I’ve defended both the idea of cancellation in the abstract, as well as specific cancellations, done in specific ways, on this blog. My critics have done an end-run around what I’ve actually said about cancellation, as well as the examples I’ve adduced, focusing on the unintended consequences of cancellation that lead, or supposedly lead, to “lynch mobs,” the “thought police,” and the like.*
I still have a great deal more to say about cancellation as both a philosophical and a historical matter, but in honor of one of the greatest cancelers in American history, Martin Luther King Jr (whose birthday is celebrated tomorrow), I’ve decided to descend to casuistry and inaugurate Cancel Week: a week of posts devoted to nothing but cancellations and anti-cancellations. (Sotto voce confession: I have a lot more than seven examples at my disposal, so this “week” may last awhile. But if revolutionism entails revisionism, revisionism about the meaning of “week” is to be expected.)
A “cancellation,” as I understand it, is the nullification of a prior expectation or arrangement on grounds of justice. An “anti-cancellation” is the rejection of a proposed cancellation for failing to satisfy the criteria for a justified cancellation. My aim across this mini-series is to illustrate the distinction between justified and unjustified cancellations in particular cases.
The definition of “cancellation” I’ve adopted follows ordinary usage as described by several online dictionaries, and also coheres with the ordinary idea of a cancellation, a topic I’ve belabored here at PoT. Ideological cancellations are a species of cancellation alongside ordinary cancellations (e.g., of appointments). Media hype aside, there’s no reason to treat “cancellation” as a sui generis phenomenon rather than a fairly ordinary phenomenon motivated by different-than-usual considerations.
Mild digression: I do workflow for health care organizations–including Scheduling, Insurance Verification and Authorization, Billing, and Denials–and I can say with some confidence that patients cancel medical appointments every day to the tune of thousands, for reasons far less justified than many ideological cancellations. Similarly, insurance companies deny reimbursement for medical treatment–also a kind of cancellation by my definition–on egregiously frivolous or unjustified grounds, also to the tune of thousands, every day.
These “ordinary” cancellations are (to put it mildly) at least as disruptive to business and clinical operations in health care organizations, and to people’s lives generally, as many ideological cancellations. But they don’t figure in the reckonings of critics of “woke culture,” because such critics have defined their terms in such a way as to facilitate cherry-picking about evidence: political activism, as they see it, is a sui generis evil; hence, ideological cancellation is a sui generis manifestation of this evil. How it is that the trials and tribulations of a handful of intellectuals victimized by left-wing activists have come to dominate our discourse and define the very meaning of “cancellation” is, as far as I can see, an unsolved mystery.
There are of course hard cases involving cancellation, as there are in the application of any rule or principle to anything, but overall, the practice of cancellation is not nearly the mystery or object of terror that my critics have made of it. The examples I intend to bring up this “week” are intended to illustrate my point just as well as, if not better than, lengthy philosophical disquisitions about would-be principles and would-be cases (not that I intend to skimp there). In this respect, my Cancel Week (or however long it ends up being) mini-series serves the same purpose as the many examples I’ve adduced of character-based voting, examples likewise undiscussed by critics of that idea.
Novak Djokovic is a Serbian tennis star who was recently invited to compete in the Australian Open. He has, in general, a rather loopy, pseudo-scientific worldview, and has expressed some offensively idiotic views about politics, mostly of a right-wing Serbian nationalist nature. I find the first of these silly, and the second morally contemptible, but both things are irrelevant to the cancellation I have in mind.
More to the point: Djokovic tested positive for COVID-19 in December 2021, has refused to get vaccinated, and, in applying for entry to Australia, misrepresented relevant facts on his travel application form. In doing these things, he flagrantly and obviously violated the legal conditions for entry into Australia. He also violated what I would regard as canons of ordinary decency and common sense. Yet such pedestrian matters seem not to be of consequence to Djokovic, who regards himself as above ordinary ethical or rational considerations.**
Despite failing to satisfy the conditions on entry into Australia, Djokovic insisted on making an abortive attempt on entering the country, was predictably denied entry, and on being denied, initiated a frivolous lawsuit with the intention of challenging the denial. The facts are laid out in this piece by Jemele Hill in The Atlantic, and in many other places in the mainstream press.
The relevant facts are easily mastered. In essence, there are only two sets of relevant facts: Djokovic failed to satisfy the conditions on entry, and knew it; the Australian authorities had both the legal (and to my mind, moral) authority to deny him entry, and did.*** None of these sets of facts is in dispute, even by Djokovic. His response to them appears, transparently, like an act of infantile petulance justified, if that’s the right word, by a series of non-sequiturs, appeals to pseudo-science, and descents into special pleading. Though Djokovic was initially granted an exception by the Australian authorities, and relied on it, no legitimate reason has been adduced for having granted this exception in the first place. His reliance on it, through regrettable, cannot be an argument for holding public health hostage to an ill-considered decision that lacked a rational basis from the outset.
Djokovic was eventually barred from entering Australia after a series of judicial hearings, but in my view, there was no need for this time- and money-wasting, and publicity-producing, expedient. Or rather, there was no need for legal proceedings to take place in lieu of non-legal ones. The non-governmental authorities governing the Australian Open could and should simply have cancelled Djokovic’s appearance at the Australian Open from the outset, barring him entry to the competition by early January. The relevant facts were clear a week, maybe two weeks ago. We can quibble about exactly when they became clear, but there is no disputing that they were clear days before the final judicial decision was handed down, and could have been acted on days before that decision, as well.
Cancelling Djokovic’s appearance at the tournament would not have barred him from entry into Australia per se (properly a government matter), but would have deprived him of a motivation for making entry, and also deprived him of a motivation for initiating his pointless lawsuit. It would also have demonstrated that the supposedly eminent people running the Australian Open have minds and principles of their own, rather than minds and motivations outsourced to the Australian government. Once Djokovic insisted that he intended to play at the Australian Open without being vaccinated, he should at that point have been cancelled, full stop. The idea of an “exception” should never have been entertained, whether by the authorities or by the organizers of the tournament. And if the exception had been granted by the authorities, it should have been overruled by the Australian Open. Djokovic was the one who politicized the Australian Open with the special pleading involved in demanding an exception to the rules. He should have been given a taste of his own medicine, so to speak.
That’s it. That’s my whole proposal for cancellation here. I’m not suggesting any more or less than what I’ve just suggested. No “vigilantes.” No “lynch mobs.” No Communist re-education camps or detention centers. No physical force whatsoever. No wholesale termination of Djokovic’s job, or of his career. No hysterical tweets on Twitter, or summoning of woke mobs. No attacks on his family, or on his Serb ethnicity. Indeed, I’m urging no further repercussions for poor, hapless Djokovic than exclusion from this one competition, plus public criticism tailored precisely to the facts (as per Hill’s article above). Is that really so terrible? Does he not deserve it? Does it really threaten a lynch mob? To refrain from issuing moral judgment and corresponding action for fear of how other people might misinterpret one’s views is in effect to engage in an act of self-cancellation. It’s to rig the world indefinitely to favor the status quo.
No one can reasonably say that Novak Djokovic is an inconsequential “pipsqueak,” much less that in calling for his cancellation, a junior business analyst with no permanent housing, no car, no savings, and mountains of debt, is somehow punching down.
Yet no one can dispute that what I’m urging is a cancellation, either. I described cancellation in a previous post as a matter of non-legalized accountability based on what people deserve for their thoughts and actions. The preceding proposal fits that description without descending, or implying any descent, into the parade of horribles that are reflexively invoked when cancellation is mentioned or advocated. If someone can explain why my proposal cannot be restricted to the appropriate target (and/or limited in the way that I’ve described), I’d be interested to hear it. But the answer has to be better than “just look around, and you’ll see that once you target Djokovic, the next step is the lynch mob.” It isn’t.
Does my proposal have the feel of a moralistic crusade? Yes, but I don’t regard that as objection.
Is it fueled by emotion? Emotion is involved, but I don’t see that the motivation involved can be reduced to an expression of nothing-but-emotion. I generally don’t care about sports, and prior to this episode, had little interest in Djokovic. I didn’t find it hard to restrain my emotions in this case, despite having some.
Is a moral principle involved? I think so, and think I’ve made plain how and why.
Are the rank and file ignorant of the facts? I don’t know, but don’t see why it matters, as long as I know them.
Is the expression of outrage cost-free? I don’t know. It’s taken me awhile to write this post. Even at my wage, I’d like to think that monetization of my time would involve a positive integer.
Is the target small in the sense of being soft or inconsequential? No.
Is the explosion short-lived? Hard to say, but to my mind, irrelevant.
Has there been an intense expression of public outrage? Yes, on both sides. Serbian nationalists are outraged that Djokovic was deported; many Australians are indignant that Djokovic made such a spectacle of himself. My sympathies are with the indignant Australians, but I think I’ve been impartial enough to think clearly about the matter.
Was the collective outrage driven by social media? Probably, but I regard that as irrelevant. A decision had to be made, and was made. The real issue, as I see it, is the abdication of moral judgment to lawyers throughout the case, on the assumption that lawyers are the only ones authorized to make moral judgments and enact them. As I see it, moral judgments should be made by moral agents qua moral agents, not by legalistic hacks trained in hair-splitting for high fees. When critics of cancel culture complain about “vigilantism,” what they’re actually promoting is a culture in which lawyers get a monopoly on moral matters, and one that reduces ordinary moral agents to spectators made subservient to the legalistic blather of hired guns for vested interests.
So, I so far don’t see the problem with cancellation.
There’s more to come. Stay tuned all week. And maybe even beyond. There’s no shortage of people to cancel. And anti-cancel.
*Most recently, I’ve defended the idea of canceling PornHub and other sites that rely on or facilitate human trafficking of children in pornography. The activist organization in question, Exodus Cry, has gotten Mastercard, among other companies, to sign on to their campaign. Mastercard is not exactly low hanging fruit. Neither is PornHub.
Previously (well before the Saudi-sanctioned murder of Jamal Khashoggi), I defended the idea of Muslims’ boycotting the lesser and major pilgrimages (umra and hajj) in Saudi Arabia, separately complaining of a double standard in the way the Saudi Arabia is discussed by advocates of cancellation as contrasted with Israel. In doing so, I predictably had to take issue with libertarian academics apparently opposed, on principle, to boycotts of any nature on grounds of (you guessed it) “academic freedom.”
Twenty-two years ago, I called on Princeton University to discontinue its study abroad program in the People’s Republic of China on grounds of…yes, academic freedom (scroll down to “Academic Freedom” in the preceding link). That fell on deaf ears, too. One critic called my proposal “fascistic.”
**This blog post, by an Australian legal firm, argues that Djokovic’s exclusion was “unreasonable.” What it shows is simply that procedural errors were made by the Australian authorities. But since discretion always rested, legally speaking, with the Minister for Immigration, and he ruled against Djokovic, there was no illegality. And since permitting Djokovic to enter the country on the basis of a confabulated “exception,” on false information, was a mistake from the outset, the Immigration Minister’s exercise of discretion served to correct the procedural error made in the first place. What these legalisms conceal is the abdication of moral responsibility by those in charge of the Australian Open, who should have canceled Djokovic on non-legal grounds prior to and independently of the Philistine nonsense engaged in by the legal authorities. It is simply a mistake to permit legal authorities to co-opt or pre-empt ordinary moral judgment in all cases.
***I’m assuming that full vaccination plays some (defeasible) role in stopping the spread of COVID-19 itself. It is, however defeasible, better than non-vaccination.