For years now, we’ve heard a hue and cry over “woke cancel culture.” There are, no doubt, many subtleties, twists, and turns involved in this controversy, all worth discussing. But it’s clarifying to ask whether there are sufficient conditions for cancellation. Should nothing ever be canceled? Or are there some things, sometimes, somewhere, under some circumstances however carefully defined and delimited, that should be canceled? We have, I think, now reached the reductio ad absurdum of the “never cancel” position in the debate over Bezalel Smotrich’s forthcoming trip to the United States.
Imagine that a mob of 400 or so people go on a rampage, arguably state-sponsored, of arson and murder in a nearby town. A high level government official not only refuses to condemn the rampage, but ups the ante, arguing that the rampage should have been a military operation carried out by the state, and should have led to outright annihilation of the whole town. This sounds like a hypothetical case, but isn’t: The mob in this case consisted of Israeli settlers; the rampage took place in the Palestinian town of Huwara, near Nablus; the official was Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s Minister of Finance.
Smotrich’s position is literally, almost word for word, the position taken by the Nazis in response to the freelance anti-Semitic violence that preceded Kristallnacht: freelance violence against Jews, the Nazis had argued, was bad because it was disorganized and chaotic; what was required was an organized, rule-governed, final solution to the Jewish problem. What gave the Final Solution its alleged finality was the state’s alleged monopoly on finality in such matters: the Reich, not its mere citizens, ought have the last word on what was to be done about the Jews.
Imagine that the year is 1938, and the question is whether one of the architects of Kristallnacht, invited to engage in fundraising in the US, should be cancelled. With the benefit of hindsight, this will not (or should not), seem a very difficult question: such a person should unapologetically be cancelled. Now change the year, the ethnicity of the person, his country of origin, and his would-be victims. Does everything now change? It seems so. For whatever reason, Americans have a great deal of difficulty applying the relevant principles across these different contexts. What seems obvious in one context becomes a fogbound night of moral opacity in the other.
But abstracting from morally irrelevant differences, the principle and the situation are the same. Ethno-states all face the same dilemma, and resolve it in the same way: Every ethno-state is based on the political supremacy of some ethnicity X, but eventually encounters the problem that ~X people live among X people, resisting X’s claims of ethnocratic or civilizational superiority. What to do with these troublesome ~X’s?
Either they’re passively to accept subjugation to X, or they’re to be forced to leave, or they’re to be annihilated. Since few moral agents can accept indefinite subjugation to the will of others, ethnocracies–whether Nazi, Zionist, white nationalist, or otherwise–intrinsically breed ethnic cleansing. The more intently they insist on the claims of ethnicity, and the more intertwined the superordinate and subordinate populations, the higher the likelihood of ethnic cleansing. There will inevitably be differences in the intensity of the hatred or the scope or degree of the violence fomented by various ethnocratic regimes–I am not equating Israel with the Third Reich–but the underlying dynamic is inescapable and essentially the same.
Liberals can respond by rejecting the claims of ethnocracy, by underwriting them, or by “responding” with indifference. In one incarnation, at least, “woke cancel culture” is a form of non-violent liberal rejection of the claims of ethnocracy. In the case at hand, it would entail the cancellation of Smotrich in the United States: at a minimum, disinviting him.
Bezalel Smotrich was invited to the US by Israel Bonds, an institution that is the very essence of Zionist respectability. He remains invited: his scheduled trip is on for the middle of March. Some have called for Smotrich’s invitation to be canceled. The US government itself, in an apparent to concession to the woke zeitgeist, refuses to meet with him. But as far as Israel Bonds is concerned, his itinerary remains what it was.
This, from a report in the Times of Israel, is an account of Israel Bonds’ “response” to the controversy over Smotrich.
Israel Bonds was resisting calls to rescind its invitation to Smotrich, and his appearance at the group’s annual conference taking place from March 12 to 14 was still slated to go forward, a source familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel Thursday. A spokesman for Smotrich similarly confirmed that the minister was still planning to make the trip.
Israel Bonds did issue its first public statement since Smotrich’s Wednesday remarks but it did not directly refer to the minister or his slated conference appearance.
It said that Israel Bonds “has always maintained a focus on one core mission: to generate financial support through the sale of Israel bonds for the building and development of Israel’s economy without regard to politics.”
“We are a nonpartisan financial organization, which sells Israel bonds issued by the State of Israel through its Finance Ministry. As part of their long-established responsibilities, Israel’s finance ministers from across the political spectrum have historically, over Israel Bonds’ 72-year history, attended our events. One of the organization’s most unique and paramount attributes is that it remains unbiased with regard to any political party or affiliation, enabling all to show unwavering support for the wellbeing of Israel and its people, through investments in Israel bonds,” the group added.
Just to be clear about the logic here: Israel Bonds raises money for the State of Israel through its Finance Ministry, but there’s nothing political about that. Raising money for an apartheid ethno-state is an apolitical act. What is required of an institution like Israel Bonds is assiduous moral neutrality, not wild-eyed wokeness. The Finance Ministry of the State of Israel, though headed by a right-wing settler in favor of ethnic cleansing, is on Israel Bonds’ view, a perfectly neutral non-governmental organization. So it would be an invidious sort of “bias” for a nonpartisan financial organization like Israel Bonds to cancel the Finance Minister. Arson, murder, and ethnic cleansing are, after all, essentially non-economic activities. So while funds can be raised to promote them, nothing of a moral nature can be said about them. Non-economic activities are beyond the purview of a financial organization, and moral judgment has no place in evaluating uncontroversial, politically neutral acts of fundraising.
Authentic liberal neutrality, then, is demonstrated by expressing one’s loyalty to an ethnocracy that rules a conquered people through an apartheid regime based on a doctrine of civilizational superiority. That assumption is the incontestable starting point for all people of good will. For that reason, the issue of canceling Bezalel Smotrich simply does not arise. Funds must be raised. Ethnic cleansing has to be paid for: it doesn’t just grow on trees. We can’t let prissy woke sensitivities interfere with the imperative of fund raising for mass death.
There are, as I’ve said, many problematic forms of cancellation and problematic reasons for engaging in it. But if there are no sufficient conditions for cancellation, then nothing can be cancelled, including the sorts of ethno-fascism that want to cancel The Other by resort to mass killing. That view strikes me as a reductio of global critiques of “cancel culture.” We’re being asked to avoid the sins of “wokeness” at the cost of universal moral disarmament in the face of fascism. If that isn’t an inversion of moral priorities, I don’t know what is.
I’m heading into the maelstrom myself tomorrow. Around this time tomorrow, I’ll be heading off for a week in the West Bank. The sad thing is, while Bezalel Smotrich need not worry about whether he will be denied entry into my country, I have to worry about whether I’ll be denied entry into his. He doesn’t have to watch what he says, but I do. If he advocates ethnic cleansing, people cluck their tongues. If I say the wrong thing, the Israeli authorities can nullify my visa on the spot, put me on the next plane back to Newark, and saddle me with the bill for both plane tickets. It wouldn’t be the first time that an American was sent back to the States by the Israeli border authorities for saying the wrong thing.
What is the “wrong thing”? Well, it would certainly violate Amendment 28 of the Entry to Israel Law for someone to say that Israel Bonds should be boycotted because it’s funding the agents of ethnic cleansing. Not that I’m doing that, mind you. In fact, it’s a funny coincidence, but the Treasurer of Israel Bonds, Andrew Hutter, happens to be my orthopedic surgeon. In other words, the Treasurer of Israel Bonds is in-network with my health insurance, and I trust him with doing surgical procedures on my spine. If anything, that’s the opposite of boycotting Israel Bonds, isn’t it? I sure hope it speeds my way through the security gauntlet at TLV.
It’s some forty miles from my house to Newark Airport, and then 5,666 miles from Newark to Tel Aviv. It’s then another forty miles from Tel Aviv to the Arab bus station in Jerusalem, and a mere three miles from there into the West Bank. The first 5,700 miles or so of my journey should be a cinch. It’s the last forty or so I worry about. It all depends on what a few security officials in Ben Gurion Airport think about cancel culture, as applied to me. Do they read Policy of Truth? Have I violated Amendment 28? Will they cancel my visa? Wait a day, and we’ll see.
I’ve wondered about this issue myself. When is cancellation justified? I think it’s clear that the right to free speech is never absolute…for instance I couldn’t swear my head off in the village general store without getting thrown out. And yet, effectively going la la la I can’t hear you when bad people advocate bad things means you don’t get to put your case that the things in question are indeed bad. So bad people then get to say to their supporters, look, our argument is so watertight no one even has the guts to argue with it! So one could argue that bringing the architects of Krystalnicht to the US for a fundraising tour would have enabled all those opposed to turn up and object vociferously giving reasons. Which is kind of what I think should happen in this case. People should line the streets with placards and jam the media with letters to the editor. Or whatever. You know what I’d like to do? I’d like to go to Gaza and protest, with and on behalf of the Palestinians. But as you point out, one wouldn’t be allowed in. So failing that, what can we do, as citizens of a country that supports this apartheid state? Seriously, I mean that. What should we be doing? If anything?
I can’t give a proper answer to your question without going on at excessive length. It’s really a topic for a paper or even a book, so any shorter answer I give you will be inadequate. But something is better than nothing, I suppose,
The first point I would make is that “cancellation” is an ordinary word with an ordinary meaning that we ordinarily take for granted. Think of cancelling an appointment. I work in health care logistics, and hospitals have special workflows and protocols for missed appointments. If you took a count, these medical appointment cancellations far, far exceed political cancellations, and are often of much greater consequence. Suppose I have a sinus infection, and you have cancer, and we both have the same physician. I make an appointment before you at the only feasible time for you. There is no appointment at a feasible time for weeks. Still, the rule is: first come, first serve. At the last minute, I capriciously cancel my appointment, but too abruptly for you to take my place. In other words, I’ve capriciously deprived you of your chance at early detection of your cancer. Perhaps it will remain an early detection weeks from now, perhaps not. But the rule has now become that your health takes the hindmost.
That doesn’t answer your question, but it puts things in context. The cancellation scenario I’ve just described takes place thousands upon thousands of times a day, but outrages virtually no one. There are no headline stories about “the cancer patient whose would-be appointment was capriciously cancelled.” But there is an avalanche of stories about people cancelled, often in fairly trivial ways, on political grounds. That strikes me as a gigantic moral inversion.
There are legitimate and illegitimate reasons for cancelling any engagement. The legitimate ones are cases in which there is a pre-existing engagement that serves a certain purpose. Some new information comes along that puts into question whether that purpose will actually be served in a given case, or whether serving that purpose will subvert some other, higher purpose. So the original engagement is cancelled. Political cancellations are legitimate when they satisfy either criterion. (The two criteria are meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive.)
Sometimes a person is cancelled because their presence in an institution or role subverts the actual purpose of the institution or role. We’re familiar enough with firing someone for lack of productivity. It’s beside the point that a lazy person may be a great conversationalist. Lack of productivity is a good reason for “cancelling” someone’s employment.
Sometimes a person is cancelled because even if they satisfy the requirements of their role, they do so in ways that violate some higher-order goal. A person may honestly and diligently be working on building the best AI machine ever made. In that sense, she may be doing her job as an engineer. But she might do that and create a machine that could destroy a whole city. In cases like that, her morally unconstrained diligence becomes a vice. In a case like that, it can make sense to cancel the whole program.
When it comes to political cancellations, the situation we face is that someone isn’t just saying something offensive and causing offense, full stop. I don’t mean to deny that such cases arise. I mean that they’re trivial, and not worth the furor they so often cause. The cases I have in mind are cases where someone capable of exercising power uses or intends to use that power for real harm. Naturally, part of doing so will involve an exercise of free speech. The Holocaust began with a quasi-academic event, the Wannsee Conference, in which people did nothing but sit around a table and talk. At a sheer minimum, when talk is part of a systematic plan to do harm, then whether or not it rises to the level of a threat in the criminal sense, it involves a potential injustice that demands pre-emption.
At some level, we have an obligation to prevent harm from taking place, even if the only power we have to prevent it is to boycott it, deny it a platform, deny it moral support, expose and shame it, or get it kicked out of wherever it wishes to go. Ordinary citizens have very little power to resist injustice, so there’s something to be said for using every crumb at one’s disposal. That means identifying clear cases where a line must be drawn, and in those cases, unapologetically cancelling the relevant parties. How to draw it and apply it is hard, but no different from any other case of line drawing. In general, the greater the harm involved, the clearer the case for cancellation.
Nothing about cancelling someone prevents you from refuting him, as well. I am not suggesting that we cancel the powerless and voiceless. The loud and powerful have plenty of resources to make their claims. One can cancel them and still respond to their arguments. But responding to their arguments doesn’t require giving them a platform, or tolerating the moral evasions of those who do give them a platform. In this case, Israel Bonds is not condemning Smotrich but inviting him so that we can all get a clearer shot at refuting him. They are inviting him so that he can make the case that everyone pretend to ignore his call for ethnic cleansing while making an investment in it. It’s less important to “cancel” Smotrich than to expose those evasions. But doing so is an unpleasant enterprise. It means morally de-legitimizing the people engaged in the evasions, and denying them positions of power. But I can’t see what’s wrong with doing so. What’s wrong is that they have the power they have, not that decent people want that power diminished. One can give reasons against ethnic cleansing or Kristallnacht without inviting its architects to a fundraising event. Those are two separate matters.
At any rate, it’s worth asking about the reasons behind the reason-giving in this case. Is it to refute the false position involved, or is it to convince the architects of injustice to mend their ways? Both can be done while canceling them, but I think it’s important not to exaggerate the work that words can do to induce moral reform in an evil person. Think of far more ordinary contexts, like a classroom or psychotherapy. These are environments optimized for reason-giving. Yet how successful are they? How much can an instructor expect in the way of learning or a therapist in the way of insight or reform in a psychologically damaged person? It’s slow going under the best of circumstances. Now take a willful, convinced psychopath like Smotrich and his allies. What are the chances that even the calmest and most modulated discourse will change their minds? Essentially zero. There was a higher probability of success in cancelling him than convincing him–not that either probability was high.
My rule of thumb in the classroom was that 10% of the class was paying attention to me. And they had a direct incentive to pay attention! Think of the number of people who hire therapists and then literally (and perversely) sabotage their own therapy. It’s actually very common. Wayward students and self-sabotaging therapy clients are irrational, but they’re light years’ distant from people like Smotrich or Eichmann et al. You can make some (modest) progress with a bad student or a neurotic client. But you can’t get anywhere with someone who is actively opposed to the very enterprise of giving reasons, who will lie and deceive in any exchange, and who would sooner kill you than talk to you. Cancellation is the least we can do to such people.
I think it helps that I actually know some of the people in question. They are like predatory animals with human minds, a kind of sick parody of Wittgenstein’s claim that if a lion could speak, we would not understand him. They thrive on such misunderstandings.
As for what to do, I would make two suggestions. One is to support organizations that are out there, fighting the fight. My personal favorites are B’Tselem, Adalah, Al Haq, Just Vision, and the New Israel Fund.
The other is to visit both Israel and Palestine and see the place for oneself. Gaza is off-limits, but not the rest. Just yesterday, I was in Jerusalem, in the Jewish Quarter, watching a ludicrous American in a cowboy hat lecturing an Australian family about the need to open their hearts and wallets for Israel. I’d love to be the other American, without a cowboy hat, giving my own lecture at the same place to a similar audience (until the police arrive, as they certainly would). But I’d need an audience. Of course, the issue is not my need for a platform to speak, but Palestinians’ need for real-life instances of solidarity and support, people willing to show up, listen, eat meals, reflect, network, and ask/figure out what they can do. I learned more in ten years of visits than in thirty years of reading. Visiting and touring the country might not seem like a huge contribution to justice, but it’s a great deal more than nothing. And once you’re there, it becomes obvious what you can do–if only to make a return visit.
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Maybe I will do that… visit Palestine. As for cancellation, you make a good argument for it. I can’t convince my daughter to moderate her views, let alone some random Israeli psychopath. The definition of harm needs to be reasonably high though. As in, incitement to actual violence. Not ‘trans women are not women ‘ trivialities.
I think there are two relevant considerations when it comes to cancellations–culpability and harm. The two often go together, but sometimes come apart.
Culpability has to do with how blameworthy or wrong an action is.
Harm has to do with how much total damage an action does.
In cases where an action is both highly culpable and extremely harmful, the case for cancellation is very strong. The Wannsee Conference is an example, as is the Smotrich invitation. The case for cancellation weakens as the culpability and/or harm diminishes. But I don’t think violence is essential. Frauds aren’t violent but are harmful and culpable, so cancel-worthy.
Some actions are highly culpable without being very harmful, or harmful without being culpable. I think culpability without harm can be cancelled, but not harm without culpability.
Culpability without harm: take someone with extremely offensive, bigoted views but without much power. The person may be highly culpable, but may lack the capability to do much harm. If they’re culpable enough, they can be cancelled.
I once had a student in class who began to refer to the women in the class as “bitches” and began to use the word “nigger” very freely. He didn’t do much harm, because everyone had contempt for him. But he was highly culpable. The only reason I didn’t throw him out of class was that I wasn’t sure I had the authority to do so. But if I had had the authority, I’d have thrown him out. That’s a kind of cancellation.
Harm without culpability: Think of someone who sincerely believes in a certain reform to the American health care system. He means well, and is highly conscientious, but happens to be wrong, and manages to do a lot of harm. That’s unfortunate but not cancel-worthy, even if it gets a lot of people killed or makes them bankrupt (as many ill-conceived health care reforms do).
I think the current handling of trans issues is an example of cancellation taken too far, or done wrong. This isn’t because I think the issue is trivial, but because it’s complex, and in cases like that, one has to have very strong evidence of culpability or harm before one starts to engage in denunciation or cancellation. That said, the atmosphere on the political Right in the US on trans issues is positively menacing and sinister (for trans people). The issue there is less trans politics per se than plain old malice. One shuns malicious people for their malice. That becomes a cancellation when you retrospectively discover someone’s malice, then cut ties with them.
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Incidentally, the classic show-down on this topic here at PoT was my debate with David Potts in late 2021/early 2022.