man reading burning newspaper

The uncanceled

John Kass, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, recently argued (behind a paywall that I’m not paying) that George Soros bought the State’s Attorney’s position by generously underwriting the campaign of Kim Foxx (a black woman). Unsurprisingly, this provoked a lot of criticism (as well as comparisons to the speech above from The Blues Brothers). The short story on that (not the point here) is that Kass’s invocation of racist tropes was not only racist but actually non-sensical, as Foxx beat an opponent who outspent her 3:1.

One other consequence of the piece was\https://www.robertfeder.com/2020/07/27/tribune-colleagues-blast-john-kass-column-antithetical-values (in the same spirit as some Wall Street Journal reporters who complained that the op-ed page’s very low standards of accuracy was undermining their work on the news end). Subsequent to this, the Tribune moved all of the opinion columns to a separate section, lest anyone get confused that Kass was writing an opinion piece.

That’s a kind of improvement, but alas, there still remains the standards question. Just because something is on the opinion page doesn’t make it immune from editorial criticism regarding the truth of the assertions, and, I think at least, the soundness and cogency of the arguments advanced.

Kass’s response was predictable: I’m a victim of cancel culture.

Will he get canceled for writing about cancel culture? Stay tuned!

This is where for me this cancel culture business loses meaning. As you all probably know by now, we’ve got many different variations of #cancel culture in play, so let’s just consider the one where columnists such as Kass or Bari Weiss or Andrew Sullivan or whoever get punished (they haven’t been) for their opinion.

Let’s start with a a basic picture: what does it mean to cancel someone, A? Let’s say A argues for p. You find A’s reasons q and r to be not only bad, but so bad that you’re done with A. You unfollow A or what is maybe worse you mute A. If you’re especially confrontational, you block them (happened to me and I’m nice). Not only this, you also share your opinion of A’s reasons with others. You encourage them to draw that same conclusion—to unfollow, block, or ignore A.

Now let’s say that your opinion about A gets some traction. Now lots of people are ignoring A. Now A’s publisher is considering dropping A because reading of A’s opinion is down. In addition, they worry that maybe people think continued publication of A reflects on them (see above). So they ditch A.

Is this an instance of cancellation? To review: you didn’t like A’s reasons, you shared this with others who agreed, and then A was gone. Perhaps your reasons are no good and people were idiots for listening to you. Perhaps people listened to you for the wrong reasons. Perhaps we should ask what would make a case of legitimate cancellation—like, perhaps the cases of the many who publish and publish and seem doomed to labor in silence.

So let’s think about them a second. The newspapers are full of the uncanceled. But they’re also unfull of the passively canceled: the countless many whose opinion for whatever reason no one listens to and never gains any traction. Now many of them might be absolutely right about their thing. But perhaps it’s just not interesting, or won’t have a large audience, or is too hard to understand. For whatever reason, someone has decided (even if only passively) not to include them and their voice. Now I’m not suggesting that we need to include everyone, but that perhaps there ought to be a reason why just these writers deserve a reason to continue to be heard. Is it like tenure, where you clear some kind of rigorous selection process and then the burden shifts to the would-be remover? So, a writer is canceled if they have achieved a certain platform, once they do, the burden shifts to the ones who would no longer hear them published there (not hear them at all). In the case of the countless passively canceled, there must be a reason they aren’t uncanceled.

So, one corner of the cancellation preoccupation seems to concern some measure of burden of proof. In other words, there seems to be a giant presumption that people with a form currently deserve it, and more than the usual reasons must be levied to change that.

This seems to imply that the columnist cancellation consternation is basically a version of the tenure debate (though my guess is positions are going to be at least partially reversed).

Let’s say for giggles that there is a kind of tenure for the likes of Kass: shouldn’t there be an analogous rigorous selection process for what goes into publication?

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