[Note: This post began life as a reply comment to Irfan’s recent PoT post: “Anti-Fascist Questions for Anti-Woke Warriors.” But it got to be too long for such a format, so I’m posting it on its own. However, I haven’t changed its tone of direct address to Irfan or bothered to summarize Irfan’s post or make long excerpts from that post. Thus, for the present post to be intelligible, one ought first to read the original post linked above.]
I disagree with pretty much the entirety of your fundamental argument. No surprise there, I guess. However, I also found that argument thought-provoking. It has stimulated me to develop some thoughts on these questions that I’ve had incubating for some time. So, in what follows, I’ll concentrate on what seems new (to me, anyway) and try to avoid rehashing what we’ve been through before.
It seems like your argument can be summarized as, “Sometimes a lynch mob gets someone who richly deserves lynching. Therefore, lynch mobs are cool.” Stated thus baldly, I would hope it is obvious both that the conclusion does not follow from the premise and that the conclusion itself is unacceptable on the merits. The mafia, for example, does not become a good institution that should celebrated and promoted under the banner of social justice activism just because it so happens (as surely it must) that a just outcome is sometimes brought about by a mob hit.
I realize you don’t aim to justify lynch mobs and mafiosi, but rather political activism and “a principled commitment to moral accountability, outside of legalized officialdom.” However, restricting the use of mob power only to those cases where the mob has an appropriate target is not an available option. We can’t choose to have “The Equalizer” TV show in real life, or “Dexter”—cannibalism for justice!—where the screenwriters arrange for the scales to balance. What you are defending is moral vigilantism—as a common practice, a cultural norm—which is just why it is no adequate defense that once in a while the target might receive a deserved comeuppance.
Vigilantism of the regular kind has an earned reputation as a terrible idea, because mobs of outraged, impatient, poorly informed, trigger-happy zealots—which doesn’t seem like an unfair characterization of lynching parties—are not liable very often to achieve justice, but rather its opposite. What are the chances that moral vigilantism will be any different?
I think we can just look around and see the answer to this question. In the interest of de-politicizing this issue to the extent possible, consider a couple of famous early examples. In late December, 2013, Justine Sacco was an obscure, corporate PR executive who tweeted an unfortunate joke about race and AIDS just before boarding a flight to Cape Town, South Africa. During the flight, her phone turned off, her tweet went viral (despite her having <200 followers) and she became the most talked about person on Twitter. She landed to find herself one of the most hated and vilified people on the planet. She was fired from her job, of course, and—more importantly, in my opinion—had to spend the next couple of years recovering her mental composure. Here is Jon Ronson’s TED talk about it, which I strongly recommend.
Next, in July, 2015, Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer killed Cecil the Lion with a bow and arrow on a “big game hunt” in Zimbabwe. Although Cecil lived most of the time in the protected area of Hwange National Park, he had left that area at the time he was shot. The killing was apparently legal. Although the Zimbabwe authorities arrested the hunting guide that Palmer employed and the owner of the private farm where Cecil met his end, the charges were quickly dismissed and the two were released. It was alleged that the “beloved” and “famous” Cecil was deliberately lured out of the protected area. This is not implausible to me, but on the other hand, Cecil was known to leave the protected area on his own sometimes, so the truth is unclear. I mention this case mainly because I vividly recall the furor it caused. Cecil promptly became a cause célèbre and revenue generator for animal rights organizations. The dentist became a poster boy for evil. Abuse, scorn, and invective were heaped upon him, and he had to close his practice for a time. It is now reopened, and the Yelp reviews make illuminating reading. The Wikipedia version of events is here. Note that many of the facts are contested, including whether Cecil was lured out of the protected area and whether he was at all famous in Zimbabwe. Here is a site devoted to
exploiting remembering Cecil. Note that you can make a donation and/or buy a t-shirt, and that the site owners can take you on a guided tour of “Cecil’s home” in Hwange National Park for a fee. A contrarian view of the incident can be found here.
There are many more examples that could be cited. For a recent review of the issues and more examples, see this piece by the excellent Cathy Young and also her analysis of a supposed debunking of cancel culture “alarmism” (found here). Finally, this amusing ContraPoints video describing her own cancellation is long but worth a look. (ContraPoints, by the way, studied philosophy in the Ph.D. program at Northwestern University. This caused me briefly to think I might have met her [before she was a she]. However, to judge from her age, she had probably not arrived there before I moved away from Chicagoland.)
Some salient features of these examples are the following. (1a) They have the feel of a moralistic crusade. They are driven by moralistic outrage and a desire to right perceived wrongs or achieve some kind of justice. (1b) They are fueled by emotion. Outrage and passion seem to provide nearly all the motive force. (1c) Although moralistic, they are not informed by moral principle or reason. A rational calculus of the good, philosophical principles of right and wrong, are not in evidence. (1d) The rank and file among the outraged, and often their leaders (in cases where there can be said to be leaders), are largely ignorant of the facts. Worse, they seem unconcerned to certify the accuracy of the claims on which their outrage and their actions are based. (2a) The expression of outrage at the individual level is cost-free, amounting to no more than clicking “Like,” composing a tweet, retweeting someone else’s tweet, signing an on-line petition, etc. (2b) The target is small. Usually, an obscure person without power or consequence. Occasionally, big fish are targeted (e.g., J.K. Rowling), but this is (perhaps) surprisingly rare. Organizations (the NRA, Planned Parenthood) are hardly ever targeted, much less institutions. (2c) The explosion is short-lived. (2d) However ephemeral, the explosion is nevertheless intense, which conveys a false impression of widespread public outrage. Whereas the truth is that the outrage at the events concerned—indeed, awareness of them—is almost entirely restricted to social media. (2e) The collective outrage is driven by social media and would not exist otherwise.
This is not a pretty picture. It is not a picture of people dedicating their time and energy to truth and justice. Rather, it is a picture of mob “justice” executed by people who know little and care less about what they’re really doing.
The features in the second group are specific to the new and ugly phenomenon of cancel culture. They are all dependent on social media, which is why cancel culture is such a recent thing. The involvement of social media also helps explain the power of cancel culture, I think. Social media can quickly assemble, concentrate, and coordinate the voices and actions of a large number of people. This facilitates collective action. But it is a two-edged sword: it democratizes power at the same time that it liberates those who exercise it from responsibility, consequences, and the need to invest much of themselves or their resources.
The features in the first group are characteristic of political activism more broadly. Thus, I think you are right to associate cancel culture with political activism. Cancel culture might be thought of as a branch of political activism (a nasty one). Political activism, exemplified by abolitionism in regard to chattel slavery, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, etc., is driven by passionate moralism as described above (and I’ll say more about that in a moment). And in this way, it is like cancel culture. But political activism is usually something more substantial, isn’t it? “Political activism” is usually a matter of a long-term struggle that requires organization, leadership, and investment of considerable resources and personal sacrifice on the part of the participants. The movements I associate with political activism take place over decades and stimulate a national conversation about the best course of action. In this way, they seem to be an instrument of democracy far more than cancel culture, which is more like “flash mobs for social justice.”
But I do not mean to be endorsing political activism. I am not saying, “if only cancel culture were regular old political activism, it would be okay.” Rather, I think that political activism is at best a mixed bag. Consider some of the “achievements” wrought at least in part by political activism:
- The rejection of nuclear power (which may go down as the greatest calamity in the history of our species—though I hope we will eventually reverse course)
- The rejection of nuclear power goes with hostility to energy in general, what J. Storrs Hall calls “ergophobia.” E.g., activism against fracking, which hasn’t gotten much traction in the U.S., but has done so elsewhere, with predictably unfortunate consequences.
- Rejection of GMOs in many countries (e.g., Golden Rice)
- The Bolshevik and other communist revolutions around the world
- Immigration restrictions and legal persecution of immigrants
- Foreign trade restrictions, tariffs, etc.
- Rent control, “affordable housing” initiatives, and other reasons why housing costs too much
- Minimum wage laws, “Uber laws,” agitation against “sweat shops,” and similar harms to the poor and unskilled
- Environmental regulations whose main use today seems to be to obstruct the building of anything new
- “Three strikes” laws, and similar draconian criminal justice policies
- Prohibition in the 1920s/the “war on drugs” today
- Abortion activism (pro or con, pick your poison—both have had their victories)
- And lately: Occupy Wall Street, agitation for “socialism,” a wealth tax, vaccination “hesitancy,” “Stop the Steal,” Jan. 6, CHAZ, “racial reckoning” riots, “defund the police,” laws against teaching Critical Race Theory in public schools
Admittedly, the last bullet represents little in the way of actual “achievements” (not counting unnecessary Covid deaths due to vaccine phobia, which is a pretty serious consequence). But I include it because the items in this grab bag all exemplify in a rather pure form what I think is wrong with political activism: appalling ignorance and extreme emotionality coupled with claims to be fighting for justice.
Obviously, this list is a selection of activist movements that I think have done harm—in some cases, very great harm indeed. But I want to stress that my point doesn’t depend on one agreeing with all of my choices. Though surely any reasonable person will agree that global communism has been a disaster for those so unfortunate as to have been subjected to it. Again, it seems to be conventional wisdom nowadays that Prohibition was a mistake—at the same time that there is widespread failure to apply its lesson to the “war on drugs” of today. Rather, the main thing I want to point out is that all these activist objectives concern very thorny social, political, and moral issues about which reasonable and informed people can and do disagree profoundly. My choices above reflect some of my own policy/empirical/moral judgments, but I would admit that I could be wrong about pretty much any of them. The questions are difficult, and it is not easy to know what is the right course of action in regard to them.
I bring this up because you write as though the morally right course of action is clear to see most of the time. Also, it seems like the logic of your argument requires it. For mob justice to be a good idea, the mob needs to know just what justice requires in each case. But I submit that what justice requires is usually not clear, even for people who are well-informed and willing to think hard about the right course of action (attributes that no one in their right mind would apply to a Twitter mob).
Consider your own example of Texas Oil and Franco. The way you present the case, Texas Oil through oil sales materially helped Franco take over Spain, thus helping to hand a victory to Franco, Hitler, Mussolini, and the fascist movement. Fascism is morally heinous; therefore, either vigilante action of some kind (I suppose you envision a boycott, vociferous public denunciation, and the like—maybe firing the CEO?) is justified and good in this case, or else “complicity with fascism is not a particularly big deal.” But I really don’t think the case is that clear. We know with hindsight, of course, that Hitler would go on to start WWII and literally attempt to achieve world domination. But the decision in question had to be made in 1936, when, for example, the United States Olympic Committee decided to participate in the Berlin Olympics (though there was an internal fight about it). Fascism at the time, let us remember, had its defenders, including among literate and reflective people (famously, Ezra Pound and Martin Heidegger, for example). People said that Mussolini “made the trains run on time.” Never mind that that wasn’t true. The point is that what might have been the best course of action was not crystal clear at the time.
Personally, I am not so well acquainted with the history of the Spanish Civil War as to feel like I can say much about it. Fortunately, there is no need to look to history for examples of complicity with fascism, since we have examples around us in the present day. Across the Pacific, for instance, there is a (practically speaking) fascist regime that we are all well aware of, by which I mean, of course, China. It is a one-party, totalitarian dictatorship that disappears dissenters (and not just women tennis players, but businessmen and anybody else who displeases the Chinese Communist Party), abuses ethnic minorities severely, does not acknowledge civil liberties or much in the way of other individual rights, has subjugated Hong Kong, and may well soon do the same to Taiwan. Morally, China is not a better regime than Franco’s Spain. If anything, it is worse. But we are doing beaucoup business with China, and I don’t see any groundswell of mass popular protest, outrage, and denunciation. Such popular concern as I do see is concentrated mostly on the right, and it is minor. Institutions that have taken to lecturing Americans about moral issues, such as the NBA, prostrate themselves before China in abject displays of moral cowardice. For a demonstration of how much American corporations really care about moral issues, I doubt this one from Disney can be topped. (The stand taken by the Women’s Tennis Association is noteworthy precisely for the contrast it makes with virtually all other U.S. corporations and institutions.) The U.S. will soon send its athletes to the 2022 Winter Olympics there, although it seems that no U.S. diplomats will attend.
In other words, today’s situation with regard to China seems to be a repeat of 1936 in Europe (as far as we knew in 1936 or we know now). And I would say that today, as then, what we should do about it is not especially clear. And bear in mind that there are people now saying that China is proving that “authoritarian capitalism” is a good idea. For myself, I feel outraged by China’s crimes, but I haven’t stopped buying products made in China, and more seriously, I don’t know whether trying to boycott China or take any other such collective action is the right response or not.
The point is that moral issues and public policy issues are often not easy to sort out, both for epistemic reasons and for reasons of moral principle. Issues of this kind require a grasp of the facts of the case that are often difficult to achieve, especially when one is not personally involved in the matter. They also often depend on knowledge of economics, psychology, and the like, which relatively few people possess (and often maybe no one possesses). Nor are moral principles always so clear. It is striking, for example, that in 3000 years of intellectual history, essentially no principled moral stand against slavery is to be found almost anywhere. (NB: Don’t tell me about Spartacus. Plenty of people in history have complained bitterly about themselves being slaves. Slave revolts were never uncommon. What’s hard to find is the general charge that the very institution of slavery is unjust and wrong.) Historically, it was left to Protestant fundamentalists in the 18th century to be the first to seriously agitate for abolition and spearhead the movement that finally got it done. (This is well documented by Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, chapter 4.) And I submit that if slavery—slavery!—was an issue about which it was difficult historically to achieve moral clarity, then moral issues across the board are not that easy to determine. Nearly everyone’s set of explicitly articulated moral principles is absorbed from their cultural milieux, not by reasoning a priori from Kant’s Categorical Imperative or any other such method of individual reason, much as it may often feel as though the moral principles we embrace are “self-evident,” the result of a “moral compass,” mere “common sense,” etc.
Thus, the proper moral principles, and the causal principles that underlie human behavior, and the particular empirical facts of a given case will at best be only partially known to political activists. And that is assuming they seriously care about such things, which I believe they usually don’t. Most political activism is driven by moralistic fervor, emotion, and ideology, which are diametrically opposed to reason and concern with the truth. Indeed, a clear, sober, and complete grasp of the relevant facts seems positively incompatible with political activism, because it must undercut the moral certitude and passion on which activism depends.
So you’re right: concerning political activism altogether, I’m not a fan. I certainly agree that political activism has scored some important victories at times. But there is also enormous human misery to be laid at its feet. I have no idea which way the scales tip overall—toward the good or the evil that activism has accomplished—but it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s toward the evil.
Most human progress of any kind is evolutionary in character. It rarely happens in a quantum leap as the result of a bold new discovery, initiative, movement, or design. That is to say, it is rarely intentional. Grand schemes are, as often as not, grand failures. When they succeed spectacularly—the U.S. Interstate Highway System comes to mind and, more recently, GPS—the nature and degree of their utility usually was unanticipated. Nearly all human progress, whether in science and technology or society and its institutions, results from tinkering, trial and error, and the gradual accumulation of what works. (For an introduction to what I have in mind, see here. Good book length treatments are here and here and here and here.) It does not result, as a rule, from marches, “movements,” and agitation for things to be “better.” The basic reason for this is simple: we aren’t that smart. The seductive temptation of moralistic thinking is to suppose that we know perfectly well how to improve the world, and we would do so but for the malign influence of bad guys who stand in the way because of their greed and selfishness. To think along these lines is very human but completely false. The truth is that everyone wants a better world, and if we could make one by design, we would. But we don’t because we can’t; we lack the necessary understanding. So, if we want to promote a better world, we should promote the conditions in which evolutionary progress can happen, such as large networks, open communication, freedom to experiment, freedom of thought, information sharing, and competition between plural, independent agencies.
Where activism seems most positive is in liberation movements. Oppression often is not that hard to understand and is a clear evil. Even here, though, the way forward is often unclear, as is illustrated by the historical case of slavery. And of course, a great deal of today’s political activism is not about liberation.
But political activism is a shining beacon of earnest and noble behavior compared to cancel culture. Everything wrong with political activism is raised an order of magnitude by cancel culture. Most of the members of a Twitter mob (or signatories of a petition to have somebody fired, a paper withdrawn, etc.) have no serious commitment to their “work”; usually, it’s something they heard about online and joined in with minimal thought and essentially no effort whatsoever. They take on faith and on other people’s say-so the “facts” of the case, and usually know very few even of such “facts.” Their moral reasoning is on the level of people tearing down a statue of Ulysses S. Grant in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. It is saturated with Left–Right tribalism. Thought, soul-searching, debate, a sustained public conversation have nothing to do with it. And it is not about improving institutions, but about attacking people. And not weighty people—Rowling, Chappelle, Pinker—who usually withstand the attacks, but the comparatively inconsequential and powerless. And its proximate aim is to hurt these people. This is the meaning of the now-ubiquitous phrase “holding so-and-so accountable.” It means destroying them, to the extent possible. So, cancel culture can be summed up as: casual mobs of moralistic vigilantes idly wrecking the lives of pipsqueaks to achieve “justice.”
Now, I have been emphasizing the difficulty of moral judgment, but of course some judgments are easier than others. Here’s an easy one: hurting people is evil, unless there’s some good reason for it. This should not be controversial to any remotely benevolent person. The “good reason” for hurting someone will nearly always be that it’s punishment for wrongdoing. I agree that that is a good reason. But to be properly invoked, we have to know that the target of our hurt really committed wrongdoing. This is what Twitter mobs usually do not know or even seriously care about. After all, the reasoning here generally amounts to, “So-and-so said something ‘harmful’ (i.e., something political I disagree with); therefore, they must be punished.” This returns us to the vigilantism problem I began with. You don’t have the option of saying, “I support mob justice, but only when the mob is right.” The question is whether to endorse mob justice across the board, to institutionalize it. If you do so, then you must endorse all the consequences. Sometimes, no doubt, the mob will actually punish a wrongdoer. But most of the time it won’t, and even when it does, this will be mainly a matter of luck. For, by its nature, a mob is not a careful investigator of facts and deliberator of principles. If it were, it wouldn’t be a mob. Therefore, to endorse moral vigilantism is to endorse an institution of evil consequences. And, I guess, I just think this is immoral.
Defenders of cancel culture sometimes try to minimize its harm to individuals by saying that often the victim isn’t fired, even if that was the aim, that people can get other jobs, and so on. But I note that every personal account of the experience that I have seen emphasizes the emotional toll of being the object of such concentrated denunciation, abuse, and hate. Whether more material consequences are suffered or not, this seems to stick with people, and it must be terrible.
However, the harm of cancel culture that I would emphasize is the social cost of inhibiting free thought and open expression. I think the clearest example of this right now is the cluster of issues around transgender, where activism has succeeded in making it nearly impossible for ordinary people to speak their minds openly. I watched this happen to a fellow faculty member at my own institution just a couple of weeks ago. One unfortunate result is, for example, the recent spectacle of Lia Thomas, a transgender woman at Penn who competed as a male just two years ago, now likely to set women’s swimming records at the NCAA Championships in March. This seems unfair and blatantly counter to the whole rationale behind women’s sports, but the biologically female athletes who find themselves in this situation are inhibited from complaining because they know how they’ll be treated if they do. And the same is true of most other people as well, including NCAA officials and school administrators. And so this situation, which was instituted with almost no public discussion, and which has affected the whole range of women’s high school and collegiate sports for some years now, goes on still with very little discussion. Similar difficulties are faced even by careful, liberal journalists like Jesse Singal. And as many probably know around here, philosopher Kathleen Stock was finally hounded from her job at the University of Sussex in November. (Here is a mildly amusing brief interview with Stock in, of all places, Charlie Hebdo.) (And of course, the ContraPoints video linked above is relevant to this as well.)
I don’t mean here to sign on to any particular views about trans. The point is to defend the principle of open discussion, on this and every issue of public concern. Nearly all “cancel culture” stories turn out to be about the suppression of speech and opinion. Which is part of why it’s surreal to me that the validity of cancel culture is being treated as a serious question and that we’re even talking about it at PoT. If truth is a value, then so must free thought and expression be. You can’t have one without the other.