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    Versobooks.com | 27 min
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    • deephdave
      Top reader this weekReading streakScout
      3 weeks ago

      People will still think what they want, and it’s natural that they’ll want to express these thoughts, even if they’re outside of the boundaries of what the state allows. But if they’re punished for expressing what they think, they’ll resent the attempt to control them and this will threaten social stability. It’s therefore bad to impose such limits, because an important quality of political orders is their ability to endure.

    • jeff
      Reading streakScribe
      3 weeks ago

      There's some really interesting history here on the origin and philosophy of the concept of freedom of speech. While I agree with the author that the "cancel culture" debate is exclusively about speech instead of laws about speech I disagree that it therefore dissolves into some infinitely recursive unresolvable cloud of nebulousness.

      When Lee Fang tweeted that interview with a protester he was publicly denounced by a co-worker and others as a racist.

      Saying "Hey, let's not label someone as a racist for something like this." isn't seeking to oppress someone's right to call someone out as a racist on Twitter, it's a suggestion that we'd be better off by addressing the content of the interview rather than painting a scarlet letter on the individual posting it.

      Essentialism is the third trope of "cancel culture" according to Natalie Wynn:

      Essentialism is when we go from criticizing a person's actions to criticizing the person themselves. We're not just saying they did bad things. We’re saying they’re a bad person.

      When you shift from criticizing an idea to labeling a person who expresses an idea you short-circuit the recursive speech oppression loop. You can agree or disagree with it but they are two different concepts.

      It’s safe to say that today the debate over “cancel culture” has not produced a Theological-Political Treatise, much less an Ethics. Instead, the discussion of freedom of expression remains largely a reactive posture...

      I posted that treatise a week ago and actually used that word to describe it!

      • chronotope
        3 weeks ago

        I think there is more than one definition being applied to cancel culture here, to use a programming term - you're overloading the variable.

        There are justice issues - in which we identify people who are bad people by action and attempt to apply cancellation as a means to deal with a lack of justice. This is well described in an early essay on the topic as:

        But if there was some assurance that real justice was possible, would cancel culture even feel necessary or important to so many people?

        From: https://www.salon.com/2019/03/01/can-we-still-listen-to-michael-jackson-we-wouldnt-need-cancel-culture-if-we-had-justice-culture/

        This version of cancel culture is explicitly about the personal, it is about individual people who have done things that we believe to be terrible as a collective group and wish to enact social consequences against, in part because there have not been any judicial consequences. For example: CK sexually harassed a number of people and was not punished, so people 'cancel' him by refusing to work with him, no longer consuming his work, etc...

        That version of cancel culture is I think an effective tool of the collective to attempt to move power from an abstract right, which can be unevenly applied, to a power granted by people, more evenly applied.

        And there is this idea that writers are somehow being prevented from writing by some sort of anti-speech mob. This itself separates into multiple concerns because it, like The Letter, is poorly defined.

        Wynn's essay, which has a very very specific context, is about in-group attacks that seek to punish people out of disagreement. Wynn's issue is about disagreements with how she used her platform in a single instance being used to vilify her.

        There is a small, but significant, difference between that and Fang who has a particular pattern and history (along with The Intercept, which has had its own flaws, and which, mind you, he still works at.) having to face some small criticism about that history and context when it culminates in a particular work. The problem with many of the mainstream critics of Cancel Culture is actually easy to see in the context of Lee Fang:

        1. He is not canceled. He's still employed, writing, and doing just fine.
        2. His defenders have erased a significant ongoing context (that did not exist in a case like Wynn's) that grounds that criticism in a reasonable difference.
        3. This was a criticism that was part of a conversation about that larger context that was stripped of that context in order to make an abstract one-off argument.

        Now is Fang a perfect example, not really, he never had that much of a platform or power and is a waste of energy, but also he never faced that much criticism outside of a chunk of a small in-group that was interested in placing him in the out-group.

        But to quote this article:

        They’re the result of diminished powers of acting, the basic condition of our contemporary political life,

        The interests of cancel culture, and the examples of how it applies (to the extent it exists at all) is about this. The examples that critics are using are designed to only show those concerns that are the less powerful being criticized by the even less powerful, or the more powerful, but the fast majority of the 'canceling' these critics respond to is about people with immense power being criticized by a collective of people with significantly less power on their own but who can challenge these status-quo-holders via their collective voice.

        I highly recommend examining Wynn's work within the context of the rest of her videos, it is difficult to explain why I think you're applying her criticism with too broad a brush without the tenor of her previous work. But I will say that what she is dealing is a different thing than what Bari Weiss or Andrew Sullivan or Matt Taibbi are so concerned about, even if we call them by the same name. You will note that none of The Letter's big-name defenders mention Wynn, or trans people in general, except in regards to their freedom to criticize that community--this is a thing that signifies that difference - the broad brush contains those who would unfairly attempt to 'cancel' Wynn, but it is a cover for a very specific concern that the specific signers of The Letter have made clear in their other works - their concerns are with the capacity of the communal voice to take down the voices already secure in their power and secure in their stances with a disinterest in listening to others. And I don't think that is a legit concern... in fact, part of the reason I posted this is because I think that is explicitly how it should work.

        • jeff
          Reading streakScribe
          3 weeks ago

          I think there is more than one definition being applied to cancel culture here...

          Yes! From Wynn's essay:

          The promise of canceling was that it was going to give power back to people who had none, and bring justice to prominent abusers. It's, in a way, the 21st century version of the guillotine—the bringer of justice, the people's avenger.

          But, also like the guillotine, it can become a sadistic entertainment spectacle. And I wanna make the case that we do have, well, a teensy bit of a Reign of Terror situation on our hands, gorg.

          And further on:

          But there's a world of difference between “cancel R. Kelly” and “cancel James Charles.” And I'm interested to know how these two things came to look the same.

          So leaving the semantics aside, we've got two different things going on here and the question is whether the Harper's letter is addressing the first or the second. I read it as addressing the "Reign of Terror situation" and I think that might be the crux of our disagreement.

          For the record, I don't see anything wrong with collectively boycotting someone in a position of power who is convicted of or admits to criminal acts (thinking of the Louis CK example here). I also don't see anything in the Harper's letter (re-reading it for the 20th time!) that takes issue with this as well.

          Separately I take some issue with this statement:

          There is a small, but significant, difference between that and Fang who has a particular pattern and history (along with The Intercept, which has had its own flaws, and which, mind you, he still works at.) having to face some small criticism about that history and context when it culminates in a particular work.

          Wynn goes into great detail explaining how her own past tweets, many taken out of context, are used to establish a context of a "particular pattern and history" that establish her as truscum. What evidence is there about Fang that I should be aware of? I don't consider being called a racist a "small criticism" so hearsay isn't going to cut it for me and I couldn't find anything that would warrant such a categorization.

          • chronotope
            3 weeks ago

            While I can go dig up the historical stuff, I don't really have an interest in re-litigating Fang's theoretical cancelling because my core point is that he was not cancelled anyway and makes for a bad example in any discussion. People criticized him and were upset with him but he still has his job and standing within his specific community, so attempting to prove (or disprove) that Fang is racist is at it's core pointless b/c people with greater time in the community in which he travels have already litigated this and the conclusion is that he has not faced any real consequences. I want to emphasize my point is to dismiss the case of Fang because it is not usefully representative of anything in this argument. The context of The Intercept is, I think, more important actually in the general response to Fang (even though his critic is also an Intercept employee) because the general tenor of The Intercept's coverage falls on one side of a very specific divide within Democrats which can basically be described as 'class is the only thing that matters' with the other side being 'class is important, but also race is relevant because of historical impact on class.' And we're already way down the hole here that I'm trying to avoid, because this is pretty irrelevant to the topic at hand. If you are interested in understanding the context that The Intercept comes from, there's actually a rather good piece that brings forth that point of view here - https://readup.com/comments/salon/dont-be-fooled-by-the-cancel-culture-wars-corporate-power-is-the-real-force-behi

            Wynn is a fundamentally different example because of her particular independence (she does not have an employer who could buffer these conversations or provide her with resources outside of her interactions with her audience) and the very different impact that criticism can have on her as someone with no real structure outside of her own operation.

            Ok on the other thing: I agree there is two definitions, but I disagree that there are only two different things.

            There's the Justice-interest Cancel Culture and there's a concern with this "Reign of Terror" situation, which Wynn identifies.

            But I think the letter, especially looking at the signatories, represents an entirely different third issue: a fear by members of the status quo who currently hold power that their power might be threatened by the power of a community of voices. This is the core issue that The Letter seems to really come out of - that the existing status quo of mostly white, mostly male, already quite loud and amplified voices can set the conversation but now might be vulnerable to a plurality of underrepresented voices taking their place. As some of the critiques have noted, The Letter does not address any of the far more serious First Amendment issues that are happening right now, in regard to the actual government actually suppressing speech which would represent important 'punching up' that these notables could be doing. Instead, the choice seems to me to be a focus on 'punching down', a critique of the less powerful, which seems to not at all be constructive... unless the goal is to maintain the status quo of these particular voices retaining their particular positions to the exclusion of others. Especially considering The Letter's choice not to provide any particular examples and essentially smear all these different iterations of cancel culture together, it seems to have an interest in obscuring, rather than clarifying, the issue to the specific benefit of a specific class of people (the authors).

            To me that seems misguided, misleading, and nonconstructive. Wynn herself explores this idea -- that there is an attempt to set tone by particular folks in a way to exclude and dis-empower people in a few other videos. This is especially apparent in the conversations she has about the Trans community and pronouns and I definitely encourage you to check out her other videos.

            Some specific recommendations here:

            Also useful, a straight down the middle analysis that identifies a similar issue to the one I'm talking about: https://readup.com/comments/latimescom/cancel-culture-is-not-the-problem-the-harpers-letter-is

            • jeff
              Reading streakScribe
              3 weeks ago

              But I think the letter, especially looking at the signatories, represents an entirely different third issue: a fear by members of the status quo who currently hold power that their power might be threatened by the power of a community of voices. This is the core issue that The Letter seems to really come out of - that the existing status quo of mostly white, mostly male, already quite loud and amplified voices can set the conversation but now might be vulnerable to a plurality of underrepresented voices taking their place.

              I don't doubt that this attitude exists among some in positions of power and I wouldn't even be surprised if some of the signatories of the Harper's letter felt this way but honestly it's just too much of a stretch for me to read the words of the text and come to the conclusion that this is what it's actually saying (or to somehow think that I know that this is what all the signatories are actually feeling).

              I know context is important in the discussion of any written work, but I'm looking at the list of names and I'm just not seeing dozens of Rupert Murdochs. I find the idea that failing to mention other First Amendment issues somehow invalidates or corrupts the letter to be a similarly large logical leap. I feel like there's a crazy high level of hostility and nefariousness attributed to it because a few controversial people (thinking Bari Weiss here) signed it and I don't think that's an appropriate way to evaluate the message.

              I appreciate the links and taking the time to articulate your views. I'm certainly going to keep them in mind as I keep reading more on the topic. I've been really enjoying catching up on ContraPoints videos since I found her channel a few months ago but I've been rationing myself so that I don't run out too soon. I'll move those two to the top of the queue.

    • chronotope
      3 weeks ago

      A really excellent historically-minded deep dive into the concept and philosophy of freedom of speech that gently urges us toward rejecting the “marketplace of ideas” as an insufficient tool for improving our society.

      • jeff
        Reading streakScribe
        3 weeks ago

        I really enjoyed the history and background on Spinoza and others but found the argument against the marketplace, including the "marketplace of ideas" completely lacking. Can you even call it an argument when no alternative is presented?

        A good society is organized in such a way as to increase our powers; it’s one in which people are composed into a self-governing collective body, rather than superstitious and tyrannical mobs.

        So a liberal market-based society is bad because it "clearly diminishes our powers" and therefore it should be replaced with a "self-governing collective body"? Like Marx's vision for communism? Something else that hasn't been tried yet? That's a hell of a thing to gloss over.

        • chronotope
          3 weeks ago

          This is perhaps my bias as someone more familiar with Marx's socialist theory (good to remember that what we think of as communism today is not the same as socialism, and Marx's philosophy doesn't sync perfectly with the modern philosophy of communism) but it feels like they do a good job explaining that the counter-movement to the market-based approach to speech, though it is diffused throughout the essay as opposed to a central conclusion (which I agree is not great). The core points are:

          Freedom emerges in and through collective association, which can only be enacted if that collectivity is not characterized primarily by fear, hatred, and anxiety

          We’re capable of greater knowledge if we enter into empowering compositions.

          The liberal defense of free speech is not equipped to counteract the reality that in capitalist societies, freedom of expression is limited to a kind of aristocracy: those who have access to the means of communication through ownership, education, and pedigree.

          To do that, we have to achieve a form of social organization which encourages good compositions, which increase our collective power of acting. Otherwise, it’s the sad passions which predominate — and it’s no use, Spinoza tells us, to try to rationally refute the sad passions. They have to be countered with action that actually increases our power.

          The path described throughout is admittedly not a 0-100% sequence towards better freedom of speech, it is instead a sign saying 'go this direction', but not describing the whole journey. In short, my interpretation of the suggested alternative is this:

          That we understand that rights are just shortcuts to describing power, that power is about who can do what, not about some esoteric or platonic ideal, and that we allow our society to organize into groups of people who bring forth their expression of power through effective collective action and allow that effective collective action to express itself. If the masses are more interested in hearing one voice than another, we shouldn't see that as suppression of some platonic right to freedom of speech, we should see this as the actual people invoking power through collectivist action - a thing that builds towards a better society.

          In the larger sense it suggests our full on organization as a society and government is flawed because it is restricted to flawed concepts of market-based laws and that we should seek alternatives. I don't think in that sense it has a solid suggestion written, but just that as we process and examine the world around us, we should realize that market-based politics is not the be all and end all of political philosophy and we should lean towards alternatives that empower the collective of human actors as opposed to the market which creates winners and losers by its nature.

          For useful context, I recommend the series of Philosophy Tube videos starting with - https://youtu.be/VlLgvSduugI

          And, for a useful modern take on understanding Marxism and how its theories might apply in a modern context, try out - "Why Marx was Right" by Terry Eagleton - https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0300231067/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_search_asin_title?ie=UTF8&psc=1

          1. Update (7/20/2020):

            Especially useful in that Philosophy Tube series for this particular discussion is the discussion of neoliberalism and marketplaces - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzVf9ce80Nc

            But I really recommend watching the whole series to understand the historical context.