Cancellation and Miscancellation

One of the worst features of “anti-cancel culture” is the strange moral indiscriminateness that lies behind it. Cancellation is merely a tactic or technique. Unless a tactic is somehow intrinsically immoral, or so transparently unjust that it couldn’t serve any legitimate end, you’d think that the value of a tactic was determined by the value of the end or ends which it served.

Deployed in the right way, at the right time, at the right objects, for the right ends, and for the right reasons, it’s unclear why cancellations should be any more objectionable than any other tactic used in socio-political life. You could only object to cancellation, it seems to me, if you were so opposed to political activism that you adopted some sort of quietism instead: better inaction, goes this line of thought, than a tactic misused. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” as they say; but since some ventures lead to loss, say the critics of cancellation, no ventures should lead to gain.

Many people seem to affect this quietist pose about politics, but I find it hard to take seriously or believe at face value. Try adopting a form of quietism after you’ve been detained, arrested, audited, subpoenaed, sued, falsely accused, or wrongfully terminated. Or, to adopt a more other-regarding perspective, feel free to ascend the heights of Mt. Olympus and look down with impassive indifference as you watch friends, family, and/or comrades eaten alive by the moral cannibals of Church, State, Corporation, or Mob. Easier said than done, and easiest said by those with the luxury to say it. There are no quietists in the foxholes.

I don’t dispute that one can get cancellations badly wrong: it’s not just possible but seductively easy to cancel in the wrong way, at the wrong time, at the wrong objects, for the wrong ends, for the wrong reasons. Any one of these mistakes will be enough to set a cancellation awry; any combination of them may well lead to the moral equivalent of a train wreck. But it’s worth remembering that the moral equivalent of a train wreck isn’t actually a train wreck. Unless we’re talking about literally catastrophic harm, in few walks of life do we accept the argument that because X can lead to harm, even great harm, we ought therefore to ignore all the respects in which X can promote good, and get rid of X altogether. You don’t need to be a consequentialist to have a sense of proportion.

Put it this way: what does more harm, “cancel culture” or driving? Well, traffic collisions cause tens of thousands of fatalities every year, to say nothing of the non-fatal morbidities involved, or the property damage, the increased insurance premiums, the increased costs of emergency response,  of outlays in health care dollars spent, or in litigation.  I haven’t had the chance to determine how many people are killed or maimed in cancellations each year, and I was surprised by the paucity of data available on the rise and fall in cancellation insurance premiums. But my guess is that traffic collisions are more common than cancellations, and often much worse when they happen.

And yet almost no one would argue that because there are tens of thousands of driving fatalities every year, we should abolish the automobile. Few would even argue that because traffic collisions can kill, we should avoid motor vehicles to the maximal possible extent. Most people know that driving is one of the most dangerous things they do, but they do it anyway, and without a second thought. Yet they’re scared to death of cancel culture. Go figure.

I know of only one philosopher, Douglas Husak, who’s made a systematic argument against what he calls “frivolous driving.” I used to teach Husak’s work on the ethics of driving to bored and skeptical undergraduates, hammering them over the head with his arguments until they gave them grudging respect–whether because they actually felt respect, or because they figured that showing it would shut me up, I don’t know.

But that was more a pedagogical ploy than full-fledged agreement on my part: while Husak makes a fairly good case that we ought to drive less often (and more carefully) than we do, his argument is not nearly strong enough to clinch the case against “frivolous driving” as such. Husak’s argument is usefully compared and contrasted with Loren Lomasky’s, which adopts a very different view of driving as a salutary expression of autonomy. I find Lomasky’s argument overly sanguine, but it’s a useful corrective to the downer features of Husak’s argument, which focus obsessively on the harms, risks, and dangers of driving at the expense of any appreciation of its benefits.

At any rate, critics of cancel culture might want to take a look at Husak’s paper (and for purposes of contrast, Lomasky’s) for a sense of what it takes to make a semi-plausible argument against a potentially harmful practice that also does a fair bit of good. So far, I don’t see that they have. I don’t even see that they’ve tried.

While chatting with friends the other day about cancel culture, one of them brought up the notorious Rebecca Tuvel case of 2017-2018, citing it as an instance of cancel culture gone awry. I agree that it was. I call such cases “miscancellations”: the misuse of cancellation as a tactic, whether with respect to means, ends, timing, motivation, or some combination of these. I’m as opposed to them as anyone could be. But this is like saying that I’m as opposed to drunk driving as anyone could be–even when the “anyone” in question is Bonnie Steinbock. I just dispute the idea that the wrongness of drunk driving entails the wrongness of safe driving, or even tells us anything particularly informative about it.

But fine, you want an example from me of a serious miscancellation, one misconceived in almost every way–a cancellation that itself deserves to be canceled? How about the recent attempts to cancel the French film “Cuties“?

Everything about the campaign to cancel this film is wrong–and not just wrong, but screamingly stupid.

For one thing, most of the cancelers haven’t even seen the movie. Neither have I, but having read about it, and watched the trailer, I now want to. Nothing about either the description of the film or the trailer seems to exemplify what the critics are saying, and magically claim to know.

That may understate things. Judging by descriptions of the film and the trailer, the film’s cancelers appear (badly) to have missed the filmmaker’s point. I may be wrong, but the trailer for the film really does not come across as a wanton celebration of child sexual exploitation or kiddie porn. If anything, it comes across as just the opposite. But whether it does or it doesn’t, a film has no moral or aesthetic (or any other) obligation to “come out” in any particular direction. It’s sufficient for a filmmaker to depict something of interest, expecting the audience to judge and infer appropriately from what’s depicted. If, of course, the audience lacks the capacity for judgment or inference, it will tend to blame the filmmaker for her failure to supply these things. But that seems like their fault and their problem, not hers.

These same critics have adduced a series of incredibly silly factoids in defense of their arguments for banning it: a French art film, they claim, will excite the pedophile tendencies of confirmed pedophiles in ways that might otherwise have lain dormant, and that are otherwise impossible to find on the Internet, or by furtive glances at any school playground. It seems futile even to ask for evidence for a claim this dumb. But naturally, none is given.

Worse still, the cancelers have gone beyond calling for voluntary boycotts and verbal criticism. They’re now making demands for criminal investigations that appear to be a prelude to outright censorship with an added dollop of criminal sanctions. The fig leaf of a justification here is the insinuation (by people who haven’t seen the film) that it constitutes child pornography or some approximation of it. Because in the lunatic universe inhabited by Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and (yes) Tulsi Gabbard, visual depictions of little girls twerking constitute child pornography.

Well, leave it to me to do the research here. I just typed “kids twerking” into Google for the first time in my life, and within seconds, happened on Kaycee Rice, 10 years old, literally twerking her ass off.

That’s from the channel “Dancing with YT.” So where is Bill Barr? Or Tom Cotton? Or Tulsi Gabbard? Where are the Congressional investigations, the search and arrest warrants, and the SWAT teams yelling “go, go, go!” as they break down doors and lob stun grenades to put the kibosh on this outrage? “Dancing with YT” has been on You Tube–not You Porn, but You Tube–for at least two years, and there are so many videos on it that after I got to the two-year-old videos, I got sick of scrolling and decided to call it a day.

Right–so videos of 10-year-old girls twerking are evidently not child pornography, but a film that depicts a young girl’s struggle to navigate two dysfunctional sub-cultures, is. What moral purpose is served by concealing the nature of that struggle is anyone’s guess, but makes perfect sense in a culture so addicted to concealment that it regards concealment as a virtue and exposure a vice. Leave it to Americans to “keep it real” by keeping it fake.

You might as well argue that “Capernaum” should have been banned for promoting child labor, or for that matter, for celebrating the “culture of litigation.”

If only the film had depicted young Zain as placing a call to Beirut’s Child Protective Services agency, or taking his case against his parents into binding arbitration so as to reach an amicable settlement in lieu of litigation. Wouldn’t that have made for a more wholesome and palatable movie? As it is, the viewer is treated to highly triggering scenes of child labor, sexual exploitation, and wrenching emotional angst. And what motive could anyone have for depicting these things but to “peddle” and support them?

I wonder how people with views like this ever manage to get through Les Miserables. Maybe the crime, poverty, prostitution, and violence it depicts should be excised for fear that Victor Hugo was “peddling” them in a spirit of exploitation.

While we’re at it, why not ban Lolita, both film and novel, the epitome of all art-house pedophilic filth?

I probably shouldn’t give these idiots any ideas. Before you know it, we’ll all be forced to having to read or watch Lolita in secret. Eventually, someone will write up a memoir, Reading Lolita in Tuscaloosa, the scandalous story of a secret gathering of college-aged students in Alabama, reading the forbidden classics of American literature in their English professor’s basement.

I’d like to think that I’d be the one to write it. I used to teach Lolita, making sure to read the most “obscene” parts out loud to the class in order to highlight the beauties of Nabokov’s prose style. It’s a miracle I wasn’t fired, but one disgruntled student and one complaint would have done it. Reading Lolita in Lodi.  One of these days.

I’m very sorry to find my erstwhile hero Tulsi Gabbard involved in this wretched affair, and in very bad company as well–but there she is. You could cut the grandstanding here with a knife, Tulsi’s included, and I sort of wish someone would.

So I’m far from indiscriminate in my enthusiasm for cancellation. “Mulan”? Yes. “Cuties”? No. Difference? “Mulan” involves clear complicity in wrongdoing; as far as I can tell, “Cuties” does not. The difference is what makes the difference. It often does.

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