What’s Wrong with “Cancel Culture,” Again? “A Case Study”

“Case study” is a bit grand for what follows, but this post was originally a comment I wrote a few days ago on an article in The New York Times. It was buried in the comments of the discussion about Kevin Vallier’s views on cancel culture, but I thought I’d pluck it out and post it here for better visibility. I’ve re-written the comment a bit, partly for clarity and partly for explicitness.

I guess my questions for critics of cancellation/cancel culture are these:

  • Is Thompson’s action objectionable? If so, how?
  • Is Thompson’s action a cancellation? If not, why not?

As far as I’m concerned, Thompson’s action is unobjectionable. I don’t like the term “cancellation,” but if we stipulate that we must use it, I feel no compunction (given the imprecision of the concept) in using it here. Since things like Thompson’s quit happen all the time, I regard such “cancellations” as entirely justified. I don’t know if this story is representative of what anti-cancellation types regard as a real cancellation, but part of the problem is that they haven’t explained themselves very well on that score. And considering the ridiculous-idiosyncratic-obscure origins of the concept, I would say that they owe us some precision before warning us against the supposed activity to which it refers.

Here’s the Times article:

I sympathize with Thompson’s rationale for quitting: the editors’ decision was exploitative, cynical, and lacking in moral integrity. Maybe this isn’t what critics of “cancel culture” would describe as a bona fide cancellation, but it’s not clear to me why not. It’s testimony to the imprecision of the concept that it’s hard to know whether (anti-cancellers think) it applies here, and, if it doesn’t, why it doesn’t.

Vallier describes cancellation this way:

The goal is to make the person less influential by penalizing them for violating some kind of norm (often a new and controversial norm that exists within sub-groups, but not outside of them).

I don’t see how trying to make someone less influential than they currently are is punitive in the sense associated with retributive justice. Maybe there’s some weaker sense in which it’s punitive, but how does acting so as to decrease someone’s influence differ from any competition in which one party wants to reduce the influence of their competitor? If I drive my competitor out of business, am I punishing him? (Answer: no.)

Vallier focuses a great deal on the issue of culpability, and on the supposed difficulty of knowing when people really are culpable. I disagree with much of what he says there, but I also think that once we set aside the supposedly retributivist rationale for cancellation, the issue of knowing the target’s exact motives becomes a red herring.

Consider the Thompson case itself. It seems clear enough, to me anyway, that the headline in question was misleading and unfair. When confronted with this (to me, obvious) fact, the newspaper’s editor engaged in transparent evasions–a defensive refusal to engage the relevant issue in a meaningful way. That, at any rate, is how the story has been reported, so I’ll conditionalize my judgment: if that’s really what happened, the editor’s evasions are sufficient to justify Thompson’s resignation-in-protest.

Now, the editor’s culpability (assuming the facts as reported) strikes me as clear enough. If so, his action is a betrayal of the proper ideals of journalism. But even if it isn’t culpable, it’s extraordinarily clueless. In that case, it’s a disappointment for people, like Thompson, who uphold the proper ideals of journalism. Even a mere disappointment, I’d think, should be sufficient for “cancellation” in some contexts–not just a resignation, but a resignation followed by a boycott. I’m not aware of any principle that says that culpability is a necessary condition for a boycott.

The editor then responds to the whole controversy with yet another well-worn evasion: “We don’t comment on personnel decisions.” But that only compounds the original offense. Why don’t they comment? And how is it that they get to take for granted that simply by asserting that they don’t, they need not?

Just to belabor the obvious: This is obviously a newsworthy event. The editor works for a newspaper. Most newspapers feel free to solicit comment on personnel decisions when those decisions are news. Hard to imagine a newspaper editor who would say, “Oh, we refuse to ask questions about personnel decisions! That’d be a low blow!” In that case, why the reluctance to offer comment when comment is called for? I would say the editor’s reluctance strikes me as evidence of culpability, but if not culpability, then at least evidence of a pointless sort of stubbornness (assuming some relatively non-culpable sense of “stubborn”). However we construe it, it seems reasonable to offer a response in kind just as Thompson has–and beyond mere resignation to a boycott.

Hypocrisy aside, why should anyone ever accept this excuse–“we don’t comment”–from any employer in a context where no exchange of confidential information is involved? It’s as though they’d said, “We don’t customarily permit our decisions to receive the rational scrutiny of impartial observers. That would ruin everything!” But such evasive behavior is routinely taken for granted in our culture, especially by people in PR and HR. “Cancel culture warriors” are among the few to see that it shouldn’t be taken for granted, and are doing what needs to be done to challenge it. More power to them. I’d love to see their critics accomplish as much.

Thompson says that he’s exploring the idea of creating an alternative media outlet. Imagine that in exploring this option, he calls for a boycott of The Kenosha News. Suppose that he does so with the explicit rationale of taking business away from TKN and winning it for his own outlet. And suppose that the strategy works. Would that be wrongfully “punitive”? On the contrary, it strikes me as poetic justice.

So I’m really just looking for clarification here. What’s the problem with “cancel culture”?

A follow-up to the Thompson story. More follow-up. I don’t think TKN‘s editor does a particularly good job of acquitting himself or the paper. Non-rhetorical question: isn’t transparently evasive lack of candor culpable?

3 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with “Cancel Culture,” Again? “A Case Study”

  1. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

  2. Interesting story, reported yesterday in the New York Times.

    I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I do think that the initial impetus to cancel this diner was correct. On the other hand, once you agree to negotiations with someone, and reach an agreement, it isn’t legitimate to renege on the agreement, and up your demands. I think the activists should have accepted the agreement wth the diner and left matters there. It was disproportionate to go beyond that. The diner didn’t have to be closed.


  3. My only comment on this case is that I agree with Krug: her line should be canceled, and given to the Philosophy Department, which should hire me on a tenure track basis. Yes, I will accept a demotion down to Assistant Professor. At any rate, my identity as a Pakistani American is indisputable. Have HR contact me when all is ready, and I will send along my direct deposit information.


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