Una Comedia Profana
I don’t know about you, but these pandemic times have revealed the weakness of my ataraxia. As an inefficient coping mechanism, I’ve been reading Twitter multiple times a day, a pinch more than my healthy limit of a couple of times a month. This maladaptive behavior has subjected me to the contemporary media discourse on free speech and “cancel culture.” This stuff can be frustrating. And I’m not exactly an un-fallen Adam in the grove of Academos, ignorant of good and evil. I am aware that the American mind closed in 1987. I was a student at a progressive campus during the culture wars of the 1990s. I was guilty of felony homicide in the case of Who killed Homer. More recently, I listened as a psychology professor told me to fear too much gender diversity or social equality because lobsters. Hushed voices wafted through the halls outside my office, speaking of trigger warnings and fragile, coddled college students. Now it appears that a college “cancel culture” has become mainstream, threatening to undermine our cherished values of free speech and academic freedom — our very democracy has been forced to its knees! Society may in fact have collapsed by the time I finish this blog post. We have already reached the stage where a White House Press Secretary laments the cancellation of Paw Patrol!
This contemporary discourse has a nightmare quality — an obsessive reoccurrence of bizarre, yet vaguely familiar, terrors. In normal times, I could have ignored the nightmare because my waking world bears little relation to the nightmare. But I cannot focus and have long suffered under the vice of wanting to understand things. When understanding is the goal, it helps to look past the obvious absurdities and blatant hypocrisies and to try to call things by their true names. There are no opponents here for me to destroy with my debating prowess, only a complex phenomenon to try to understand and, if possible, provide some insight into. Alas, my friends, don’t expect a performative balance from me. Even so, I can hear the criticism of my intuition that it is all just the “sound of furries” (do I recall correctly the Macbeth line?).
“You are blinded,” the articulate mob cries, “to the truth of our analysis because you share the academic intellectual orthodoxy and cannot see, from your privileged position, the harm caused to us who do not share this orthodoxy.” A powerful critique. They are correct to point out how privilege creates blindness. Shall we, then, go nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, on a journey through a few of hellish circles (they will not correlate to i cerchi danteschi). Let me be your Virgil.
1º canto: lasciate ogni speranza di non leggere una rimescolanza
Behold! Ideas that dare not speak their name flit about in the gloom. A bravely heterodox point of view cowers in the shadows. These unspecific, apparently harmless opinions quickly disappear, replaced by loud military drumming, calling all good people to protect freedom of speech, to crusade against the opponents of a liberal society. The virtuous spirits of the modern age demand we fight for free speech, for academic freedom, and for good-faith disagreement. It’s war! But I’m confused. Whom am I to fight? Where are the scoundrels explicitly arguing against these values?
War, with its combatants and enemies, must be the wrong metaphor. Are these virtuous spirits like Jesus on the cross, calling on God, “forgive them their rage to cancel, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34, adapted). The Left sins, they say, and sinning in an excess of justice, they destroy the values that would give us grace. Not bad! Captures the holier-than-thou tone of much liberal values discourse. But forgiveness? très chic, mais n’est pas vraiment à la mode aujourd’hui.
We’ve slipped into French — a bad sign. We will not make any progress this way. It seems as if “free speech” is our glass darkly. It is a good debating point; it does not help understand. It does not get us out of limbo. The better metaphor might be a border dispute: what are the boundaries of legitimate speech/argument in specific contexts and what are legitimate responses to perceived violations of those borders? That’s catchy! Shall we make t-shirts?
Example: The kids recently mentioned at dinner that it was possible to buy a Stalin body pillow. They found that hilarious. I am fine with this sort of humor in the house; there is something absurd about wanting to snuggle up with Stalin. But I refused to allow them to buy it and bring it into the house. Yes, I ‘canceled’ the Stalin Body Pillow. Our house set our limit on acceptable discourse. Not every place has the same borders and I will not criticize your Stalin body pillow. You do you.
The metaphor of border disputes will require examination of individual cases. We cannot just bang the drum; we cannot just vaguely gesture at unspecified ideas and pledge fealty to abstract values. We will have to causistrate and we will need limits. Twitter and the Media have their own hells much deeper down; let’s keep out of there. The academic border disputes suit us better. To continue our journey, we must face the shadowy ideas, the heterodox points of view we glimpsed earlier. It will not be a uniformly pleasant journey.
2º canto: timeo Danaos et dona ferentes
A piece of unsolicited advice: be on your guard against those who tell you that accepting some Greek or Roman idea will improve modern society. It may be true; it may be a trap.
In Boyhood Studies (a journal with its own history), Thomas Hubbard published an article titled “Sexual Consent and the Adolescent Male, or What Can We Learn from the Greeks? (2010).” He argues that the Classical Athenian evidence shows boys in pederastic relationships with considerable power, undermining the view of children as necessarily victims. Current American law, he continues, stems from Victorian and Progressive era mores; it is not sound policy today. In short, “Rigorous social science and historical comparanda suggest that we should consider a different “age of consent” for boys and girls.” Already a trope emerges: society encourages some group to see themselves as victims, but in reality this group has power. This heterodox opinion about power returns again and again. Here, disturbingly, it refers to children in sexual relations with adults. Our journey through hell transverses some dark, dark places.
At the end of 2019, Hubbard was caught up in student protests against faculty with sexual misconduct in the classroom. Hubbard did not fit the profile, but his advocacy for changing age of consent laws was enough for some students. As one student said to the press
“I understand everyone has their own academic license, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for teachers at a public university to be promoting breaking the law.
In the same news article, Hubbard defends his research:
How teen sexuality should be regulated and how legal violations should be punished are legitimate areas of research and debate among scholars and public policy professionals. Historical and cross-cultural evidence have a place in such discussions
I’m not sure either statement describes precisely the academic speech under question. All that’s needed here is to see that it is not about free speech, but where to draw the line of acceptable expression in certain spheres. Hubbard does not claim absolute free speech but makes the stronger claim that his speech is legitimate scholarship. What happens next could be seen as canon for a cancel culture debate and the limits placed on reactions to ideas outside the general consensus. The University sides with Hubbard, citing his free speech rights. The students insist on protesting, including outside Hubbard’s house. Hubbard receives police protection. Someone spray-paints a nearby store with the words “Pedo Hubbard, watch your back.” Hubbard receives more protection, and the University condemns the threat as a violation of the law and community standards. Certain types of expression are licit and others illicit. Hubbard denies he is a pedophile, accuses the students of simplistic reasoning, and states “such simplistic thinking chills serious debate and research on vital public policy issues.” We found another trope: specific modes of criticism will undermine the liberal values that are essential to public policy. In this case, the public policy is age of consent laws. Hubbard is currently suing students at his university in clear recognition that speech should have limits.
Well, that is surely not the whole story, but more than enough to discomfort us. But there is more lust, surprising for a group supposedly dead from the waist down.
3º canto: Galeotto fu il libro
Here is Laura Kipnis, ready to debate the contemporary narrative of sexual power-relations and its instantiation in title IX. In teacher-student sexual relationships, she asserts, the student can have the power. Sexual relationships can have complex dynamics, she helpfully informs us, unfamiliar as we are with human interactions. But we have left Eden, it seems, and having consumed the peri (פֶּ֫רִי ) of paranoid prudery, we are expelled from the garden where sexual relations between students and teachers were frequent, the norm, part of the curriculum. Will I appear a prig, if I admit that I knew of no such relationship in my student days?
I did later become friends with a woman who married her former teacher, although it was years after college when they started dating. They’ve been married for years, quite happily, as far as I can tell. This is to say that love, twu wuv,
might blossom between adults in asymmetrical social relations, but initiating sexual or even erotic relations in teacher-student relationships will likely make the whole educational endeavor more difficult, pace the Symposium. Kipnis need not be wrong about complex power dynamics in sexual relationships for it still to be a good idea generally to regulate it in educational contexts. For all her provocation, even Kipnis doesn’t want a sexual free-for-all. She advocates for chemical castration against “bona fide harassers.” Chemical castration is used for serious sex offenses in the US and it was part of Alan Turing’s parole for homosexuality. Maybe she just means “serious punishment.” Anyway… There is a trope here: only the “real” instances of the offense should be punished. A liberal society needs to countenance a bit of “light” sexual harassment, or it risks illiberal barbarism. “He just slapped your ass, don’t get so hysterical. It was a joke, why are you so emotional?”
Kipnis finds some aspects of campus codes on sexual behavior simply comic, but she can catastrophize with the best of them.
I also believe that the myths and fantasies about power perpetuated in these new codes are leaving our students disabled when it comes to the ordinary interpersonal tangles and erotic confusions that pretty much everyone has to deal with at some point in life, because that’s simply part of the human condition.
Campus codes create emotionally ‘disabled’ students? Extreme, but it is in fact a trope: Attempts to protect are leaving students emotionally fragile. Before moving on, it bears mentioning that young adults encounter many possibilities for “interpersonal tangles and erotic confusions” even when their professors are excluded. I have to admit, however, that professors are uniquely qualified to provide awkward and disappointing relationships, both emotional and sexual.
4º canto: the signs are evident and very ominous, and a chill wind blows
Kipnis’s writing displays a certain desire to provoke, to be edgy, precisely by pushing on the boundaries of what is seen as legitimate discourse (a profile in the New Yorker). This tendency perhaps explains why she slips so easily into Godwin’s Law, claiming bizarrely that the word “victim” had been “previously reserved for those who’d survived the Holocaust.” Anyway, she did provoke a response. Aside from some student protests, she was reported in Title IX complaints because of her original essay and her later book (virtuous souls do at times spin edgy think-pieces into edgy books). Here is another key trope: it is wrong to use institution mechanisms when faced with supposedly illegitimate speech.
A recurrent feature of campus “cancel culture”: appeals to authorities are illicit in cases of speech. Speech should be free, more or less like a bird, 🎵 and this bird, you cannot change 🎵. *Cough* Excuse me. Anyway, being subjected to a Title IX complaint is no small thing; the action and scope of the law are areas of legitimate debate. At the same time, it is not utter madness that Kipnis was named in them. There was a sexual harassment case involved, and whatever the merits of that case, it is not hard to imagine that Kipnis’ public statements about student-teacher sex could make it difficult to report harassment where she has power. It could have a “chilling effect” on reporting inappropriate behavior and speech by professors and administrators. But she was acquitted by the very university that she mocks.
Wait! A virtuous spirit must have its say: just because a cancel attempt failed does not mean the “culture” does not exist! The very existence of the mechanism has a chilling effect on free (bird) speech. We must soothe this poor soul, for it is not wrong. Both the mechanism and its lack can create chilling effects. Negotiating those competing goals is your constant task, at least until Beatrice takes you to a heaven of perfect consensus.
In a profane comedy, people do not necessarily enter hell because they are evil, but because they have been victims of cancel culture or illustrate some aspect of it. All we need do is gather some impressions from our meetings. We have found several new tropes and learned of the “chilling effect.” Since we can’t have hell freezing over, let’s move to the next circle…
5º canto: οἱ μάντεις τοῦ Κοαλέμου
Haidt and Lukianoff begin with a false story: they visited Hellas to consult the oracle of Koalemos (a name wrongly attributed to Aristophanes’ Birds), who is a Greek wise man called Misoponos (i.e. μισόπονος). Misoponos tells them three bad ideas: “avoid painful experiences”, “only trust your feelings,” and “people are either good or evil.” This story is a lie, we immediately learn; it’s just a silly conceit to illustrate the authors’ cleverness (I feel seen!). The true oracles are Haidt and Lukianoff. Now I read a lot of pop-psychology; I’m predisposed to be sympathetic with the approach. It would be bad if society did indirectly convey Misoponos’ ideas as universal truths as broadly as the oracles claim. However, assenting to the true oracles’ analysis leads to some hellish places. Let’s see what happens when we start to agree.
The true oracles worry about the catastrophic psychological and social consequences of using the metaphor of physical violence to describe speech (ch.4). Speech can be harmful, the oracles admit, but it is not physical violence, and the metaphor encourages physical violence in response to speech. Now I’m not overly fond of this violence metaphor, though it may have its uses. The problem here comes from contrasting physical and verbal harm, implying that verbal harm is essentially harmless. Not only is this untrue (think of harassment, slurs, shaming), it does not even consider the Baysian issue (quantity of speech vastly outweighs the quantity of physical violence). But worst of all, their argument embarrassingly contradicts itself: their whole point rests on the massive potential harm caused by a metaphor, by speech.
Given their indifference to harms caused by some people’s speech, their solution was predictable: a citation from Aurelius’ meditations (iv,7) advising us that we won’t be harmed if we don’t feel harmed. No need for psychology when Aurelius can counsel quietism. The only other option is to use the harm to grow stronger, the power of adversity! That’s it. Even where one might partially agree about the violence metaphor, we find a shallow analysis and special pleading, which the oracles use to offer only two individualistic and completely passive “correct” responses to speech viewed as harmful. Yet speech the oracles view as harmful must be eradicated.
But, o great oracles, why can the students not engage in collective action and protest? Even worse, at the end of the chapter, only one page after providing the two passive options, the oracles cite Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela as models, all famous for their rejection of protest as legitimate responses. I do not know if the oracles really think their readers are so dimwitted as to miss all this; in any case, this sort of shit has landed them and us in hell.
6º canto: sicuri appresso le parole sante
So we have a popular think-piece and influential book focused on the trope Laura Kipnis used five years earlier: Attempts to protect are leaving students emotionally fragile. We see fantastical beasts called “micro-aggressions” and “trigger warnings,” beasts practicing “vindictive protectiveness,” like a lioness who eats her cubs to spite their father when all he wanted to do was improve the family situation by marrying a Corinthian princess. Campuses become “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make them uncomfortable. It’s all “safetyism,” a leitmotiv in discussions of college culture, where students are blamed for wanting to feel safe. Haidt and Lukianoff, at least, do not blame students for safetyism; they blame the system.
It is true that institutions, sometimes for reasons of reputation or liability, can be protective of students (and, it must be said, hyper-protective of faculty of dubious character), but this review of the book provides a more plausible diagnosis: institutional behavior is a symptom of a larger disease and “the chief problem is not safetyism, but scarcity coupled with precarity.” The same writer recently pointed to powerful evidence that many students are not so soft:
I am trying to recognize the description of a generation which is so apparently fragile that they cannot even bear a challenging thought with the one that has been the greatest number of those facing pepper spray, tear gas, beatings and rubber bullets on the streets as they protest systemic injustices in the wake of the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. I’m seeing plenty of sacrifice and bravery, sacrifice rooted in anger, frustration, despair and desperation. I’m not seeing any safetyism.
Such snowflakes! But note: these are protesting students. I wonder how closely psychological discomfort with protest correlates to finding Coddling convincing. Anyway, expect to find references to safetyism in critiques of college students, particularly when they protest an idea they believe should not be part of legitimate discourse at their school. When that idea might be seen to support or give comfort or safety to sexist, racist, or anti-trans activities, they are prone to treat it as inherently harmful and illegitimate. Here is the advice from our oracles:
“you are victims of a system that makes you a victim, of a system that has manipulated plain language to render you fragile. Tuff’n up! Listen to the racism or sexism; use it to make yourself stronger, after ‘all stick and stones,’ and harm is, in the end, just in your head. Do not engage in collective protest against the speech! Do not seek to exclude it from your campus! That way leads to a sick soul. But if must protest, be orderly and don’t impede anyone from expressing an opinion.” (imaginary quotation)
Cutting through the rhetoric, the virtuous spirits are just trying to define the legitimate responses to perceived violations of legitimate speech. And the oracles really do not like protest: the vast majority of the nearly sixty mentions are highly critical. They do once permit protest, grudgingly, so long as it not infringe on anyone’s freedom of speech. It is worthwhile exploring a good example of a protest that became violent. Come and meet the man Sam Harris called “patient zero of cancel culture.”
7º canto: l’infamia di Creti
Here stands Charles Murray, co-author of the Bell Curve, and victim of an infamous reception at Middlebury in 2017, an event that Haidt and Lukianoff discuss, though without much clarity on possible objections to the Bell Curve. Given the history surrounding the reception of Murray’s work, I feel as if I should say that I know the Bell Curve well and I’ve nearly finished his new book Human Diversity.
Murray and his coauthor, Richard Herrnstein, proposed that differences in average IQ scores found across racial groups may not be caused entirely by environmental factors; genetic differences may play a role, too. Some Middlebury students and professors maintained that anyone who makes such a claim is a white supremacist, and they came together to demand that Murray’s talk about his later book be canceled.
They cite Murray’s explanation of his ideas in a blog hosted by his employers (the American Enterprise Institute); a more helpful reference would be the 1997 book, Intelligence, Genes, & Success, a careful examination of the science. What precisely the students and professors complained about, I do not know; read enough virtuous souls to be wary since they rarely report their opponents’ best points. Whatever the objections, I would not have called Murray a white supremacist. And the oracles clearly consider the objection so foolish that they do not refute it. And yet assuming modern American racial categories are a scientifically valid and neutral way to describe supposed genetic differences in IQ is, at the very least, white supremacist adjacent, regardless of what’s in Murray’s or the oracles’ heart. Less interesting than the student response is the institutional one. Middlebury responded as the virtuous souls would have liked, rejecting the dis-invitation requests of students and faculty. Don’t expect the oracles to mention it as counter-evidence to the safetyism hypothesis, which, remember, highlights institutions. Without condoning the few students who used violence, I get the impression of an institutional failure to mediate successfully between conflicting ideas in a productive way. This work is no doubt hard — just consider the issues Suzanne Nossel faced working at the UN on the defamation of religion ban (author’s note, Dare to Speak). It’s easy to critique students, to analyze their behavior as “collective effervescence” via Durkheim, to hypothesize a new anti-intellectualism at elite universities. It is hard to find solutions to genuine conflicts over what is legitimate speech. There are no easy paths out of hell.
The oracles also struggle with speech about race, perhaps because they see racism as an individual failing and speaking about it as identity politics. In any case, Haidt inverts his own theory of anti-fragility when it comes to certain discussions of race, wanting to avoid causing discomfort so that white people will not feel shame. Haidt tries to cover the glaring double standard by pivoting to tactics, to what he believes is the best way to convince white people, i.e. by not making them feel bad for racism. Can you guess who he will refer to as models? Come on, Guess! Malcolm X? James Baldwin? No, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela! I was hoping also for Gandhi. Excuse me a moment, I need to speak to Jonathan.
Can I speak to you honestly, Jon? Do you think you might be setting the bar just a bit high? King and Mandela are two of the most extraordinary people of the last century. Would it not be easier and more effective just to ask white people to fear discomfort a little less when discussing racism, to be a little more anti-fragile? Even from a tactics standpoint, it seems easier, and it won’t lead you, who are “not a racist”, into making racist exceptions to your views. Also, while I have your attention, can I ask you a small favor: Will you please stop weaponizing famous non-white activists in support of ideas contrary to their actions?
But, the virtuous spirits complain, “they shame me! they call me names, without knowing what’s in my heart! Their language hurts!” And it is true, people will shame you. Now, Bryan Stevenson wants us all to consider that perhaps we should feel shame, that it could help us heal. But the word shame is hard. Brené Brown, who wants us to Dare Greatly (in addition to pop-psychology, I also read a lot of self-help books), has some advice. Shaming is very painful, Brown tells us, and makes people feel unloved and unworthy of belonging. Shame disconnects, make us dangerous, liable to lash out from feelings of inadequacy. This explains the powerful reactions people have to being called out for racism or sexism. Perhaps we can combine Brown and Stevenson. Brown contrasts shame with guilt, which is “holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.” And I agree with the oracles that it is often good for personal development to face feelings of psychological discomfort. If only there was a book that tries to help white people become less fragile when talking about race.
Haidt and Lukianoff’s approach is so unpleasant and hellish not so much because of its self-contradictions, but because it classifies responses they dislike as symptoms of pathology. If students object to an idea as harmful to the community and protest, their point of view is often dismissed as a symptom of intellectual fragility. The fact that some protests become violent or go too far does not render protest an invalid response to perceived violations of legitimate speech. This is not to say the protests described in the book are effective and proper. Does this make them pathological? Many students are angry, and rightly so. Seriously, we’ve been fucking over (and apparently fucking?) students since Reagan at least, and if they are black or indigenous…too horrible even for hell. In any case, the oracles are profoundly unhelpful. Students are not really suffering from some social malaise or pathology that has made them weak-minded and weak-willed. We cannot escape hell via the true oracles’ theory of systemic generational fragility.
8º canto: Temer si dee di sole quelle cose
It’s time to gather up some threads and examine where the virtuous souls want to draw the borders, what speech and behavior they want to exclude. Emily Yoffe can help in this with her taxonomy of fear, published in Yascha Mounk’s new safe space called Persuasion. Surprisingly little effort is made at persuading those not already convinced, yet the tropes are helpfully laid out. We have horrifying descriptions of a society near complete social collapse, where the enemy is simultaneously terrifying and contemptible. The Boogey-monster of Trump appears, as so often, allowing the writer to signal their righteousness and connect with the audience’s point of view, a nice example of rhetorical virtue signaling because the true target is the left’s anti-intellectualism, orthodoxy, and illiberalism. Still, it is interesting that writers hostile to tribalism appeal to it in this way.
Anyway, next appears the pop-psychology framework: the doctrine of safetyism. We can now learn what not to do. The first rule: do not consider anyone guilty by association. While it is good to be aware of the association fallacy, it is a red herring here. If you spend time with David Duke, it does not prove you are a clan member; but I’m justified in being suspicious. The real illicit act, the one that got Mounk quite upset in his interview with Klein, was when VanDerWerff wrote a letter to her bosses at Vox, invoking the idea of safety. This is the second rule: do not report to the authorities! However, we are also told that we should report some things, so a lack of clarity here means we may struggle to live up the virtuous souls’ expectations of us.
The third rule: always consider intent!
Whether or not the accused had an intent to commit wrong-doing is a central question in many criminal prosecutions.
Indeed. But I object, your honor, on the basis of relevance!
Intent is also at times irrelevant in law. I do wonder what rhetorical purpose the vague hand-waving at legal procedure is supposed to serve, especially as experience with the legal system, whether as a lawyer or accused, is not likely to make us consider it the best arbiter of justice. Anyway, intent is hardly the only relevant factor in judging an action or speech, and the virtuous souls offer little help in determining how much weight it should be given. But that is more or less all the help we get: consider intent, to some degree; avoid the association fallacy, when appropriate; do not bring in the authorities, except when appropriate. Well, shit. I had hoped for better guidance.
9º canto: nel pensier rinova la paura
It may seem as if “cancel culture” has been given a rough time. But I too value freedom of speech and academic freedom. The public sphere is important and I also worry about the unproductiveness of speech online. I believe and worry about some of the phenomena identified as examples of “cancel culture.” So, I want to speak to the virtuous souls, directly, from the heart. I hear you. I understand your frustration and anger. You speak about your feelings and fear, only to have it minimized or dismissed, only to be told to “suck it up, it ain’t so bad, whiny snowflake.” It would be great if you too had a space where you could be heard and have your experience valorized, a “safe space” if you will. Let me be clear: I’m not simply mocking you for your embarrassingly un-self-aware hypocrisy (though I am doing that too), I genuinely think your feelings are valid. In fact, there are topics (e.g. the pointless horror of Angel Hair pasta) that I avoid in many spaces because I do not want to deal with the backlash for my views. It is true that intellectual humility does seem in short supply. In short, I too sometimes feel that the best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity. Perhaps it’s time to reread Didion. Anyway, the world is a scary fucking place. I hear you and I empathize.
Yet, the virtuous souls cannot understand why we are in hell. They see themselves defending universal values, such as free speech and academic freedom. Yet defending abstract values divorced from context inadvertently turns a reasoned discussion into a battle between competing values of justice, equality, and free speech. Yes, they say in the Harper’s letter that the values are compatible, but they cannot say how. Here in hell, we try to face the truth: justice and free speech cannot always be reconciled. They are occasions when a decision between them is unavoidable. Fortunately, that choice is not commonly necessary.
10º canto: la via è lunga e ‘l cammino è malvagio
One step would be to eschew the cant about cancel culture and free speech for a better analysis of the current moment, an analysis that would stop using “culture” in this imprecise way. Another step would be to use a more nuanced vocabulary, one that hopefully appropriates less black American slang. Here are my suggestions. The callout. Recently I was called out for mansplaining. It did not take long to see the justice of this callout and to feel the guilt associated with behaving in a way that did not match my values (just as Brené Brown told me!). I apologized and it was accepted. Yet, because I feel guilt deeply, I’ve been dwelling on how I managed to act against my intentions and values in the hope of not repeating the error. That is a prototypical script for a callout. But a callout can take other forms. I’d include in the category of callout the blog post responding to the Princeton Professor’s Declaration of Independence and this one responding to an essay about decolonizing classics. Callouts can be a simple observation or include argument or mockery. It is true that callouts can become harassment with enough repetition and aggression, but a callout is a fundamentally useful form of expression.
Callouts can also lead to requests for a boycott. Boycotts are so common that a prototypical script is unnecessary, but the free-produce movement might serve as an example. The examples of celebrities cited in this article might usefully be seen as boycotts. Boycotts are not always effective because the boycotters have limited power to enforce a cessation of actives seen as objectionable: remember the calls to Boycott Nike because of the Colin Kaepernick ad? Boycotts, that is, typically arise because the boycotters do not have to power to enforce change. Bans, however, are enacted by those with the power of enforcement. A prototypical example is the FA ban on Women’s Soccer. But note: I may be banned from my local bar because I cannot stop yelling at the television, but I can go to another bar. A ban is typically limited to the extent of the power of the institution enacting the ban. Campus codes against sexual relationships between students and teachers are bans; attempts to disinvite Charles Murray are requests for the institution to issue a ban. They are not cancelations. If the context is not institutional, but a more informal community, we might repurpose the word ostracism. A prototypical ostracism might be the story of Emily at the Richmond Virginia hardcore scene as chronicled by Invisibilia.
It is not the case that this more nuanced vocabulary always describe appropriate actions, anzi. It is meant to replace the overly simplistic “cancel culture” vs free speech analysis and to draw attention to the basic problem of negotiating the boundaries of legitimate speech/argument in specific contexts and the legitimate responses to perceived violations of those borders. People will doubtless fight over where the legitimate borders are, particularly around the margins; I do not see a way out of this conflict until we are welcomed into a heavenly realm of perfect consensus. While we remain in hell, all events will appear sottosopra. To get out, we need fewer debates, fewer devil’s advocates, and more conversations. The way out is, if I remember correctly, right through the center of the devil. I have to stay here, so you can see yourself out.