Playing By The Cancellation Rules
We need institutional reform to protect speech. But also...
Fortunately for all my subscribers, I have nothing of value to contribute to the debate over the Israel-Palestine conflict that isn’t better phrased by smarter people with more knowledge. However, I do want to talk about the concept of cancellation for speech.
If I could recommend a single voice on this topic, it would be Kat Rosenfield. She has always been a kind and thoughtful voice & has been talking about cancel culture for many years. (She is also a talented novelist and I will shamelessly plug No One Will Miss Her as a fantastic mystery thriller.)
Rosenfield recently wrote You shouldn’t be fired for being a jerk in the Washington Post.
… the list of things I don’t think people should be fired for is virtually endless. That includes political speech… but it also includes provocative food opinions, using your thumb and forefinger to make the “okay” sign, retweeting an off-color joke, getting into an altercation with a stranger at the dog park, and various and sundry interpersonal conflicts that fall under the general category of “being a jerk.” And yet, for all these things and more, many people have suffered serious professional consequences in recent years, often at the behest of the same people now lamenting that they can’t post Hamas paraglider memes or tear down posters of kidnapped Israeli children without someone reporting them to human resources.
I agree with Rosenfield. I agree with almost everything she says, including her caveats about boundaries and standards around professional conduct and public speech. She notes:
But these rules (for professional conduct) should be content-neutral and formally inscribed where people can see and understand them — and with the aforementioned rare exceptions, they should end at the office door. How people use their voices in the context of their private lives, whether it's posting in support of a political cause or writing Bigfoot fan fiction, is not the place of an employer to judge.
Again, I agree. She is right. But that is also not the world we currently live in.
Playing By The Rules
For a long time, my beat was employment numbers and tax data. I have a lot of weirdly strong opinions about our tax code, but there is a particular “gotcha” strategy in tax advocacy that I always found ridiculous. When a billionaire would encourage an increase in the tax rate, some anti-tax group would say that they are more than welcome to pay more taxes than they owe.
I always found that line of reasoning ridiculous. The rules are what they are. It might be a bad policy, but it is the policy. There is no hypocrisy in saying “This game is bad and I think we should change the rules but also this is the game as it exists and so I will play by these rules which, at the risk of being redundant, I do not like.”
There is some distinction between taxes and cancelling people over the vile things they say. With tax law, the rules are written down so we all know what they are. With cancellations, the rules are vague and mostly orbit around who can make the most noise, be the angriest, and meaningfully annoy or offend someone with power over the speaker.
When someone who is anti-cancel-culture declines to defend one of their ideological opponents who is being cancelled for their own vile speech, this inspires charges of hypocrisy. But I think this misjudges the landscape.
Let’s go back to the analogy of a game. If I own a company, I essentially have my own game board. I can define my own rules. If someone told me to fire an employee for any form of speech outside of the office, I would tell them to go to hell. My company, my employee, my game. I have the power so we play by my rules.
But a place like Harvard is playing on their own game board. They define the rules. And, if they cancel a group or individual for their speech, they have communicated that it is within the bounds of the game to demand consequences for speech. It is not a hypocrisy to demand that they play by the rules that have themselves set down and that they apply the same rules to everyone who is under their jurisdiction.
What we see instead is that the exact same students who demand that they should be allowed to make excuses for the slaughter of innocent Jews without personal or professional consequence (which is the anti-cancel culture position) immediately turn around and demand consequences for the speech of others.
They don’t believe in rules, content-neutral or otherwise. They believe in their right to power. Those people should be stripped of power. They should be put on lists. They should be banned from any jobs where they might complain to HR or threaten to punish their subordinates for wrong-think. The reason isn’t just because of their speech. It is because they are demonstrating their willingness to use any power within their grasp against those weaker than themselves.
The rules are not defined by the powerless, but by the powerful. An individual may think that cancelling is stupid and then be cancelled. Refusing to cancel another person, while noble, does not change the rules. It’s like paying more taxes because you don’t like the current tax law. And, as we are seeing right now, any kindness or grace shown will not return any grace, changed minds, or gained ground.
If you want to change cancel culture, you have to go to the rule-makers and make them change the rules. There is not another solution. And, while you are trying to do that, it is perfectly reasonable to demand that these activists play by their own rules.
What we should do is publicly praise organizations like Coinbase, which made it a formal company policy to ban politics and social activism from the office. This is what Rosenfield is advocating for and I very much support such a thing. I think this should be a standard policy at all companies.
I don’t know how to do that. But I do know that, if a company can be pressured to fire someone who participated in anti-Jewish rally that turned violent 6 years ago, it is entirely within the rules of play to fire someone who participated in anti-Jewish rally that turned violent yesterday.
I didn’t make the rules. I don’t like them. But the rules are the rules.
Play by the rules. Help everyone understand how much the rules suck. Then change them. Change them in your own company, change them in your school or university. But every move in the game is valid until the rules change.
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