Nothing To See Here

An unconvincing rebuttal to "cancel culture" claims

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In recent months, mainstream publications like The Economist and The Atlantic have started taking concerns about left-wing illiberalism—often designated as “wokeness” or “cancel culture”—more seriously. Progressive responses have generally amounted to the argument that, while leftist intolerance may exist, the problems are minor, vastly exaggerated by anti-“cancel culture” warriors, and cynically weaponized by the right.

My new essay in The Bulwark examines the “cancel culture” question in more depth. But one recent would-be debunking of the “moral panic” over cancel culture, by blogger and podcaster Michael Hobbes—purporting to buttress its argument with a large amount of evidence—deserves a special look.

Hobbes asserts that, while the report in The Economist and the essay in The Atlantic by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Anne Applebaum “display the superficial features of investigative journalism,” both turn out, upon a “deep dive,” to be built on “motivated reasoning, nonexistent evidence, and indefensible editorial standards.”

Fine, then—let’s do a deep dive into Hobbes’s deep dive.

To prove that concerns over cancel culture and “wokeness” constitute a moral panic, Hobbes sets out to show that purported cancellations are exaggerated, misrepresented, or justified. The problem is that he does more hand-waving than sober analysis of the evidence. Again and again, he gets the facts wrong and spins them in a tendentiously misleading and dismissive way—ultimately arriving at the conclusion that there’s nothing to see except a moral panic.

Hobbes starts out by defending the ousting of Ian Buruma as editor-in-chief of The New York Review of Books due to outrage over a first-person essay by Jian Ghomeshi, the Canadian media personality accused of sexual and physical assault by multiple women. According to Hobbes, Buruma committed major malpractice:

The article … was a first-person account of the allegations in question by the alleged perpetrator. Buruma circumvented his own magazine’s editorial standards to allow the author to characterize himself as an innocent victim of a witch hunt. Buruma later admitted that he made no effort to confirm whether any of the essay was true, nor to seek responses from victims. These are significant ethical lapses.

But Hobbes misrepresents the Ghomeshi essay, which is still available, with a long explanatory note, on the NYRB website. It’s not an account of the allegations, which Ghomeshi briefly recaps (arguably in a way that minimizes them); it’s an account of being instantly transformed from celebrity to pariah and of coping with infamy. Granted, it’s based on the premise that Ghomeshi is innocent of the charges against him (charges on which, remember, he had been tried and acquitted). But the closest he comes to explicitly protesting his innocence is to say that while he admits to treating many women badly, he “cannot confess to the accusations that are inaccurate.”

Yes, it’s a self-serving essay; among other things, Ghomeshi blames his bad behavior on “a systemic culture of unhealthy masculinity.” So what? How many editors have published self-serving first-person essays, including ones containing questionable accusations of sexual assault or abuse? How many media outlets, for instance, allowed Columbia University’s “Mattress Girl” Emma Sulkowicz to self-present as a rape victim without seeking a response from the accused man, who was never criminally charged and cleared by a campus panel under a very accuser-friendly standard? For that matter, would anyone have been clamoring for Buruma’s head if he’d published an essay by one of Ghomeshi’s accusers about the trauma of seeing one’s assailant walk scot-free, with no response from Ghomeshi? The answer is obvious.

Hobbes compares Buruma’s resignation to that of Rolling Stone editor-in-chief Jann Wenner, who left his post after the debacle of the University of Virginia fraternity rape hoax. If you don’t see the difference between publishing a piece of purported investigative journalism that makes explosive allegations but completely falls apart under scrutiny and publishing a first-person account by a person accused—and acquitted!—of sexual abuse, then perhaps your opinions on journalism should not be taken very seriously.

Next, Hobbes dismissively mention two cases in which people were apparently penalized for their views:

The Economist cites the case of Colin Wright, a post-doctoral student who had difficulty finding a job after publishing a series of essays “arguing that sex is a biological reality” (TERF-ese for “trans people don’t exist”). Elsewhere in her Atlantic piece, Applebaum recounts the tale of Daniel Elder, a composer whose music was pulled from performances because he criticized Black Lives Matter protesters.

I assume Hobbes hasn’t read Wright’s essays. The ones I’ve read, at least, do not even come close to suggesting that “trans people don’t exist” (or that transgender identities are delusional or fake). Rather, they discuss the reality of biological sex: for instance, the fact that sex is not a “spectrum” and is not “assigned at birth.”

As for Elder, Hobbes does not dispute Applebaum’s account (though, as Jesse Singal points out, he does distort it: Applebaum wrote that Elder criticized arson, not BLM protesters, and his music was not just “pulled from performances” but dropped by publishers). Rather, he argues that Elder’s treatment is not really comparable to the Cultural Revolution in China, which “cancel culture” critics have invoked as a parallel (during the Cultural Revolution, people got clubbed to death). But surely it’s generally understood that parallels are not equivalences. People have compared Donald Trump’s invective against journalists (“the lying media,” “enemies of the people”) to both Stalin’s and Hitler’s rhetoric, despite the conspicuous absence of gulags and mass murders during the Trump administration. Political movements can have an ideological or psychological kinship with repressive regimes even if they lack the element of violent repression.

Even more disturbing is Hobbes’s casual dismissal of Elder’s “cancellation” as “routine professional consequences for [one’s] publicly stated views.” Cultural Revolution parallels aside, is Hobbes really saying that an artist losing venues for criticizing a political movement (let alone its violent fringe) is something we should treat as normal? Would he be equally dismissive if the retaliation was for criticizing abortion-clinic bombers, or even the pro-life movement itself? Or for criticizing the Make American Great Again movement? Yeah, color me skeptical.

Next, Hobbes tries to debunk several other “cancel culture” episodes as either irrelevant or misreported. He mocks The Economist for citing young adult author Alexandra Duncan’s cancellation of her own soon-to-be-published novel, Ember Days, after it got attacked for “cultural appropriation” for containing chapters written from a black woman’s point of view. (Duncan is white.)

Hobbes wants us to believe this is no big deal: Duncan “received criticism on the concept of an unpublished manuscript and decided not to publish it.” Sure, “YA dramas [are] exhausting,” but “this is not censorship in any meaningful sense”—just “authors being roasted on social media.”

Okay, but when there are repeated incidents of social media “roastings”—not attacks by random trolls, but denunciation campaigns by fellow authors or critics who presume to speak for the community—leading writers to kill or at least suspend their own books already slated for publication, shouldn’t that be a cause for concern? Hobbes claims that if you polled a million Americans, not one would describe this as “book banning.” Maybe not. But two years ago, a program director at the National Coalition Against Censorship, by no means a conservative or even “anti-woke” group, did tell The New York Times that the group found “the chilling effect” to be “worrying.”

(And that’s not to mention that Duncan’s cringeworthy apology, in which she thanks her bullies for taking the time to bully her, really does read like something you’d write under threat of being clubbed to death.)

Next:

In 2019, Laurie Sheck, a New School professor, was investigated by her employer for saying the n-word in class. For weeks, centrist and conservative media outlets sputtered to her defense: The word appeared in a quote from James Baldwin! She was leading a class discussion about racial slurs! … The case became a totemic example of Wokeness Gone Mad that still pops up in anecdote-parade feature stories two years later.

But that version of the story leaves out an important epilogue. The university cleared Scheck without any punishment. …

Scheck’s case, as soon as you tell it in full, turns out to be an example of a university that isn’t captured by leftist ideology. Only a single (white) student complained about Scheck’s use of the n-word. Like most universities, the New School has a grievance mechanism that allows students to file complaints and obligates administrators to take them seriously. The term “investigation” conjures up comparisons to Orwell and Kafka, but in this case it appears administrators interviewed Sheck and the student, reviewed their policies and moved on.

Actually, if anyone here isn’t “telling the story in full,” it’s Hobbes. Firstly, there were complaints from two students, as the New School’s correspondence with Scheck shows. Secondly, the process wasn’t nearly as quick and painless as Hobbes suggests. The college took more than two months to dismiss the complaints, and Scheck told Inside Higher Ed she was given “no indication of a timely verdict.” What’s more, the exoneration happened only after all those media outlets “sputtered to her defense”—and after Scheck appealed for help to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which wrote to the New School on her behalf. Initially, she was advised by the school’s faculty union to consider compromise, such as “changing her curriculum, providing trigger warnings, or having students read potentially offending passages themselves, instead of out loud.”

Scheck, for one, certainly didn’t see this episode as an example of the system working properly; she thought that the clearly absurd charges should have been promptly dismissed and that the “prolonged time frame” attested to a “culture of intimidation rather than one that holds precious the principles and practice of genuine inquiry.”

Hobbes then turns to another academic case that he says is being wrongly spun as a “cancel culture” story: that of Princeton classics professor Joshua Katz, who caused a stir in July 2020 with a Quillette article denouncing a “Faculty Letter” that demanded massive changes at the university to promote “racial justice.” According to Hobbes:

“In response,” Applebaum says, “The Daily Princetonian, a student newspaper, spent seven months investigating his past relationships with students, eventually convincing university officials to relitigate incidents from years earlier that had already been adjudicated—a classic breach of James Madison’s belief that no one should be punished for the same thing twice.”

Applebaum is again misrepresenting the facts of a case to make it seem more troubling than it is. First, there’s no evidence that the Princetonian’s investigation was “in response” to Katz’s political views. All we know is that the sexual harassment story came out seven months after the open-letter controversy. …

Second, Katz’s case had not “already been adjudicated.” According to Katz, the university investigated his relationship with a student in the mid-2000s and placed him on suspension. This was, however, done in secret and the university hasn’t confirmed Katz’s account. The Princetonian investigation found two other students who allege that he made inappropriate advances toward them. One never filed a formal complaint; the other tried complaining and was stonewalled by administrators.

If anything, Hobbes concludes, the incident shows “the lack of seriousness with which elite institutions still treat claims of sexual harassment.”

Well, let’s see. For one, the two former students who accused Katz of inappropriate conduct (more than a decade ago) never alleged that he had made advances and never claimed sexual harassment. Rather, they claimed that Katz, who has openly prided himself on being close to the students he mentors, blurred and eventually crossed the lines between the professional and the intimate in their interactions. These “repeated boundary violations” included one-on-one dinners, gifts such as “chocolates and tea from his travels abroad,” overly personal conversations, sharing of faculty gossip, etc. One of the women mentioned a dinner invitation that “felt like a date,” but acknowledged that Katz never made any actual romantic or sexual overtures.

(One of the women mentioned her discomfort with Katz’s behavior to another professor after she had graduated; the professor encouraged her to speak to an administrator, and she was eventually told that “a note had been placed in Katz’s file.” In his statement after the Daily Princetonian piece, Katz said that the university found no policy violation in that case but counseled him on “the appropriate boundaries of faculty-student friendships.”)

Hobbes’s objection to Applebaum’s claim that the issue of Katz’s sexual relationship with an undergraduate in the mid-2000s had been previously “adjudicated” is basically semantic nitpicking. The decision was made by administrators, not by a campus “court”; but the point is that the case had already been handled through appropriate official channels and Katz had already been disciplined (he was suspended without pay for a year and required to undergo counseling).

It’s entirely possible to argue that Katz should have been punished more severely. But Hobbes’s “debunking” really fails the laugh test when he asserts that there is “no evidence” that the Princetonian investigation into Katz’s past was related to his broadside against the faculty letter.

As the group Princetonians for Free Speech has pointed out, The Daily Princetonian extensively covered the backlash against Katz’s Quillette piece in July 2020; then, on November 8, it targeted Katz in an editorial titled “To create a more inclusive campus, Princeton must act against racist speech.” The editorial assailed Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber for standing by the school’s “hardline free-speech policy” and failing to treat racist speech as prohibited harassment. Such policies, the editors asserted, amounted to subjecting black students to constant trauma “in the name of an abstract principle that is prioritized over the well-being of our community members.” One of the editorial’s two specific examples of “racist speech” that should have been sanctioned was Katz’s article. (The main focus of the controversy was Katz’s admittedly inflammatory language describing a defunct student activist group, the Black Justice League, as a “local terrorist organization”—a comment that he felt was justified by the group’s bullying tactics, including toward black students who did not agree with its agenda.)

It’s not clear when the Princetonian began its investigation of Katz, leading to the story published on February 4 of this year. But given its scope—18 alumni and faculty members were interviewed while 38 more were contacted and did not respond; extensive materials were reviewed to corroborate the details—it seems likely that it went on for months. If Hobbes believes it was a mere coincidence that during the same time period, the same newspaper was attacking Katz for his “racist” speech and taking the administration to task for failing to punish him, I’m sure there’s a bridge I can sell him somewhere in New Jersey.

As for who is “misrepresenting the facts” here, you be the judge.

From specific cases, Hobbes turns to evidence from surveys. He claims, for instance, that a 2020 survey from the Cato Institute (which he identifies as “conservative”), which shows that 77 percent of conservatives but only 42 percent of “strong liberals” agree with the statement, “The political climate these days prevents me from saying things I believe because others might find them offensive,” is meaningless because the term “offensive” is associated with the political left, while conservative tantrums over face masks or the “war on Christmas” are not associated with “being offended.” I’m not sure I find that convincing; the snarky description of the easily offended as “snowflakes” is also generally associated with liberals and progressives, but liberals sure do love to throw it at conservatives (and rightly so).

Hobbes also claims that a 2020 Knight Foundation survey of college students which The Economist cites as evidence of a campus free speech problem (“68% felt that students cannot say what they think because their classmates might find it offensive”) actually shows a healthy climate for speech: Three our of four students “oppose campus policies restricting political views offensive to minority groups” while “[f]our out of five say they prefer an environment where people are ‘exposed to all types of speech even if they may find it offensive’ to one where offensive speech is prohibited.”

But it’s hardly news that answers in a survey can be contradictory. In the same survey, 42 percent of students—not a majority, but a sizable minority—were in favor of “disinviting speakers because some students perceive their message as offensive or biased against certain groups of people”; 48 percent were in favor of “instituting speech codes, or codes of conduct that restrict potentially offensive or biased speech on campus that would be permitted in other public places”; and 48 percent said that “hate speech” is not protected under the First Amendment, while an additional 22 percent were unsure. A large minority (39 percent) also believed it is at least sometimes acceptable to shout down speakers or otherwise prevent them from speaking.

By the way, in the Joshua Katz case, the entire editorial board of the student newspaper at one of the country’s top schools—except for one dissenting member out of eleven—endorsed a statement urging the administration to ban a very broad range of racially offensive speech in order to protect some students’ feelings and to use punishment and reeducation to deal with transgressors. Is it a “moral panic” to suggest that this shows something very wrong with the campus climate with regard to speech?

Lastly, Hobbes makes the argument that the only real authoritarian menace comes from the right. He’s in a bit of an awkward position because both his targets, The Economist and Applebaum, explicitly agree that the threat to liberalism from the Trumpian right is very serious; it’s just that they also insist there’s a real threat from the left. In Hobbes’s view, they also underrate the threat from the right. He is especially incensed by Applebaum’s statement that speech in America remains free from state coercion: “There are currently no laws that shape what academics or journalists can say; there is no government censor, no ruling-party censor.”

Ridiculously untrue, says Hobbes:

We’re in the middle of a nationwide wave of GOP legislation aimed at banning “critical race theory,” a vaguely defined category that includes everything from teaching the concept of “white privilege” to holding diversity seminars to telling children that slavery was bad. Republican legislatures are micromanaging curricula and getting teachers fired and — pulling my hair out as I type this — actually banning books.

For what it’s worth, I agree with the criticism of anti-“CRT” bills offered by a number of outspoken critics of “wokeness” and “cancel culture.” State laws that would regulate the content of college and university curricula are especially concerning. On the other hand, public school curricula have always been regulated by state and local governments, and if Hobbes thinks that progressive governments don’t impose their own agendas, it’s probably because he sees those agendas as simple common sense.

But Hobbes’s dire picture of Republican tyranny is also ridiculously hyperbolic. Two of his links are to a story about a Wisconsin bill that all the reports say has no chance of becoming law. The link on “telling children slavery was bad” goes to a Texas bill that literally includes the requirement that public schools teach “the history of white supremacy, including but not limited to the institution of slavery, the eugenics movement, and the Ku Klux Klan, and the ways in which it is morally wrong.” (It does, however, forbid teaching that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States.”)

And “actually banning books”? That’s a story about a Pennsylvania school board (not exactly the same as a Republican legislature) which supposedly banned a long list of books and other materials, most of them focusing on racial and multicultural issues—including children’s books about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, a documentary about James Baldwin, and the autobiography of Afghan-born girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai—from the school curriculum. As the story linked by Hobbes puts it:

Central York High School banned a wide range of books, movies, websites, and articles by diverse creators, following the district’s work to overhaul their social studies curriculum in 2020. The district, whose diversity committee was working to develop a more inclusive and expansive curriculum, created a list of culturally-relevant materials for consideration. But instead of incorporating these into the plans, the school district instead turned the list into one of banned materials.

Well, actually…

… what apparently happened is that the list of resources for anti-racist education was “frozen” pending review by the school board, because some parents complained about some of the titles being inappropriate or polarizing. The review took a year. After the story of the “ban” got out, students protested, and the school board promptly approved the list in late September. So, even if dropping books from the school curriculum amounts to “actually banning books” (but browbeating authors into withdrawing books from publication does not), there is no such “ban” currently in place.

There’s a lot more to debate about Hobbes’s post: for instance, how coercive “diversity and inclusion” workshops conducted by employers really are, or to what extent progressives who have political power use the law to restrict or impose speech and beliefs. (Sexual and racial harassment laws, for instance, can definitely be used to restrict legitimate speech and expression, as then-American Civil Liberties Union president Nadine Strossen pointed out back in the 1990s.) But I think the basic point is pretty clear: attempts to portray concerns about left-wing illiberalism as a baseless “moral panic” rests on a lot of hand-waving and fact-fudging. The debunking is easily debunked.