Outrage Mob: With Tensions Running High, Cancel Culture Is Spinning Dangerously Out of Control

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Posted: Jun 11, 2020 10:35 AM
Outrage Mob: With Tensions Running High, Cancel Culture Is Spinning Dangerously Out of Control

Source: AP Photo/Julio Cortez

For more a more nuanced and substantive deep dive into the problem of outrage mobs and "cancel culture," I'll self-servingly direct you to the book I co-authored on this exact subject in 2015, which I'm afraid is holding up depressingly well. I've also written a number of posts lately about the aggressive purging of "wrong thinking" in American newsrooms, resulting in the resignations and reassignments of several senior editors at major publications. But the current spasm of preening intolerance and vengeance is hardly limited to the news media; it's also spreading like a destructive, intimidating brushfire in the entertainment world, academia, sports, and other corners of American life. It's becoming difficult to track and document all of the examples, but here is the beginning of a partial list:

(1) A sports broadcaster was fired from his radio show, then resigned from his play-by-play job, after stating that "all lives matter...every single one!" As I've written previously, "all lives matter" as a rejoinder to "black lives matter" misses the point of the latter sentiment, and people who disagree would be well advised to listen to why many black people feel that way. But asserting the value of all human lives should not be a professionally sanctionable event, let alone a fireable one.

(2) At UCLA, a lecturer has been put on leave after students demanded his firing for declining to grant special dispensation for black students on an exam, a request reportedly made by a non-black student. According to the Washington Examiner, instructor Gordon Klein emailed this reply to the student:

"Thanks for your suggestion in your email below that I give black students special treatment, given the tragedy in Minnesota. Do you know the names of the classmates that are black? How can I identify them since we've been having online classes only? Are there any students that may be of mixed parentage, such as half black-half Asian? What do you suggest I do with respect to them? A full concession or just half?...Remember that MLK famously said that people should not be evaluated based on the 'color of their skin." Do you think that your request would run afoul of MLK's admonition?"

He's now out. His is not the most sensitive response one could imagine, but did it merit being put on leave? Klein isn't the only member of the UCLA faculty whose position is at risk after quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. Lecturer W. Ajax Peris, who is white, read from MLK's iconic "letter from Birmingham jail," and showed portions of an explicit documentary about lynching, each of which contained the N-word. Peris continued his lesson on the history of anti-black racism despite objections from some students, leading to an investigation by the university, prompted by students' complaints. Teaching about such an ugly topic surely requires sensitivity and care, but the ugliness of the subject matter itself cannot be avoided in this context. It's arguably the point.

(3) The long-running reality television series "COPS" has been canceled, with other police-centric programming potentially in peril. The epic film "Gone With the Wind," an important classic that portrays a bygone era, has been unceremoniously de-platformed by HBO, pending "context." Both actions appear to have been at least partially spurred by woke op/eds demanding such outcomes. Satire and reality are becoming indistinguishable:


(4) In the world of theater, some community members in Los Angeles have circulated a document keeping track of which entities are "speaking out" in a manner deemed proper or sufficient. The ruling mob in this case is judging both the speed with which statements and approved actions are undertaken and the correctness of the language used. Insufficient obedience is not tolerated:

Andrew Alexander, the CEO and co-owner of famed The Second City improv theater, said he is stepping down after a former performer leveled accusations of racism against the comedy institution. In a lengthy letter posted on the company’s website, Alexander said he “failed to create an anti-racist environment wherein artists of color might thrive. I am so deeply and inexpressibly sorry.” ... Alexander’s announcement Friday followed online criticism from Second City alumnus Dewayne Perkins, an actor, comedian and writer (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”). Perkins said the company had refused to hold a benefit show for Black Lives Matter unless half of the proceeds also went to the Chicago Police Department, and it also created obstacles for performers of color.

Alexander was driven out of his comedy company because an alumnus of the program said he was upset that Second City didn't conduct a specific fundraiser that met with his approval, in addition to unspecified complaints about "obstacles" for performers of color. Action is being taken to mollify the purgers: Alexander "vowed Friday that he will be replaced by a person of color...a Second City statement Friday laid out steps the company planned to take regarding the hiring and training of artists of color, along with diversifying its theater audiences and making donations to fight oppression and support black-owned businesses and schools." The aggrieved comedian celebrated this scalp collection on social media.

(5) The professional soccer franchise in Los Angeles has parted ways with a player over problematic posts by...the man's wife:

The LA Galaxy said it has released Serbian soccer star Aleksander Katai on Friday after his wife, Tea Katai, shared a series of "racist and violent" social media posts in response to the George Floyd protests occurring across the country. The Major League Soccer club met with Katai on Thursday after it was made aware of two of his wife's Instagram posts that she shared the day before. After fans protested outside the LA Galaxy stadium, the club announced in a one-sentence statement on Friday that it would drop Katai from its roster. The club said the two sides had "mutually agreed" to part ways.

The woman's Instagram posts were undoubtedly offensive. They were deleted after being condemned by the team and by the player himself, her husband. But he's out anyway. As others have noted, it seems as though wokeness now requires high profile men to...keep their women in line, and censor them, if necessary? This is progress?

The list -- which is being updated and aggregated here -- goes on and on. It includes an academic under fire for not emoting or communicating 'correctly' about racial issues and social unrest, a Yale student who could face discipline or expulsion for a highly offensive social media post made when she was 15, a fitness company getting canceled despite its CEO's resignation, editors of lifestyle and entertainment publications facing purges for various sins, and a food writer getting dragged for an old Halloween costume considered by some to be offensive. Question: If prominent 'progressive' politicians who've worn blackface on multiple occasions were not hounded from office, what's the standard for people with less power?

Scrolling through the expanding roster of supposed transgressions above and elsewhere, you may find certain examples more distasteful or problematic than others. What bothers me more than anything is watching the rapid spread of this rapacious, life-ruining bloodsport in which social infractions are ravenously sought out, in order for endless self-righteous applications "justice"  to ensue -- often performed with satisfaction, bordering on glee. For some of its practitioners, this may be a power trip. For others, it may be rooted in an overzealous desire to prove one's commitment to the cause, or the manifestation of learned over-sensitivity. It may also amount to old-fashioned score-settling in certain cases. Whatever the various motivations may be, marauding mobs stampeding from one target to the next, carrying virtual torches and pitchforks, feels medieval, destructive, and frightening. Grace is not only shunted off to the side; it's wielded as evidence of complicity. How can people whose careers or lives get bulldozed by all of this pull things back together, or demonstrate true contrition or evolution? And where do innocent victims go to restore their names when the mob crucifies the wrong sinner?

Around 10 p.m., [Peter Weinberg] received an irate message on LinkedIn from someone he didn’t know. He brushed it off, thinking it was probably just spam. Then he got another. And another. The third message was particular strange, as it mentioned something about the cops coming to find him. Perplexed, he watched as the messages continued to pile up. They were all so similar: angry, threatening, accusatory. His profile views suddenly soared into the thousands. He began to panic. He decided to check Twitter.  In his mentions, disaster was rapidly unfolding. People accused him of assaulting a child. Of being a racist. They shared a selfie he’d taken in sunglasses and his bike helmet and analyzed it alongside blurry images of another man in sunglasses and a bike helmet. The other guy had been captured on video hitting children and ramming his bike into an adult after becoming enraged that they were posting fliers around the Capital Crescent Trail in support of George Floyd...

But the Park Police had made an error. “Correction, the incident occurred yesterday morning, 6/1/2020,” they wrote in a follow up tweet. As with most such clarifications, it had only a fraction of the reach: a mere 2,000 shares. It was based on that initial, false information that Weinberg had become a suspect for the internet mob...His fiancée in New York, he spent the night alone, refreshing Twitter, watching helplessly as people tried to destroy his life. And Weinberg wasn’t even the only one: Another man, a former Maryland cop, was wrongly accused, too. The tweet accusing him was retweeted and liked more than half a million times.

The grim coda: "As for the woman who shared his home address: She deleted it and posted an apology, writing that in all of her eagerness to see justice served, she was swept up in the mob that so gleefully shared misinformation, depriving someone of their own right to justice. Her correction was shared by fewer than a dozen people." This was the equivalent of a social media drive-by shooting that perforated the wrong man's life. When mob ringleaders finally got around to recognizing their mistake, their corrections barely attracted any attention at all. People are hooked on the thrill of the virtual kill and had moved on to the next target, with little regard for what how the previous objects of their fury -- "guilty" or not -- are impacted. This is not how a civilized society operates. There's another important point to be made in all of this. Truly egregious behavior -- I recognize this is a subjective standard that has been dangerously defined down, as evidenced above -- should not be consequence-free. For instance:

A corrections officer who participated in a counterprotest to a Black Lives Matter demonstration in New Jersey in which people reenacted the death of George Floyd was suspended after the video was widely shared on social media. In the video, protesters march along a street Monday in Franklin Township, Gloucester County, chanting "George Floyd!" and "Black Lives Matter!" The video shows they are being escorted by local police.  They pass a private property filled with firewood for sale. Video recorded by someone marching shows a man kneeling on the neck of another man shouting unintelligibly back at protesters. Protesters shout back. Two more men are standing nearby and one of them is filming on a cellphone. The group is standing on the roadside in front of a pickup truck outfitted with an American flag and a Trump banner. Several others are nearby. An "All Lives Matter" sign is also hanging...The New Jersey Department of Corrections put out a statement Tuesday afternoon that said they were made aware that one of its officers participated in the filming of a "hateful and disappointing video that mocked the killing of George Floyd." "The individual has been suspended from their post and banned from NJDOC facilities pending a thorough and expedited investigation," the statement said.

This is disgraceful, and the individual responsible is unfit to serve as an officer of the law. Relatedly, if you're flying an "all lives manner" banner while openly ridiculing the indefensible, slow-motion killing of an unarmed black man by police, you're telling on yourself.  A healthy culture neither abandons standards in order to excuse unacceptable behavior nor aggressively and mercilessly hunts down perpetrators of wrongthink. Ours is an increasingly unhealthy culture. Certain bright lines shouldn't be crossed, but the vast majority of disagreements or instances of offense-taking should not be resolved punitively. Worrisomely, those lines are being muddied to the point of absurdity, and "righteous" retribution is becoming a norm.

This must be resisted by people of good faith. And those in the crosshairs of an unjust or overwrought mob action must not reward the bad actors by prostrating themselves and succumbing to their power. The collection of scalps only feeds an appetite for more. Good people must stand and fight for themselves, and for deserving others. Otherwise, the inevitable backlash to this collective psychosis will be dominated by those who fetishize gratuitous offense and political incorrectness, deepening the dysfunctional spiral. There isn't a simple playbook for best practices in these battles, but it's clear that whatever we're turning to now is not the solution. I'll leave you with this superb floor speech on the threat to free thought and free speech from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, which I encourage you to take the time to watch: