This is Letter 2 of an ongoing letter exchange between journalists and former colleagues Mike Pesca (me) and Adam Davidson. As is often the case, we find ourselves on opposite sides of a heated argument.
Link to: Letter 1
Thanks for inviting me into this conversation. I always enjoy hashing things out with you in a substantive way. Now let’s get to the business of tearing each other’s faces off.
At the risk of larding this exchange with throat-clearing disclaimers, I do want to thank you for engaging in this discussion. I find that the most prominent voices on the “cancel culture is a myth” side, a.k.a. the cancel-deniers, don’t participate in debates or challenging interviews. I’m thinking primarily of Michael Hobbes, perhaps the most prominent cancel-denier. He has the #1 podcast (our medium!) in America, and blogs and argues from the maximalist perspective that cancel culture fears are nothing but moral panic. I’ve never heard him field challenging questions asked by someone of a differing mindset. I see from your first entry, you don’t believe that canceling is entirely a lie, but you also don’t not say that. See title of letter #1, “Cancel Culture is a Myth”.
Counter Thesis: see title of this letter, “Your Myth Missed”, alternatively titled “I Pith on your Myth”
A Better Definition of Cancel Culture
I agree we can’t debate what we can’t define, but I find your definition flabby. It has so many components and clauses, that it allows you to score points by critiquing a definition of your own making. I don’t want to cede the definitional ground in this discussion, but I want to talk about one aspect of cancel culture that can be expressed simply:
Canceling occurs when an idea or an argument is met with a punishment or calls for a punishment.
Streamlined and elegant, right?
To add some complexity, yes, there are times when an argument could be legitimately met with a call for punishment: Eugenics, Nazism, a rave review of The Watcher. There are also times when a punishment may be justified because of the role of the arguer. If I declare that the Houston Astros are nothing but a bunch of cheaters, so what? If a tenured MLB umpire says it, he’d rightly fear repercussions.
Only rare and extreme arguments justify a call for punishment. There is a great cost to punishing ideas, and therefore I believe it is an unethical act. Punishing arguments sets back the arguer, the audience, and society as a whole. There is no way to understand arguments, stress-test them, defeat them, learn from them, or indeed get anything out of them, if they trigger punishment. We can discuss the prevalence and slope of the problem of illiberal censure, but it is a problem and it is the enemy of all the good that comes from free inquiry.
I know cancel-deniers assert that societally, we are properly reclassifying some issues to be outside the window of allowable contemplation, which isn’t new or bad at face value. Indeed it’s a leading theory on how change occurs. You say that my angst over cancel culture is just not liking what the newly defined window rejects and what it lets in, and that my discomfort is with the substance or fact of change, masquerading as a critique of the process. But what I’m really arguing for is a default to a bigger window. I advocate for a generously sized bay window, which opens wide to let in a breeze, but also bugs. You favor the window on the 2013 Dodge Dart pictured below.
Counting The Canceled Correctly
In a future letter, I want to address your claims of anti-cancel culture being worse than cancel culture, which shouldn’t be a difficult case to make if cancel culture is a myth. In the interest of space, let me get to your other big assertion, that the overall number of actual cancellations is small, “tiny to the point of irrelevancy” even. I object to your methodology, or should I say “methodology” (I should not if I consider that your love of a well-meaning zinger has its limits). You link to a list of FIRE’s campus disinvitations and use this as a stand-in for all academic cancellations, which is not the definition FIRE uses.
A better figure might be the documented 111 scholars who faced professional sanction over constitutionally protected speech last year. That number doesn’t include academics who did not press their case, or who quickly apologized and vowed not to pursue a line of arguments. It does not include the many who knew not to utter a comment that might land them in trouble, given the climate on campus. Consider that for every professor who has publicly gone before a review board, there have to be several who keep their sanctioning quiet entirely. That’s just sensible self preservation, since getting on FIRE’s list does not help most careers. FIRE only tracks scholars in higher education; not journalists, scientists, tech employees, or anyone else in a field where expressing an opinion is encouraged within the workplace. Your claim that we would hear of every person who faced punishment for a misaligned opinion strikes me as highly implausible. I personally know a dozen people who have expressed a sentiment a few degrees from the herd and faced consequences. Some were fired, some faced repercussions of advancement, and most realized it was time to find a new job or seriously curtail expression that a decade ago would make for rich discussion. Why would that make the news? No matter the number, real or hypothesized, you get the collective effect of punishing even a select few, seriously wrong.
Hate Crimes and Putin Foes
I’ll make an analogy. In New York City last year, there was an unprecedented rise in hate crimes against Asians. The total number recorded by the NYPD Hate Crime Review Panel was 133 in 2021. Of course not all were recorded. Some victims do not report crimes, and some acts of very disturbing aggression or intimidation don’t count as crimes. But the denominator is the same - 1.2 million: the entire Asian population of New York City. I don’t think the best way to judge the seriousness of the problem is by emphasizing only 0.00011% of Asian New Yorkers were victimized in 2021. I would not think of this as small to “the point of irrelevancy”. You argue as if my premise was “a large portion of firings in the USA are cancellations”, which is a preposterous statement. When you’re punishing for speech, or trying to intimidate an entire ethnicity, you don’t need a large number of victims to have a substantial impact.
Another example is Russia, where human rights groups have recently claimed there is a soaring number of political prisoners. That number is 420 - but out of more than 140 million Russians! That’s a percentage with more zeros after the decimal point than even your cancellation figures. As with Asian hate crimes and punished professors, we’re confronted with a tiny fraction when compared to the pool of unpunished or non-attacked. But the point of chilling dissent, which Russians know a lot about, is not to literally jail everyone. Putin understands that his ends are achieved quite efficiently though a few very high profile, observable prison terms. They got “consequenced” to Siberia.
Significant To The Point Of Concern
Cancel deniers say it’s a good thing a message is being sent and behavior is deterred. Yet at the same time, they (or you specifically) are also saying there actually is no message being sent, because only an insignificant number of people are being penalized. Is there a message being sent or is there not? The four out of 60,000 professors fired per month, which you mention in your first letter, is not much of a message. The cancel-denier community’s idea that we’re merely seeing uncomfortable but necessary righteousness play out in public must be wrong, and they need to try another tactic. But in truth, a clear message is being sent. I can’t definitively say 1,000 professors carry the message any more than the 420 prisoners or 133 assaulted Asians, but somehow it is felt. There are verboten topics, fraught topics, dangerous topics that actually should be talked about but can’t be. Topics like a NY Times article on puberty blockers, if referenced in the wrong circles, is enough to get you suspended. As I was being punished, and as you were regretfully relaying the news that I was punished, I remember feeling consoled as I thought, “Well at least this is all a myth.”
Cancellations are not trivially small. They send a message and that message has been heard, even if bad faith actors purposefully skew the message to suit their own purposes. In our next exchange I want to get into that, and your analysis of “anti-cancellation”. I would welcome a study quantifying legitimate claims versus spurious ones such as Senator Ron Johnson claiming to be silenced when he was criticized for supporting the January 6th protesters, or thoroughbred trainer Bob Baffert saying he, or maybe his horse, was being canceled after a failed drug test. I’m all for data and discussion, so let’s continue at it. I find our debate invigorating, and our real enmities “tiny to the point of irrelevancy”.
More next time, including the recent Mastadonnybrook.
Wonderful response, Mike. Looking forward to the continued dialogue. Thanks to both of you for modeling good-faith (and rather well-written) discourse on a difficult topic. It is nice to feel, for once, that both interlocutors are sailing together towards the truth rather than coming alongside to fire cannons.
I was excited to subscribe and absolutely loved the letter. I think you are absolutely correct, though Adam also has a point that, at times, the response to cancel culture can take on the patina of moral panic. You have also helped me rethink my prejudice against puns ("I pith on your myth" is good). Good luck and I will share your page with others.