Saturday, July 11, 2020

"Cancel Culture": "Political Correctness" for 2020

And political extremists roam the land, abusing the privilege of free speech, setting citizens against one another on the basis of their class or race.
-- George H. W. Bush, commencement address at University of Michigan, May 4, 1991
The fussin' and fightin' over That Letter hasn't flamed out yet, days later.  A few intelligent contributions have been made, but on the whole the level of discussion remains embarrassingly low.

I'm not going to say that there's no such thing as cancel culture; that would be like claiming that there's no such thing as the "Democratic establishment"; or from another perspective, that there was no such thing as a "homosexual" before the word was invented in 1869.  What I want to challenge here is the common claim that the attempts to silence disliked opinions and people are new, a feature of the Age of Trump.  (Because, as we all know, history began on January 20, 2017 and nothing happened before that date.)  This is a false claim, and it baffles me that anyone over the age of ten can make it.  But we live in the United States of Amnesia, so of course they do.

I just found a good essay by Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson, responding to an article by Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi from almost a month before That Letter appeared.  Taibbi's examples of Political Correctness Run Amok are about the same as those That Letter, though it's impossible to be sure because That Letter is carefully unspecific about them.

Robinson dissects Taibbi's cases.  For example
Often, I’ve found that when you actually click the links on stories about how the “social justice warriors” or “wokescolds” or “cancel culture” doers are getting wildly out of control, you find that the facts are far more nuanced than critics want you to believe. For example, Taibbi cites an instance of “a UCLA professor placed under investigation for reading Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ out loud.” This sounds so extreme that I doubted whether it was true, and indeed it isn’t. The students actually complained because when the (white) professor read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” aloud, he chose to say the n-word rather than censoring it. And when Black students told him they would have preferred if he’d omitted the word, he apparently doubled down and said being white didn’t mean he couldn’t say the n-word. (Students were apparently also upset that he had shown them a video containing the n-word and graphic pictures of lynchings, apparently without having had a conversation about it.)
And so on.  I suddenly experienced a dizzying moment of deja vu: I'd read essentially the same article many times during the 1990s, when a range of writers (some journalists, some scholars, and a vile hack named Dinesh D'Souza - you may have heard of him) were claiming that America's colleges and universities had been taken over by Communist deconstructionists who hated Western culture and were brainwashing our young people with their gay feminist multiculturalism; and a range of other writers, mostly scholars but some journalists carefully exposed the inaccuracy of their accusations in detail.*  Not all those who jumped on the Culture Wars bandwagon were right-wing; some were liberal and some were even some kind of leftist.

For example, the distinguished historian C. Vann Woodward gave D'Souza's mendacious book Illiberal Education (excerpted in the liberal magazine The Atlantic) a favorable review in The New York Review of Books.  NYRB has a long tradition of publishing letters, often very critical ones, addressing their articles, with responses by the reviewers.  Several critical letters were published, detailing errors by Woodward and D'Souza.  Interestingly, Woodward admitted that when he checked he found numerous falsehoods in D'Souza's account of the activist Rigoberta Menchu, but he doesn't seem to have done so with the book as a whole.  His patronizing sneer at the distinguished historian John Hope Franklin -- "John Hope Franklin must have got up on the wrong side of the bed the day he wrote his letter", and it gets worse as he proceeds -- wasn't a great example of serious discussion either.

What the accusers of PC had in common was not a political stance but a disregard for factual accuracy and reason, which they projected onto their targets.  One of my favorite falsehoods was the claim that Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple was being taught in college literature courses more than Shakespeare was.  John K. Wilson refuted the claim in The Myth of Political Correctness (Duke UP, 1995, pp. 84-5):
Perhaps the most famous inaccuracy was written by Christopher Clausen, chair of Penn State’s English department, when he said, “I would bet that The Color Purple is taught in more English courses today than all of Shakespeare’s plays combined.” Clausen’s statement is cited by NAS [National Association of Scholars] member Thomas Short, who agrees that “it is possible that Walker’s black lesbian saga is now assigned more often in college courses than all of Shakespeare’s plays combined.”

My own survey of reading lists for English classes at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) in 1991 found that Shakespeare was the most popular author by a wide margin. In addition to five sections of “Introduction to Shakespeare,” five sections of an advanced Shakespeare class, an honors seminar, and a graduate seminar, eight non-Shakespeare classes also included Shakespeare in their list of readings. Only one class read The Color Purple. Using a conservative estimate of eight plays assigned in each Shakespeare class, nearly one hundred Shakespeare plays were read for every copy of Alice Walker’s book.
Something to notice here: Clausen wrote "I would bet," and Short said "It is possible."  When I first encountered this claim it was from other people, mostly online, who simply declared it as fact.  That's how these things spread.  Someone might argue that Wilson only surveyed one university and things might be different elsewhere.  That's certainly possible, but neither Clausen nor Short bothered to look at even one school.  The burden of proof lies on the person who affirms: it was up to them to provide evidence, but phrasing it as they did allowed them to avoid that obligation.  They were just, y'know, having a good time, so chill!

Before D'Souza, the right-wing scholar Allan Bloom set off a similar shitstorm with his The Closing of the American Mind (Simon and Schuster, 1987), which claimed that American higher education had been taken over by leftist barbarians during the upheavals of the 1960s.  Bloom's claims also were dubious and refuted by many academics and other writers.**  The idea that American democracy is endangered by wild-eyed Reds, anarchists, women, and Negroes is much older, and generally expressed in similar terms, generation after generation.

The writers of That Letter chose not to specify actual cases to back up their complaint, which gave them similar plausible deniability.  When people have attempted to pin down specifics, there's been disagreement among their critics as to what is meant.  But one of the allusions seems to be reasonably clear: "Editors are fired for running controversial pieces".  This probably refers to Senator Tom Cotton's (R-Ark.) notorious op-ed piece for the New York Times which urged that the US military be used against "rioters" protesting police violence.  Calling such a stance "controversial" is the sort of thing that Noam Chomsky, among others, would ordinarily mock.  But on top of that, the Op-Ed page editor confessed that he had not read the piece before it was published; and that the board had solicited it from Cotton, though they would not have been obliged to run it if he'd simply submitted it on spec - corporate media apologists love to remind us that no one can demand to appear in their pages.  It should also be remembered that objections to the op-ed process came not just from the Twitter mob but from Times reporters and writers.  Whether editor James Bennet should have been made to resign can be debated, but his competence is certainly open to question; it wasn't just because he published something "controversial." So the clause in That Letter is highly dishonest, like much of the rest of it.  Which is not how you call for better, more open, more responsible debate.

Which takes me back to That Letter's claims that we (whoever 'we' are) are faced with a new problem: "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"; "The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted"; "it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought"; "it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought."

The author laments:
"While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters."
The irony here is that many of the signers (Chomsky, Katha Pollitt, Cary Nelson among them) have been attacked in just these terms themselves.  Maybe it's true that Today's Kids Are Going Too Far, but I could wish for more self-awareness from these sadder-but-wiser elder spokespeople, and in its absence it's hard for me to take them seriously, especially the bit about valuing "even caustic counter-speech."  It's exactly what this letter opposes: not from the signers, but from those who disagree with them.

I don't deny that censoriousness, intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, etc. occur in American society and often inhibit free debate.  Certainly the Internet in general and social media in particular have enabled unprecedented numbers of people to show their asses to the world.  They were always there, however, as anyone familiar with US political and intellectual history should know.

One thing that may have changed is that cancel culture used to conduct its working behind closed doors: senior faculty deciding that they already had enough Jews or women or blacks in the department, upper management quietly pulling reporters off stories because, as George Orwell put it, "it wouldn't do" to put such things into print; troublesome athletes cut loose for being uppity; arrestees having mysterious fatal accidents in police custody.  While there isn't really much outside input in such matters now, there's a lot more than there used to be, and our self-styled meritocratic elites hate that.  Of course they yowl that they're being persecuted by the rabble.

Having said that, I think we need more openness and more rational debate.  Their lack is nothing new, which is not surprising: critical thinking and responsible debate are hard.  Because of this difficulty, neither is really very popular among the people who recommend it to others; scientists, for example, should be its most regular practitioners, but they evade it when they can.  Our celebrity scientists, such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Bill Nye, or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, are actually prominent in cancel culture: they prefer snarky comebacks, a victim's stance, or vitriolic abuse to reasoned debate.  (Of course they are cast by their fans as the victims of cancel culture.)

When you encounter something like That Letter, which proclaims a new problem, you know you're dealing with grifters.  Not everything in it is false: a smart hustler knows that the best way to lie is with half-truths.  Yes, there are immense pressures against free exchanges of ideas and opinion; yes, many people on the left are hostile to free exchanges; but the biggest pressures come from our big institutions.  Numerous people have pointed out that employment-at-will is a major factor: if your boss can fire you because you're inconvenient, you've given the company bad publicity, then of course you're vulnerable to abuse from the Twitterverse.

Remember how casually Barack Obama jettisoned Shirley Sherrod after a right-wing site released a doctored video that made her look bad.  He didn't even try to find out if the accusations had any validity.  (I suspect he wanted to get rid of Sherrod anyway for some reason, and the Breitbart video gave him an excuse.)  Investigating such questions isn't cost-effective, either financially or politically.  To see Obama now denouncing cancel culture just shows his ongoing dishonesty.  We know from history that false accusations and bad-faith arguments are ancient; they aren't going to go away because Barack Obama or Noam Chomsky or J. K. Rowling scolds them.  Investigating them before acting is not a luxury, it's a necessity; but I'm not going to hold my breath.

Ellen Willis addressed this B.I. (Before the Internet) in a discussion of the firing of the right-wing CBS commentator Andy Rooney, which I quoted at some length in a previous post:
This was seen in some quarters as a victory for the left.  Yet the real reason Rooney got into trouble was that he violated the media establishment's bland, centrist criteria for acceptable speech.  In demanding Rooney's removal, lesbian and gay activists appealed to precisely those standards of "civility" -- that is, niceness -- regularly used to marginalize their own speech.  While Rooney was slapped down for expressing bluntly illiberal views, it's hard to imagine anyone comparably left of the mainstream -- particularly in a libertarian direction -- ever having his job in the first place.  And suppose such a person did slip through and then wrote a letter to the editor defending illegal drug use or attacking organized religion as tyrannical -- can anyone doubt that he or she would have been not suspended but fired, and with little public protest at that?
This is relevant to the Tom Cotton op-ed.  It's hard to imagine anyone "comparably left of the mainstream" ever being invited to contribute to the Times Op-Ed page, though it is well-populated with regular columnists as far right as Cotton.  Yes, a lot of people on the left are hostile to open debate, and I attack them constantly; we all know about the right's hostility to open debate; but I say that the biggest, most intractable threat comes from the Center.  The Center silences you because you're uncivil, because what you're saying is just crazy, and the Center however it's constituted will have the most money and clout.  As Willis indicated, the Centrist media could sponsor and broadcast open, serious discussions; they know how to do it; but they almost never do, because they don't fit their business model.  But then, serious, open discussions aren't part of American culture in general either.

*  Most accessible are Beyond PC: Towards a Politics of Understanding, ed. Patricia Aufterheide (Graywolf Press, 1992); Debating P.C.: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses (Delta, 1995).  For more academic discussions, see Higher Education Under Fire, ed. Michael Berube and Cary Nelson (Routledge, 1995); Michael Berube, Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics (Verso, 1994); PC Wars: Politics and Theory in the Academy, ed. Jeffrey Williams (Routledge, 1995); After Political Correctness: The Humanities and Society in the 1990s, ed. Christopher Newfield and Ronald Strickland (Westview, 1995).

*** See Essays on The Closing of the American Mind, ed. Robert L. Stone, Chicago Review Press, 1989.