Prolegomenon to Any Future Cancellation that Claims the Mantle of Social Justice

As someone who lacks permanent housing, I spend a lot of time in public places. One of them is the public library, which I regard as a second home. So I’m sensitive to how the public library is run. The library I happen to frequent, the Princeton Public Library, is one of the nicest in the state, in one of the most affluent communities in New Jersey. Naturally, it’s heavily patrolled by private security guards. I have no objection to the use of private security guards, or even to the idea of their heavily patrolling the library. What I object to are double standards when it comes to what they do. 

Here are two recent complaints I made to Erica Bess, Assistant Director of the Princeton Public Library. They’re not cancellations, nor do they call for anyone to be cancelled. They’re merely complaints in written form. Yet they’re highly relevant to cancellation, as I’ll suggest below. They, are to borrow a Kantian phrase, a prolegomenon to any future cancellation of the library (or of its security staff). 

Here is complaint 1:

Dear Ms Bess:

I’m a frequent PPL user, and I have a complaint to make about the way Security patrols the library. There seems to be a very strange double standard about it.

On the one hand, Security roves the library in a near constant way, seeking out and calling out the most minute of infractions.

On the other hand, I’ve been sitting here on the second floor of the library (Saturday, Jan 8), being subjected to a three+ hour phone conversation by a library patron, using the library to conduct business of some kind. She’s speaking out loud and without a mask, and has basically driven everyone but me out of this part of the library. In all this time, from 2 to 5 pm (and beyond) not a single security person has come by to observe or say a word to her (despite how obviously audible she is to anyone in the vicinity, and despite the fact that she’s gone unmasked for a solid three hours). This is not the first time this individual has used the library for this purpose. She clearly seems to regard it as a special entitlement. She’s done it several times before today without being questioned or interfered with. 

Meanwhile, I’ve seen people chided for taking their masks off for a few seconds, for having a (closed) bottle of water out on a desk, and for having their foot touch an adjacent chair after leaning back too far in their own. These may all be infractions, but they’re not remotely like making the library unusable for the better part of an afternoon. 

I don’t think a double standard of this sort is sustainable or justifiable, and would ask the library to put a stop to it.

Ms. Bess responded to me a few days later, apologizing and promising action. 

Here is complaint 2: 

Dear Ms Bess,

I appreciate your response, and apologize for the delay in my own. I generally don’t have much time during the workweek.

That said, I have to report to you with some disappointment that, sitting in exactly the same place today, at about the same time (2 pm, Saturday afternoon), I saw what strikes me as a repeat of the phenomenon I described in my note to you, if from the reverse direction. I had complained that library security goes after minor infractions while ignoring major ones. Last week, they ignored a major one. Today, they went after a minor one.

The woman in the cubicle behind me (who was black) was apparently using a piece of furniture to prop up her leg due to some disability she claimed to have. Security came by and demanded that she stop using it that way. This led to an altercation in which the woman used profanity and made accusations of harassment and racism; Security both threw her out and threatened to call the police on her (while delivering a pedantic lecture about the use of profanity). 

Is this really necessary? Using a piece of furniture to prop up your leg is occasion for a call to the police? it doesn’t seem necessary to me. It seems insane.

I’m not defending the particulars of this woman’s behavior, but frankly, I sympathize with her. It’s hard to see what the problem was supposed to be. “We’re not allowed to move furniture,” the security guard explained. First of all, that’s not true. Second, even if it was true, it seems stupid. Why can’t furniture be moved if there’s a good rationale for doing so? And there was.

I don’t know if the woman’s accusation of racism was warranted, but the complaint of harassment was. And if library personnel get this trigger happy about threatening to call the police on library patrons, I think it’s only fair to say that library patrons should feel free to do the same to library personnel. Do we really want the library to be the scene of constant police activity?

Bottom line: the security staff here needs to be better supervised. This incident was a classic case of staff taking inappropriate action in an inappropriate way. It’s only a matter of time before the library sees a major incident. If and when it happens, I would not trust Security’s version of events.

Once again, Ms. Bess acknowledged my letter, promising an investigation and appropriate action.

As far as the library is concerned, I leave the matter there. I have no reason to doubt the good faith of its leadership. I assume good faith until I see otherwise, and assume that any remedial action they take will take time–plenty of time. So I cheerfully grant them both. 

Yet I’m not naive. I know the ways of bureaucrats. I’ve long dealt with bureaucrats–cops, lawyers, law clerks, customs officials, military checkpoint personnel, insurance adjusters, university administrators, provincial registrars, and the like, often to my detriment. Hell, I am a bureaucrat, working in that most bureaucratic of professions, medical billing, collecting, insurance, and denials. I know how easy it is to fob off a complainant, to bury his complaint, to lose it, to profess incomprehension at it, to invoke helplessness to deal with it, to delay, to confuse the issue, to deride, to disarm, to distract, and even to retaliate for making the complaint. Stranger things have happened.

In short, I have good will, but it’s defeasible. I’m patient but to finite degree. After a certain point, my good will and patience run out. At that point, I need recourse more stringent than an irritated email, and demands of a sort more stringent than “please look into this.” At that point, which can and often is reached in cases of much greater moment than those having to do with the Princeton Public Library, the time comes to up the ante. Anyone who makes a complaint needs to know, ahead of time, not only when he’ll have reached that point, but what he intends to do once he does reach it. “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design” to neutralize a legitimate complaint, it is a complainant’s right and duty to respond in kind. One weapon in that arsenal is cancellation–to be used sparingly and in the right cases, but most certainly in those cases to be used

Notice a couple of things about this example.

First of all, it illustrates the fact that cancellations need not and should not be conceived as irrational, emotion-driven “bolts from the blue.” They’re properly seen, and properly conceived of and executed as, the last tactical step in a well-articulated strategy toward some determinate end. 

Second, there’s no need to conceive of cancellations as violent or even particularly draconian. It may be that after a year of abuses from the library’s security staff, and a year of complaints ignored or fobbed off, the time will come to “cancel” the library. I might, at that point, gather a “woke mob” online to criticize the library, and call for the security guards to be fired. But that’s a long time from now. A lot of abusive water would have to flow under the bridge before I summoned those demons. 

Suppose the worst happened. Is that cruel and unusual punishment? Surely it depends on how abusive the guards become, and how truculent the library is about defending them. My point is that it makes no sense, prior to and independently of any knowledge of the degree of abuse or truculence, to assume dogmatically that it could never, ever be appropriate to cancel the library. To think this way is to think that the world is a frictionless place peopled by the residents of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood. It is not. And to the extent that it isn’t, one has to deal with the relevant people in a manner befitting the kinds of people they are, exhibiting whatever behavior they exhibit.  Cancellation is in fact one of the milder things one can do to a genuinely evil person–assuming he is evil. 

Third: what if someone were to read this post, and fast-forward to a cancellation (or even worse, a crime) that I would neither approve of or intend? Is that my problem? Can blame for it be ascribed to me?

No, it can’t. To saddle me with responsibility for how people will misread and misapply my views is illicitly and pre-emptively to cancel me. What I’m saying (and not saying), and what I’m recommending, (and not recommending) is easily comprehensible to anyone who actually reads what I’m saying in good faith without confabulating a meaning that’s not present in or implied by the words I’m writing. I am not calling for the security staff to be terminated. I am not calling for a campaign of denunciation to be initiated against them. I am not calling for crowds to gather outside of the library, brandishing an inflatable rat, and chanting UAW-inspired anti-library slogans.

I reserve the right to do those things in some imaginable future against some imaginable adversary, but the Princeton Public Library is not, as yet, one of them (and probably won’t be). The case against cancellation depends, in the minds of those who oppose it, on the extravagant assumption that those who engage in cancellations altogether lack any moral sense at all: of discrimination, of proportion, of justifiable rules of engagement. And if that were true, their criticisms might make sense. But it isn’t.  Nor have they shown that it is. 

Finally, ask yourself how much sense it makes to think of any part of what I’ve described a “vigilantism.” I have no legal recourse against the security staff of the library. Though public property, the library is effectively run as though it was private property. So the security staff can more or less do what it wants. Nor do I want legal recourse against them. Indeed, my point is that it’s the library that’s made inappropriate resort to law enforcement. I want to deal with them apart from the moral distortions of litigation or law enforcement,  person to person, one moral agent engaging with the other. 

Disputes take place in human life, calling for the issuing of grievances and complaints, that either cannot or need not or should not be adjudicated by lawyers, by law enforcement, or by the law. The alternatives we face are not legal action, passive quietism, or terroristic riot. The alternative to all three is organized private action expressive of justice. Activism is a species of private action in pursuit of justice, political activism is a species of activism to that end, and cancellation is a tactic to be used within the context of a larger activist campaign. To conceive it otherwise is to set up a bogus definition aimed at the erection and demolition of a strawman. 

So there you have it: a prolegomenon to any future cancellation. What’s next in the crusade against the library? Well, so far nothing, but I’ll keep you apprised. Because who else will I have to call on, come the day when I need to assemble my legions and strike? Who, but the woke mob that constitutes the readership of Policy of Truth?

3 thoughts on “Prolegomenon to Any Future Cancellation that Claims the Mantle of Social Justice

  1. “Hell, I am a bureaucrat, working in that most bureaucratic of professions, medical billing, collecting, insurance, and denials.”

    This line reminded me of a line from Kafka; while employed at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute in Prague, once told his friend Max Brod: “How humble these people are. They come to beg at our feet instead of taking the building by storm and stripping it bare.”


    • As I mentioned on Facebook, when we visited the Kafka Museum back in 2019, Alison compared me to Kafka—in personality, not accomplishments. She was neither joking nor happy about it. Just resigned, I guess, to being married to a latter-day Kafka figure of South Asian descent. I didn’t dispute it. Kafka’s paranoia, his semi-parricidal antipathy to male authority, his idiosyncratic, unorthodox religiosity—all rang a bell. Now, if only I could publish a bunch of classic novels.

      Liked by 1 person

    • By the way, I had intended to cite your social justice paper in a “footnote” at the bottom, but the library was closing, so I had to hurry up and post the damn thing. But: for a brilliant argument that coheres with my own view, see Roderick T. Long, “Why Libertarians Should Be Social Justice Warriors,” in Bissell, Sciabarra, and Younkins ed., The Dialectics of Liberty, pp. 235-254.

      Liked by 1 person

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