I wrote most of this post back in 2017. I am editing it (just a little) and moving it to the front because (1) I still (maybe mistakenly) think this is an interesting idea; (2) I haven’t heard it anywhere else; (3) it’s appropriate today.
You very often cannot control the basic circumstances of argument, especially public argument. A public argument, let’s say, is one you have in public, with, um, the public, about matters that concern the public (I suppose this could be anything). You can try to bring about a public argument on your own by inviting those around you, or the people who read your blog, or maybe someone in some comment thread. But you’re more likely to be at the mercy of events. I think this is the point behind trending topics on Twitter. You’d be jump on board because by yourself you can’t start a trend (unless you’re somebody famous). You have to take advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves.
This may run counter, however, to certain social norms. One such norm is not to speak ill of the dead or dying, or not to take advantage of misfortune to “score political points,” or the more general comedic injunction to avoid making jokes, “too soon.”
As an epistemic matter, however, arguments require you to put evidence before your audience. This means you must spring upon them where they are and when they are there.
The injunction against taking advantage or forcing unkind thoughts runs counter to the imperative to present your case when the opportunity arises. My case in some circumstance might involve alighting upon some uncomfortable aspect of a public official at some weak point in their life, or using someone’s misfortune as an example.
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.
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?
Some interesting research (from Ditte Marie Munch-Jurisic, Philosophy and Science Studies at Roskilde University, Denmark) questions the effectiveness of discomfort in moral argumentation. It might not, so the author argues, be so effectiveness to make people feel bad about their various moral failings:
My primary aim is to caution against the current wave of discomfort advocacy. Advocates risk overrating the moral potential of discomfort if they underestimates the extent to which context shapes the interpretation of affect and simple, raw feelings. Context in this sense entails two dimensions: (i) the concrete situation of individual agents and (ii) the internal tools and concepts they use to interpret their discomfort. Rudimentary affect like discomfort does not necessarily have a transparent, straightforward intentionality.
Put simply, agents may not know precisely why they feel uncomfortable. Their specific situations and the interpretative tools they use to discern their discomfort are central to how they will understand their discomfort and the motivations they will draw from the experience. Affect—and especially negative affect like discomfort—has an paramount and often unpredictable influence on our judgments, behavior and understanding of the world. From the perspective of the contextual approach, a critical problem for discomfort advocates is that they risk ignoring the multiple kinds of discomfort that may arise in discussions of implicit bias.
This has interesting implications for the ad baculum business we’ve been discussing here the past couple of days. The thought seems to be that discomfort doesn’t really function like a reason (or doesn’t function in the absence of clear reasons–i.e., do you know why I’m punishing you. I wonder (not having read the work–plan to!) whether question is covered.
This also has implications for some other stuff both Scott and I have been working on: the concept of adversarial argumentation. In a nutshell, this is treating argument like a contest or a conflict. One of the concerns is that such an approach seems to incentivize the kinds of moves discussed here. I am co-editing (with Kat Stevens of the University of Lethbridge) a special issue of the journal Topoi on this. The deadline has passed, but these are special times in case anyone has anything nearly ready to go.
My own view, FWIW, on the adversarial business is that such discomfort is unavoidable and perhaps uncontrollable because of the way beliefs work. More on that another time (or you can read it here).
You can follow me (John) on Twitter, you know. I don’t actually tweet a ton, and when I do it’s usually a (tedious) self-reference joke. Anyway, in all my time away from here I spent a lot of time there. I haven’t done much arguing there (when I do it rarely goes well for me). I don’t actually like arguing anyway. That’s even in my bio.
Anyway, I just ran into this:
It is now common to see writers judged not by the totality of their work, or their most valuable contributions, but by identifying whatever moment or viewpoint the judge finds most odious, presuming the least charitable explanation for it, and judging on that basis alone.
I suppose people have written a ton about “cancel culture”–too much for me to add anything new, I’m sure.
If I did write anything, I’d probably start with a taxonomy. On that score, I will say that what strikes me as interesting about this remark (other than the “now” business that seems completely false) is the version of “cancel culture” on offer. The canceling here is really not canceling in any unique sense at all, but rather just judging someone partially and badly (allegedly at least). I’ve no doubt this happens (because I’ve done it myself–don’t be insufficiently dialectical!), but this can’t be one of the main versions of the thing everyone is worried about. Besides, this strikes me as too high a burden: I don’t have time to read every one of this guy’s articles before I decide maybe I don’t need to read any more (I haven’t actually resolved this yet).
In the end, to stretch this out a bit, you’ve have something of the Aristotle problem: you’ll never be able to cancel anyone until well after they’re dead, and by then, they’re already cancelled.
Sorry it’s been so long since we’ve posted anything; we’ve been very busy with other projects. For myself, and I’m sure Scott would agree, I just can’t give up on the idea of this blog–however flawed it might be and however infrequently I might post something.
Enough preamble, let’s talk about boycotts.
Here’s a link to a piece that raises interesting questions about boycotts and violence.
The basic thought seems to be that boycotts, as tools of political persuasion, exert force (by the withdrawal of economic support) to gain adherence to some perspective. Here is the conlcusion:
Still, the question does give pause. Boycotts do occupy part of a spectrum of direct-action activities, understood as extra-legal activities designed to change someone’s behaviour. They are attempts to go beyond rational persuasion to take matters into one’s own hands, to force an outcome that one is unable or unwilling to argue for. Of course, that’s probably sometimes morally required. But it’s not to be taken lightly.
In argumentation this is what you’d call the ad baculum. I’ve been thinking about this for a bit (Here’s a post and you can read something longer here if you want). The basic idea of the ad baculum is that force isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a reason to conclude something. There’s quite a lot of literature on this, odd as that may seem. The basic struggle is how to account for the fallaciousness of the appeal to force. The standard textbook examples (unchanged through many editions) are hilarious.
I loathe to write a ton about this right now, but I would like to add one thought to the idea of ad baculums and violence (that I don’t think was raised in the piece). The boycott might be understood as a means to drawing attention to the reasons rather than an end in itself. So, perhaps people boycott product x not to bring about the end of x, but rather to call attention to the argument in question. To understand this you have to look at the audience as well as the target. So, when people boycott, perhaps they want people to ask: why are they boycotting stuff?