The Boring Truth vs "Cancel Culture" Panic

Some people deserve to be fired and some people don't

Here’s an incredibly boring point that deserves much more attention than it gets: it’s bad when people who don’t deserve it get fired, but it’s not bad when people who do deserve it get fired!

I know, crazy. I’ll pause a moment to let you stuff your scattered gray matter back into your exploded skull.

Because some so-called “cancellations” are merited while others are unmerited, categorizing all these cases in a way that tends to efface the distinction between right and wrong, just and unjust, bad and not bad, is highly unlikely to improve the quality of our thinking. Indeed, it is likely to make us stupid! There is an important difference between things that are bad and things that are not bad, and it is bad to be stupid. It is bad, then, to toss every high-profile case in which someone was sacked for giving offense into the same cognition-destroying conceptual garbage bin. And thus it is also stupid and bad to run around with your hair on fire screaming about some incredibly alarming trend that exists in your wild imagination only because you’ve refused to acknowledge the fundamental difference between things that are fundamentally different.

This is not to say that there are no commonalities between justified and unjustified firings or proportionate or disproportionate sanctions for norm-defying speech. People get fired for things they say on Twitter. Some of them deserve it and some of them don’t. Either way, the things that got them sacked were said on Twitter. They do have that in common.

Furthermore, there may be close similarities in the way a vengeful posse coalesced to denounce them; in the way that vindictive “Karens” demanded to talk to management; or in the way management, rattled by the sudden and overwhelming volume of unwelcome attention, sprang into action and severed ties with the formerly employed tweet provocateur. This specific feeding-frenzy dynamic didn’t exist before this specific technology did and it’s perfectly reasonable to question whether, on the whole, it’s a healthy thing.

But even if it’s not healthy, overall, it’s crucial to bear in mind that sometimes people say things so shitty on social media that they deserve to be an object of collective outrage and deserve to lose jobs, opportunities, social standing, etc. I’m sorry to belabor the point, but these cases are fundamentally different from those in which somebody didn’t deserve to be mobbed and didn’t deserve to lose jobs and opportunities, but was mobbed and fired anyway. It’s the difference between justice and injustice — an important distinction not to lose track of.

Will we always or even often agree about whether somebody deserves it in any given instance? Of course not. It’s worth arguing about! But whether somebody did or didn’t deserve what they got in a particular case is a much different discussion than whether “cancel culture” threatens the imminent demise of the American experiment in liberty. Indeed, you can’t establish that there is an ominous trend unless you establish that there’s something ominous about specific cases. Which means you have to pay attention to the details of specific cases.

If you like to have correct opinions, you won’t illicitly assume that there is an alarming trend and you won’t assume that new cases are alarming simply because you’re already committed to the existence of an alarming trend. What you’ll do is judge each case on its own merits, regard things that are different differently, and generalize only when you’ve actually identified a general feature of a class of properly categorized cases.

I’ll pause again as you pick up the shards of your shattered skull.

That said, here’s another boring point that’s worth emphasizing. It’s not actually necessary to have an opinion on any of these cases. Although it’s admittedly fun to act like we’re all part of some all-encompassing HR review board, we often lack access to relevant information, so it can be wise to suspend judgment.

Here’s my mostly unsuspended judgment regarding a few recent cases:

Donald McNeil

He did not deserve it for quoting someone who had used a racial slur (the use/mention distinction matters!). But I have a vague sense that it’s more complicated than this.

There are clearly tensions between management and younger NYT staffers, who are much more diverse group than the older folks who run the place. These younger folks are commonly portrayed as mutinous woke jihadis, but I doubt that’s fair. Large, venerable institutions are inherently conservative and slow to change. Old-school chain-smoking, ink-stained-wretch newsman culture is closer to coarse working-class white guy culture than it is to multicultural Millennial Ivy League high-achiever culture and the mix is volatile. Cultural mismatch in many institutions involves a lack of agreement among older management and younger staffers about what kind of work and professional comportment merits recognition, promotion, higher compensation, etc., as well as a lack agreement about what policies, practices and norms are necessary to give workers outside the traditional demographic norm a fair shot at success within the institution. When these disagreements aren’t addressed and ironed out, real resentments can build up.

Anyway, here’s the totally speculative hunch I’ve formed from the stuff I’ve read. Now, I have no idea whether this is true, but I’ve gotten the impression that McNeil is sort of a crotchety old-school asshole. But the resources, visibility and plum beats that guys like him are afforded might be part of the festering frustration of younger, less white, less male staffers, who feel that they aren’t being given equitable opportunity for advancement. So, when it came to light, they seized on the Peru episode to get some leverage on management and make it get around to doing something about their legitimate concerns.

Now, no matter what kind of institution you’ve got, reforming internal norms and processes for the distribution of the scarce stuff employees compete for is an absolute nightmare of cut-throat internal politics. Management always and everywhere lives in fear of trying to fix this explosive stuff, even if it really is broken, and always prefer to kick the can down the road if possible. So here’s a reason management might give McNeill’s scalp to the kids. They’d like to be able to credibly say that they’re listening without actually addressing the staffer’s concerns. That feels like real life to me. But who knows? Again, total speculation. Anyway, if it was something like this, that’s definitely not fair to McNeill, either, whether or not he’s a salty jerk.

Now, I highly doubt that this is the true story. But I suspect the true story is something sort of like this — you know, complicated, not a morality play. Rather than jumping to the conclusion that vital institutions like the Times are under siege by an internal woke insurgency, I think it’s more realistic to guess, based on my own experience and countless stories from friends with jobs in places with de facto age-segregated hierarchal structures (i.e., nearly every workplace), that younger staffers have totally legit grievances, management has been ignoring or slow-walking them, but they’re in the sort of institution where changing norms around race, gender, etc. give them some leverage, so they’re using their leverage.

This strikes me as way more realistic than the notion that Millennial and Zoomer radicals are mounting an internal coup for the greater glory of critical race theory. That strikes me as an ax-grinding ideological fever dream. Still, I’m 92% making things up. So why do people with a less realistic, more ideologically conspiratorial hypothesis think they have the right to be so confident? Probably because they’re committed to a narrative they were never justified believing in the first place.

Well, that was more than I meant to say…. So let’s wrap it up.

Nathan Robinson

Didn’t deserve it. You should be able to point out that the U.S. spends a ridiculous amount of money on weapons for the Israeli military without being accused of anti-semitism and losing your newspaper column.

Gina Carano

Deserved it. It’s absolutely fine if Disney doesn’t want the hassle of employing an actor who is out there on Insta comparing being a Republican to being a Jew in Nazi Germany. Carano managed to simultaneously minimize the horror of the Holocaust, which is egregiously disrespectful, and compare Democrats to Nazis, which makes her guilty of the dangerous partisan demonization she seemed to think she was condemning.

Now, the politics are admittedly tricky here because Carano has pretty mainstream Republican views. Many Republicans do think Democrats are basically Nazis and that anyone who gets upset at them for their antagonism to multiracial democracy are the real racists. So they’ll most certainly use this episode to feed their persecution complex.

The dynamic here is incredibly fraught. If Republicans continue to drift in an authoritarian, anti-democratic, racist, Q-ish direction, we’ll end up in a situation in which people will richly deserve to be fired for expressing standard Republican views because those views will have become incompatible with basic moral decency and democratic equality. Of course, Republicans will inevitably interpret these attempts to uphold basic liberal norms of equality, respect and truth as a hostile bid to criminalize their righteous love of Jesus and America, ban the Republican Party, and turn the U.S. into a single-party dictatorship of wokeness in which brutally oppressed patriotic white Christians are relegated to sub-basement of the intersectional caste system. So they’ll try even harder to undermine America’s democratic institutions in an effort to hold their fever dream dystopia at bay. But that’s no reason not to do the right thing.

Don’t worry, this thing’s not going to be anti-anti-woke all the time. I’ve got some big-think political philosophy stuff on tap next.

- WW

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