One and a Half Cheers for Cancel Culture

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There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven . . . A time for tears, a time for laughter . . . a time for embracing, a time to refrain from embracing. — Ecclesiastes 3

1

My son (requiescat in pace) used to talk to me every day. We always managed to laugh together. He lived in Florida, so a lot of our jocularity hinged on the sheer absurdity that seems to roll down and settle in that subtropical peninsula. Tales of people with alligators for pets, or of lifted pickups with tire-diameters of five feet, abounded. He was also a skilled imitator; so am I. We would often perform “dueling Bernies”, where he would toss in his version of Senator Sanders and I would respond in kind. “You, sir, are a fraud! This conversation is rigged!” “No! That is the worst Brooklyn Jewish accent I have ever heard! You’re a gonif! You are rigged! Putz!

Neither of us is Jewish, it should be noted. Now given that, is this exchange wrong, or offensive, or “cancellable”? I think the answer is “No, but…”

The “but” pertains to context. This banter was conducted over the phone, or on an Instant Message. No malice was intended — in fact we were both big Bernie fans — and were we doing this shtick among Jewish friends, the good will would be evident and all would laugh. If we were standup comedians, however, we might have second thoughts. Here’s a good rule of thumb: observe the Catskill resorts rules. If you are Jewish, you can deliver Jewish jokes in the Borsht belt. If you are Italian, Italian jokes are fine at resorts off the Saugerties exit of Interstate 95, otherwise known as “the Italian exit”. If you are of Irish descent, confine your Hibernian humor to “the Irish exit”. If not, then, well . . . not.

Context matters. If I was among friends, either cis or trans or both, and one of them tossed out a transgender joke, I too would recognize the lack of rancor and either laugh or, if the joke was bad, wince. (Most of these jokes are bad, really bad, so there would be a lot of wincing.) In other contexts, I might be justifiably pissed. Likewise with Episcopalian puns; they exist, and are pretty funny, the best being “Episcopalians: the bland leading the bland.” But one’s proper reaction depends on who is saying it with what intent. Expressed by my pastor, the pun is an innocent, self-effacing jibe; expressed by a Sam Harris-style militant atheist it is something else entirely.

In this way context gives you the material for judging a remark, a quip, a knee-slapper, as either offensive or benign. As is usually the case with judgement-calls, there is no set of explicit, determinate criteria or rules that force a conclusion one way or another: there is only discernment based in practical wisdom or know-how, an ability that Aristotle called phronēsis. Good judgment is a learned skill, not a precise recipe. It takes training, and requires patience.

2

Context is everything. Yucking it up about Bernie or Biden in a phone conversation or a booth in a bar is one thing, while mocking a disabled reporter in a public rally is something else again. Unintentionally congratulating someone for a pregnancy when she merely gained weight is one thing, while waving your dick in a woman’s face in a drunken frat party is something else again. And, to avoid any appearance of partisanship, habitually engaging in “friendly” pats-on-the-shoulder-or-waist and other awkward touchy-feely-ness toward women when you are an eccentric 70-something is one thing, but having one-way sex with an intern in your office when you are President of the United States, and then denying it under oath, abusing your position and basically betraying your party and your defenders, is something else again.

The relevance of all this to “cancel culture”, to both its critics and its defenders, is that judging something said or done as offensive demands attention to this context and the particulars of the case. Judgment is not programmable: it is not an algorithm. It demands discernment and nuance, assessing the kind of offense and the evidence that confirms it, as well as the degree of seriousness. That said, sometimes “cancelling” a group or individual is more than justified. Sometimes offense is not just a matter of subjective reaction but objective behavior, and sometimes nuance is not applicable. Sometimes it is obligatory to judge: apology accepted — now just go away.

3

There are some paradigm cases where “going away” for good is warranted. Kevin Spacey’s career deserves to be over. Likewise with Bill Cosby and Shane Gillis and Michael Richards and Felicity Huffman. Others are more complicated, but ultimately “going away” is warranted, at least for a span of time. I think of Al Franken as the key example here. Franken’s record as a Senator was admirable, and he was clearly and sincerely sympathetic to feminist and LGBTQ interests. His antics on the USO tour, though, were embarrassingly sophomoric and disrespectful, while not quite making the cut for being abusive. His request for a full ethics inquiry into his behavior, and thus due process, was circumvented and he was pretty much forced to resign under pressure from fellow Democrats. Was this a bad judgment call on their part?

On balance, I think not. In itself, and in its immediate context, Franken’s offense was tractable. But there is a wider context, the context of the national epidemic of violence and disrespect toward women, and the context of Machiavellian, knives-bared Republican obstructionism in government, that, I think, made Franken’s resignation inevitable and justifiable. His behavior weakened opposition to the aspirational despotism of Republicans. Franken did not behave like a drunken would-be rapist, true. But he did behave like a jackass. The opposition can ill afford jackassery nowadays, when the destruction of democratic norms is well underway by a plutocratic and authoritarian clique. Maybe Franken can spend some time in political purgatory, and then return: I would not be outraged by that were it to happen, in fact I would probably welcome it in due course. But for now, he is rightly on the outs.

4

Part of the problem with Franken — and I don’t mean to sound like a humorless old crone here — is that he came from the entertainment industry. He is, indeed, a funny man. His books are as politically astute as they are witty. But, as Ecclesiastes observed, there is a time to laugh and a time to cry. Now is not the time for lighthearted buffoonery. There is also a place to laugh, and it is not in politics.

Life without laughter is a desert, a place of dry emptiness. But there are times and places when and where we need to be serious. It surprised me that Franken the former comedian was as an effective a statesman as he was. But statespersons, in times of crisis, need to get serious, to be serious, and to be consistently serious in their lifetime vocation. Entertainers run the gamut of political opinions, from admirable to execrable. They are certainly entitled to them (if, and only if, they are willing and able to provide reasons for them). But I fail to see why I should take their opinions seriously simply because they are entertainers in the public eye. And this is not a matter of “Left good, Right bad.” Ted Nugent is not Leo Strauss, Alec Baldwin is not John Rawls, and Susan Sarandon is not Rosa Luxemburg.

Franken made the shift, competently I guess, from joke-smith to law-smith. But now is not the time for this sort of career-swap, given the media-saturated and celebrity-worshiping culture that has colonized the lives of the citizenry — with their full co-operation I might add. The 2016 election was the epitome of this colonization, when a third of the electorate voted for a charlatan who cut his political teeth on reality television, of all things. There is a time to laugh. But not in the voting booth.

5

Therefore: one and a half cheers for cancel culture. Yes, it can go too far, and all too often does. And when it does, sound judgment should prevail, and should modulate public reaction. That such modulation is not as prevalent as it should be is a sign of our general cultural lack of seriousness and neglect of reasoned discourse. Debate that isn’t the give-and-take of reasons is not really debate: it is abusiveness hiding under the cloak of the search for truth. When in doubt, turn the argumentative heat down. Coolness, often enough, is an intellectual virtue. Critiquing, say, ContraPoints for her alleged faux pas on gender pronouns is fine, but do not jump down her throat with rancor. Context: she may or may not be wrong, or might be a mix of both, which is my own humble take on the matter. Still, she is an ally with no ill-intent. As are many of her critics. All should react proportionately.

However, cancel culture is a salutary development insofar as it insists on responsibility for one’s words and deeds, given the context in which they are said and done. If you act like a hater and speak like a hater, you may or may not be a hater, but you deserve to be treated like one. You have a right to “speak your mind” no matter how poisoned it is, but others have the right to ignore or oppose you on those grounds. There is no sovereign right to be a cast member of SNL, or a officially-sanctioned speaker on the UC Berkeley campus, or a Senator for that matter. And if you have political ambitions at the present, fraught moment, you need not only to be beyond reproach but beyond suspicion. If you have reasonable doubts that you might meet those standards, please think about doing something else.

Freedom to speak your mind is essential, but if you exercise that freedom, you need to acknowledge certain normative constraints. If you feel the need to express your opinions in public, you have a responsibility to reply to your critics rationally. And if you lack good reasons for your expressed convictions, perhaps you should think again before you speak. If you believe your critics are wrong, you need to display just where and how they are wrong. Perhaps your critics are right. And if they are, perhaps you need to reflect and re-assess — away from the light of publicity.

6

Those of us on the Left should realize that this is a sword that cuts both ways. We need to be prepared to tell offenders on “our side” or close to it to take a hike when it is called for. Cases in point: Justin Trudeau, and Bill Clinton. Again, the context matters.

Regarding Trudeau: the Tory opposition will likely tear into the Canadian Liberals for Trudeau’s casual participation in a racist display — something for which he has given what seems to me to be a sincere apology. But Trudeau, repentant or not, must go, because appearing in brown-face and black-face is incompatible with the anti-racism that the Liberal Party is supposed to abhor. His political talents are beside the point. He himself has squandered them.

Regarding Bill Clinton: the Democratic Party was right to view his impeachment as a raw exercise of Machiavellian power by the Newt Gingrich cabal — a man whose sexual escapades could be matched one-to-one with Clinton’s, with plenty left over. It was therefore right for Democrats to support Clinton during the impeachment proceedings, which were a mere pretext for a power-grab. But after Clinton was acquitted, the Democratic Party evaded its duty to insist he resign. Clinton’s “indiscretions” were far more than that: they were a severe abuse of power and privilege. He screwed-over his colleagues for the sake of a blow-job, when he knew full well that his political enemies were willing to flay him for political gain on the slightest grounds. Clinton did it anyway. His Democratic comrades were far, far too “nice” to him. He did not deserve their friendly indulgence. The fact that both Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter are viewed as Democratic “elder statesmen” nowadays boggles the mind. They inhabit two utterly different moral universes.

7

American culture — political and otherwise — lacks gravitas. You do not have to be a sourpuss to notice that the electronic media trivializes everything and induces us to think life is just an extended joke. It makes things incredibly, impossibly light. It also evacuates our memories. Cases in point: Kirsten Nielsen, one of the architects of the Trump Administration’s evil policies on the Southern U.S. Border, is now participating in The Atlantic’s ideas festival, and Sean Spicer, Trump’s public stooge, official liar, and whipping-boy, gets to continue making a fool of himself by way of a gig on Dancing with the Stars. As Jessica Valenti points out on her Medium platform today, both deserve to be shunned rather than celebrated, or even tolerated: if this be “cancel culture”, let us make the most of it. I will not be subscribing to The Atlantic anytime soon, and I will continue not to own a television set given the electronic media’s tireless effort to amuse us all to death. It is the least one can do.

God knows we need lightness, we need something to embrace without troubling ourselves. But now is not the time for embracing: it is time to refrain from embracing, to stand fast and stand up for common decency and democratic respect. It is time to not abide insults to human dignity. It is time to get serious, without falling into self-righteousness. Holding those in the public eye to high standards can, like anything, be a hidden conduit for rancor, nastiness, squinting resentment and revenge. But it also can be a sign of ethical gravitas, of being unwilling to put up with shit and accept it as normal with a shrug and a giggle. Knowing the difference between the two is our challenge. It’s a tough one. I hope we are all up to it.

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