Tag Archives: cancel culture

Horton Hears A Censor

A number of years ago, when my husband was still practicing architecture, he was presenting a school board with preliminary plans for a school they’d hired him to design. There were a number of decisions on which he wanted their feedback, but the board focused entirely–for an hour!– on arguments over the size of an elevator, and whether it should accommodate one wheelchair or two.

As he left, he ran into a friend, and explained his frustration with the school board’s focus. The friend said something I’ve thought about on multiple occasions since: “people argue about what they understand.” Insightful as that observation was, I think it needs amending to “People argue about what they think they understand.”

Which brings me to censorship, accusations of “cancel culture,” and Dr. Seuss, with a brief side trip to Mr. Potato Head.

The right wing is exercised–even hysterical–and screaming “censorship” about a decision made by the company that controls publication of the Dr. Seuss books. It will suspend publication of six of those sixty-odd books, based upon a determination that  they contain racist and insensitive imagery. The decision didn’t affect “Green Eggs and Ham,” “The Cat in the Hat,” “Horton Hears a Who” or numerous other titles.

This is not censorship, not only because they aren’t proposing to collect and destroy the numerous copies that already exist but because, in our constitutional system,  only government can censor speech. In fact, a decision by the company that owns the rights to Dr. Seuss’ books is an exercise of that company’s own free speech rights.

Think of it this way: you post something to Twitter, then think better of it and remove that post. You haven’t been censored; you made both the initial decision to post whatever it was and the subsequent decision to remove it.

Or think about that same example in the context of contemporary criticism of so-called “cancel culture.” You post something that other people find offensive. They respond by criticizing you. Your public-sector employer hasn’t punished you and, for that matter, no government entity has taken any action, but many people have expressed disdain or worse. Again–that is neither censorship nor “cancellation.”

The Free Speech clause of the First Amendment protects us from government actions that suppress the free expression of our opinions or our ability to access particular information or ideas. It doesn’t protect us from the disapproval of our fellow-citizens. It doesn’t even protect us from being sanctioned or fired by our private-sector employer, because that employer has its own First-Amendment right to ensure that messages being publicly communicated by its employees are consistent with its own.

When Walmart decides not to carry a particular book, when a local newspaper (remember those?) rejects an advertisement or refuses to print a letter to the editor, when the manufacturer of “Mr. Potato Head” decides to drop the “Mr,” those entities are exercising their First Amendment rights. They aren’t “censoring.” They aren’t even “cancelling.”

You are within your rights to disagree with the decision by those who own the Dr. Seuss catalogue (actually, that “company” is run by the author’s family, aka the Seuss estate.) Disagreement and criticism are your rights under the First Amendment. You are free to argue that the decision was misplaced, that it constituted over-reaction…whatever. But since the government did not require that decision–or participate in it– it wasn’t censorship. And unless the criticism was accompanied by ostracism–unless it was accompanied by removal of the author’s books from bookstores and libraries–it isn’t cancellation, either.

Americans have a right to freedom of expression. We have no right–constitutional or otherwise– to freedom from criticism. The desire of America’s culture warriors to “own the libs” doesn’t trump that reality.

As for the decision to stop printing and circulating six books with unfortunate portrayals, we’d do well to heed Charles Blow. In a column for the New York Times, Blow reminded readers that the images we present to young children can be highly corrosive and racially vicious.Times article on the controversy noted that  a number of other children’s books have been edited to purge what we now recognize as racist stereotypes. Often, those edits have been made by the authors who wrote the books, who belatedly recognized that they had engaged in hurtful stereotyping.

Agree or disagree with a given decision–whether by the Dr. Seuss estate or by Hasbro, the Potato Head manufacturer–it was a decision they had the right to make and a right that the rest of us have an obligation to respect, even if we disagree.

Sweating The Small Stuff?

We’ve all heard the phrase: don’t sweat the small stuff. My problem has always been in determining what qualifies as “small stuff.”

Many years ago, when I was active in groups like the Women’s Political Caucus and other efforts to ensure a level playing field for women, I remember my impatience with efforts to focus on linguistics. I particularly recall being annoyed by criticisms of the then-female-naming of all hurricanes. Really? Wouldn’t women have been better served by, say, efforts to keep pediatricians offices open after six, so that working moms could take their children to the doctor without having to take time off work, and similar tangible improvements?

Over the years, I have grudgingly acknowledged that language does matter, but I am still conflicted when people express outrage over what we might call “First World Problems.” (I hate the way my dishwasher doesn’t completely dry the dishes–poor me! Of course, millions of people cannot afford food, let alone dishwashers, so bitching about an appliance seems morally clueless.)

The appearance of the so-called “cancel culture” has triggered my longstanding ambivalence. Where do we draw the line?

What made me think about my own recurring internal debate was an article I read a couple of months ago about an effort to make Trader Joe Markets re-name some of its foodstuffs.

The popular grocery chain, famous for its organic, gourmet, and imported foods, came in for some unwelcome notice recently when The New York Times, followed by other news outlets, focused attention on a petition condemning Trader Joe’s for its “racist branding and packaging.” The petition, launched on Change.org by a California high school student, declared that the company “perpetuates harmful stereotypes” by labeling some of its international foods with international names, such as Trader José‘s for its Mexican beer, Trader Jacques’ for its ham-and-cheese croissants, Arabian Joe’s for its Middle Eastern flatbread, and Trader Ming’s for its Kung Pao chicken. The use of these familiar ethnic names amounts to racism, scolded 17-year-old Briones Bedell, “because they exoticize other cultures.”

Columnist Jeff Jacoby pushed back with an argument that I found persuasive:

In reality, they do just the opposite: They familiarize other cultures. They present international foods as accessible and appealing. Far from portraying foreign peoples and their foods as weirdly exotic, the lighthearted branding helps make them as welcome and appetizing as traditional “American” foods. Trader Joe’s ethnic packaging exemplifies the melting pot at its most engaging, lowering the barriers between consumers of different backgrounds and encouraging Americans to explore the variety and joys of other cuisines.

Trader Joe’s customers evidently agreed–protesting the petition, and–as the chain noted in a media release–” reaffirming that these name variations are largely viewed in exactly the way they were intended­ — as an attempt to have fun with our product marketing,”

Jacoby argues that there is (or should be) an obvious difference between brand names and logos like the Aunt Jemima “mammy” stereotype and other names and products — like the Dixie Chicks, “Paw Patrol,” and even the Coco Pops cereal emblem — that have been criticized for no apparent reason.

It isn’t always easy to distinguish between “woke” efforts to raise sensitivity to genuine slights, on the one hand, and what has appropriately been called “virtue signaling”–accusations intended to position the accuser as more tolerant/aware/inclusive than the target of the criticism, on the other. But in a time when rightwing extremists pretending to be Black Lives Matter are fomenting civil unrest, and white supremicists are infiltrating police departments, warriors for civic justice need to make the effort.

We can sweat the smaller stuff later.

 

 

It Depends And It’s Complicated

Every so often, intellectual luminaries initiate what the rest of us might call a “pissing match.”

One such match was triggered by a letter published in Harpers, warning that the spread of “censoriousness” is leading to “an intolerance of opposing views” and “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism”. Some of my favorite authors–and some not-so-favorite– are signatories (and no, I’m not identifying either category.)

The letter approves of the “powerful protests for racial and social justice” that it says are leading to “overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society”, but it goes on to disapprove–strongly–of what it calls “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments” leading to the delivery of “hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms”, and it charges that this disproportionate response tends “to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity”.

As an aside, I’m not so certain those norms ever existed outside certain rarified circles. I sure haven’t seen much evidence of a genteel “toleration of differences”– and such courtesies certainly haven’t characterized social media.

I find myself agreeing with a remark attributed to US senator Brian Schatz (D. Hawaii), that “lots of brainpower and passion is being devoted to a problem that takes a really long time to describe, and is impossible to solve, and meanwhile we have mass preventable death”.

A Guardian article reported the reactions of some of that paper’s columnists, at least two of whom pointed out that the letter was a bit fuzzy in its definition of “cancel culture.” Zoe Williams, for example, wrote

This reminds me a lot of the arguments we used to have about religious tolerance in the 90s. Toleration was a good and necessary thing; but what if it meant you had to tolerate people who themselves wouldn’t tolerate you?

One of the Guardian commenters was Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and history at Yale, who had signed the original letter. He explained that he’d signed on, not because he is a free speech absolutist–a status he disclaims–but because he believes that,

If it is true that hierarchies are in part maintained – not just undone – by speech, and that speech can harm and not just help, it doesn’t follow that more free speech for more people isn’t generally a good cause. It is.

A few people sent me the original letter, and asked my opinion. With the caveat that I am no more equipped to weigh in than anyone else, here are my reactions:

Free speech has always been contested. It has also always been misunderstood: we have the right to “speak our piece” without interference by government. We have never had–and never will have–the right to speak our piece without repercussions, without hearing from people who disagree with what we have said.

Do extreme negative responses intimidate people, and deter others from speaking out–suppressing, rather than encouraging, productive debate? Yes. Isn’t that regrettable? Usually–although not always.

Is the extreme sort of blowback that the letter excoriates often unfair, and even unhelpful to the cause of those engaging in the disproportionate reaction? Yes–often.

Have the Internet and social media amplified both hateful speech and over-the-top censorious responses to it? Yes. Does that reality make civil, productive discussion and debate more difficult? You betcha.

None of this, however, qualifies as “breaking news.”

A number of people critical of the letter point to signatories who–they say–are guilty of the very behavior they criticize. That doesn’t make the criticism wrong, of course, but it does point to the fact that whether a reaction is proportionate to the offense is very much a subjective determination.

I tell my students at the beginning of each semester that my goal is for them to leave my class using two phrases far more frequently than they did previously: It depends and it’s more complicated than that.

Meanwhile, Senator Schatz has a point.