Raise The Bar On Cancel Culture

Thought you heard the end of “I know you are but what am I” when you were on the playground in third grade? No, of course you didn’t, because you are no doubt following the smartest and most persuasive people your tribe has to offer, and they’re hurling variations of this infantile reply fast and furious.

Breitbart, that bastion on deep alt-right thought, dug up some old twits from a University of Alabama Dean of Students.

Jamie Riley had dared to criticize the American flag and the police, writing in 2017 that they represent “a systemic history of racism for my people.”

Breitbart decided that this and other tweets of Riley’s merited an article. Reporter Kyle Morris wrote that “a series of resurfaced tweets from Dr. Jamie R. Riley, the University of Alabama’s assistant vice president and dean of students, show he once believed the American flag and police in America are racist.” But the tweets didn’t just resurface on their own—they were publicized by the right-wing news site in order to send a social media mob after Riley.

Within 24 hours, Riley was out of a job. Why he was forced out or quit, the details are unclear, is an excellent question. He criticized the flag and cops? So what? Yet, the product of the Breitbart post was to “cancel” Riley. They must have been so proud of themselves.

This raised a separate issue: while conservatives have been highly critical of progressive cancel culture, the array of people who have been turned into pariahs for conduct, twits, unproven accusations from years ago, were they not engaging in the exact same conduct? If this was wrong, disgraceful, UnAmerican, to destroy people’s lives for actions that occurred in another time, under circumstances that were acceptable then but not now, how was it any less wrong for the alt-right to do it?

Many pundits on the right constantly inveigh against cancel culture: the drive to shame, punish, and ultimately destroy people for having said something trivially offensive at some point. Comedian Dave Chapelle torched cancel culture in his recent Netflix special, and conservatives applauded. The clip of Chapelle scornfully imitating cancellers has been all over right-leaning media for the last two weeks.

I very much agree that cancel culture is bad. (In fact, it’s one of the main themes of my book.) But as long as the right is perfectly willing to enforce its own version of political correctness, it is difficult to to believe that they really agree in principle that you shouldn’t do this kind of thing. If you only defend the cancelled when you agree with them, then you’re not actually against cancelling. You’re just protecting your tribe.

Robby Soave at Reason calls on conservatives to condemn this “hit job” and undo the damage by calling for Riley’s reinstatement. Indeed, many progressives have challenged conservatives, by which they mean everyone who isn’t progressive, to do exactly that, lambasting them for their hypocrisy. And conservatives who are not alt-right did exactly that, not because they were goaded by progressives but because they believed what Breitbart did to be wrong and outrageous.

But that didn’t mean the unduly passionate didn’t have their say as well. Jane Coaston, allegedly one of the brighter lights at Vox, went straight at it in her opening salvo.

And spiraled out of control from there.

This is the obvious path the left has set us on. Is the idea that conservatives should just take this gotcha game (from places like CNN!) and never fire back?

From the left, the argument was that the right was just a bunch of hypocrites, plus they started it. From the right, it’s only fair that they get to fight fire with fire. And to put a point on it, when argued that neither side chose to be better than its nemesis, the alt-right response was as clear as possible.

There are, and will continue to be, battles fought over who “did it first” and why one side should be allowed to do it but the other not allowed to do it as well. Whether this is best described as mutually assured hypocrisy or infantile schoolyard antics, it’s clearly not virtuous, and it’s not virtuous for either tribe.

Was this a “golden rule” problem, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or something more sinister and destructive, if the other team goes low, you go just as low, if not lower?

Shortly before the Riley explosion, Jeffrey Sachs (about whose free speech arguments I’ve not been kind and don’t plan to start now) wrote at Arc Digital that while the right and left have both been wrong, the right is more wrong, amounting to a “Republican war on campus free speech.” Sachs positions himself as an open-minded, reasonable, slightly left of center academic.

While Democrats have behaved similarly in the past, they do so less frequently and with less intensity. This isn’t a “both sides” story. When it comes to government officials threatening free speech on campus, Republicans are clearly worse.

While his post contrasts some Republican politicians, in some cases, using their political clout for flagrantly censorious outcomes, with student and academic campus political correctness, Sachs claims neither presents a “real” crisis.

There was certainly a crisis for Jamie Riley, as there has been for a long list of academics, speakers and the capacity to express opinions that compel the “snowflakes” to take to their puppy rooms. There are two ways to face this problem: either go tit-for-tat, and perpetuate the “cancel” culture that both sides blame on the other, or be better than your average third-grader in the schoolyard and end this insanity.

We’re past the “who started it” phase of hypocrisy, and “fight fire with fire” accomplishes nothing but irrational harm to many, ironically often those otherwise adored members of the tribe, whether Al Franken or Sarah Silverman.

We’re now at the stage of which side is going to be the grown-up and put an end to cancel culture, finger-pointing and blaming. Rather than use the other tribe’s bad conduct as the bar for their own, be better than their opposition. As of now, it’s unclear that either side is willing to blink.

16 thoughts on “Raise The Bar On Cancel Culture

  1. Elpey P.

    “This isn’t a ‘both sides’ story. When it comes to government officials threatening free speech on campus, Republicans are clearly worse.”

    And yet this is the classic “both sides” defense. Don’t worry about my team doing it, because the other team is always worse.

    Short of getting rid of Twitter, we’re going to have people constantly whining about stupid stuff. And then throwing phrases like “no freedom from consequences” at each other, and relishing karma.

    The deeper problem (or at least the more actionable one) is at the institutional level. The real culprits are those who say how high when the mob tells them to jump. The outcome in this situation is ridiculous, but the University is the primary point of failure, not Breitbart. Let the whiners have their say, or at least good luck finding where to draw that line. It shouldn’t require principled observers standing up and doing the right thing (though they still should) to sway these organizations’ decisions.

    1. SHG Post author

      Excellent point, but at what point does the threat of mob impact compel a college to act upon a viral complaint? Mizzou crashed after the Melissa Click (“I need some muscle here”) fiasco, when student enrollment fell precipitously. Other schools fear loss of enrollment because of alleged failure to address sexual assault or students feelings “unsafe.”

      Now that universities have forfeited all claim to integrity, can they decide they’ve had enough and just say no?

      1. Elpey P.

        Maybe never, unless it intersects with some other principle beyond threats from the mob. It’s largely an imaginary threat anyway. The loudest voices are not necessarily the ones that will have the actual impact. Melissa Click was fired and enrollment crashed anyway.

    1. SHG Post author

      There’s a saying, “an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind,” but it’s wrong. There will eventually be a one-eyed man left, and he will be king.

      1. B. McLeod

        I read a short story based on this premise once, and it actually didn’t turn out well for the one-eyed guy in the Valley of the Blind. Decades since I read it, but I think he ended up having his eye put out so he could fit in.

        1. MGould

          I think you’re referring to “The Country of the Blind” by H.G. Wells. The guy was going to put his eyes out so he could marry a blind woman, but chickened out at the last minute and fled the valley.

  2. MelK

    > We’re now at the stage of which side is going to be the grown-up…

    It’ll never be the whole team, you know that. The best you can hope for is schism.

    1. LocoYokel

      Problem with unilateral disarmament is that it just leaves you defenseless while the other army wipes you out. This has to be handled at the higher level of the organizations refusing to respond and telling them to pound sand, and this goes for employers also.

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