What That Harper's Letter About Cancel Culture Could Have Said
from the cancel-culture-and-motives dept
Earlier this week I wrote about the open letter that was published in Harper’s, signed by around 150 very prominent writers/thinkers. My response to it was to heavily criticize both the premise and the specifics in the letter, and to argue that it sought to do the very thing it claimed to be against. That is, it presented itself as support for free speech and counterspeech, and against attempts to shut down speech — and yet, almost all of the (deliberately vague) examples they pointed to were not examples of shutting down speech, but rather examples of facing consequences from speech and counterspeech itself. The open letter could — and in many cases was — read to basically say “we should be able to speak without professional consequences.”
Some people liked my response, and some people hated it. The debate has raged on, and that’s cool. That’s what we should be supporting, right? More debate and speech.
Many people are referring to the letter as being about “cancel culture,” even though the letter itself never uses the phrase. But everyone recognizes that the concept is what’s at the core of the letter: the idea that someone will say something that “the mob” considers beyond the pale, and suddenly they’re “cancelled.” We’ll get to how realistic that actually is shortly.
But part of the problem with the letter was that it was written in terms that could be used to both condemn overreaction by “mob” voices on Twitter and be used by certain people to say “stop criticizing my bad ideas so vociferously.” It provides nothing of consequence to anyone trying to distinguish between the two, and thus when some assumed it was for the purposes of the latter, rather than the former, that should impeach the drafting of the letter itself, rather than its critics. Still, that makes the letter at best useless and at worst, capable of being used not in support of free speech, but as a tool to condemn counterspeech and consequences.
Some well meaning critics challenged my criticism of the post on a few grounds that are at least worth considering. First, was the argument that my post imputes motives to the signatories that were unfair. And I’ll grant that criticism. Indeed, quite often lately, I’ve found that when people leap to assume the motives of others, that’s often when debates and discussions go off the rails. I’m just as guilty of that as anyone else, and I should try to be better about that. But there’s a flipside to that argument as well, which is that there are people out there who purposely engage in bad faith arguments, and go ballistic when you call them on that, insisting that you can’t impute such bad faith into their argument based solely on the words that they spoke (though, often by ignoring nearly all of the contextual relevancy that makes their bad faith evident).
In other words, there certainly are mixed motives among the signatories, and I’d argue that some signed on in good faith in the belief that the world really is being pushed by illiberal forces that are shutting down realms of speech, but also those who just seem to be upset that people are calling out their bad ideas and they’re suffering the consequences for it. I focused on the latter, when a more charitable read perhaps should have focused on — or at least acknowledged — the former.
And as someone who has spent decades fighting for the importance of free expression, at times at great cost to myself, I have quite a lot of sympathy for what a “good faith” reading of the letter appears to want to say. But I think the letter fails to make its case on multiple grounds, even removing the question of the motives of the signatories.
First, there’s the question of how widespread “cancel culture” truly is. I would argue that it exists, but is vastly overstated — and I’m saying this as someone who has had friends expelled from their jobs unfairly in my view following online mobs ganging up on them. I do believe that, as with any speech, it is possible to use it to galvanize actions I disagree with. But, as I said in my original writeup the details matter. Many of the claims of “cancel culture” remind me of the claims of “anti-conservative bias on social media.” Lots of people insist it’s true, but when you ask for examples, you get back a lot of platitudes about “look around!” and “it’s obvious” and “you’re blind if you can’t see it!” but rarely many actual examples. And, in the few cases where examples are given, they frequently fall apart under scrutiny.
This is true of many — though not all — of the examples of “cancel culture.” Last fall, Cody Johnston did an amusing video arguing that cancel culture isn’t a thing. I’d argue it is exaggerated, and a few points it makes are also misleading, but on the whole he’s got a point. Many of the examples of “cancel culture” are really just the powerful and the privileged receiving some modicum of pushback for horrific actions or statements, that maybe pushed them down a rung from the very top of the ladder, but still left them in pretty privileged positions compared to just about everyone else:
Are there more relevant examples? Perhaps. A lot of people pointed to Yascha Mounk’s recent article in the Atlantic entitled Stop Firing the Innocent, and I mostly agree with that article. There are a few examples out there of people being unfairly fired in response to online mobs misinterpreting or overreacting to things. The story of David Shor in that article is certainly one that many people pointed out, and it does highlight what seems like an overreaction (Shor appears to have been fired for merely tweeting a link to a study about historical voting patterns in response to violent v. non-violent protests, and some, somewhat ridiculously, interpreted the conclusions of that study to somehow be a condemnation of some of the current protests). Another set of well known examples comes from John Ronson’s book from half a decade ago, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” which highlights a few cases of arguably unfair overreactions to minor offenses.
But, here’s the thing: after lots of people (including Mounk) called out what happened to Shor (more speech), many people now agree that his firing was wrong. And so, the cycle continues. Speech, counterspeech, more counterspeech, etc. Sometimes, in the midst of all that speech, bad things happen — such as the firing of Shor. But is that an example of cancel culture run amok, or one bad result out of millions? It is very much like our debates on content moderation. Mistakes are sometimes made. It is impossible to get it right every time. But a few “bad” examples here and there are not evidence of a widespread trend.
Also, I’m still hard pressed to see how the level here is any worse than it was a few decades ago. There may be different issues over which public shaming may occur, but it wasn’t that long ago that people would be ostracized for suggesting it’s okay to fall in love with someone of the same gender or someone of another race. On the whole, I’d argue that we’ve made a lot of progress in opening up avenues of discussion — and while we should be concerned about the cases that go wrong, the evidence that there’s some big change beyond what has happened in the past are lacking. Indeed, I feel like I remember this nearly identical debate from when I was a kid and the fight was over “too much political correctness,” which is a form of the same thing.
I think it’s natural for some folks to always feel that they are being treated unfairly for their beliefs, and that people overreact. It’s not a new phenomenon. It’s not driven by the internet or some other new idea. Indeed, as philosopher Agnes Callard tweeted, you can go back to John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” to find him discussing “cancel culture” as well:
If you want to understand cancel culture, JS Mill's On Liberty is a pretty good place to start. pic.twitter.com/wBXeFRN4aj
— Agnes Callard (@AgnesCallard) July 10, 2020
And, again, the details matter, and in many cases the different degrees of criticism and “cancellation” make a huge difference in whether or not the situation was just or not. The circumstances behind each of the stories matter not just in what happened but to whom and why — and this is why the questions were raised about the signatories and their motives. In some cases it certainly seemed that at least some of them are upset that they are facing more criticism or that they may be excluded from certain privileged platforms. But not being able to publish a nonsense opinion in the NY Times op-ed section is not being cancelled or silenced. It’s one thing to have a non-public figure thrust into the limelight and effectively have their career destroyed. I can see how that’s a problem. That, however, is entirely different from a very public figure having a bunch of people tell them that their ideas are bad and hurting others.
And while some signatories of the letter insisted to me that they meant the letter to be about those non-public figures, the letter itself does not make that clear and, again, can be used to serve both purposes.
Indeed, a response letter that was crowdsourced and put together by an even bigger list of people (though perhaps without as many “recognizable” names) walks through each of the vague examples in the original Harper’s letter and looks at the likely details. And, with the exception of the one example of David Shor — which it describes correctly as “indefensible, and anomalous,” the other examples highlight the issue here: the details have been twisted to hide situations in which people were censured for actually making huge mistakes, not for just taking a contrarian view.
And, once again, that gets at the problem of how awful the letter is: its language can be used both to defend free speech and to paper over truly awful behavior, and while some of the signatories meant it to do the former, it certainly gives the appearance of being used by others to do the latter.
One other criticism I received, along the lines of it being unfair to pin motives of some of the signatories on all of them, was this is the nature of getting a bunch of people to sign onto an open letter. By definition, those things will get watered down as more signatories have opinions, and many people will sign on without necessarily reading through the details. That’s not a good excuse. Recognizing the intent of the letter and who you are joining with is part of understanding context. And, as if to prove what a silly criticism that is, take a look again at the crowdsourced letter above, also signed by a bunch of people, and worked on together as a group. It makes key points much more directly and is a much, much, much riskier letter in many ways.
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.
I think that Jill Filipovic’s response to the letter may be most aligned with my thinking: that cancel culture is overstated, that some of the signatories of the letter were signing on because they’re upset that a wider public with a voice is criticizing them, but that there are at least a few cases of egregious overreaction to online mobbing, and sometimes that involves the loss of a job. Her argument makes some amount of sense — that you shouldn’t be fired for your bad opinions if your bad opinions have nothing to do with your job:
So yes, most of the ?cancel culture? complaints are overwrought. On the long list of things worth caring about, cancel culture is very low down. Criticism is not cancelation. Conflict is not censorship. On all of these issues, the right is far, far worse (how many voices opposing the party line are at Fox, or on right-wing websites, or speaking at conservative religious colleges?). Often, the right uses this narrative of the ?intolerant left? to cover for its own misdeeds and groupthink, and it?s an underhanded, bullshit tactic that too many progressives fall for.
It is also true that there have been instances ? many instances ? where people have been fired from their jobs (and not just in media) for holding opinions that have nothing to do with their ability to perform said job, and who are fired entirely because an employer doesn?t want the PR headache.
Of course, even that is not always so black and white. If your opinions create larger problems for a company — including costs that go beyond just giving PR a headache — does it really make sense to just say that the companies need to shoulder that burden? But I do think it’s fair to try to explore context more deeply. What is the context in which the statements are being made — and who is making them? Is it a situation that involves speaking truth to power? Or is it a situation that involves using a position of privilege to keep down the less fortunate?
That is to say, as with so much, it’s complicated.
And part of that complication is not just that different people have different motives and that mistakes are made, but that the level of “penalty” people receive differs quite a bit as well. If the original letter had legitimately focused exclusively on some of the more significant consequences, and could clearly demonstrate were out of bounds, it might have a good point. But it lumps “public shame and ostracism” in the same category as more significant retribution. And that was part of what made me think the original letter was so lame. Sure, some people were signing onto it to highlight those few egregious cases (though, again, it’s unclear that those situations are new or any different than in the past), but the letter lumped in a much wider variety of things.
Another part of the complication is that as times change, our understanding and sensitivities to certain ideas shift as well. In my original piece I argue it’s not evident from where I sit that the space in which ideas can be discussed is shrinking. There are so many things today that can be seen, discussed, and read that were impossible to get out there just a few decades ago, and that’s incredible. That said, it is true that there are certain things that used to be more commonplace that are now much more sensitive areas. But a big part of that is actually our recognition that things which used to be considered okay (e.g., casual bigotry) are no longer considered okay. And a huge reason those are no longer considered okay is that we’ve opened up this wider “marketplace of ideas” to more voices, often from folks who were previously unable to share their points of view, and their persuasive speech has convinced many that what used to be deemed okay is not and, in fact, never was.
Finally, I’d argue that while it’s possible that some people make innocent mistakes, and that we should try to take into account whether or not saying a truly dumb or hurtful thing was an uneducated mistake or outright maliciousness, we can and should be able to judge that by what happens next. That is, I agree with the letter writers that people shouldn’t lose their job over a single innocent tweet taken out of context. But it’s much, much harder to make that case for someone who doubles down, refuses to learn, refuses to investigate why their words are causing so much pain and hurt, and then attacks those who are trying to educate them on their truly awful stance.
So if I were to try to rewrite the letter to make the actual point that the authors seemed to want to make, I’d probably go with something like the following:
Free speech is a key foundational idea and value which we support. Along with that, though, we recognize that speech has consequences, and some of those consequences may include counterspeech that may lead to action. We recognize that persuasive speech that leads to action may be for things we agree with and also for things we disagree with. We are concerned about situations in which the actions and consequences of speech may unfairly and disproportionately punish people for innocent transgressions — and how that may create unnecessary chilling effects that run counter to the ideal of free speech. Yet at the same time we recognize that this is complicated, and situations may appear differently to different people.
The world is a complicated and ever changing space. Some of that change is for good and some is for bad. There are people with all kinds of motivations out there, and it is all too easy to leap to the worst conclusions about motivations. We should all strive to be cautious in assigning motive, and we should investigate why someone said what they said before leaping to conclusions or rushing to condemn them to the level at which they’d face reprisal — while also recognizing that there are those out there who will argue in bad faith. Distinguishing between the two is often difficult.
In many ways, the world is more free and open for debate today than in the past — new and previously unheard voices are being heard and promoted and celebrated for the first time and we should encourage that. This open debate and discussion has also resulted in a changing societal consensus on what is, and what is not, appropriate. Quite frequently this is also for good. We are becoming more sensitive to the harms that people have faced and are reckoning with all of those, thanks in part to the robust debate and discussion about these ideas.
At the same time, in our ongoing and righteous zeal to revisit areas that were previously overlooked and underexplored, there are times when people may go too far. There are times when the nuance and details and context are not initially clear, and some people — including ourselves — may overreact. That overreaction often leads to consequences which, when the full situation is explored and understood, seem unfair. We should seek to be aware that this may happen, and try to avoid it. Furthermore, we should recognize that as fallible as humans are, we will sometimes discover this too late, and should seek to rectify it when we do.
The details will always matter. We should not assume simplistic narratives all of the time, when often there are mixed motivations and complex factors and variables involved. There may be situations that appear similar on the surface, but upon deeper exploration turn out to be quite different. We should be willing to explore those details and to recognize that, sometimes, people we like will face consequences for their speech for an extended pattern of truly reprehensible behavior.
However, we should leave space open for people to learn and to grow. We should recognize that a single misdeed may be innocent and should treat it as such. We should see how people respond to such feedback. At the same time, we should also recognize that a pattern and practice of questionable and hurtful behavior may suggest a person who is deliberately, and in bad faith, seeking to game the system.
This starts with us. We, who have signed this letter, have not always lived up to these ideals either. Everyone will make mistakes sometimes, and we hope to learn from them as well. We are excited about the power of new voices to be heard and join the conversation, and realize this often challenges our strongly held beliefs. We hope that, in the spirit of learning from these new voices that criticism of other views will also take on a recognition that there is room to understand and to change — or, on the flipside — to build stronger arguments to the contrary.
I think that approach would have made the point much better. It would acknowledge that things are often more complicated than they appear on the surface, that there are different motivations behind actions, and that sometimes speech does lead to consequences that not everyone will agree with. But, most of all, that approach acknowledges that everyone makes these kinds of mistakes at some point. The original letter framed the issue as if the signatories were the righteous believers in free speech, against the “others” out there trying to shut them down — without any recognition that some of the signatories and the letter itself often seemed to be advocating for the silencing of others as well.
In the end: free speech is important, but like with so many things it’s more complicated the deeper you explore, because free speech itself has consequences, and we should strive to understand the impact of our speech, to learn, and to expand our own thinking over time as well.