Categories
Cancel Culture Ethics

Cancelled

Their accusations are their confessions.

Remember that. It’s how we need to consider the many and varied arguments we hear daily from conservative critics. It’s a common tactic. It’s what Freud called “projection”, where you identify your own faults, and ‘project’ them on to others, accusing them of the things you yourself are guilty of.

It was used to devastating effect by the previous U.S. president. Any time he was suspected (usually justifiably) of some form of corruption or malpractice, he would wrap up the suspicion in some new terminology (which Scott Adams called a “linguistic killshot“) and fling it back against the opposition as a direct accusation.

And we need to be clear that this is exactly what the term ‘cancel culture’ is. It’s an attempt by the people most likely to censor and silent opponents to accuse their opponents of exactly that sort of behaviour. It’s effective because it’s targeted at the audience least likely to stifle opposition, and therefore most sensitive to the criticism.

But remember: their accusations are their confessions.

The people accusing us of ‘cancel culture’ because we have decided to call an end to hateful and abusive behaviour are themselves the most likely to belittle, censor and silence opponents. That’s how they keep their power.

Despite their constant cries of censorship, conservatives dominate social media. Despite their accusations of left-leaning bias in newsrooms and on college campuses, conservatives exert a disproportional influence on both. Their cries of censorship in social media are baseless. And lets not forget the preponderance of conservative thought in organizations as varied as religious institutions, the police, military, schools of business and corporate boardrooms.

They would like us to believe that “we’re just the same, you and I.” They would like us to believe that if we were in the same position, we would do the same thing, that we would preserve our privilege, that we would take advantage of the weak, that we despise the poor and the marginalized just as much as they do. And their ‘proof’, they say, is cancel culture.

Except – no. The very same action, taken in the defense of the marginalized, is not the same as that action taken with the intent to oppress one. And this can be seen in the nature and character of the defense, how it is directed toward the action, and not the person, how it leaves even the attacker no weaker than when he started.

Their acts of silencing and oppression have no beginning and, it seems, no end…

  • like when the state of Mississippi banned Sesame Street, calling it “too controversial” because it had black actors
  • like when @ForAmerica attacked the Macy’s Day Parade for “blindsiding parents” because it dared to show two girls kiss
  • like when conservative ‘free speech’ website Parler starts banning accounts for posting left wing ideas
  • like when a conservative government bans universities from teaching gender studies
  • like when Republicans in Georgia pass laws promoting voter suppression

You know and I know I could make this list longer and longer without much effort (but with more effort than it might seem, because conservatives has also flooded Google search with these accusations, making their own transgressions harder to find).

Every time a conservative complains about censorship or ‘cancel culture’ we need to remind ourselves, and to say to them,

“You are the one complaining about cancel culture because you are the one who uses silencing and suppression as political tools to advance your own interests and maintain your own power.

“You are complaining about cancel culture because the people you have always silenced are beginning to have a voice, and they are beginning to say, we won’t be silent any more.

“And when you say the people working against racism and misogyny and oppression are silencing you, that tells us exactly who – and what – you are.”

“Your accusations are your confessions.”

Categories
Cancel Culture Justice

On Justice and Open Debate

I support free and open debate. I support what the authors of A Letter call “good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.” What I don’t support are threats, harassment and abuse. And I oppose people who use their power and privilege to oppress the less powerful and less privileged.

I don’t think it’s too fine a distinction. Arguments are not hard to spot; they are based on reasons, ideally on evidence, and they support some point of view. The other sort of discourse looks nothing like this. It is – at best – dogma supported by more dogma. More often, it’s just a stream of verbal attacks. It is a pernicious form of dialogie, and it ought quite rightly to be censured.

Let’s just for the moment take the following as a given:

“Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts.”

Let’s think about what this means. Voices that have been silenced, often violently, in the past have now finally reached the point where they are being heard, and where some of the reforms they are proposing are actually being enacted. These arguments are based on concrete evidence, not the least of which was video of a man being murdered in broad daylight by the police.

But there’s always a ‘but’, isn’t there?

“But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”

I think we can agree that it has awakened a new set of moral attitudes, among them including things like “‘driving while black’ is not a crime”, “it is wrong to simply look away from sexual abuse and rape”, and “advocating for white supremacy is not acceptable”. From my perspective these are long past due, but in some circles of society, they have taken a lot longer to take root.

But these new norms, and others like them, do nothing to weaken our norms of open debate. There are and always have been many many things you simply cannot advocate and expect to keep your job or your publishing contract. Try selling some child pornography and see how your career fares, for example. Advocate for the use of hard drugs, and see what the reaction is. Support and campaign for communism. Call for the defenestration of the wealthy. Deny the Holocaust. You get the idea – nobody does or would support any of these things, and we would not be surprised if people did not vigorously respond, if not throw you in jail outright. And for good reason.

In recent years there has been enough evidence to convince people that this list should be extended, if for no other reason than that the right has been acting as though no such rules apply. From the Bush doctrine that (among other things) legitimized pre-emptive war and sanctioned torture, to the Trump doctrine of sanctioned racism, extrajudicial violence, recognition of Nazis as “good people” and a “grab her by the pussy” ethic, it has become clear that a fundamentally immoral set of values has taken hold in our elite.

I think the case against invasion, torture, racism, fascism, sexism, and LGBT rights opposition has advanced far beyond “ideological conformity”, because I think there are no longer (if there ever were) any good faith arguments to be made in favour of those positions. What the events of the last few years have shown is that support for them is based in nothing more than blunt assertion of power and privilege, and not reason and argument at all. And that opposition to them is an equally blunt – and morally just – rejection of them.

Jessica Valenti offers a nice recap of the behaviours that are being defended by the authors of the Letter. The professor who was investigated was a white teacher at UCLA who used the n-word repeatedly in class. The editor who lost his job ran a piece advocating the use of military force against peaceful protesters. An author published bigoted ideas and debunked myths about trans women. Another editor published an essay by Jian Ghomeshi, who has been accused by more than 20 women of sexual assault.

None of these constitutes a good faith argument. They are all, respectively, attacks on their targets of hate. They are incitements to violence, to social reprisals against the victims of these attacks, simply because the victims pushed back. As Valenti writes, “The only speech these powerful people seem to care about is their own: They want to be able to say whatever they want without consequence, and to paint themselves as the victims even as they wield more institutional and systemic power than anyone criticizing them.”

The push-back is not against dialogue or discussion, but instead against a wall of hard-right propaganda that seeks to undermine the fundamental principles of democracy. There’s no reason why we should accept that in a democratic society; being offensive isn’t the same as offering an argument in favour of it. It’s not that the proponents are arguing in favour of fascism, they are fascist, and expecting us to recognize that as acceptable. They are racist, they are misogynist, they are intolerant. And when we run up against them in the office or on the street, we won’t turn away, but we will confront them, and refuse them the power and the privilege they desire.

And let’s be clear, also, that none of the so-called ‘reprisals’ against those referenced by the authors of a Letter come close to actual illiberalism. Look at what the responses are – an editor loses his job, a writer doesn’t get a book published, a journalist is told not to write about something, professors are investigated, a researcher is fired, heads of organizations are ousted. These pale in comparison to actual illiberalism practiced by their ilk as recently as, well, this week.

The writers of the Letter cannot have it both ways. They cannot argue that they should have carte-blanche to write and behave in any way they please, without regard to the people they harm, while at the same time saying that the people being harmed should not write and behave in ways that defend themselves against that harm. If they really think illiberalism is the danger, then perhaps they should look in the mirror. They are the danger.

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Categories
Cancel Culture Media

The Shareholder Primacy Rule

Like most others, I was dismayed by the loss of Ukrainian International Airways Flight 752 from Tehran, which was shot down by accident following an exchange of missile fire between the U.S. and Iran.

And so it is not with even the remotest of surprise that I read the comments of Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain condemning the attack and criticizing Donald Trump for his rash and ill-thought actions that precipitated the crisis.

However, according to this news report, “According to the business principle of shareholder primacy, there is an argument that Sunday’s Twitter attack on U.S. President Donald Trump by the CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, Michael McCain, was dead wrong.”

The article explains, “the question from the business point of view is whether, as the boss of a company owned by shareholders, he should have spoken out at all. The question was especially relevant as the share price fell on Monday, closing down about one per cent on the day.”

This is how censorship works in capitalism. The restriction doesn’t just impact the CEO, but ripples through the entire company, as the sole motivating force of the company must be to increase shareholder value. Thus sayeth Milton Friedman.

This principle has been a thorn in the side of our society since its inception. It prevents companies from acting ethically, it prevents them from contributing to the social welfare, it prevents them from considering the environment.

Moreover, it commits corporations to a mythical ontology of cause and effect, one where the stock market (for all its irrationality) determines what is true and false, good and bad, and one where there is at the same time a completely mythical chain of causality drawn between a CEO’s statements and a one cent fall in stock price.

It also commits the company to a short term perspective, one measured in hours and days, rather than weeks and years, much less the long term life of both the corporation and the community it lives in. Far be it for someone to point out that McCain’s remarks were directed toward preserving society as a whole – there was a one cent price drop today!

Now I have no particular desire to actually listen to CEOs, as they tend to be among the most conservative of thinkers (though probably by necessity). But I object strenuously to the existence of a structural mechanism that eliminates even the possibility that they might contribute to the social good in a positive way.

Categories
Cancel Culture

Free Speech

There’s this view of free speech that seems to suggest that we have an obligation to sit down and quietly listen to racists, warmongers and extremists.

That seems to be the undertone of criticisms of the student demonstrators protesting a speech at Beloit College in the U.S.

“In a raucous performance-inspired protest, students at Beloit College on Wednesday shut down a planned speech by Erik Prince, an associate of President Trump and the controversial founder of the security company Blackwater.”

It also seems to be the intent of the free speech policy being required of Ontario colleges and universities this year. Said our premier: “I’ve heard from many students who believe our campuses need to be a place for respectful and open dialogue, without fear of attacks or discrimination.”

Let’s be clear, nobody here is promoting physical attacks. But is someone is going to show up where I work or study and promote some of the hatred some speakers promote, then I’m not going to sit quietly and applaud. Neither should the students.

Yes, there should be room for debate at colleges and universities. That’s the reason for their existence. Yes, we should be able to discuss uncomfortable topics at colleges and universities. That’s the only way some of my own ideas (radical left-wing ideas like socialized health care and guaranteed income) can ever see the light of day.

But let’s also be clear that this is not what the promoters of talks by people like Blackwater founder Erik Prince or race-based theorist Charles Murray are trying to do. They’re not there to debate their ideas. They’re there to intimidate the people who oppose them. They’re there, quite literally, to take the bully pulpit.

As a recent open letter says in part, “This is not an issue of freedom of speech. We think it is necessary to allow a diverse range of perspectives to be voiced at Middlebury …. However, in this case we find the principle does not apply, due to not only the nature, but also the quality, of Dr. Murray’s scholarship. He paints arguments for the biological and intellectual superiority of white men with a thin veneer of quantitative rhetoric and academic authority.”

What ‘freedom of speech’ is being used for in the case of people like Prince or Murray is to block criticism of of these people. They can speak, but if you raise your voice in criticism, you are the one blocking free speech. Because the first principle of free speech under this sort of regime is that ‘you do not speak back to power’. Especially if they are questioning your right to exist.

No, that’s not how free speech works. If someone is going to say something offensive, then they should be shouted down. That’s how freedom of speech works. If someone says something hateful or threatening, then they should be removed from the stage. That’s how freedom of speech works.

Because freedom of speech works not by protecting the oppressors. It works by protecting the people who would stand up against them.