Here's Two Examples of the State Enforcing Social Justice Norms

what people would do if they could is relevant to discussions of public values

Laura Kipnis and Amy Cooper.

Pivoting off of Michael Hobbes, who is one of many white dudes monetizing the anti-anti-cancel culture beat, Nicholas Grossman takes a moderate approach to the “cancel culture” wars. Grossman’s heart is in the right piece, and there’s a lot to like about the essay, but like most of them he has a conveniently selective memory about this stuff. He makes the state power distinction which is so central to the contemporary conception of censorship - as I said yesterday, this is a profoundly ahistorical definition of that term, but here it is.

This is state power. Actual control. The ability to cut funding, confiscate, arrest, fine, and jail is inherently more powerful than the ability to protest. College students’ complaints and activists’ denunciations aren’t nothing, but they’re significantly less powerful than laws and government officials.

Well, Dr. Grossman, here’s a couple stories about state power.

Laura Kipnis wrote an essay grad students didn't like. So they filed a Title IX case against her - that is, she was subject to a federal investigation, enforced with the hand of the state. A colleague of hers sat in her defense during that investigation. He spoke in support of free speech and academic freedom and didn't engage on the subject of controversy, yet he was hit with a Title IX case himself, simply for defending Kipnis. After the case was dismissed, Kipnis wrote a book about what happened. So they filed charges against her again. Those are federal investigations that can result in profound personal and professional consequences, and no one disputes that the heart of the complaint is that she said things students found offensive. Then she got sued for telling her side of the story.

Amy Cooper, the "Central Park Karen," called the cops on a Black guy who was only guilty of being something of an asshole. That’s bad! She did a bad thing she shouldn’t have. Rather than receiving the social correction that she should have, limited and appropriate condemnation, she had her life totally destroyed for that action - lost her job, lost tons of friends, received countless death threats, had her dog taken away from her (!), and was forced to flee the country. She was also subject to criminal prosecution. The DA said that she had filed a false report in calling 911. But that charge depends on the accused knowing that what they said was untrue, and nobody alleged that against Cooper. (Indeed, central to the criticism of her was the idea that she was terrified of Black men - but if that’s true, then her call to 911 reflected her genuine, honest state of mind, as misguided and prejudiced as it might have been.) It seems abundantly clear to me that Cooper was arrested and prosecuted not based on the law but due to the social convulsions about race that raged in 2020.

Kipnis won her Title IX cases. The charges against Cooper were dropped. So no problem, right? I don’t know - would you like to be accused of suborning rape, in national media, and have a kangaroo court decide the answer to that question, under the auspices of the federal government? Would you like to be arrested and booked for any crime, one that can result in jail time, even if they ended up dropping the charges? I actually find the Cooper case deeply chilling in part because it’s so clear that the state never really had much intention of really prosecuting her, filing charges during the height of the hysteria and then quietly dropping them later - all but an admission that the arrest was purely political. That should be very, very concerning to anyone. That the district attorney felt such pressure to take action that they filed charges that they likely knew to be unjustifiable… well, it’s an ugly, scary thing, to me. Of course Cooper is nothing like the Central Park Five in terms of culpability or how sympathetic the accused were or the consequences they was facing. But both stories do demonstrate that when public hysteria provokes prosecution, something has gone badly wrong. Those walls exist for a reason.

The trouble with Grossman’s essay is that he places next to no importance on the intent of the people who tried to harm those who said or did socially undesirable things. It matters that people want to destroy those perceived as violating progressive norms, even if they don’t have the power to do it! In the past decade, students at Oberlin tried to have faculty and staff fired explicitly because of their politics, Amherst students tried to get other students formally punished for criticizing their protests, Wesleyan students tried to get the school newspaper defunded for running a conservative editorial, and UC-Santa Barbara students passed a trigger warning resolution that, if enacted, would have enabled any student to skip any class or material if they felt it might trigger them. The fact that these efforts all failed does not mean that the efforts are not concerning; these college students go on to become authority figures in academia, media, nonprofits, politics, and beyond. They are the future of the professional class that has outsized influence on our country. What’s more, I take college students seriously and respect their political aspirations; respect requires that we engage with people’s efforts critically. And the chilling effects are real even if specific attempts to silence and control are unsuccessful.

I do think that specific charges of censorship and oppression are sometimes overblown, and the devil is always in the details. (Let me also say for the millionth time: I have never, ever, not once said that I am a victim of cancel culture, or that the professional and social consequences I’ve faced since my psychotic episode in 2017 are were particularly unjust. I just want people to tell the whole story.) I also think that anti-CRT laws are a terrible imposition on free speech and teacher autonomy, just as I view conservative efforts to ban books to be exactly as toxic as when it’s progressives doing the banning. The trouble is that people like Hobbes are so intent on dismissing every instance of “cancel culture” (a term I would like to fire directly into the sun) that those of us who take this stuff seriously feel we have to relentlessly flog these incidents, as the media is filled with people who are terrified of being canceled and are thus eager to pretend that canceling never hurts anyone unfairly. (Why stick your neck out in a financially precarious industry where reputation is everything?) For his role in taking an evenhanded and fair approach, I thank Grossman, though my thanks certainly won’t help someone in his position.

Now, it’s stupid I have to do this, but since this will inevitably inspire people to say that I “just write about cancel culture,” here’s the topics of my October posts:

Star Wars
BlackLivesMatter and how professionalization hurts social movements
The appeal of post-apocalyptic stories
Liz Phair, Pitchfork, and the problem with music appreciation as branding
The necessity of art that depicts sad subjects like aging and dying
How the overheated rhetoric of the social justice movement hurts messaging
Why tourists should embrace being tourists
Ross Douthat’s The Deep Places
Taking drugs and why I miss it so badly
The Nightmare on Elm Street series
The necessity of political discipline
Why the education function of schools is overrated compared to keeping kids safe
The professional consequences of my actions in 2017
AI potentially taking over the economy
Fight Club
Why “diverse” art should be new properties, not just rebrandings and reboots
How celebrity functions as modern myth-making

I also ran one book club and started another, and I continued to serialize a novel. Outside of this newsletter I pitched an op/ed on a different subject (still a wait-and-see), tried and mostly failed to finish the proposal for my second nonfiction book, which is not about politics at all but about how modern society handles suffering, and wrote half of my second novel. So please find a different criticism.