5 votes

Interview with Thomas Chatterton Williams on race, identity, and "cancel culture"

1 comment

  1. spit-evil-olive-tips
    From Isaac Chotiner, who for my money is one of the best interviewers in media right now. If you're not familiar with his work, I'd highly recommend his (sadly discontinued) podcast interview...

    From Isaac Chotiner, who for my money is one of the best interviewers in media right now. If you're not familiar with his work, I'd highly recommend his (sadly discontinued) podcast interview series I Have To Ask.

    There have been many, many academics who have been silenced. There was a U.C.L.A. professor who got in serious trouble for just reading “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” [William Peris, a lecturer in political science, reportedly came into conflict with students over his decision to read aloud the N-word in King’s letter and show a documentary about lynching. U.C.L.A. told The New Yorker that there was no formal investigation, but that the situation was being “reviewed.”]

    There is an academic at the University of Chicago who questioned some aspects of the orthodoxy on Black Lives Matter. [Harald Uhlig, a professor of economics, compared Black Lives Matter activists to “flat-earthers and creationists.” A student then claimed that Uhlig had made racially discriminatory remarks in his classroom. The university conducted an investigation and found that there was no basis for further proceedings.]

    I think Chotiner's annotations here are excellent. Frequently (the original Harper's letter did this as well) I see examples given of "cancellations" that are vague enough to sound bad, but not specific enough that it's really possible to easily look up the details.

    In both cases, Chotiner gives specifics, and some further details of what happened that seem to paint them in a...less flattering light.

    Also, in both cases, he notes that there have been no formal consequences - which makes them pretty bad examples of "cancel culture". If these were in fact overreactions / students trying to get a professor "cancelled" for an innocent disagreement or misunderstanding - isn't this evidence that the system is working well?

    I think there is something that has to be part of the definition of cancel culture now that is not contained in the description you used in the New Republic example but that can’t be extricated from the technology aspect.

    I disagree with almost everything Williams says in this letter, but I agree with him on one thing here. This current idea of "cancel culture" simply could not have existed 20 years ago (10 years ago, maybe, but Twitter was in relative infancy then). It's inextricably linked to technology and social media, in particular Twitter because it's so heavily used by journalists and other media personalities, but also the long tail of Facebook/Instagram/TikTok/WhatsApp/Reddit/etc.

    20 or more years ago, suppose a sitting US Senator wrote an op-ed in the New York Times advocating for martial law, I could write a letter to the editor of the NYT about it; I could discuss it with my colleagues at the water cooler; I could cancel my NYT subscription over it (but I'd be discouraged from doing so because I probably wouldn't have many other high-quality news sources available).

    What I couldn't do then but can do now is go on Twitter and reply directly to Tom Cotton. Or reply directly to the NYT opinion page. Or quote-tweet Tom Cotton with a criticism, or make a funny meme about him, or do 100 other things related to the discussion of that op-ed.

    And if, in the resulting controversy around the op-ed, it comes out that the opinion editor at the NYT didn't even read the piece before it was published, I can go tweet "lol @JamesBennet you suck at your job".

    This is generally an overused word, but Twitter has democratized criticism. I have negative feelings towards Twitter in other contexts but I have to give them credit for this. For good and bad, Twitter is the comments thread of the entire world.

    Did you follow the case of Blake Neff, who worked for Tucker Carlson’s show and was fired for posting horribly racist things on a message board unrelated to his work?

    A little bit, yeah. I think that once your employer—here’s the thing about cancel culture. It’s not about you violating your employer’s clear rules. I’m sure that what Blake did was against the rules of his employment.

    Subtle but important assumption that Williams makes here. He's not defending Neff being fired, and the reason why is that he violated the terms of his employment with Fox News.

    Except, he doesn't actually know that. Unless he's reviewed a copy of Neff's contract with Fox News, he can't know that. He's assuming it. And he's assuming it because to him it seems obvious that getting fired is a possible consequence of Neff's behavior. His idea of what outside-of-work behavior you can obviously be fired for probably differs from mine, and yours, and certainly from Neff's.

    Suppose a copy of Neff's employment contract leaked to the press, and there was no such language, or legally vague language, saying he could be fired for what he wrote outside his day job. Would Williams change his mind and defend Neff? Somehow I doubt it.

    Cancel culture also operates on another level that makes it very difficult to defend against, which is that the rules are changing. Part of it is that you have broken some rule that is not specified yet or clearly in your employment contract or even necessarily in our public understanding of norms. You’ve tripped a new wire, and you’re being made an example of.

    This reminds me of another thing that's been in the news recently, qualified immunity, which shields police officers (all civil servants, really) from legal liability if they make what boil down to "honest mistakes":

    government officials performing discretionary functions immunity from civil suits unless the plaintiff shows that the official violated "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known"

    A crucial turn of phrase there is "clearly established". Courts have interpreted that rather narrowly. For example, if you tase a pregnant woman, you may be judged to have qualified immunity.

    The Supreme Court invented qualified immunity in 1967, describing it as a modest exception for public officials who had acted in “good faith” and believed that their conduct was authorized by law. Fifteen years later, in Harlow v. Fitzgerald, the Court drastically expanded the defense. The protection afforded to public officials would no longer turn on whether the official acted in “good faith.” Instead, even officials who violate peoples’ rights maliciously will be immune unless the victim can show that his or her right was “clearly established.” Since the Harlow decision, the Court has made it exceedingly difficult for victims to satisfy this standard. To show that the law is “clearly established,” the Court has said, a victim must point to a previously decided case that involves the same “specific context” and “particular conduct.” Unless the victim can point to a judicial decision that happened to involve the same context and conduct, the officer will be shielded from liability.

    If there had been a previous case that involved a 7 month pregnant woman being tased because she refused to sign a traffic ticket, then a right not to have that happen would have been "clearly established". If there was a case about a 5 month pregnant woman being pepper-sprayed, would that have been "close enough" for qualified immunity to kick in? That ends up being decided by the courts, and they tend to give police a lot of leeway:

    Consider this example of how effortlessly courts use qualified immunity to sweep away serious constitutional violations: In April 2013, police officers in Texas responded to a dispatch describing a Black man in a brown shirt, who was firing his gun at mailboxes in a residential neighborhood. When the officers arrived, the man fired his gun in their direction and then hid himself from view. The officers set up a defensive position behind three vehicles and began ordering the man to put his gun down. A few minutes later, the officers saw Gabriel Winzer, a mentally impaired 25-year-old riding a bicycle, wearing a blue shirt, and carrying a toy gun in his belt. Within six seconds of spotting him, the officers shot at Winzer 17 times, chased him down and tased him. He died at the scene. The officers later claimed that they shot Winzer because they feared for their lives.

    As in Brooks’s case, a federal appeals court concluded that the officers violated Winzer’s constitutional rights by using deadly force against him when he posed no threat to anyone. But nonetheless, according to the court, the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. To support that conclusion, the court offered one meager sentence of analysis: “We cannot conclude that Gabriel’s right to be free from excessive force was clearly established here.”

    Williams seems to be making a similar sort of argument here - behavior can only be wrong / punishable if it's clearly established that it's wrong up-front. A professor wasn't given a "list of racial slurs you should not say in class" in his orientation packet from UCLA, so it's wrong to try to "cancel" him over it.

    4 votes