On "Cancel Culture"

Bloom Briefing 54: Why We Need More Accountability, Not Less

For most of the post-WWI era, Republicans have been at odds with the evolution of American culture.  The through line of attacks on Hollywood liberals and coastal intellectuals (i.e., people who make culture) extends at least from McCarthyism in the 1950s until the present.  At times, such as in the early 2000s, this critique of the cultural left has gained traction, but it has mostly taken the form of a dull whining in the background to more serious political discussion. 

This Republican critique of the left always involves the threat of loss.  Any brief tune-in to Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, or Sean Hannity on Fox News will reveal the central tenet of the critique of the left: “they are trying to take away your way of life.”  It might be Dr. Seuss books, Christmas, gender, “our” history, etc., but it always involves something supposedly dear from old white people’s childhoods that culture is trying to supplant from its place of primacy or move beyond entirely. 

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t pay the ravings of Carlson or Ingraham much attention.  They are, after all, utter hypocrites about the whole thing, just as willing to boycott Major League Baseball for removing the All-Star Game from Georgia as they were willing to criticize the game’s decision to boycott the state (for the ASG) in the first place.

But there now seems to be a cottage industry of “reasonable” (mostly centrist) writers and commentators who think we ought to be taking the right’s concerns about what they term “cancel culture” seriously.  These are, among others, the signatories of a platitudinous letter in Harper’s[1] suggesting that free speech and inquiry are important, the writers at Persuasion, a new online publication supposedly about free inquiry but mostly about the vagaries of “cancel culture,” and the coterie of people who make the overzealous “demands” of campus activists a focal point of contemporary discourse. 

What follows is an argument that these concerns are overblown.  The impulse toward (what I will attempt to rebrand) accountability culture is good.  The threat to free expression is minimal.  Unreasonable cancelations are rare (though of course we should still seek to avoid them).  In fact, if we are to build more equitable and more just institutions, we should strive for greater accountability, not less.

Reframing Cancelations as Accountability

At its core, the people who are the object of cancel culture critics’ scorn have specific aims, which few cancel culture critics seem to take seriously.  At their best, those aims are about redistributing power away from people who are problematic.  Problematic here might mean racist, sexist, Islamphobic, homophobic, xenophobic, transphobic, or otherwise exploitative.  Accountability culture seeks to hold these people accountable by removing some or all of their power. 

There are a variety of ways that this might happen.  At one end of the spectrum are cases like that of Harvey Weinstein, where there is criminal misconduct that has been widely known but left unaddressed for many years.  In such situations, accountability means arrest and prosecution.  At the other end of the spectrum, accountability means not honoring (via name or statue or celebration) an individual who, say, fought to uphold slavery during the Civil War or committed genocide against indigenous peoples.  In between, we have cases where accountability is about not giving someone more power, say, by denying them a promotion or by not granting them something broadly considered prestigious.  Sometimes, accountability means firing or demotion. 

However many kinds of remedies there might be, there are still more possibilities for what any individual transgression might look like.  Again, some of these transgressions are criminal.  Others are reasonably benign (particularly in the case of some unreasonable cancelations, which we’ll talk about later).  Each transgression is specific.  And the specificity of the transgressions ought to be met with specificity of accountability. 

A Framework for Evaluating Transgressions

A deeper understanding of how to evaluate transgressions will be valuable for both those seeking accountability and their critics, so let’s discuss the important factors of any one transgression.

  1. How much power does the transgressor have?  People with power ought to be held to a higher standard.  Their transgressions cascade down through the spaces in which they have power. 

  2. How bad/offensive is the particular transgression?  How much harm did the transgression cause?  Did it involve violence?  For speech, was it a clumsy turn of phrase that likely revealed some inner subconscious bias or was it an epithet used willfully?

  3. Is this transgression part of a pattern of behavior?  Do we know that this was a repeated pattern?  Do we suspect that it was a one-off?  Do we have cause to believe that this particular transgression reveals something about the underlying mindset of the transgressor? 

  4. How long ago did the transgression take place?  How bad was the transgression relative to the time period in which it took place?  Or should the transgression be evaluated a-temporally because it violated a first principle of morality?  Has the transgressor done anything in the interim to make us believe they regret their actions and have tried to correct for them?

  5. How young was the transgressor at the time when the transgression took place?  Has the transgressor had time and opportunity to educate themselves about the issue?

  6. Is the proposed form of redress commensurate with the transgression?  Is the possible remedy appropriate given the characteristics of the transgression? 

Let’s talk through a few examples with the framework above, starting with confederate monuments.  The transgressors don’t have much power (they are, presently, inanimate), but the transgression was pretty severe (fighting a war for the sake of the continuation of racial slavery is really bad).  It was definitely part of a pattern of behavior rather than a one-time thing, but it took place a long time ago.  Some of the transgressors were quite young, others older.  The proposed form of redress is really quite mild: take down public monuments to these people who did evil.  This all seems totally proportional.  We should stop honoring people who are only famous for doing bad things. 

A somewhat trickier example is the case of Brett Kavanaugh.  He has a lot of power, and the transgression is pretty bad.  But, it’s unclear whether it was part of a broader pattern of behavior or not (this seems likely, but isn’t without doubt). It happened a long time ago, and he was young at the time.  The proposed remedy here, though, was not particularly severe; it was only that he not be elevated and given even more power.  If we were more certain of the other allegations against him or if they had happened more recently, there might be more traction for impeachment. 

With now-Justice Kavanaugh, however, impeachment seems an appropriate remedy if you weight very heavily the amount of power the transgressor has.  Is someone who is likely to have committed at least one sexual assault someone we want on the highest court in the land?  The preponderance of evidence is that he both committed sexual assault and then perjured himself lying about it.  He should have a job with less power (like a corporate law gig where he could make oodles of money).

To better illustrate this point about power, let’s consider a totally hypothetical example in a corporate context.  Two men in the office regularly ogle women.  One is the CEO and one works in the mailroom.  Even if neither of these men has done anything more than leer, the threat posed by them is entirely different.  The mail clerk can’t assign projects, ask people to do anything, or randomly show up in your office like the CEO can.  Not only would the women in this workplace have to try to avoid a CEO who can go wherever he likes, they would also have to worry about whether another male employee would be held accountable for engaging in similar or worse behavior towards women in the workplace given what the CEO’s behavior says about how he (dis)respects women. 

Finally, one example that I think is helpful for understanding why the specifics of each case are so important.  In the summer of 2019, Harvard rescinded an offer of admission to Kyle Kashuv, a conservative activist from Parkland High School after a number of extremely offensive comments from his time in high school emerged.  At first, Kashuv issued a non-apology.  Then, after the Harvard admissions committee noted the comments, he gave a fuller apology.  David French, Ben Shapiro, and David Brooks all criticized Harvard’s decision, but let’s look at the specifics to see how they map onto the criteria above. 

Kashuv doesn’t have much power, and he is young, but attending Harvard would give him more power.  What Kashuv said was incredibly offensive and hurtful.  It was a pattern of behavior, and it happened recently (in the period of life when higher education institutions evaluate who should gain acceptance).  So is the remedy (not getting to attend the most prestigious higher education institution in the US) commensurate with repeated racist/anti-Semitic statements from a high school student?  Yeah, it is.  If he had been admitted to Illinois State, we would feel differently.  If the comments from high school emerged during his junior year of college with no similar transgressions while in college, expulsion would not be an appropriate remedy.  So the specifics, from the institution in question, to the timing, to the nature of the transgression, to the length of time since it happened, to the proposed remedy all matter a great deal. 

What about when accountability culture goes too far?

Accountability culture’s critics spend a lot of time focused on its perceived excesses.  It’s important to acknowledge that people striving for accountability can sometimes get it wrong, and the consequences of wrongly canceling someone can be significant.  But if you take seriously the arguments of accountability culture’s critics, what you find is that many other types instances are lumped together with the handful of rare incommensurate cancelations. In the end, we’re really talking about five separate things:

  1. Accountability culture achieves an unwarranted cancelation (the real issue)

  2. An unwarranted cancelation was only superficially about cultural transgressions

  3. The identified excess of accountability has only been proposed, not realized

  4. The identified excess is actually commensurate with the transgression

  5. An invited speaker was disinvited (known as a non-platforming)

The most obvious example of accountability culture achieving an unwarranted cancellation is the firing of David Shor.  He’s a Democratic political strategist best known for being an expert in the broad academic literature on voting behavior.  He appears to have been fired from his job for Tweeting a study that showed the relationship between protests and voting behavior.  That, obviously, doesn’t make any sense (the transgression was benign; he wasn’t powerful; the remedy was incommensurate), and, unsurprisingly, he was able to get a new job.  The San Francisco School Board removing the name of Abraham Lincoln from schools would also fall into this category.  The former president has no redress to that particular incident, but there is no wave of people trying to cancel Abraham Lincoln.  We ought to try and avoid such instances of unwarranted cancelation, but it’s not clear that this either A) is happening with any great frequency or B) has extremely bad consequences (i.e., ruins people’s lives).

An example of the second category is the case of Alexi McCammond, who was hired by Conde Nast to become the editor-in-chief at Teen Vogue, then promptly forced to resign after staff uproar over roughly decade-old anti-Asian tweets.  It seems the uproar over her hiring from staff was due at least as much to the particular frustrations of staffers there as it was specifically about the Tweets.  I don’t think most people think someone should be fired over decade-old tweets from their youth which they disavow when there is a body of evidence the views of those tweets are no longer held.

Accountability culture critics spend a lot of time focused on the unrealized demands of (usually campus) activists.  For example, Conor Friedersdorf spent an entire Atlantic article on one piece of a broad set of proposals to address racism among the ranks of the Princeton faculty.  The proposal in question involved setting up a faculty-run tribunal to identify, investigate, and discipline acts of racism perpetrated by faculty.  Friedersdorf is right that if such a committee existed, it would probably be bad for even some anti-racist scholarship.  But anyone who has spent any time at all working with universities understands that faculty will never empower anyone else—including other faculty—to judge their scholarship.  That piece of the proposal will never happen.

Friedersdorf emailed a bunch of the faculty that signed onto the myriad demands and, unsurprisingly, discovered that they had myriad different views about this particular demand and their decision to sign.  Few (if any) actually believed that such a committee would be good, and for them, this ostensible issue of cultural accountability was really about other campus politics (a la the McCammond incident).  The fact that there’s no there there is evident in Friedersdorf’s conclusion: “I am concerned that some faculty members are unwilling to publicly criticize a demand that they scoff at privately. Can they really be counted on to protect academic freedom in a faculty vote?”  Yes, Conor, they can.  Friedersdorf is attempting to turn the fact that Princeton faculty members did not want to be quoted as being against the proposal in one of his articles as evidence of waning commitment to free speech.  The notion is laughable.

Fourth, there are the cases where some accountability culture critic is upset but where the remedy is commensurate with the transgression.  The furor over the Dr. Seuss estate’s decision to stop publishing six of his stories with extremely racist images falls into this category.  No one was pressuring them to stop publishing these books.  They evaluated and made a decision that the books were racist and so decided to stop publishing them.  That’s all just perfectly reasonable. 

Finally, there are no-platformings, instances where an invited speaker is disinvited because of pressure from one or another group dissatisfied about that person’s past actions.  These are, predictably, all over the map.  Sometimes these no-platformings seem reasonably justified (e.g., hate-monger Milo Yiannopoulos).  Other times, the no-platformings happen for political reasons specific to the hosting institution.  This happens to people on both the right and the left (Angela Davis was just non-platformed) at universities and other public events.  The people being no-platformed are almost always reasonably powerful (e.g., tenure-track faculty or published authors) and have other means of communicating their ideas, so the no-platformings, despite accountability culture critics’ protestations, actually have very little to do with free speech.  Instead, they are about the contestation of power among those who get to invite the speaker. 

Critics of accountability culture seek to group all five of these kinds of events together to show that “cancel culture” is ascendant, that there are cancelations everywhere one might look.  There are some examples of overzealous cancelations.  But when we disaggregate the kinds of things critics of accountability culture are talking about, we quickly see that only a small fraction of them are the kinds of instances that, if they were more common, would lead us to conclude that accountability culture was going wildly off the rails. 

We ought to seek to avoid overzealous cancelations, but it is inevitable that people and organizations seeking to instill a culture of accountability will sometimes get it wrong.  That there are sometimes cancelations incommensurate with the supposed transgression is not, per se, evidence of accountability culture run amok.  We would want to see such instances in large numbers, and if such instances did exist in large numbers, it is likely critics of accountability culture would be more focused on them than on the many other non-threatening types of cancelations they tend to lump in all together.

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Why we need more accountability culture, not less

While critics of accountability culture decry the small handful of examples in the first category above—people who were unjustly canceled—far more people who should have been canceled haven’t. 

Many of them exist in extremely powerful positions on the political right.  Representative Jim Jordan knew about serial sexual assaults being carried out at Ohio State and did nothing about it.  He’s still in office.  Representative Matt Gaetz allegedly participated in a widely known “game” while in the Florida legislature that involved awarding points based on whom the male legislators slept with.  Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham are white supremacists with primetime TV slots.  Donald Trump himself is a serial sexual predator who was recorded bragging about sexually assaulting women! 

Then there are the professional athletes who have been credibly accused of domestic violence and/or sexual assault.  As I’ve stated repeatedly in this piece, each situation is unique, but the length of this list is worth bearing in mind.  Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather, Jr., Cristiano Ronaldo, Robinho, Greg Hardy, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Jameis Winston, Tyreek Hill, Richie Incognito, Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones, Roberto Osuna, Manny Ramirez, Jose Canseco, Aroldis Chapman, Jose Reyes, Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, Jeff Taylor.  My personal favorite is Formula 1 driver Nikita Mazepin who literally filmed himself non-consensually grabbing a woman’s chest and suffered not so much as a one-race suspension.  Every one of these athletes continued his career despite credible allegations of (and sometimes convictions for) domestic violence and/or sexual assault.  In other words, not one was canceled.

The impulse toward accountability is a response to the true observation that all of our institutions are inherently political.  Politics, after all, is in part a question about who is able to exercise power.  And since in any institutional context, power exists, every institution has its own politics. 

It’s incumbent on all of us to use what power and privilege we have within the institutions of which we’re a part to hold bad people accountable and avoid punitive actions against those who don’t deserve it.  But ask yourself which is more common at your workplace (or other institution to which you belong): some bad actor going unpunished or someone who didn’t deserve it being canceled.  When I do this exercise, I very quickly reach the conclusion that we need more accountability not less. 

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Additional Reading

For the Washington Post, Clyde McGrady writes about how the “woke” and “canceled” are themselves appropriation of Black culture, along with a fascinating history of this use of “canceled.”

For the New York Times, Shane Goldmacher reports on how the Trump campaign tricked supporters into unwittingly making recurring donations

The Washington Post Investigates team has written a series of articles over the last few months about Emergent Solutions, the firm responsible for contaminating 15 million doses of Johnson and Johnson vaccine at its factory in Baltimore.  The FDA flagged issues at the plant before it was issued an Operation Warp Speed contract.  For years, it had been scaling up work on bioterrorism at the expense of public health.  The Trump appointee responsible for awarding Emergent many contracts used to work for them.  And he didn’t disclose his past affiliation with them as part of his confirmation process in the Senate.  It’s just one more tale of Trump cronyism, but it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.  You can read about it here, here, here, and here.  

[1] In contemporary discourse it is literally just referred to as “the Harper’s letter,” which is pretty revealing about the anodyne nature of its contents.