Beware those who cast the biggest stones.
In this week's newsletter:
(1) Some reflections on the fallout after my tweet thread about not targeting people's jobs went viral in unexpected ways.
(2) What I'm reading.
For whom the crowd trolls
If you read last week’s newsletter, you’ll know that the other day I wrote up a thread on Twitter in which I argued that whipping up digital mobs to target the jobs of random shitty people was a bad idea. After I wrote that thread, it went viral and a few surprising things happened which helped further clarify my thinking about the perils of this style of activism, and the evolving meaning of the term “cancel culture” — a phrase I’ve decided I will forgo in the future to the extent that I can.
The thread I wrote critiqued a successful campaign by Khoa Phan, a Forbes 30 under 30 “brand content creator,” to get a man fired from his job for a pugnacious outburst at a Costco in Florida after someone asked him to wear a mask. My main concerns were that the vigilantes underestimated the potentially severe consequences of targeting people’s employment in light of America’s threadbare protections for workers and its tattered social safety net. I also can't get behind a crowd taking up a severe sentence against a civilian pursued without deliberation, context, due process, or consideration of how employers make dismissals based on reputational calculations for the company, not appraisals of employee behavior.
Phan was unfazed by my argument, replying, “Yeah because a man yelling at an elderly person while not wearing a mask at costco... is ok?” When I pointed out that he had dodged my argument — which criticized the method of punishment, not condoned the man’s behavior — he responded “calm down sir it’s a thread.” The entire response struck me as remarkably thoughtless. The man had just organized a campaign for stripping someone of their job but had no specific argument for the ethics of the approach, and when questioned on it he effectively told me I was overreacting and ignored me.
The thread I wrote began to receive a moderate level of engagement, prompting me to turn off notifications (I often find them distracting). Unbeknownst to me, my thread eventually worked its way into the MAGAsphere, and when a friend texted me that Jack Posobiec, an alt-right conspiracy theorist and professional troll, had retweeted it, I knew that it was going viral among a crowd that saw my points as an example of the unjust persecution of Trumpland by intolerant liberals.
Phan soon ended up on the receiving end of a right-wing digital mob seeking vengeance on behalf of the Costco belligerent. Right-wing Twitter users flooded Phan’s mentions and dug into his past tweets. They discovered, among other things, some compromising tweets for someone with #blacklivesmatter in their bio, including: “Omg some black guy was going to rape me … Lisa you owe me big time”; “My Black friends would be so proud of me today, I made fried chicken and purple DRANK!”; “I want to be black so I can legally say the N-Word.” They began tagging institutions that Phan presumably either works for or is affiliated with alongside screenshots of his tweets. In other words, he found the barrel of his gun pointed back at him.
Phan made his account private, and amended his Twitter bio: “People love things out of contexts!” He also took off links to his other personal accounts and website, and instead linked out to a Black Lives Matter page.
There are a couple lessons to be drawn from his hurricane of stupidity.
Systemic problems warrant systemic solutions
If a key premise of 2020’s antiracist protests is that racism is systemic and an indictment of society as a whole, then we are in need of some careful thinking about doling out punishment to individuals. It’s a positive development that there are higher standards for antiracism than before, and that there is a great sense of urgency about compelling society to comply with them. But it’s precisely because most everyone is a sinner that punishing individuals should be governed by a sense of humility. And the fact that this cultural transformation is being spurred by a radical critique of a merciless criminal justice system means that it should be governed by compassion and rehabilitative intentions. If you think there’s a problem with the cops, then it’s probably important to not act like one.
(A quick reminder on why we’re discussing antiracism: the man at Costco to my knowledge didn’t say anything explicitly racist, but he wore a shirt saying, “Running the world since 1776,” and the debate surrounding him and his MAGA energy was quickly subsumed into broader arguments about racial justice. And as mentioned earlier, Phan aligned himself with Black Lives Matter. I of course do not think that targeting random people’s jobs is a general tactic of BLM protestors; I see it more as part of the repertoire of online activists, and my point is to discuss the ethics of such behavior among the online set who also support BLM.)
I am not advancing the argument that people who are flawed have no right to be issuing moral judgments about the world; that would mean no judgments could ever be made. But I am saying that those who cast the biggest stones in the two-minute hate sessions directed at random assholes and racists caught on camera should perhaps temper their passion with some introspection. If I had to guess, I’d wager that the most vociferous voices belong to people seeking to exorcise their own demons.
I saw and received so many messages that effectively asked, “What are our alternatives?” Well, there are obviously ways to engage and criticize and stigmatize behavior without rallying to target random strangers’ jobs. But ultimately the diagnosis itself should point us in the direction of the solution. If a problem is systemic, then the soundest and most efficient course of action is to employ strategies that seek to dismantle that system.
I’m going to avoid using "cancel culture"
The other major takeaway from this experience was a deeper realization of how much the term “cancel culture” has been poisoned by polarization.
In recent months it was already becoming difficult to use, because it served as an enormous umbrella term for disparate practices, including but not limited to: vehement criticism; calling out people for doing or saying bigoted things in the past; the formation of new cultural norms at liberal institutions; attempts to get people fired from their jobs; attempts to get people kicked off a social media platform; boycotts. In fact, even I have been accused of it! After the Phan episode I received an email with the subject line “Cancel culture canceler” from a somewhat suspicious-looking email account, which Gmail flagged to me as a potential attempt at phishing. “Read your little writing about canceling culture on twitter,” part of the email read. “Didn’t you just do the same thing by tagging [Phan]?” In debates, people often misunderstand or strawman each other by deploying different definitions of the term.
But on top of that, I think the term has gone rotten at this point. Trump, who is extremely online, has helped lead the charge. During his Independence Day weekend speeches, Trump made the term “cancel culture” a focal point of his grievances against the left, and argued that it had found its most menacing manifestation in protestors who toppled statues that they see as celebrations of white supremacy. Trump’s take is that cancel culture is a sign of “far-left fascism” that not only seeks to stifle free speech but erase “our values.” The presence of the the term “cancel culture” in my tweet contributed to it being appropriated and weaponized by right-wingers who are in reality actively hostile to the actual ideas I discussed about punishment.
Ideologically disingenuous but tactically convenient boosting is par for the course on Twitter, and it’s not reason per se to refrain from a specific criticism. But "cancel culture" seems to be evolving into a reactionary blanket term for any antiracist or feminists demands or criticisms that are deemed impolite.
The term has become so toxic and slippery that I will try to avoid using it going forward. As always, specificity is a path to enlightenment, and I will continue to try to be specific in laying out exactly what I'm critiquing and what other practices I think it's connected to that warrant criticism. Perhaps there’s a better term to be invented ... suggestions are welcome.
What I'm reading
Suspending evictions is about saving landlords from themselves: "[E]xtending eviction moratoriums benefits landlords by preventing a race to the bottom and shortening the length of time quarantine has to last as well as preventing the mass deaths of tenants and potential tenants."
"The country is ambling toward a cliff, putting millions of Americans’ lives and livelihoods in danger and all but ensuring prolonged economic distress nationwide. It didn’t have to be this way. Yet here we are, unable to shake out of it."
Asad Haider considers classical arguments in political thought over freedom of expression and draws from Spinoza in discussing the Harper's letter.
Elizabeth Warren supporters try to get a Georgetown grad instructor fired for being critical of Warren.
10 ways to reduce our reliance on policing.
The former editor of Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka magazine criticized Pond's skin whitening products — made by Unilever — on her personal Instagram. Then Unilever launched a pressure campaign that turned her career upside down.
Good overview at Talking Points Memo: Five points on the federal officers in Portland.
Stuart Hall in 1994: Some politically incorrect pathways through political correctness (PDF)
The link to this one was incorrect last week, my apologies: Jamelle Bouie on going beyond White Fragility.
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