For the past several years, “cancel culture” has been held out, mostly on the political Right, as a terrible thing that must be stopped. Personally, I regard “cancel culture” as an instance of what Ayn Rand called an “anti-concept,”
an unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept.
The legitimate concept is a principled commitment to non-legalized moral accountability, which “cancel culture” equates, tendentiously, with mob rule and mass hysteria. For those wedded to the term, a principled commitment to moral accountability, outside of legalized officialdom, just is mob rule and mass hysteria. What else could moral accountability be?
The result is a blanket condemnation of political activism as such. Since the relevant sort of activism is reflexively associated with “the Left,” the result is a blanket condemnation of specifically left-wing political activism. All left-wing activism, as far as anti-woke warriors are concerned, marks a descent into mob rule.
With a bit of ingenuity, and a bit of social media savvy, any informed, intelligent person can make a career out of anti-woke polemics, and many have. All you have to do is tap into the widespread outrage about “cancel culture,” find a monetizable way of putting that outrage into words, and follow through on social media. The greater your stamina for exploiting that outrage, and the more attuned you are to demand within your consumer base, the better you’ll do.
One thing lost here is any sense of perspective, above all, historical perspective. Critics of cancel culture like to suggest that cancel culture is somehow a new and fundamentally unprecedented thing–an artifact, presumably, of the social media platforms that have come out in the last decade or so. Social media, on this view, is what makes it possible to generate “woke mobs” that present the novel threat represented by cancel culture. Given the violent and hysterical proclivities of the Left, and the magic of social media, we’re all just a few clicks away from the next left-wing lynch mob.
I find this an enormously opportunistic, hypocritical, tendentious, hand-waving set of claims. But set that aside for the moment. For argument’s sake, let’s give these anti-woke critics just about everything they want to say. Let’s concede that “cancel culture,” exists, bracketing the fact that few seem able to define it with precision, or identify its empirical bona fides as a “culture.” Let’s concede that it’s just the threat they say it is, despite the exiguousness of the evidence for that claim. Let’s concede that it demands the response they say it needs, though the response they want arguably looks exactly like the threat they say they fear. But unlike them, let’s take seriously their pretensions to a “conservative” respect for the past, and extend our reflections to historical contexts beyond the immediate present. Have injustices ever arisen in human history that have legitimately called for cancellation? If so, what can be learned from them?
To that end, consider an episode of early twentieth century history, the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. Here’s a long passage from Hugh Thomas’s classic history of that war, describing the specifically American contribution to the fascist rebellion against the Spanish Republic:
In a long war in the age of industry, supplies of energy are as important as arms. The Texas Oil Company and, to a lesser extent, Standard Oil of New Jersey, gave much help to [General Francisco] Franco by their substantial supplies on credit. Nearly 3.5 million tons of oil were delivered by these companies to the [fascist] rebels during the civil war; while the [non-fascist] republic imported 1.5 million tons, mostly from Russia. The US also sent some lorries [trucks], at prices lower than were available from [fascist] Germany or Italy: 12,000 from Ford, Studebaker, and General Motors, while 3,000 came from Germany and Italy. The oil compensated for the lack of coal in the nationalist [fascist] zone until the conquest of the Asturias in late 1937. (The war stimulated a drive towards the use of oil in industry, on the railways, and in shipping, which continued afterwards.) Nationalist commerce, meantime, was intelligently, if piratically undertaken, with Franco able to sell where he wanted, without worrying about pre-war arrangements. Had the republic been able to purchase arms from, say, Britain, the US, and France then the war would have taken a different course, though it is fair to question whether the equipment from France would have been as good as that from Russia. The I-15 fighter was better then the Breguet, the Degtyareva than the Hotchkiss machine-gun and the T-26 and BT-5 tanks more powerful if more clumsy than the French equivalents (Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, revised edition, p. 916).
Franco was an ally of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s, and his victory was a victory for them, and for fascism generally. As we all know, the Spanish fascists won the Spanish Civil War, and–as the preceding passage indicates–did so with the active assistance of American business. It’s beside the point whether or not American support was pivotal in producing Franco’s victory; that’s unclear. The point, as Thomas stresses above, is that it was causally significant: American assistance helped Franco in ways that helped him win the war, and helped Spain go fascist. For that reason, the assistance was morally significant: it was an active contribution to fascism by the giants of American industry, whether because American industry actively supported fascism itself, or because it was simply indifferent to the conflict between fascism and its adversaries.
Let’s stipulate that it was both morally wrong and politically inadvisable for American business to be supporting the fascist cause in Spain, whether out of active ideological sympathy, or ideologically neutral greed. Let’s stipulate as well that while such support for Franco may have been a legitimate subject of official government response, it was nonetheless also a legitimate subject of non-official response by private individuals. For one thing, the American government, being responsive to popular opinion, would more likely have restrained the oil companies if the American people had insisted loudly enough that it do so. Beyond this, it’s plausible to think that American business might well have thought twice about supporting Franco if doing so had significantly hurt its bottom line, whether through widespread condemnation, or a full-scale boycott, or both.
There was, alas, no social media in 1937, and no live question of assembling a woke mob of cancel culture warriors on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to target Texas Oil or Standard Oil. But let’s run with the thought-experiment for a moment. Imagine that there had been social media back then, or alternatively, that some equivalent of Texas and Standard Oil were selling oil to some equivalent of Francisco Franco today. Would it have been morally legitimate to cancel these companies if the opportunity had presented itself? Should the executives in question have been called out, doxxed, and shamed, and the companies themselves boycotted? Or would that have been an objectionable form of cancel culture, mass hysteria, and mob rule?
Suppose the oil companies of 1937 should have been canceled. If so, it seems a fair inference that their analogues ought to be canceled today. A critic might of course respond that the pro-Franco businessmen of 1937 have no analogues today. I find that disputable on purely factual grounds, but let’s treat that as an argument for another day. Grant the objection for now. Suppose that there are no present-day analogues to the oil companies or dictators of 1937. It doesn’t follow that such analogues can never arise in the future. Things change. Indeed, the objection itself presupposes that things can change: once upon a time, it implies, evil businessmen like the Texas/Standard Oil executives supported evil dictators like Franco; now, they no longer do. Presumably, this is because business executives are now an enlightened breed that they weren’t in the past, as likewise are today’s politicians.
Fine. But if the world can change in this fairy tale fashion from evil to good, it can also change by the same mechanism from good to evil. So the critic of cancel culture who accepts historical instances of cancellation has to admit that cancellation, though flawed in the present milieu, is not in principle an objectionable thing. It has its uses. It had its uses. It just doesn’t have them now. But if it once had its uses, then, by the principle of universalizability, cancellation has legitimate application in any context relevantly similar to the ones in which it was once justified. So it’s safe to infer that if and when cancel culture is directed in the right way at the right malfeasances, it can be a force for good. Since no one can categorically deny the possibility that such malfeasances might ever arise, no one can dogmatically assert that “cancel culture”–mass support for cancellation–is necessarily a bad thing. In its place, it seems like a good and necessary thing. Absent mass effort, no one could have convinced the oil companies of 1937 to stop selling Franco oil, and forego the millions they made as a result.
Suppose, however, that someone thinks that not even the oil companies of 1937 ought to have been on the receiving end of a campaign of cancellation. Business is business, whether it promotes fascism or freedom. If businessmen want to sell oil to fascists, that’s literally their business. No one has the right to deny them that business opportunity, and rights aside, no one ought to make a big moralistic deal out of it. What matters, or ought to matter, to the consumer is not whether oil companies are selling oil to fascists, but the quality and price of oil to consumers. If the quality and price are right, everything else becomes irrelevant. And since quality and price are not primarily moral considerations, it follows that morality is fundamentally irrelevant. It’s not from the benevolence or justice of the oil executive that our cars run as well as they do, but from their amoral business acumen, acumen that seeks revenue wherever it can be found, even if doing so means the installation of a fascist dictator from 1939 to 1975, and indirect support for Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito, Salazar, and the like.
This view holds, in short, that support for and complicity in fascism is unobjectionable, at least if it’s lucrative enough to justify the investment. For those of us who regard fascism as a great evil, this answer is problematically revealing: it suggests that hostility to cancel culture might well be a form of sympathy, whether active or passive, for fascism.
In its passive form, the view professes relative indifference to the requirements of a concerted campaign against fascism. Yes, it admits, fascism may be a bad thing, but so is a bad climate for business. In fact, a business-friendly socio-political environment is, all things considered, slightly more important than the ideological imperatives of anti-fascism. You can’t eat anti-fascism, after all. Faced with a trade-off between the two things, a rational person chooses the former–commodities, not ideology. Better cheap gas than anti-fascist activism that casts moral doubt on the bona fides of business.
In its active form, the “anti-cancel” view might well amount to covert support for Franco. Franco was, after all, facing the Left in some of its most retrograde and problematic forms. Fascism is bad, but perhaps the Left–that Left–is worse? In other words, faced with a choice of evils, perhaps fascism is the lesser of evils. If so, why not support it? And if so, what better way to support it than to sell it a bit of oil (but not too much), make a bit of a profit (but not a gigantic one), operate under the radar screen (rather than come out in favor of fascism), and then accuse critics of such maneuevers of having sympathy with the worst parts of the Left?
In other words, those who oppose cancellation in the past are either amoral supporters of fascism who’ll support fascism for the right price, or are themselves fascists or proto-fascists who sympathize (however quietly) with fascism on ideological grounds. In either case, the critique of cancel culture turns out to be a fig leaf for complicity with fascism, concealing the fact that such people have, whether for money or dogma, made common cause with fascism itself. Their elaborate, often overwrought fixation on the Left is a form of projection or diversion, intended to deflect attention away from their quiet sympathy for anyone capable of functioning as an efficacious Anti-Left.
So here is my challenge for the anti-woke warriors of the present. Maybe it’s about time for anti-woke warriors to set their presentist biases to one side and face some anti-fascist questions of a historical nature. What do they think about the sustained cancellation campaigns of the past? Were they justified, or were they not? Can they be justified if the same threats arise today, or not?
And now, prepare for a news flash: Arguably, fascism from the political Right is a real danger today. What we confront is not just the possibility of some fascist dictator abroad, but of fascism right here. Dealing with it is not a game or a thought-experiment. Right now, anti-fascist resistance to American proto-fascism has mostly been non-violent. What the Right calls “woke mobs” and “cancel culture” might also be interpreted more charitably as confused masses of anti-fascists unclear about the best way to combat the approach of fascism. It’s lamentable that they’re as clumsy and confused as they are. But the bigger problem we face is that it’s not clear how long non-violence can last.
Critics of cancel culture often sound as though they’d like to disarm us even of our non-violent instruments of resistance in advance of any need for recourse to violence. We shouldn’t be shy about asking them why. If fascism were to come to this country, something like “cancel culture” would be a crucial means of resistance to it, at least before the outbreak of overt violence on a mass scale. If contemporary “cancel culture” is as defective as its critics claim, perhaps it needs–like so many defective things–to be reformed. But the critics of cancel culture don’t seem interested in reform. They seem to want abolition in advance of having a replacement. Is that because they’re misreading history? Or is it because they’re reading history in a fascist way? They need to start answering those questions. And the rest of us need to keep posing them until they do.
Excellent! This, so much.
Quant à moi, I would add that of course it’s possible to point to cases where leftists have been excessively “cancellatory,” if that is a word. [DARTH SID(vic)IOUS: I will make it a word. RTL: Okay, thanks, Sid.] To which my response is: so what? For any ideological perspective one can name — left, right, or other — one can find plenty of people applying it in unfair and unjustifiable ways. The world is full of liberal assholes, conservative assholes, centrist assholes, socialist assholes, capitalist assholes, libertarian assholes, feminist assholes, anarchist assholes, usw., etc., κτλ. That’s not cancel culture, that’s the human condition.
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You are under several misapprehensions. The term “cancel culture” was not invented by the Right; the word “cancellation” was chosen by the Leftists who practice it, and (like many words now used as abuse) was initially a name of pride. Moreover, it isn’t an “anti-concept”, it’s something much worse – a perversion of the concept of non-legalized moral accountability. It involves combing through the past life of a target to find something that breaks one of the Left’s current taboos – or can be made to seem as if it does – and then issuing a public condemnation, in the most extravagant terms the accuser can dream up. The closest historical analog is the “struggle sessions” of China’s Cultural Revolution, where the point was not to enforce a standard for behavior (because the accusers had none) but merely to show the power of the accusers, and to make the accused agree to their own humiliation.
I hope you can agree that a demand for “moral accountability” that’s unmoored from any sort of rationally defensible moral standard is an extremely dangerous thing, and that a “principled commitment” to make such demands is not principled at all. That large parts of the Left have openly embraced irrationality and nihilism, and that the same parts are demanding “moral accountability” from everyone else, would be difficult to deny, unless you’ve been living under a rock. Hence the alarm from the Right – and from several people once of the Left, who still have actual principles and are trying to defend them.
Finally, the one thing that could make fascism from the Right a serious possibility is the Left managing to make society ungovernable. That was how Franco came to power in Spain; it was how Pinochet came to power in Chile. (Hitler and Mussolini actively contributed to the chaos in Germany and Italy that brought them to power, but the Communists did just as much or more than they.) In that respect, the official response to the George Floyd riots, which was essentially “let the cities burn, we deserve to suffer”, is a far worse sign of incipient fascism than criticism of “cancel culture” – and the ones responsible for that claim to be Leftists. The group calling itself “Antifa” isn’t fighting fascism, but preparing the way for it, just as its namesake did.
The term “cancel” in its current meeting was pioneered by the Left, but the term “cancel culture” was originated by the Right afaik.
“combing through the past life of a target to find something that breaks one of the Left’s current taboos” – So who did that with James Gunn? Was it the Left? Who came to his defense? Was it the Right?
“The group calling itself ‘Antifa’ isn’t fighting fascism, but preparing the way for it, just as its namesake did.” – People who owe their lives to being protected by Antifa against fascist thugs might disagree.
(Responding to Michael Brazier)
That doesn’t actually address the issue I raised in my post. I raised the issues I did in precisely the way I did because I know the script you’ve just rehearsed, anticipated it, reject it, but regard it as too complicated to litigate in the comments box of a blog. That’s why I wrote the post in such a way as to grant it all in advance, not because I agree with it, but because it seems to me that those wedded to it are bent on denying the obvious in order to pursue the arcane, handwaving, and unprovable. I wanted to focus on the obvious.
This strikes me as an undeniable fact: there are episodes in history that seem to call for mass cancellation of certain sorts of malfeasance. Regardless of the dynamics that brought Franco to power–dynamics that cannot easily be summarized in a paragraph or two–once he came to (a certain degree of) power, it was immoral and unwise to sell his military forces oil on credit. Right? Your comment does an end-run around this issue, but it’s the issue at the dead center of the post.
Perhaps it was equally unwise to have sold oil, trucks, etc. to the Spanish Republic. I didn’t address that. But I didn’t address it because it’s not what actually happened. Conservatives like to lecture us about history. Well, I’ve just given them an episode from history to deal with. How to deal with it? By dealing with it, or by changing the subject? By dealing with undeniable basics, or by introducing complex, unsupported generalizations about historical dynamics, while ignoring the undeniable and basic?
If oil companies are selling Franco oil, and that’s immoral, then apart from any legalized response that might be taken, it is legitimate to undertake a popular, non-legal response to such sales. Any such response will have to be a concerted, sustained, mass response, or else it won’t bring about its object. That gives us two possibilities:
(1) If a sustained popular response to the oil companies is justified, then mass cancellation is justifiable in principle.
(2) If a sustained, popular response to the oil companies is not justified, then it’s fair to infer that complicity with fascism is not a particularly big deal, morally speaking.
This is the dilemma that the American Right faces. It has to choose between (1) and (2), but can’t seem to look the choice in the face. What it would prefer to do is fulminate about “the Left,” and regard its moral task as done. Fulminate all you want, but fulmination is not a substitute for moral decision. It will not make the preceding facts or choice go away.
I would like to think that the American Right would reject (2). But if it accepts (1), it should say so. It generally doesn’t. And if it rejects the Left’s version of (1), it should come up with one of its own. But it generally hasn’t.
I’m not a leftist, so apart from how empirically underdetermined by evidence they tend to be, I’m not much flummoxed by criticisms of the Left. I have no particular allegiance to the Left. But I also have no particular admiration of the fetish the Right has made of attacks on the Left. The Right has more than its share of wrongdoing and failure to answer for. It should forget about the Left for awhile and hold a moral mirror to itself.
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What you dismiss as a “script” in fact contains a critical distinction: the tactic of “cancellation” is justified only when its target has, in fact, breached a moral standard that has been clearly stated and rationally defended. In the absence of a standard the practice becomes mere tyranny, inherently unjust. And if we’re going to talk about “denying the obvious”, well, your original post struck me as an extended tu quoque argument, suggesting that the Right’s motives for opposing the cancellers are not pure, so they have no business doing so.
With that said, I’ll pass on to Franco. First, according to the distinction I drew, there are indeed cases where “cancellation” would be a legitimate response to a moral transgression that can’t be punished through the law. I can even grant that giving easy credit to Hitler or Mussolini, for example, is one such case – that would be tantamount to endorsing their political program of fascism, which was clearly evil, and doing so either for profit or from conviction would be equally bad.
Franco, however, was not an ideological fascist. He was a military dictator, and he took aid from the Nazis to gain power; but he made no attempt to promote fascism outside his country or implement it where he ruled. Nor did he conquer other nations. (Incidentally, Franco himself was “cancelled” after World War II, insofar as that’s possible for a head of state, because he had helped the Axis but not fought for it.) So giving him easy credit during the civil war wasn’t complicity with fascism – just with Franco himself. And complicity isn’t a transitive relation. That Franco was complicit with fascists does not imply that those who were complicit with him were also complicit with fascists.
This is exactly the sort of calculation the USA made, by the way, when it supported various right-wing dictators against Communist insurgencies during the Cold War. Those dictators were not fascists in any ideological sense – they were not exponents of any political program or philosophy. The USA accepted them as a lesser evil, preferable to the alternatives of conquering and ruling their countries directly, or allowing allies of the Soviets to take them over.
So where does this leave your dilemma? Well, I’ve accepted the conclusion of (1): under certain conditions mass cancellation is justified. But I also accept the hypothesis of (2), and deny the conclusion: the companies that sold oil to Franco during the Spanish Civil War did not thereby endorse fascism, and their actions did not meet the conditions that would justify mass cancellation. And (which I consider much more important than these historical reflections) I deny emphatically that the present “cancellers” have met the conditions which would justify what they are doing, which makes them a deadly, present danger.
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(Responding to Michael Brazier):
I described your comment as script-like, not because I disagree with the claim you’re defending—”the tactic of ‘cancellation’ is justified only when its target has, in fact, breached a moral standard that has been clearly stated and rationally defended”—but because of your apparently reflexive assumption that in defending cancellation I’m rejecting that claim or claims like it. In other words, what was script-like about your earlier comment was that it spent more time and energy attacking the Left than dealing with the claim I was actually making.
I deliberately wrote my post in such a way as to concede from the outset the possibility that left-wing forms of cancellation are as bad as right-wing critics say, while insisting that that concession did nothing to touch the fundamental question: can (mass) cancellation be legitimate? Even if every instance of left-wing cancellation was excessive and wrong, it still wouldn’t follow that cancellation was by nature excessive and wrong.
What’s scripted about your initial comment is your insistence that the fundamental issue about the normative status of cancellation play a subordinate role to polemics about the Left. But my post was not primarily a defense of the Left. I was, to be sure, critical of the Right, but my polemics against the contemporary American Right were clearly, obviously, explicitly subordinate to the main point I was making (tacked on after I made my main point). You also seem to assuming in advance that your attacks on the Left are attacks on positions I hold. They’re not. I don’t regard myself as being on the Left. There is a scripted quality to a situation in which one person merely defends cancellation, and his interlocutor decides that the occasion calls for a full-scale assault on the Left.
I don’t see that I’ve committed any tu quoque at all. My claim is not that all criticisms of Leftist cancellations are unwarranted, whether those criticisms come from the Right or from within the Left, or from elsewhere. The point I’m making is simply that it when it comes to cancellation, it’s a mistake to conflate “some” with “all”: some cancellations are unjustified, but not all. The concept “cancellation” does not name an inherently immoral or irrational act.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that contemporary American conservatives use the phrase “cancel culture” as a term of abuse, and use the term “cancellation” itself to refer to an activity that has no legitimate applications to anything. It’s taken us several go-rounds for you to admit that that isn’t your view. That’s progress, but it’s not where we began.
My challenge to any conservative critic of “cancel culture” is: go a few rounds with me on this topic, and you’ll find yourself agreeing with me. This is not because I am some master discursive pugilist who can force concessions by the sheer exercise of dialectical prowess, but because the blanket condemnation such critics are making so thoroughly defy common sense that very few of them, on reflection, would be willing to defend the unadorned, unqualified criticism that prevails in right-wing circles. The problem is that equally few of them are willing to reflect long enough to make that realization, unless provoked into it by a provocateur like me.
Once right-wingers accept the rather modest point I’m making, I have no objection to their attacking leftist excesses as hard as they want. It’s a spectacle I’m mostly content to watch, but occasionally happy to join. What I object to is the more problematic spectacle of a supposedly moralistic Right that objects to the very idea of holding people accountable in the name of the common good. And yet—amazingly–huge swatches of the contemporary American Right fit that description. They’re perfectly willing, in theory, to profess adherence to Aquinas or Tocqueville, but also willing, in practice, to cut the roots out from any real, live attempt to cultivate moral solidarity aiming at justice.
That brings me to Franco. On Franco, I want to divide my comments into the more philosophically fundamental, and the less so (i.e., the more historiographical-than-philosophical). I’m going to put the latter comments in a separate comment box, and (given my time constraints) will end up writing it later this week. But less turns on the latter issues than the former.
My dilemma was:
(1) Either condemn material support to Franco, and thereby accept the in-principle legitimacy of cancellation as a practice, or
(2) (a) Accept material support to Franco, and (b) accept complicity with fascism.
You resolve the dilemma by accepting (1), and by implication rejecting (2a), but you reject the legitimacy of the dilemma by disputing (2b). Fair enough.
One way of responding to this is to say that your endorsement of (1) vindicates my argument. The basic goal of the post was to force readers into a recognition of the truth of (1), and that’s what happened.
Another, perhaps less combative way of saying the same thing is that (1) is common ground. We both agree that cancellation is, in principle, justifiable. We even agree on a case in which it is. And we agree, to some extent, on why it is. I only mentioned that one case in my post. So any further discussion we have on this topic (involving other cases) are likely to lead to disagreements. I don’t mind having those out, but at least we now have a framework for discussion based on common assumptions: we agree that cancellation is neither intrinsically wrong (nor right); it’s a tactic whose normative status depends on its ultimate aims, the motivations behind its use, and the circumstances within which it’s used. That may sound morally trivial, but if so, huge swatches of discussion on this subject flout the trivially obvious.
The disagreement on (2b) concerns two different concepts—“complicity” and “fascism.”
I understand “complicity” to be culpable involvement in the culpable activity of another. Understood in this way, complicity is transitive. There may be degrees of culpability involved, and diminishing culpability, but on this account, transitivity holds in a global way. If A commits some wrongdoing, and B is complicit in A’s wrongdoing, then C’s complicity in B’s wrongdoing is complicity in A’s, as is D’s complicity in C’s, and E’s in D’s, and so on. Complicity runs out where culpable involvement runs out.
Even you don’t accept that conception of complicity, we both seem to be agreeing that a local form of transitivity holds in the case under discussion. Forget “fascism” for a moment, and refer simply to Franco’s undeniable immorality. We can both agree (we both do agree) that Franco’s alliance with Hitler and Mussolini was immoral, and we both seem to agree that American support for Franco was like immoral. I also think we agree that American support was immoral in large part because of Franco’s alliance with Hitler and Mussolini. So I think we both agree that a local form of transitivity holds here: Franco’s American supporters inherit Franco’s complicity with Hitler and Mussolini; they are complicit in F’s complicity with H and M. From this perspective, it doesn’t really matter whether complicity is a globally transitive relation. If it holds far enough, my conclusion follows.
To clarify: though I think that complicity (as I define it) is transitive, I would not say that any positive contribution to evil is a case of culpable complicity with evil. The world is more complicated than that. So I don’t mean to suggest that we can live our lives in such a way that injustice never benefits from our actions, or even that we never have to make otherwise regrettable alliances with unsavory people. Still, the distinction remains between culpable complicity with evil and non-culpable causal contributions to evil for lack of better alternatives to them. (PoT blogger Roderick Long has an interesting paper on this general subject. I’ll dig it up when I get the chance.)
That leaves a final disagreement over “fascism.” Even if I conceded that Franco wasn’t a fascist, my main claim would remain in tact: he was sufficiently immoral that support for him was immoral, and was therefore a justifiable candidate for mass cancellation. I happen to think that Franco really was a fascist, but all I really need for the argument of my post is that he was culpably complicit in fascism (which he obviously was), and that the culpability involved was transitive at least as far as his direct supporters were concerned (which also seems both obvious, and common ground).
I’m unconvinced about the more particular claims about both Franco and fascism you make, but this is already a long comment, so I’ll save those issues for a separate comment, which I’ll write later this week.
(PS. I’ve referred to you as “Michael Brazier,” not to be excessively formal, but to differentiate you from Michael Young, who often comments here, and has strongly-held views on cancel culture at odds with mine.)
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I don’t know which critics of “cancel culture” you have in mind, but I rather expect that, if one of them happened to notice this challenge, they would acknowledge your modest point immediately, and then challenge you to say whether you thought “cancel culture” – the actual phenomenon taking place before our eyes – was justified. Their error, I believe, is taking for granted that the Left is cultivating solidarity that aims at gross injustice, and not giving arguments to that effect. IOW the blanket condemnation you see in them is inadvertent, no part of their real intentions.
Since that point of principle is settled (and, really, was never in dispute) I can pass on to other matters. I must disagree with you that complicity is transitive, in the way you need it to be. The example of Franco is on point: taking Hitler for A, Franco for B and Texas Oil for C, it is correct that B was complicit in A’s wrongdoing, and that C was complicit in B’s wrongdoing. But B’s complicity with A wasn’t the wrongdoing that C was complicit in. You would have to show that Texas Oil helped Franco to help Hitler in his wars, or his tyrannies, for which there is no evidence. Otherwise we’d have to suppose that whenever B helps A in doing wrong, B becomes culpable for every evil act A commits in the future, even if B never conceived that such acts were possible.
A similar defense isn’t available for those who dealt with Mussolini or Hitler, because those two declared their malign intentions well before they came to power. Everyone who voted for the Fascists in Italy or the Nazis in Germany knew they were endorsing perpetual war and worship of the State. No one could honestly claim to have been surprised by what the Fascists and Nazis did once they were in power.
I’ll have to return to this discussion after a short hiatus, given the recent death of a close friend. (See post for Dec 31).
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You wrote that Irfan, “would have to show that Texas Oil helped Franco to help Hitler in his wars, or his tyrannies, for which there is no evidence.”
I understand your desire to limit culpability to direct support, but that is untenable. If Texas Oil facilitated Franco’s support of Nazi efforts, do we have to trace liters of petrol from Nazi equipment back to a Texas Oil tanker? I think not.
You wrote that Irfan’s argument means, “we’d have to suppose that whenever [Franco helped Hitler] in doing wrong, [Franco] becomes culpable for every evil act [Hitler] commits in the future, even if [Franco] never conceived that such acts were possible.”
Whether Franco and Texas Oil are culpable for every act Hitler committed into an indefinite future is questionable; but certainly, they are culpable for evil acts that they facilitated. Where that boundary lies is a question for the ages. What Texas Oil knew, and when they knew it is important; what they should have known matters just as much. Ironically, you declare that everyone, (which includes Franco and Texas Oil) must have been aware of Nazi intentions, so your argument suggests an excuse and then takes it back.
This matters because you previously wrote that, “anyone who joined the American Communist Party after Stalin came to power was allying with Stalin – the CPUSA was Stalin’s obedient servant, and everyone at the time knew it.” With that you said that anti-communist “mass cancellation” were justified “by the rule [you] already stated”.
Stalin came to power in 1924; even in the Soviet Union it was not immediately clear what his policies would be. Stalin was a thug from the get-go; but so were Lenin and the Tsar. New Boss same as the Old Boss.
To sustain your claim about the transitive complicity of the CPUSA and each and every one of its members, you’d have to prove that Stalin’s evils were common knowledge in America; that ordinary Americans had to have “conceived that such acts were possible”. But even most Soviets didn’t know their true nature, and Stalin’s regime was less-than-transparent. Given the tendency of anti-communists to smear the Left with every conceivable crime, much of what American communists heard during the Stalin era was just not reliable or bound up with the War effort. Claims that working class people in the US had culpable knowledge about Stalin’s evils are absurd.
Then and now, some people join communists groups to ally with other ordinary persons; their aims being more progressive than tyrannical. I suggest you read (or reread) the Gulag Archipelago; Stalin filled his labor camps with devoted communists right up to the end.
Neither McCarthy nor HUAC distinguished generic socialists from communists, nor casual or transient members from hard-core, nor dissenting from obedient. Because of that, your dispute about transitive culpability undercuts “the rule you’ve already stated”. That makes your argument a confused mess. Which is what “muddle” means. Unless you’re a bar-tender!
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Responding to Sean:
I agree with that, but will respond separately to Michael Brazier on both Franco and transitivity.
(Responding to Michael Brazier)
I’m returning to this after the hiatus I mentioned. I really can’t make sense of your argument against transitivity. You say that for my case to succeed, “You would have to show that Texas Oil helped Franco to help Hitler in his wars, or his tyrannies, for which there is no evidence.” Since you concede that Texas Oil helped Franco win his war, all I have to do is point out that Franco’s war was one of Hitler’s wars. So if it helped Franco, it helped Hitler. QED.
I am, in any case, not committed to the principle in your sentence that begins “Otherwise.” Complicity is a species of assistance, not co-extensive with the class of assistance. We sometimes unwittingly make a causal contribution to the evil actions of others, and sometimes do so willingly for lack of any other feasible options. I don’t regard such cases as cases of complicity.
But the passage I quoted makes clear that neither factor was involved in the oil companies’ decision to assist Franco as they did (not just the oil companies, by the way, but Studebaker, Ford, etc.) Nothing forced their hand but their insatiable desire for profit. And they had better opportunity to know who Franco was (or what the war was about) than some voter taken at random in one of the German or Italian elections.
I don’t mean to imply that the rank-and-file who voted for the Nazis (or their political allies) or the Italian Fascists (or their political allies) were morally innocent. But I hold an impoverished, half-literate Italian peasant less culpable for voting Fascist in the early 1920s than I do the CEO of an American corporation for making a contribution to Franco’s, Hitler’s, and Mussolini’s war in 1937.
The best reply to this I can think of is another historical reference. Both the US government, and a number of Saudi and Iranian citizens working for Muslim theocracy, sent arms, money and fighters to Afghanistan in the 1980s to drive the Soviets out of that country. Should we conclude that the US government thereby gave culpable aid to the Muslim theocrats? (Or that the Muslim theocrats gave culpable aid to the perpetuation of American hegemony?) Surely not.
Several US firms aided the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War; so did Hitler and Mussolini. Both thereby became complicit in the Nationalists’ acts during that war. But Hitler didn’t control the Nationalists, and the Spanish Civil War was not of his making; so to call it “one of his wars” overstates the case. Once you take that into account the charge of complicity with Hitler against the US firms fails. (And really, isn’t complicity with Franco bad enough to hang them for? The Nationalists paid little heed to jus in bello.)
You wrote that cancel culture “involves combing through the past life of a target to find something that breaks one of the Left’s current taboos – or can be made to seem as if it does – and then issuing a public condemnation, in the most extravagant terms the accuser can dream up. The closest historical analog is the ‘struggle sessions’ of China’s Cultural Revolution … ”
When I read this, I nearly had to spit out my coffee! There’s a much better, much closer historical analog: the McCarthy-inspired anticommunist witch-hunts; and the activities of HUAC (House Unamerican Activities Committee). These folks LITERALLY combed through the past lives of their targets to find something they could condemn them for. Perhaps this analog does not appeal to you because it was a legalized cancel culture indulged in by the Right. Awkward!
I find it strange that the Spanish Civil War is the history under discussion here; not Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, and McCarthyism. We need not go so far afield to find relevant analogs to our current concerns.
Did you see what I said above, that allying with Hitler was a offense that deserved “cancellation”? Well, allying with Stalin was just as bad, or worse. And anyone who joined the American Communist Party after Stalin came to power was allying with Stalin – the CPUSA was Stalin’s obedient servant, and everyone at the time knew it. (And no, I’m not equating Communism with Stalinism here. There were Communists, even Communist parties, not affiliated with the Soviet Union. The CPUSA just wasn’t one of them.)
So, while HUAC and McCarthy were indeed using the tactic of “mass cancellation”, they were justified in doing so, by the rule I’ve already stated. They are, therefore, a poorer historical analog than the Maoist struggle sessions. Frankly, the closest historical analog I can think of that isn’t Leftist is the Salem witchcraft trials.
As for Jim Crow and the civil rights movement – ha. Jim Crow was a legal structure, hence out of court here, where the subject is extra-legal actions. And when the civil rights movement started, it was aimed at that exact legal structure, not at private parties, putting it also out of court.
Irfan chose Francisco Franco because nobody would dispute that he was a historical villain who allied himself with the original Fascists. The facts about McCarthy would have complicated the issue he wants to discuss, and Jim Crow and its opponents aren’t relevant to it at all.
Michael, thanks for the laugh, I needed it this morning.
Re, “As for Jim Crow and the civil rights movement – ha. Jim Crow was a legal structure, hence out of court here, where the subject is extra-legal actions.” OMG!
You are badly confused, Michael. If the subject here is extra-legal actions, then the legal standing of Jim Crow has nothing to do with the propriety of extra-legal resistance to it.
More: if being a “legal structure” puts anything “out of court here” then you have another problem: Hitler’s regime was a “legal structure”; as were Stalin’s and Mao’s. So, by your reasoning, they are “out of court here” too. EXCEPT even you say Hitler and Stalin’s regimes deserved cancellation, so you must think they are in court.
What a muddle you’ve made!
It is true that, “when the civil rights movement started, it was aimed at that exact legal structure, not at private parties”, but it did not remain so; it’s aim broadened to include private parties; as was appropriate.
Jim Crow and it’s opponents are very relevant; they’re just very inconvenient for you.
You clearly have no idea what Irfan was talking about. The muddle you see is only in your own mind.
Irfan can explain his meaning, if he chooses, better than I. I need only add that the modern Right had nothing to do with either Jim Crow or its opponents (both were factions within the Democratic Party); and to repeat that, because the civil rights movement sought for (and obtained) changes in the law, there was no point at which their actions resembled what Irfan suggested as a response to Texas Oil’s dealings with Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Public protests against unjust laws are not “cancellations”; lawsuits under various provisions of the Civil Rights Acts against bigoted private parties are not “cancellations”. As “cancellation” is the subject at hand, Jim Crow has no place in the discussion.
Michael B., you replied to me that I, “clearly have no idea what Irfan was talking about. … As ‘cancellation’ is the subject at hand, Jim Crow has no place in the discussion.”
Irfan responded at length, ending with, “I do think that Jim Crow is relevant to the topic at hand, but had intended to discuss it in a future post.”
Irfan and I do disagree about the meaning and utility of the term “McCarthyism” (and a few other things), but we seem to agree that Jim Crow is relevant here.
I don’t have time to write tonight except for a brief clarification of a narrow issue, my choice of example. Michael Brazier writes:
The first sentence is correct. In a sense, that one sentence explains why I didn’t use any other examples: I thought the Franco example sufficed. One example was enough for a blog post. I’m more convinced than I was when I wrote the post that it was the right example to use.
I’ve never studied “McCarthyism” in a serious, sustained way, so I’d be reluctant to use it to illustrate something as straightforward as the point I was making in my post. The methodological suggestion I would make to anyone who wants to study or discuss “McCarthyism” is to decouple the underlying issues from the person of Joseph McCarthy. In a sense, the term “McCarthyism” is an instance of the very thing I’m criticizing in my post. For one thing, it seems preposterous to give McCarthy’s childish tactics the dignity of an “ism.” More to the point, McCarthy’s tactics were a degenerate form of resistance to communism or Soviet influence. The term “McCarthyism” is now confusingly used to suggest that any consistent, zealous resistance to communism or Soviet influence is itself degenerate by association with McCarthy.
I reject that. Like “cancel culture,” the term “McCarthyism” is a pointless, confusing, rationally unusable term that should be discarded in favor of a clearer terminology. There’s no reason to equate a movement, practice, institution (etc.) with degenerate instances of it, unless the movement (etc.) is inherently degenerate. But neither cancellation nor anti-communism satisfy that description. There are legitimate instances of cancellation, there are legitimate instances of anti-communism, and there are legitimate reasons to cancel communists. I’m an anti-communist. So were many of the Spanish republicans. The latter didn’t just “cancel” communists, but killed them. I approve.
I do think that Jim Crow is relevant to the topic at hand, but had intended to discuss it in a future post.
Responding to Michael Brazier:
I agree with your assessment of the CPUSA (and its supporters), but it doesn’t follow that HUAC and McCarthy were justified in the methods they used. As I’ve said previously, I don’t have a worked-out view on HUAC and McCarthy, not having studied the subject in any systematic way. But the logical point I’m making doesn’t require systematic study: the CPUSA might have been a threat, but the FBI, HUAC, and McCarthy were still obliged to deal with threat in a targeted and proportional way. If you have a suggestion for reading on that subject, I’m happy to put it on my list.
In a general way, I agree with the line taken by Sidney Hook on the role of Soviet-style communists in academic life, and by implication, in non-academic life.
I met Hook as an undergraduate when I was an intern at the National Association of Scholars. I don’t agree with everything he said on the subject, but am generally sympathetic to his views. He was a forthright advocate of cancellation-from-the-Right. It’s a remarkable irony that the same Right that welcomed his advocacy of rightist cancellation is now up in arms about leftist cancellation. But I’m a pragmatist. I’m willing to cancel anyone who deserves it. Let a thousand cancellations bloom.
Part of the point I’m making is that the Spanish Civil War wasn’t as “far afield” as it might at first appear. One of the problems with American political discourse, both Left and Right, is that it treats the non-American world as farther afield than it is. When you live in a hyperactive, perennially interventionist, mindlessly acquisitive nation like ours, everything in the world becomes fair game. So almost nothing is all that far afield.
I’m writing this in Iselin, New Jersey, about half an hour’s drive from where Standard Oil of New Jersey used to sit. “Standard Oil of New Jersey,” is of course, what we today call “Exxon.” I can see one from my office window.
I hope this finds you well. To add to your interesting coincidence (re your proximity to Standard Oil of NJ), I graduated from the same Law School as Joe McCarthy. Small world.
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Just getting to this now…
(1) Of course mass “cancelling” (boycotting, ostracizing, etc.) actions are sometimes justified (say against clear, egregious abusers who would readily abuse again). But there are two sensible points to make in warning against the easy use of such tactics: (a) they can be used as mere weapons in group conflict over what the consensus “moral rules” are to be in some context (as against: incentivizing adherence to reasonable-enough consensus moral rules or, maybe more to the point, decisively discouraging behaviors that are fundamentally, indisputably immoral) and (b) they are often-enough motivated, at least in part, by a real or manufactured moral certainty that gives license to acting on the desire to participate in collectively crushing (humiliating, ostracizing) one’s opponents in moral discourse/practice (the “wrong-doers”) – murky, but hardly morally innocent, motivations in group dynamics. The shared, socially-reinforced mindsets of these two elements is what ‘cancel culture’ does (or should) refer to.
(2) Articulating the relevant standards here (of what justifies “cancelling” and of what the acceptable reasons are for doing it) and applying these to our present political circumstances is hard. But, in principle, the anti-woke have a good first response: you are right that there is both legitimate and illegitimate cancellation, but a great many of the woke left’s cancelling-type attitudes and behaviors (regarding various norms of race/ethnicity, sex/gender, democracy/authoritarianism) are pretty obviously illegitimate and ill-motivated. That is the beginning of a conversation (or many conversations or a shouting match) — but both sides need to make their case. “Obviously, cancel!” is not a good response (especially since there are other ways to hold agents to account morally, to anticipate an obvious line of argument).
(3) If the anti-woke were taking the stupid position that all cancellation is illegitimate, one would be somewhat justified in wondering whether this is simply rationalization for their not caring about racial/ethnic, sexual/gender, democracy-related justice. But, with a wee bit of interpretative charity, we should not think this is the case. Maybe nevertheless their implicit standards for when cancellation is legitimate (and not) are simply rationalization for being morally insensate? Here is what seems more likely to me: ordinary, anti-woke people (voters, not intellectuals) tend to sort of quit the field (of justice in race/ethnicity, sex/gender, democratic governance) when it is dominated by people who accuse them of being terrible people if they don’t believe just this or that thing (or do or say just this or that thing), given that what they believe is that the issues that the woke harp on are hard or murky or complicated as much as non-existent. That is not the best reaction to have – and it does, from a functional standpoint, end up being somewhat morally insensate – but it speaks as much to the failure of woke strategy (independent of whether the cancelling is legitimate) and a generally toxic dynamic as it does to the anti-woke seeking out excuses not to care enough (or do enough) about justice and morality.
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I have to agree with your (1); I’d only comment that these matters are inherently “murky”. All moral certainty is hazardous; but it is also necessary to seek it. A moral life is lived on the slippery slope.
Your (2) states the problem well: the issues that should drive this discussion are the relevant standards: when is “cancellation” justified. Being an old white man, I have personal experiences with illegitimate “cancellation” and criticism; but for the most part I don’t see that being more than a small fraction of what’s going on; so I cannot agree with your statement in that “a great many of the woke left’s cancelling-type attitudes and behaviors …are pretty obviously illegitimate and ill-motivated”; not without a lot of specifics anyway. But, as you say, that is the beginning of a conversation; both sides need to make their cases.
I would only ask that the woke get the same “wee bit of interpretative charity” you extend to the anti-woke in (3).
Even people with legitimate complaints can overstep. It is important to call it out when that happens. All of that includes both sides of this controversy.
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We’re not really disagreeing, so much as emphasizing different things. But my quick responses:
(1a) That cancellation can be misused is compatible with saying that it can be properly used.
(1b) That cancellation is often misused is compatible with saying that it’s often properly used.
Forty percent of American marriages fail, and half of all business ventures fail. Few infer that marriage is nothing but a failed institution, or that business itself is a failed idea. But this is literally the way that critics of woke “culture” argue. In form, once you strip away the rhetoric, the argument is really as crude as saying: All cancellation is bad because some cancellations are bad. In other words, “Some S are P” entails “All S are P.” And their inference is worse than the marriage and business reductios would suggest, because at least in the preceding cases, we have both the numerator and denominator of the fraction: the failed number/the total number. We also have clear-cut definitions for the relevant phenomena, marriages and business ventures.
Critics of “woke culture” lack both things–figures or definitions. First, they adopt a tendentiously narrow conception of cancellation. Then they cherry pick examples of “cancellation” so conceived. Then they gesture at the world as though to imply that their cherry-picked examples are representative of the whole phenomenon, indeed of a whole “culture.” Then they race to the conclusion: cancellation is the moral equivalent of lynch mob behavior–albeit lynch mob behavior without actual lynchings, or a resort to the “thought police” without police activity. There’s a long and a short response to this brand of argument, but the short response is to note that every major move in it commits a fallacy of some sort.
On (2) I agree with you: we need to articulate the criteria for justified cancellations. But that task presupposes agreement on the prior claim that some cancellations are justified. If someone defines “cancellations” so that they can’t possibly be justified, and regards every act of cancellation as tantamount to vigilantism, and sees no reason why anyone in the 21st century United States might feel the need to engage in political activism or forge an anti-fascist resistance before the actual onset of fascism, those issues have to be litigated prior to articulating the criteria for justified cancellations. That said, I’m reading through Gregory Mellema’s Complicity and Accountability, which lays out an Aquinas-inspired account of wrongful complicity. That’s a first step toward an account of cancellation.
On (3): The point I’m making isn’t so much about individual motivations as it is about the function of anti-woke rhetoric, which as I see it, ends up serving a dangerous form of political quietism, and a form of risk-aversity incompatible with justice. If all activism and all cancellation are suspect by definition, then the only recourse we ever have for responding to injustice is law enforcement. But the scope of law enforcement is highly circumscribed, and probably ought to be more circumscribed than it is. The result of limiting the pursuit of justice to the legal system is to give a blank check to the dominant power in any political milieu, to whatever extent that power engages in activities immune from prosecution or tort action (or other specifically legal response). In my view, the dominant power in the US is drifting toward fascism, and that group of people is more than smart enough to take advantage of the gigantic loophole left for them by critics of woke culture.
Anti-woke politics repeats the mistake committed by “moderate” elites in every country that went fascist–Germany, Austria, Italy, Japan, and (I would say) Spain. Their response to the rise of fascism was to fixate on the malfeasances of the Left. But instead of improving on the anti-fascist activism of the Left, the “reasonable” moderates sat there, priding themselves on their Olympian aloofness and inaction, issuing finger-wagging homilies about the evils of activism as such. The result? They were marginalized; the further extremes of Left and Right were radicalized; eventually Left confronted Right, either in the streets or on the battlefield or both, and was defeated. The result was fascism and mass death. (A similar tale, with appropriate changes, could probably be told about Soviet-style socialism.)
My post was an attempt to defend the clearest and most modest principle that has practical relevance in this context: some cancellations are justified. Which ones are, and when they are, depends on many things. But some are. More broadly, activism has moral value. Which activism, and when, also depends on many things.
I have yet to respond fully to all my critics, but I think this much can be said: both of my critics, Michael B and David P, have interpreted what I regarded as a modest principle as though it entailed the politics of lynch mobs and the thought police. What I think that reveals is not just that they’ve misinterpreted my argument, or that their rebuttals are fallacious and factually defective (though they are). It reveals a systematic misdiagnosis of where we currently stand in American politics. I’m not a leftist, and I have no great sympathy for the Left as such. But the Left is really not the problem we face right now. The problem is the Right. To conceive of “cancel culture” as the fundamental problem we face is systematically to misdiagnose the actual problem in just the way that “liberal moderates” have always done when staring fascists directly in the face. They’ve typically fixated on a pseudo-problem elsewhere, either evading the real problem or, in the worst cases, making common cause with it so as to solve the pseudo-problem (or distinctly lesser problem). If we follow their lead, we will end up in a fascist regime. The question is whether we can avoid it if we don’t.
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Here, by the way, is a link to the Mellema book:
And here’s a review in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:
As the reviewer points out, it’s a difficult question how to define the nature of the wrongful act that constitutes complicity, whether in a general account, or (often) in particular cases. But I would insist that there are clear cases, and in the clear cases, you get transitivity: if complicity is an instance of wrongful contribution to injustice, then Standard Oil’s complicity in Franco’s complicity in Hitler’s regime is a case of Standard Oil’s complicity in Hitler’s regime. Not every causal contribution is wrongful, but once you identify the wrongful ones, transitivity obtains.
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I’ll at least read the review of Mellema. Here is where my thinking is at on some of the relevant issues.
(1) MORALLY OBLIGATED VS. MORALLY BEST. Individual or collective sanction (whether formal/legal or informal), including cancellation-type action, is permitted only when a moral obligation is violated. It does not apply to falling short of doing what is morally ideal or best (it does not apply to moral shortcomings). E.g., while it is morally good, and hence praiseworthy, to work toward a more just and moral world, not doing so breaks no obligation to others. Hence, if one is to work to morally improve others, only milder moral-psychological incentives and persuasion is the appropriate means. Often or perhaps always, the harm or harmful effects of sanction render it morally impermissible to use sanctions to “correct” people who are not acting in a morally ideal way. If you do this, you are the asshole. I think this distinction explains some of the resentment (and explains why this resentment is justified) on the part of the anti-woke: at least implicitly, the anti-woke believe they are getting sanctioned for failing to do morally optional (but good) things. It seems right to me that this distinction is not well-attended-to and that, as a result, the woke (and others) sometimes end up sanctioning people simply for not being morally better than they are (and perhaps for not getting on board with a particular, questionable agenda of moral improvement).
(2) A BROADLY CONTRACTUALIST GENERAL FORMULA FOR DETERMINING OUR ANTI-COMPLICITY-WITH-INJUSTICE OBLIGATIONS. Relevant obligations here concern secondary obligations not to contribute to or be complicit in the wrongs of others or collective, social wrongs (e.g., contributing to unjust social norms and institutions). But it is obvious, I think, that we are not obligated to eliminate all such contributions. Which are we obligated not to make? This, I think, is the right general form of the applicable standard: when the contribution is large enough, the wrong/injustice significant enough, and the cost of withdrawing contribution is of sufficiently low cost, one is obligated to withdraw contribution — and the rest of us are at least permitted to do some “hounding” of one so that one will do so. I suspect that there is no one right, specific standard here due to there being a range of values for ‘large enough contribution’, ‘wrong/injustice significant enough’ and ‘cost of withdrawing support low enough’ that are acceptable (what I have in mind here are broadly contractualist standards for moral obligation). So, at this, specific level, the standards are constructed in a moral community, not discovered (and social conflict over what they will be needs to be conducted at the level of moral suasion (that falls short of sanction) and persuasion or rational argument). But at the level of discovery (fundamental moral reality) there is, in any given context, a limit to the range of acceptable standards for when one is obligated not to contribute to wrongs (including institutional or social wrongs or injustice). If I can easily withdraw contribution or support from a human trafficking network, I’m obligated to do so and, if I don’t, all are permitted to sanction (or cancel) me.
(3) MINIMAL SOCIAL JUSTICE ANTI-COMPLICITY OBLIGATIONS? What (as a matter of discovery, of basic moral reality in a context) are our moral obligations not to contribute to (or be complicit in) collective, social injustice (unjust large-scale norms and institutions)? When the contribution consists basically in participating in a system of norms and institutions with unjust elements, I’m not sure we really have any obligation at all along these precise lines. We do, I think, have related obligations: to give a damn, to do something to fight the injustice (even if only symbolic, even if only speaking out in private), to not impede promising programs of reform. Why only this? Because this kind of contribution (going along with dominant norms, participating in extant social institutions) is near-impossible to avoid, making the costs of taking making such contributions more options off the table (especially via social sanction) too high (again, the appeal here is to broadly contractualist standards). For this reason, I think that, especially in the “woke” era, those with a particular –and largely admirable — concern for social justice often fall into the error of making it morally obligatory to speak out against or resist social injustices in ways that go beyond what is actually obligatory. This results in enforcement-action (sanction, not light moral suasion or rational persuasion) against those who do not do these things. And that is at least an innocent error… I state all of this more definitely than I should, though. However, I think a broadly contractualist framework here is both correct and useful for figuring out what sort of complicity/contribution to injustice (or social injustice in particular) is obligatory to avoid. Maybe I’ll read the Mellema book after I’m done sifting through the Zheng paper.
Just read the review of the Mellema book. It is sorta negative in a way that makes me want to take a pass on it. The reviewer prefers this book: Chiara Lepora and Robert E. Goodin, On Complicity and Compromise. Here’s the link to that (combox below).
I had the reverse thought, actually. I think the reviewer’s criticisms are spurious. I agree with Mellema (against Gardner) that “morally blameless complicity” is an oxymoron, and regard Chiara and Goodin’s focus on such cases as a waste of time. For similar reasons, I find Williams-type examples of the sort Gardner finds so compelling, also not really worth discussing. I regard them as cases of duress, not of complicity. Finally, I don’t trust analytic philosophers’ summaries or assessments of Aquinas or Thomistic philosophy. I’m on an Aquinas kick lately, and I’m interested in feeding it. So it doesn’t bother me that Mellema devotes a whole chapter to Aquinas while ignoring swatches of the contemporary literature. I endorse those priorities.
Anyway, I’ll probably end up reading both books, but I have the Mellema one, so I’m starting there.
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I’m afraid that it’s you, not I, who have misdiagnosed the current state of American politics. Putting “cancel culture” aside for the moment, we have seen on the Left people who are both willing and able to reduce whole cities to chaos and ruin at will – I refer to the George Floyd protests, converted into months of rioting by Antifa members – and officials in those cities, and the established media, treating this as a triviality. And on the Right we have … protestors trespassing in the US Capitol, treated as if they’d shot members of Congress and set fire to the place.
The truth is, we have in today’s America all the preconditions needed for a fascist takeover – except a fascist movement with serious popular backing, or a military faction that views the elected government as illegitimate and itself as the only remaining protector of the nation. I don’t say that the missing factor couldn’t appear; indeed I fear that it will, if the Left continues on its present course for much longer. But to suppose that it has is delusion. There is simply no trace of violent right-wing gangs battling with Left activists in the streets, or attempted murders of Democrats in office, or military coups trying to reverse an election, or any of the other things that preceded the rise of the original Fascists or those like them to power.
The statement “the dominant power in the US is drifting toward fascism” is true only if you detach the term “fascism” from its historical roots, ignoring the Fascists’ justifying myths as agents of their nations, and use it purely as a label for a political and economic structure, in which the State minutely regulates all economic activities but does not technically own most property. I have seen it used so before, though I doubt it’s what you mean by it. But if we take the idea that the State expresses its nation’s will as essential to fascism, well, the dominant power in the US not only doesn’t accept that idea, it holds it in contempt. As far as the dominant power is concerned, it’s the agent of a cosmic principle of justice, working for the good of the whole Earth, and putting the claims of the people it actually governs ahead of anyone or anything else would be a heinous crime. Its staff are citizens of the world, too high-minded to be bound to any particular place – the very people the Fascists most hated.
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Responding to Michael Brazier:
You say that “the Left” has reduced “whole cities to chaos and ruin at will.” Can you name a “whole” city fitting that description? The Blitz didn’t wholly destroy London any more than the Allied bombing of Dresden destroyed the “whole” of that city. So I find it hard to imagine that the George Floyd rioters exceeded that level of destruction, but that’s what you seem to be saying. The point you’re making in your comment is undermined by exaggeration. But your claim about the riots is a gross exaggeration.
I was opposed to the Floyd protests, violent and non-violent (more the violent than the non-violent, obviously, but given the conditions of the pandemic back then, both). But neither your exaggerated version of events nor the actual version supports your claim that left-wing totalitarians are the dominant political power in the US today. We’ve had similar riots at different times in American history, and they’ve never presaged a communist or leftist take-over of this country. In any case, your version of events omits the law enforcement contribution to violence, both prior to and during the events in question. In doing so, it conceals the legitimate motivation that protesters might have had, motivations that had nothing to do with leftist ideology.
Here’s the standard version of events. Nothing in it supports your claims.
As for the claim that the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol was merely an act of “trespass,” my response is that it’s a vacuous claim that conceals as much as it describes. In one sense, the word “trespass” denotes an illicit crossing of boundaries–any illicit crossing, from rape to walking across someone’s lawn without their permission.
In this broad sense, breaking and entering into someone’s house is an act of trespass, but is consistent with a legal right to shoot-to-kill the trespasser in every jurisdiction in the US. If you’re using this broad sense of “trespass,” the Capitol insurrection was an act of “trespass,” but then, so was the Beer Hall Putsch. So calling the insurrection an act of “trespass” in this broad sense doesn’t help your case. In a narrower sense, “trespass” refers exclusively to trespass to chattels and/or land. But what happened at the Capitol insurrection obviously went far beyond satisfying the elements of those offenses and stopping there. So using “trespass” in this narrower, exclusive sense flouts the facts–which doesn’t help your case, either.
Again, here is a conventional account of the January 6 insurrection. It proves both of the points I’ve just made.
To make your case about the Capitol insurrection, you’d need to argue that the charges brought against the criminal defendants in the Capitol Breach Cases were all illicit (since they all go beyond trespass in the narrow sense). “Illicit” means that the evidence fell short of probable cause, the standard for a criminal indictment. Here is the list.
Firstly, while the George Floyd riots didn’t manage the level of destruction caused by an aerial bombing campaign (so you can justly say I exaggerated) that doesn’t mean they were harmless. In fact, I think it fair to compare them, both in the damage done and in the official responses, to the Kristallnacht riots in 1938. And it’s the official (non-)response to the George Floyd riots that’s most alarming about them, just as the German state’s standing by while Jewish properties were destroyed was the most alarming thing about Kristallnacht.
Secondly, even using the word “insurrection” for the US Capitol Breach betrays that you have taken the official view of that event at face value. The list of charges in the Capitol Breach Cases shows that this view is unjustified; they are consistently the charges brought when a political protest becomes violent and must be broken up by the police.
And thirdly, even if the Capitol Breach were similar to the Beer Hall Putsch, a clumsy coup d’etat doomed to fail thanks to the ineptitude of the plotters – who in his senses would claim the Beer Hall Putsch was far more serious than Kristallnacht? Yet that is just what the “conventional wisdom” says about the Capitol Breach, compared to the George Floyd riots. And that is the point I was making.
Finally, I didn’t say that the US Establishment (what you call “the dominant power”) are Left totalitarians. But I do say that that’s what they are drifting towards – not fascism. If you think they’re headed for fascism, I’ll have to ask you what you think fascism is, for it can’t be what Mussolini or Hitler wanted to do.
“…while the George Floyd riots didn’t manage the level of destruction caused by an aerial bombing campaign (so you can justly say I exaggerated) that doesn’t mean they were harmless.”
Nobody said the George Floyd protests were harmless.
Thank you for acknowledging your exaggeration; but then you go and compare the George Floyd protests to Kristallnacht! Again, exaggeration; sad; as if you are implicitly admitting the facts as they are don’t support your views.
The Nazi government did not “stand by” during Kristallnacht; they ordered it; they gave specific instructions.
Perhaps local officials did not respond to protests in St. Paul as you’d like, but they did not order or instruct those protests.
No one in this thread made comparisons between Kristallnacht and—well—anything! You’re the first person to even refer to it.
“even using the word ‘insurrection’ for the US Capitol Breach betrays that you have taken the official view of that event at face value.”
My views are based on what happened and what the insurrectionists said they were there to do. If the official view happens to be consistent with the facts, why not agree with it? If it looks like an insurrection, if the rioters sound like insurrectionists and act like insurrectionists, it’s probably an insurrection.
I’ve found this article by Robin Zheng (recommended to me by Derek Bowman) helpful in getting myself thinking about some of the core issues at stake here concerning holding people to account morally: https://academic.oup.com/mind/article/130/518/503/6129389
I do think we agree, Irfan, on the schematic moral and moral-psychological fundamentals. But I struggle to get to the next, more specific layer of moral and moral-psychological reality here, the level at which we get something like actual standards (and standards that might handle tough or borderline cases) governing collective (or individual) cancellation-type actions. When are cancellation-type actions fitting or warranted or permitted? When are they all-in best (or even obligatory)? Here, I’m guessing our intuitive “noses” lead us in different directions, but the issues here need to be laid out clearly to get beyond an intuition-driven level of analysis.
Alas, even if things were settled and agreed-upon at this level, applying these standards to complex moral-psychological and sociological phenomena like the rise of “fascism” (or anti-democratic forms of governance generally, whether coming from the right or left of the political spectrum) would be hard. As would be defining and addressing cancel culture (not just cancelling actions) — specifically, the bad motivations and behaviors that often lead to and are encouraged by justified and unjustified cancelling actions (pretty well-described, I would say, by David Potts in his post). However, I think going through specific cases, as you have started doing, is quite helpful, potentially for understanding each of these related sorts of things.
Responding to Michael Young:
That’s why I’ve been so focused on clear, paradigmatic cases where the culpability is clear and/or where the dangers are stark. The latter disjunct is why fascism keeps coming up. The clearest cases for cancellation are cases where someone makes a culpable contribution to totalitarianism, whether communist, fascist, theocratic, or whatever. I’ve been focusing on fascistic cases, but I spent years talking about the dangers of (mostly Islamic) theocracy. I haven’t brought up communist examples, not because I’m sympathetic to communism, but because (a) by comparison with fascism, I don’t regard communism as a serious threat right now, and (b) given (a), I happen to be making a study of fascism, so it’s on my mind.
If the threat of communism loomed as large as the threat of fascism, I’d be focused on that, but it isn’t, so I’m not. If I shared the estimate of Antifa that one finds on the political Right, I’d be harping on the evils of Antifa. But I simply don’t see that Antifa is the threat that people have made of it.
I had meant to save the following example for a post of its own (and will), but no harm forecasting it here in the comments. If we agree on the principle that some kinds of things should be cancelled, consider the case of 8kun, previously 8chan.
Question: was Cloudflare justified in de-platforming 8chan? My answer: yes, it was. Is any other service provider justified in doing the same to any of its imitators or successors? Yes, absolutely. Are anti-fascist pressure groups justified in pressuring service providers to do this? Yes. Would I join in such a pressure campaign? Yes, if I could. I certainly condone it.
I faced this issue when I was Executive Director of the now-defunct group, the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Societies. At a certain point, our message boards (which were unmoderated) became breeding grounds of pure ethno-sectarian hatred. Yes, there were some “interesting” discussions here and there. But on the whole, discussion was dominated by pseudonymous people thirsting for Muslim blood. We had defenders of the most extreme forms of Zionism, Hindutva, and Serbian nationalism, as well as the usual American yahoos, coming onto the board to recommend mass killing, mass expulsion, torture, etc. of Muslims.
I went on the site a few times with a pseudonym, pretending to be a reasonable Muslim, trying to engage some of these people–and they either just egregiously insulted me or called for my death, etc. (not that those are mutually exclusive). So I told my higher-ups that the time had come to pull the plug on the whole thing. They agreed, but had I not made the objection, our leadership was content to let this continue indefinitely. We would have let ourselves become the anti-Muslim 8chan. They really didn’t care either way.
Was any of the speech on our board legally actionable? Did it lead to any actual crimes? I don’t know, but I don’t think it mattered. The board was not making a positive contribution to human knowledge or discourse. It was just functioning as a kind of pointless discursive cesspool. Some people might have described my self-de-platforming as an infringement on “free speech,” but to me it was just a demand that we either satisfy certain basic norms, or pull the plug for lack of the capacity to do so. Had I not been part of the organization, it would have been entirely justified to pressure its leadership from the outside into doing what I pressured them to do from the inside. When people are studiously indifferent to considerations of justice, you have to find a workable point of entry into their deliberations. A struggle for justice can’t be conducted on the model of an ASMR video. Believe me, if it could, I’d be all for doing it that way. But it can’t.
I’ve been stimulated to thought on these matters in part because Roderick has me reviewing a book, Fighting Fascism, that’s given me the opportunity to clarify my thoughts on some of the matters. The book’s Appendix is called “Killing 8chan.”
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