washington Monument, but I’ve never heard anybody seriously propose that. As in the previous discussion: What are the proper limits? Acknowledging someone’s historical significance is not the same as continuing to celebrate that person. We can leave people in the history books without naming schools after them.

Is anybody having that discussion? Maybe, a little. I’ll point you to a couple of worthwhile recent contributions.

First, Scott Illing’s interview with Jeffrey Sachs at Vox. Sachs has recently written an article at ARC on the bills state legislatures are considering (and even passing) that suppress critical race theory. In the interview, he contrasts the left-wing and right-wing threats to free expression.

I’m not comfortable either saying that one side is more dangerous than the other. What I will say is that the threats from the left tend to involve informal mechanisms of sanction, and they are no less censorious for that informality. They can do enormous damage, and it’s a significant problem that can be addressed if more college and university administrators grow a backbone and stand up to that kind of behavior.

Whereas the censorious instinct on the right is largely coming from off campus, and it involves much quieter tools that escape the notice of many commentators.

“Quieter” mainly because the national media doesn’t cover small-state legislatures like South Dakota, where a bill under consideration would

prohibit the use of any material designed to promote an ideological view of history, but simultaneously Gov. Kristi Noem has proposed or has requested $900,000 to overhaul the state’s history curriculum in order to promote the idea that “the United States of America is the most special nation in the history of the world.”

I hope Sachs eventually tells us specifically about the “enormous damage” to colleges and universities that he sees the Left doing. But the distinction — the Left operating mainly on campus and using social pressure, while the Right uses its political power in red-state legislatures — is useful.

Another worthwhile article is “Cancel Culture is Not a Movement” by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in the New Yorker. Wallace-Wells looks at particular cases and questions whether the “woke mob” operates more as a fear-inducing mirage than as a political force.

To Dr. Seuss Enterprises, it might have seemed possible that a progressive mob was waiting, ready to turn on “McElligot’s Pool” and “Mulberry Street.” But it is also possible—to me, it seems likely—that there was no such consensus at all. …

The college president, the city-council subcommittee, the panel of experts: these figures are often described by their political opponents as if they were as coherent and determined as a closed fist—that there is something cohesive that could be called cancel culture. My own sense is that something close to the opposite is true. The claims of racial justice have upended liberal élites in interesting and profound ways, and left them deeply uncertain: about how much history should be revised, about what kinds of retributive steps should be taken, and, above all, about how many people, really, want radical change.

Just about everyone left of center recognizes that white supremacy persists and is unjust, but “white supremacy” isn’t just a law that can be repealed or a corporate policy the board can change at its next meeting. So the desire to be on the right side of history often runs up against practical uncertainties: What can someone in my position actually do? And how much political capital does the will to change actually have? Will the apparent support for organizational change evaporate if I ask people to commit serious resources or accept significant change in their own lives?

The result can be bold announcements that lack bold follow-through, like Minneapolis City Council members vowing to “end policing as we know it”, but not allowing a police-defunding proposal to go to the voters. Or symbolic actions of little real impact, like San Francisco renaming its schools, or Speaker Pelosi wearing a kente-cloth stole to a demonstration.

College administrators can fire the people at the center of incidents, and sometimes do so too quickly and without due process, because they feel a need to demonstrate that they take the incidents seriously. Tech companies like Facebook and Twitter can boot people off their platforms, but the algorithms that identify such people are often no better than the algorithms that show us so many off-base advertisements. Publishers can decide not to publish objectionable books, either before or after someone objects to them. Stores can pull products off their shelves. Individuals can carry signs at Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Such actions display concern, but how well thought-out are they, and what next steps do they lead to?

The sum total of these actions can create the impression of a vast conspiracy reaching out to change every aspect of our lives, when the reality is quite different: A small group of activists has identified a problem that a much larger group of sympathizers recognizes as legitimate. But the larger group is fumbling to decide both what it can do about it, and how much it is willing to do.

[1] Jeff Tiedrich expressed this point with a little more vigor than I usually do.

[2] I would be amazed if Bai has ever heard of me or this blog, but he’s aiming directly at the arguments I’ve been making here. It’s hard not to take it personally.

[3] It’s always a question whether to quote exactly what someone said or alter it in some way, like “f**king ni**ers” or “effing N-words”, or to refer vaguely to “a racial slur”. When I’m tempted to do one of those things, I always ask myself, “Who would I be protecting?” In this case, I think I’d be protecting the announcer, by making his words sound less serious than they actually were, so I repeated the offending phrase as he said it.

This policy is open for discussion. The one caution I would give is: Don’t try to speak for other people. I want to know what offends you, not what you think would offend someone else.

[4] In giving these examples, I’m modeling the kind of conversation I’d like to see. In particular, they make the conversation real in a way that the Bai and Hennessey articles are unreal.

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  • Barry Mauer  On March 15, 2021 at 10:25 am

    There have been efforts on various campuses to cancel certain speakers. I think these efforts, for the most part, have been entirely justified. Since the 1960s, right wingers have been trying to push back against campus activism that was anti-war, free speech, pro civil rights, anti-rape, and so on. The right wing has used funding from billionaires such as the Koch brothers. They have pushed speakers who have no ideas and contribute nothing to the public debate but are provocateurs and bomb throwers. The speakers come to college campuses, are paid tens of thousands of dollars in speaking fees with student money, and are designed to inflame rather than inform.

  • Lou Doench  On March 15, 2021 at 10:32 am

    Where to start on this subject? First I agree with pretty much all you say here. But this bit stood out…

    “I’ve heard a lot of people claim that eventually we’ll be renaming the Washington Monument, but I’ve never heard anybody seriously propose that. As in the previous discussion: What are the proper limits? Acknowledging someone’s historical significance is not the same as continuing to celebrate that person. We can leave people in the history books without naming schools after them.”

    The “seriously propose,” part is one of the many elephants in the room that conservatives elide on their way to the fainting couch. The internet era allows them anyone in the right wing echo chamber to pick up any tiny story and blow it up like an A-Bomb test. A college sophomore writing in her small liberal arts college newspaper about maybe putting content notices on the rape-ier bits of the literature canon is turned into The Left wants to Cancel the Classics!!!

    Meanwhile conservatives gleefully use large institutional and governmental power to “cancel,” at their displeasure. You point out the asymmetry well.

    Another facet that goes overlooked is the history of the term they are appropriating, and I mean that literally. Fred Clark at Slacktivist (you two are very similar 😉 pointed this out last year. The term was first used on R. Fricking Kelly after he was found out to be a freaky sex cult leader.

    • DopeFiend  On March 17, 2021 at 1:01 am

      The term was first used by Wesley Snipes as Nino Brown in New Jack City: “Cancel that bitch. I’ll buy another one” in 1996. It wasn’t used in reference to R Kelly on Twitter till at least 2008.

  • donquixote99  On March 15, 2021 at 10:33 am

    Just want to say congrats on a very lucid and fair analysis here!

  • Maurice Wiktorin  On March 15, 2021 at 10:36 am

    I don’t see a single thing wrong with Pepe Le Peuw (except the cartoons are somewhat boring). Surely it is obvious that Pepe’s actions are wrong in every respect and he is utterly about how to behave. They are pointing out that some men act that way and are wrong to do so. Is it impossible to depict villians?

    • Lou Doench  On March 16, 2021 at 10:20 am

      But Pepe Le Pew isn’t a villain. He’s the hero. He’s the star. The Cat in those cartoons doesn’t even have a name, or even a voice. I remember loving’s those cartoons, the early PLP shorts are from the height of Chuck Jone’s powers as an animator, they are gorgeous. But Pepe le Pew is pretty gross in retrospect.

      • Maurice Wiktorin  On March 16, 2021 at 11:03 pm

        So you think the audience is supposed to approve of Pepe’s actions? My impression is that we are supposed to recognize him as a car and find humour in his ridiculous vanity and egotism that prevents his own self knowledge. Don’t forget that those cartoons were made to be shown between the features in a theater for an audience of adults.

    • weeklysift  On March 19, 2021 at 11:57 am

      I think we’re supposed to think that Pepe is funny. And afterwards, we’ll be more likely to find it amusing that some guy at the office is forcing his attentions on our female co-workers.

  • Chongo  On March 15, 2021 at 11:08 am

    It’s always a pleasure to read what you have to say about cancel culture. Nobody is gaslighting this issue harder than you.

    • weeklysift  On March 19, 2021 at 12:05 pm

      My posts on this topic contain a lot of checkable facts. If I got something wrong, feel free to point it out.

  • fmanin  On March 15, 2021 at 11:18 am

    I left a comment on this that I think got caught in the spam trap, please retrieve.

    • fmanin  On March 15, 2021 at 11:23 am

      Actually maybe I’ll just try again…

      I think maybe the reason you don’t see the examples that liberals are concerned about is that they tend to be somewhat embarrassing spats within liberal institutions. Here is the clearest one that I’ve seen:
      The major problem here is that political correctness was preventing a sober discussion of all sides of an issue.

      Another example happened not so long ago within the math community. It started when Abigail Thompson, a professor at UC Davis and a VP of the AMS, wrote a polemic against the way the University of California would like to use diversity statements in applications:

      Click to access rnoti-p1778.pdf

      You can read the range of responses in the subsequent letters to the editor:

      Click to access rnoti-o1.pdf

      But the basic rundown is that there was both a serious discussion of diversity statements and a serious attempt to cancel Thompson (and UC Davis along with her). Many people signed the letter that said “the AMS shouldn’t have let her write this”. In my opinion, the most intelligent words on diversity statements, alongside Thompson’s, came from Izabella Laba:
      In this case, in the end, no one got hurt, however, such brouhahas can have a chilling effect. I have seen a number of people on the Internet with seemingly anodyne views on related issues put on tinfoil hats with statements of the form “but of course I would only state this anonymously”.

      • weeklysift  On March 15, 2021 at 1:06 pm

        Got it this time. Thank you. I will look at the links you’ve provided.

  • Ed O  On March 15, 2021 at 11:45 am

    Here’s an example of cancel culture in action. In a recorded discussion, some black activists asked the evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein if he supports racism and white supremacy, and when he began to answer and began by saying “I would ask you to try to listen…”, they cut him off and said “Listen, white man, we’re in charge here. We asked you some questions; you can answer them or you can go.” See 1.5 minutes (16:59-18:25) here:

  • Barry Mauer  On March 15, 2021 at 11:46 am

    Free-speech idealists argue that the solution to bad speech (misinformation, lies, abusive language, etc.) is not censorship but more speech. But bad speech can, and often does, drown out the good. A classic form of bad speech is hate speech. Jeremy Waldron, a law professor at the New York University School of Law, describes it this way:

    “Its aim is to compromise the dignity of those at whom it is targeted, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of other members of society. And it sets out to make the establishment and upholding of their dignity… much more difficult. It aims to besmirch the basics of their reputation, by associating ascriptive characteristics like ethnicity, or race, or religion with conduct or attributes that should disqualify someone from being treated as a member of society in good standing.”

    Thus, hate speech is really anti-speech because it aims to shut down the speech of others. And in the United States, hate speech has shut down the speech of minorities and women for hundreds of years. Defenders of hate speech often disguise it as “pride,” “state’s rights” or “religious freedom.” But we are mistaken to treat anti-speech as if it were normal speech, deserving of protection. We can and should be intolerant of intolerance.

    Although the United States has a First Amendment protecting free speech, it does not extend to the workplace, the classroom, or the dinner table. It is limited to the press, to religion, to assemblies, and to petitions. And as every journalist, parishioner or public assembly participant knows, there are powerful limits in these arenas, too. We don’t have absolutely free speech because we live within the confines of powerful and interlocking institutions: family, education, entertainment, commerce, career, the law, the military, religion and others.

    These institutions offer benefits to their members but also constraints and a narrow range of choices of expression. If these institutions were to offer too much freedom, they would be unable to perpetuate the social relations that keep them functioning. So speech inside an institutional context is limited, but speech outside of an institutional context typically has less power. Speech is limited either way.

    The question, therefore, is not whether we ought to have constraints on speech but what kinds of constraints?

    Censorship is an institutional constraint. When we hear the word censorship, we we often imagine a banned book (i.e. schools and libraries removing the book). This is censorship at the point of reception. Protests erupt. Demand for the banned book goes up.

    Censorship happens more frequently at the point of distribution than it does at the point of reception, such as an institution refusing to distribute a speech or a text through its channels. This type of censorship rarely leads to protests because outsiders rarely hear about it.

    The most common form of censorship is self-censorship, or censorship at the point of production, which means you have internalized the censor’s rules and decided to abide by them of your own volition. Perhaps you learned that the benefits of compliance outweigh the costs of resistance, or you rationalized that you can’t win anyway.

    We may self-censor for good reasons, such as politeness, but sometimes we self-censor because we see someone else made into a negative example and we fear it could happen to us.

    For instance, some journalists who otherwise might have criticized the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq silenced themselves rather than risk reprisal—from the government, their corporate owners, or those in the public who were for the war. The result was that journalism inflicted a major blow to its own integrity for behaving as an administration mouthpiece, and Americans became among the least-informed people in the world about the war.

    Beyond self-censorship, there are other limitations: ideologies—such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia—that prevent us from even thinking certain thoughts, such as thinking of others as human beings with dignity and rights.

    We have too much censorship in some areas of our society and too little censorship in others. There is too much censorship from some plutocrats who suppress the truth about their misrule. They silence whistle-blowers while their propagandists hog the microphone. They maintain these beliefs either through outright censorship or through a pretense of balance in which the media referee fails to penalize those who lie consistently and brazenly. Might we have learned about the lead poisoning in Flint, Mich.’s, water earlier if we could have heard more of whistle-blowers and less of the politicians’ denials?

    If we hold to ethical principles, such as truth and justice, we can encourage or demand censorship as needed. For example, we should encourage ordinary citizens to participate in democracy, but ban unlimited political contributions by corporations. We should encourage the release of classified information that reveals government abuses, but ban lawmakers from becoming lobbyists once they leave office.

    If you want to change the levels of censorship in our society – in other words, to benefit society by loosening or tightening censorship—the best approach is to appeal to the stated values of our institutions. Thus, to loosen censorship by expanding press freedoms, appeal to journalistic institutions as watchdogs of the powerful. To expand academic freedom, appeal to the university’s stated aims to seek truth and benefit humanity.

    And to appeal for greater censorship, apply the same appeals to our higher values. In the period since World War II, two major events happened, both of which we take for granted now. One was that “Whites Only” signs were taken down and the other is that “No Smoking” signs went up. They both involved the state imposing speech (or restrictions on speech) on public and private entities. In both cases, public interest outweighed the interests of private actors.

    I’m convinced that similar appeals are valid in relation to problems like “fake news.” It could be a matter for the state to set up a type of license for journalistic entities that would then be regulated the way our food supply (supposedly) is.
    The idea would be to keep tainted information (like tainted food) out of the supply chain. A less intrusive idea would be for the industry to set up its own regulators the way the film industry was regulated by the MPAA.

    Of course, unregulated entities could still practice, but without the stamp of approval and authenticity that the regulations are meant to provide. (A similar situation exists with foods that are labeled organic or kosher, etc.).

    The internet doesn’t fundamentally change the issue of self-censorship. Most people still self-censor within institutional settings. The internet provides more free-fire zones where people can and do say any crazy thing to each other. But we don’t say those things in other settings because they could produce possibly serious consequences. Maybe the internet is leading to more conflict in “meatspace” by encouraging people to use their outside voices inside. I think a study could be done on that if it hasn’t been already.

    As far as the stated values of the news industry, they are quite at odds with their actual values (which we might assume from their behavior). Their stated values are that they provide a public service, inform people, act as watchdogs on behalf of the public, protect free speech rights, and serve as guardians of democracy.
    Their real values are that they act in their own interest as profit centers and propaganda peddlers. Some, like NPR, pretend to be neutral observers, but end up inviting twice as many Republicans as Democrats on their shows and serve as a clearing house for Republican propaganda, thus putting a valuable stamp of legitimacy on it as it goes on air. The New York Times frequently launders lies as legitimate as well (as was famously the case with their coverage of Iraq in 2003). I think it is still possible to shame some of these outlets by appealing to their stated values. Very few are willing to disown these values publicly.

    To the extent that my thinking has evolved since 2016, it has moved in the direction of greater despair. The incredible gullibility of the public (at least huge segments of it) mixed with the enormous power of the social media companies, the new technologies that make it possible to fake any audio, image, or video, and the greater involvement of nefarious agents in the mix makes it seem like the train has left the station. In addition, the U.S. government seems incapable of acting in the public interest on this, and almost any other matter, under the current Republican regime.

    A greater degree of censorship is needed and needed urgently. Part of the reason why it is needed is that the nefarious actors (Republicans, Russian agents, fundamentalists, hoaxers, and so on) are hell bent on censoring others. Thus, their frequent attacks on queers, scholars, liberals, migrants, etc. They seek to marginalize and dehumanize these groups and thus force them out of the public square. Doing so denies these groups their speech rights. So, the question is how to rebalance speech rights so they are not lopsided towards the saboteurs. The same thing was at issue after the Civil War when the Klan put down any free speech from black people. The free speech of the Klan was inherently anti-speech. We need to see the same perspective today in regard to right wing speech aimed at out-groups.

    Other countries have a somewhat easier time marginalizing groups that promote eliminationism. We don’t because of the First Amendment and because of the much greater political power that eliminationist groups have in the U.S.

  • Creigh Gordon  On March 15, 2021 at 12:10 pm

    Another commenter somewhere noted that it’s only cancel culture if it comes from the Cancel region in France. Other than that, it’s just consequences.

    • Creigh Gordon  On March 15, 2021 at 12:12 pm

      If it is just consequences, the question then is, is it fair?

  • Raymond Horton  On March 15, 2021 at 12:46 pm

    I think the Washington monument is safe from renaming, at least for the present time. One that is long overdue for a renaming is the very similar but smaller Jefferson Davis monument in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. It had a large crowd three years ago for the total eclipse, which only served to highlight the anachronism and offensiveness of such a monument.

    • weeklysift  On March 15, 2021 at 1:07 pm

      I’ve driven on the Jefferson Davis Highway in Virginia, and it has always bugged me.

  • paranoid  On March 15, 2021 at 2:05 pm

    I think Donald McNeil’s situation speaks directly to your request for an example that could have chilling effects and speaks to the choices you made, noted in footnote [3].

    • Ed O  On March 15, 2021 at 3:00 pm

      Yes: Doug, for a good example of a white man whose career was damaged by cancel culture, specifically for actually saying “nigger” when asking whether someone called someone else “a nigger” instead of asking whether they called them “a N-word”, read this:

      • Marty  On March 15, 2021 at 4:04 pm

        Except, of course, that was office politics. His career wasn’t damaged by what he said, it was damaged by a manager who didn’t like him as a result of being on the other side of the negotiating table when negotiating the union contract. The incident in question was just a pretext to retaliate.

      • Ed O  On March 15, 2021 at 4:29 pm

        No, Marty. As he explains, his manager, who did like him, sided with a lawyer who didn’t like him because the manager feared damage to the reputation of the Times from the woke mob, even though it was pretty clear the manager understood that McNeil had done nothing wrong besides dare to pronounce the N-word in the presence of woke teenagers (along with some other similarly appropriate things deemed offensive by the mob).

  • frankackerman0617  On March 15, 2021 at 3:59 pm

    See The Atlantic, Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom by John McWhorter for a definition of left-wing counter culture

  • LdeG  On March 15, 2021 at 5:04 pm

    I thought this article covered some relevant points.

    Within our own denomination, people are being silenced over Critical Race Theory, and ministers being “ex-communicated”. My husband and I have both been literally yelled at, in person, at church, for what seemed to us to be mild questioning – not even contradiction. And the people in question walked out, leaving the future of the congregation in question. We have kept the peace so far since, but it is walking on eggshells.

  • ecjspokane  On March 15, 2021 at 10:27 pm

    Dear Sir:

    There really IS a cancel culture. It was and is the conservative effort
    to destroy anything and everything that opposes them. It’s been around
    for several decades and has been growing in strength. It will never die
    as long as there is still a brainwashed conservative alive and will be
    continually reinforced by all the supporters and manipulators of trump
    as long as (and likely long after) trump is dead.


    Thank you for all the insights.

    Eric Johnson
    Spokane, WA.

  • Val  On March 16, 2021 at 12:07 am

    Re: Your note #3 and the “N-Word”: I think it was appropriate for you to quote what the speaker said in its entirety (well, the brief moment of it.) The Weekly Sift is not a family-friendly newspaper nor will it be read out loud on the TV screens in the airport boarding lounge. There are no young ears or minds to be protected here, and any younger readers with the ability and desire to work their way through your postings will certainly be aware of the inappropriacy of the word. By saying it “out loud” without any censorship you hit us with the full impact and intent of the speaker.

  • George Washington, Jr.  On March 16, 2021 at 8:05 am

    It’s impossible to have a coherent dialog with people who are convinced that Joe Biden outlawed Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head. The attitude is exemplified by conservative podcaster Michael Savage, who in a recent show drew a line directly from BLM and antifa “burning down cities, killing, raping, and looting,” to “offensive” products being pulled, to a description of the Khmer Rouge. To anyone unwilling or unable to question Savage’s basic premises, “cancel culture” is the velvet glove of the coming communist takeover, where white people will be forced into reeducation camps, the Bible outlawed, and anyone above poverty level taxed into pauperhood. It’s the slippery slope argument on steroids, and explains both the knee-jerk opposition to any and all Democratic proposals, along with the deification of Donald Trump as the symbol of the “real America” where none of this would be tolerated.

    • Jean  On March 18, 2021 at 11:28 pm

      I am an American by birth, expatriate by choice, My wife looks this shit and says we’re never going back. I tend to agree.

  • Stephen Notley  On March 16, 2021 at 3:21 pm

    Much to think about. I agree that the term “cancel culture” is as useless a term as, say, “politically correct.” At the same time, I do feel there’s something in there that deserves some scrutiny.

    The term I use for this kind of stuff is “internet hate mob,” because then it’s discussing a tactic and it doesn’t have any particular ideological lean (though it does have a pretty obvious negative connotation, so it tips its hand in that respect). Internet hate mobs can be pretty indiscriminate. You could look at the experiences Kelly Marie Tran and Leslie Jones faced on social media at the hands of aggrieved MRA idiots as an example of an internet hate mob. But you could also see the same thing within leftier spaces, such as when YouTuber Natalie Wynn/Contrapoints got internet hate mobbed (or “cancelled”) a few months back when she featured Buck Angel (a polarizing figure in the trans community) in one of her videos. The tactic of internet hate mobbing can be deployed by anyone against anyone, for good reasons or bad, but they all share similarities: massive, sustained abuse and threats on social media, paired with strong pressure to anyone associated with the target to disassociate themselves.

    So I totally get the statement that “It’s not cancel culture, it’s consequence culture,” but I don’t think that most follks who’d offer that statement would agree that Kelly Marie Tran or Leslie Jones were facing appropriate “consequences” for their behavior… yet they endured very similar treatment as folks like the Oklahoma basketball announcer did. So, do we approve of internet hate mobs? Can we or should we “do something” about them? Or are they great and totally appropriate methods of social sanction to bring consequences to bad behavior? I fear that they *can* be that, but that they’re bigger than that. They’re dangerous tools, at the very least, I’d say.

  • Stephen Notley  On March 16, 2021 at 3:25 pm

    I would highly recommend Contrapoints’ video on the subject, in which she goes into great detail on the various things that can be considered part of “cancel culture,” with strong analysis in teasing apart the ideologies from the actions.

    • weeklysift  On March 19, 2021 at 12:45 pm

      Thanks for this. I haven’t finished watching it yet, but Contrapoints is fascinatingly different from my usual windows on the world.

    • bgraywolf  On March 22, 2021 at 3:38 pm

      I too would like to thank you for posting this video. It was amazingly informative.

      The last ~30 mins or so also was especially amazing . She started talking about dualism and essentialism (things are good or evil and people are defined by (and unchanging) essential traits) that has really been on my mind in a much less well thought out way. We need to be better about holistically accepting that both exist in each one of us.

      Towards the end of the video she talks about giving space for people to be wrong about things and to educate in this space without condemnation which is also super valuable.

      • Stephen Notley  On March 22, 2021 at 4:52 pm

        You’re most welcome. Contra is a very sharp cookie, and her videos somehow manage to be long but informative, stylish and very entertaining.

  • SamuraiArtGuy  On March 17, 2021 at 6:30 pm

    Rather then enter the fray over “cancel culture” tho’ I do object to the silencing of viewpoints rather than debating them. But concering quotations, i have no issue with repeating a quotation as spoken, especially to an adult audience, been called worse to my face. I have sufficient capacity for critical thinking to know when a quotation is being used as an example, or is being used to support an argument. I know it is not you speaking.

    Many people out in the media sphere seem to be unable to make that distinction and blithely assume that the use of a quote represents the writer’s sincerity held belief, even if presenting a negative example or criticism.

    It’s bullpuckey,

  • Jay Spears Music  On March 18, 2021 at 8:11 pm

    Note 2 typo: It’s HAD not to take it personally.

    • weeklysift  On March 19, 2021 at 12:32 pm

      It takes a serious reader to find a typo in a footnote. Thanks.

  • Jean Saindon  On March 18, 2021 at 11:19 pm

    As you note ”cancel culture” is a meme, a rhetorical trope that replaces analysis and reason about an issue with vague, emotional allegations. It is backed by vagueness and is politically driven emotional rhetoric designed to score points, not enlighten. Terms are used with emotional, not substantive meaning (“millennial Maoists”).

    There are several issues here: Free speech and its limits (your basketball game commentator points to that, but draws the wrong conclusion – it’s not that he went over the line, but that he did it while in a position of authority/role. [We maybe disagreeing over wording].)

    I agree with your idea of impartial standards. I would like to see that developed. You have a number of specific points, and I realize the limits of a blog. I would like to see more development of the reasoning rather than intuitions from your position. I happen to agree with the intuitions. I want to see the reasoning and the articulation of the background position. It’s there. Articulate it and make the connections. Members of both the left and right have overstepped the bounds of respect for free speech some confusing protest with denial. I am old enough to remember E.O. Wilson being forced off a stage for his views, and David Suziki in a debate denouncing J. Phillippe Rushton as a racist, rather than shredding his arguments. In my class the next week, J gave the arguments Suzuki should have. He knew them and had far more scientific authority to give them.

    “Cancel culture” is a meme, a rhetorical reference with vague, undefined referents. It is used to disparage left criticism instead of developing an argument. If you object to what I say, disagree with me, try to hold me accountable for my actions, it is “cancel culture”. This conflates a whole series of actions, and, by using the label, dismisses them.

    I like your distinction between the left and right suppression of opinion (Sachs) – the Left more informal (and loosely organized) and the right more centrally organized and formal (legal). The formal has more local and informal consequences (social pressure); the latter more widespread and difficult to undo consequences (legal). The former can look like a conspiracy (it isn’t it is a social movement), the latter is. Witness the flood of voter suppression laws in the past few weeks. Witness a variety of similar cookie cutter laws by the right over the past years (abortion, banning the teaching of evolution, anti-contraception, anti-immigrant). The right is far more coherently organized than the left. Funded by whom? This is not down-up social movement driven. It is driven by vested interests. The left tends to be a true form of populism, overreaching at times. The right tends to be elite interests mobilizing the populace.

  • paranoid  On May 1, 2021 at 8:59 pm

    Because you indicated that you would get back to this eventually, here’s an example of a game show contestant who, as far as I know, simply tripped over issues he was unaware of and got marked as a white supremacist.

    Contrapoints might label it as essentialism. I think this incident also shows the seeming randomness of what has consequences and the (lack of) proportionality of the consequences.

    I like Stephen Notley’s suggestion of the phrase “internet hate mob,” To me, however, the tone is revenge — anger tinged with sadistic pleasure — rather than hate. “Mob” definitely gets at the concept that some people are piling on because that’s what everyone around them is doing, not because they really care.

    Finally, when you get to writing about it again, I hope you can include the Gamergate aspects of cancellation. Some members of the mob aren’t satisfied with complaining to the offender about what they did or with taking issues to the offender’s employer but want to add vigilante justice with doxxing and threats.

    The latest example I know of with threats comes from a right-wing site going after a college student for their Tweets.

    • weeklysift  On May 2, 2021 at 1:30 pm

      As best I can tell, some people said bad things about him, but there were no further consequences.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On May 2, 2021 at 5:06 pm

      Thanks for posting. I’d come across a left-leaning commentator I respect who mentioned how Andy Ngo has been targeted by demonstrators in Portland, presumably for reporting accurately on the level of destruction, but it sounds like Ngo is going way beyond just reporting.


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