A core part of the argument that there is no such thing as “cancel culture” is that it’s just culture, just the normal enforcement of “social norms” as society has always done, but now with a new name. Not only do I find that argument false, as the back-end consequences are very different, but the claim that it’s merely about “social norms” to be nonsense.
Your notions of political correctness do not constitute "social norms."
Society organically creates social norms over time, not angry mobs on twitter looking for reasons to be offended.
— Scott Greenfield (@ScottGreenfield) February 2, 2021
Unsurprisingly, this was not a popular notion to those inflicting political correctness on others. My pal, Ken, was unimpressed.
Hmm. They may not be social norms you agree with. But I think saying they’re not social norms is a stretch. Don’t we have tons of competing, sometimes controversial social norms?
His reply was a non-sequitur, but it wasn’t entirely unfair since my twit was vague enough to be open to challenge from many sides, even if his question was more an effort to avoid the point than address it.
Then came the New York Times firing of Donald McNeil.
McNeil’s offense was the use of the “n-word.” Not to attack. Not to denigrate. Not as a slur. Quite the opposite.
McNeil, formerly the paper of record’s top reporter on COVID-19, leaves amid fallout from an incident that occurred during a Times-sponsored educational trip to Peru when he used the “n-word.” At least six students or their parents claimed McNeil had made racist and sexist remarks throughout the trip.
The science reporter further described the “n-word” incident as having occurred during a dinner discussion about the use of racial slurs, in which one student on the trip asked whether a classmate should have been suspended for using racist rhetoric in a video.
“To understand what was in the video, I asked if she had called someone else the slur or whether she was rapping or quoting a book title. In asking the question, I used the slur itself,” McNeil wrote.
Was it a social norm in 2019 that a white person did not use the “n-word”? Sure, whether casually or as a slur against another person. This should be uncontroversial. But what is a social norm that any utterance of the n-word, no matter the context or intent, was unacceptable? Was it a social norm that using the word to engage in a discussion about the impropriety of using the word demanded punishment?
To some, the answer is easy, that any utterance of the word, no matter intent or context, demands the harshest punishment. And that’s exactly the problem, that they conflate their momentary belief in what constitutes an unpardonable evil with what society has organically accepted as a social norm.
We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.
This may be the “official” expression of New York Times “tolerance,” now that Jim Bennett has been canceled. But as a “social norm,” not even the Times can claim that without a fatal dose of hypocrisy.
The word in question has been published in The Times as recently as: November 4, 2020 November 7, 2020 November 15, 2020 November 25, 2020 November 29, 2020 December 28, 2020 February 7, 2021
If internal inconsistency doesn’t suffice, consider that the initial reaction was somewhat less strident.
At first, the Times stood by him after the story was leaked in a Daily Beast article on January 28. Though McNeil showed “extremely poor judgment,” Dean Baquet wrote initially, “it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious.”
Still pretty cutting edge politically correct, but not worthy of the death penalty. That didn’t last long.
But an angry letter from 150 Times staffers to Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger seems to have sealed McNeil’s fate; by Friday, he was no longer a New York Times employee.
There have been many instances of academics using the word in a non-offensive manner, yet being punished for its mere utterance. Hell, there are instances of people using words that sound like the word and being punished for it. Even here, a very progressive former federal judge used the word as it was used in a case.
This has nothing to do with whether they (or I) agree or disagree with social norms, or whether they’re conflicting or controversial. This has to do with whether they’re social norms or “norms” imposed at the moment by the mob, in McNeil’s case 150 of his colleagues at the New York Times who coerced Editor Dean Baquet and Publisher A.G. Sulzberger into firing him for doing something that violated no social norm at the time.
Whether it’s a social norm now, outside of the New York Times and some of Ken’s followers on twitter because a bunch of woke folks believe it should be remains to be seen.
But what is abundantly clear is that people doing things, saying things, that violated no social norm at the time has come back to being punishable with extreme prejudice by imposition of ex post facto “norms” as determined by the mob, whether at the New York Times or social media. Not organic norms, but new rules that magically appear out of thin air on social media to destroy lives and careers that the mob decides needs destroying.
They fail to see why this presents an untenable problem, as if we can be guided in how we behave in accordance with social norms that have yet to exist and may not exist at all outside the bubble of the politically correct. Yet, the people who are in that bubble see no problem with their transitory invention of “norms” that they impose at will to destroy whoever they decide to make their target of the moment.
Ken asked me for an example. I trust this helps. As for his angered followers at my suggestion that whatever they passionately believed might not be a “social norm,” I similarly trust that nothing will help. They will never be capable of grasping how their unduly passionate wokeness does not constitute the norms of society, but that won’t stop them from demanding the blood of people like McNeil whose only mistake was not anticipating that the New York Times would abandon all integrity and reason to appease the facile outrage of its wokest staff.