Free Speech

How Non-Existent Cancel Culture Works at Princeton and Elsewhere

When a university president threatens a professor with consequences for writing an article, free expression loses out.

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Last week in Quillette, a Princeton Classics professor, Joshua T. Katz, published an article criticizing a letter signed by some of his institution's professors "to block the mechanisms that have allowed systemic racism to work, visibly and invisibly, in Princeton's operations." The faculty letter insisted that "Anti-Blackness is foundational to America" and that it was "rampant" even at progressive institutions such as the school formerly known as the College of New Jersey. The letter articulated a long list of demands regarding the recruitment and retention of people of color as faculty members and students and even called for the creation of

a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures.

In the Quillette article, Katz agreed with some of the letter's action items but said that the above "scares me more than anything else: For colleagues to police one another's research and publications in this way would be outrageous." On its face, the call to investigate and discipline research and publications of other faculty is a complete refutation of academic freedom.

But of course, "cancel culture" doesn't exist, right? So there's no problem here, only the disenfranchised faculty of an Ivy League institution finally getting to join a conversation from which they'd been excluded. As Nesrine Malik puts it in The Guardian, "what is really unfolding here is a cohort of established influencers grappling with the fact they are losing control over how their work is received."

Such a formulation doesn't seem to be capture what's going on in the case of Katz. In his Quillette article critiquing his colleagues' call for the right to "oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty," he also characterized the Black Justice League, a student group active on campus from 2014 to 2016, as a "local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members' demands."

That phrasing drew the ire of Princeton's president, Christopher Eisgruber, who said

"While free speech permits students and faculty to make arguments that are bold, provocative, or even offensive, we all have an obligation to exercise that right responsibly," Eisgruber said in a statement to The Daily Princetonian. "Joshua Katz has failed to do so, and I object personally and strongly to his false description of a Princeton student group as a 'local terrorist organization.'"

The student newspaper also noted that a university spokesperson said the administration "will be looking into the matter further." What does that mean, exactly? Will Katz be docked pay, demoted, or denied course release or a sabbatical? He almost certainly couldn't be fired, but if this had happened after his colleagues had created their anti-racism committee, who knows? Because the faculty letter was published on July 4, Katz had ironically titled his critique "A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor." Maybe that headline will be more literal than he'd ever conceived.

As Matt Welch writes elsewhere at Reason today about the resignations of Bari Weiss from The New York Times' opinion page and Andrew Sullivan from his column at New York magazine, free speech and open inquiry are not threatened only by state censorship or draconian corporate policy. Weiss and Sullivan are in many ways professional controversialists, but the places that hired them have made it clear that the range of acceptable opinion they will tolerate is getting smaller and smaller. Indeed, the Times' fired its op-ed page editor after he published an article by ultra-conservative Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.). Both The Times op-ed page and New York aren't explicitly ideological outlets along the lines of a Reason or a Jacobin or a National Review. If they are chasing away people such as Weiss, a pro-choice #NeverTrumper, and Sullivan, the former editor in chief of The New Republic and an influential advocate for marriage equality, something like "cancel culture" is absolutely real. It needn't be as stark or powerful as a government office of censorship to radically constrict and constrain free expression. It can even coexist comfortably with an ever-increasing range of platforms from which we can all shout whatever we want to shout. In a world where a young policy analyst was fired after tweeting about peer-reviewed research on the impact of violent protests on the 1968 election, do we really want to pretend a convulsion of censorial behavior is not happening?

In a fascinating essay about his failed attempts to make a documentary about tennis legend Martina Navratilova, Glenn Greenwald writes that cancel culture is "a term I dislike due to its lack of definitional precision and inaccurate connotations that it is something novel—it is not—but it is also unavoidable when referencing ongoing debates about 'free discourse.'" As Nesrine Malik writes, "the people who are waiting to pile on you, dox you (spread private information about you online with malicious intent) and get you fired" have made her "a more cautious writer" who "take[s] fewer risks."

Having your university president call you out publicly for failing to exercise free speech "responsibly" is not the same as getting fired or thrown in jail, but it's also not going to make scholars at Princeton or anywhere else more likely to push the envelope, is it? Libertarians are right to insist on strict definitions of censorship as something that only governments can do, but we should also always and everywhere push back against people and forces that would restrict and shrink the range of public opinion to the equivalent of a comically undersized "free-speech zone" on a college campus. Free speech, as popularly understood, is something that only was achieved in the late 1950s and early 1960s. We turn away from attacks on freewheeling expression at great risk, even in an age of unparalleled options for speaking our minds.

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  2. Joe McCarthy is chortling in whatever ring of Hell he occupies.

    1. Why would McCarthy be in hell? Surely not for being 95% correct

      1. Crazy, how much the fall of the Soviet Union, and the research and scholarship it yielded, pretty much vindicated most of what Tailgunner Joe was claiming.

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      2. I don’t believe his score was a 95% on naming communist, either; think it was more like 5-10% – but I could be wrong. And going after people’s careers because of their homosexuality is so not like the cancel culture going after people because of their whiteness; totally different.

    2. He’s just warming a seat for whoever brought Reason to the point of confessing:

      “The Times op-ed page and New York aren’t explicitly ideological outlets along the lines of a Reason or a Jacobin or a National Review.

      1. Confessing? It says it right in the masthead. Reason is a libertarian publication that discusses libertarian issues from a libertarian perspective.

        Or at least that is what it is supposed to be….

      2. Reason is a libertarian magazine. You can certainly argue how libertarian they are nowadays, you can even claim their lying about their ideological bent, but no matter which way they actually lean they’ve never claimed to be non-ideological.

        1. Seriously, if you think Reason was ever ‘fair and balanced’ or ever intended to be – that’s your own ideological biases working.

          1. Much as Reson reraders and writers may argue among themselves , they generally agree that the First Amendment is something worth defending. When was the last time you met a reasonable ideologue?

            We’re presently watching post-structuralist ideologues turn Intersectionality into a cult– the truly Idiotarian Woke Cancel Culture is a scary reminder of just how unreasonable ideology can be.

  3. This headline really could have used a second draft.

  4. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

    The quote oft-attributed to Voltaire appears passé.

    1. People won’t even defend a right to remain silent anymore – affirm the creed du-jour or die.

    2. Exactly, every person has the right to say whatever they want. That is the foundation of healthy society. I was speaking about this with the girls on sexkontakt and all of them agree that we need to have this right. yea, you can check with them of course

  5. Sadly this is the way it always goes. The hard authoritarians take over the culture and language, giving no outlet of expression or free speech to anyone they don’t like. You resist, you get shamed, then you get fired, then you end up in the camps.

    I had always assumed the far right would get the jump on this, but it’s clear we are now dealing with those on the far left who have a bloodier history and reputation. Which of course means in order to prevent them from gaining any more power measures will need to be taken.

    1. My sense on things is that the hardline right is generally in response to the extravagances on the left- return to tradition, restoring the republic; that sort of thing.

      Which makes me wonder has the left even considered what retribution will look like should they overplay their hand? Even having their hands on the levers of power won’t account for much if those institutions are destroyed and the witch hunt turns its evil eye towards you.

      McCarthy may end up having the last laugh.

      1. “Which makes me wonder has the left even considered what retribution will look like should they overplay their hand? Even having their hands on the levers of power won’t account for much if those institutions are destroyed and the witch hunt turns its evil eye towards you.”

        At the risk of sounding like Nardz, and further fedposting, ‘retribution’ in this context will not look much like what McCarthy did, or what he had planned for further stages of HUAC.

        I fear terrible things are about to happen.

        1. For what it’s worth, I’d much rather they self-destruct than force the rest of us to take action.
          Unfortunately, they are psychotics backed by the establishment power structures.
          And they refuse to leave us be

          1. And there are the big problems: their compulsion to totalitarianism, which is necessarily intolerant of dissenting views, and the fact that Establishment America feeds off and encourages a psychotic world view.
            Call it the Achilles heel of capitalism.
            The insanity is artificially sustained, thus it becomes impossible to simply walk away and devour itself.
            Tis a conundrum

          2. They won’t self-destruct by themselves. They won’t fall without taking the institutions they’ve colonized with them. And then a final orgy of violence as they lash out at anyone within reach.

            This is the cycle of history.

    2. I had always assumed the far right would get the jump on this,

      The right, near, far or anywhere would never do any of this shit.

      Jesus christ–with all that’s happening in the world, with everything that’s going on, is it not glaringly obvious yet that the collectivist, fascist, far right that the left has been getting everyone terrified of is THEM?

      It’s not the guys screaming for free speech and intellectual heterodoxy that want to round people up and put them in camps.

      It’s the left. It’s always BEEN the left and it WILL always be the left–until they are eradicated.

      Whether it’s the left of socialism, or of fascism, or of communism, or of Maoism, Marxism or whatever other title–there is no ideological structure on the right that leads to any of this.

      Wake the fuck up.

  6. Where are the alumni?

    Is it because they get so much money from the government for research and the like that they’re no longer sensitive to the alumni and other donors, who surely find this embarrassing?

    1. The alumni are all on board with this.

      The younger ones grew up steeped in this shit and have taken it onboard – look at Reason’s new writers. Libertarians certainly but they still give creedence to concepts like ‘privilege’ and will bend over backwards with the ‘but the other side has a point’.

      The older ones won’t say shit because their cushy lives that they’ve worked hard to build over the decades are threatened – one Twitter ‘activist’ with an audience can destroy business you’ve spent 30 years building or get you ousted right out of that executive suite office in a heartbeat.

  7. Well Princeton was endowed by slave owners. It’s first nine presidents owned slaves it therefore must be shut down immediately, razed to the ground and the land sown with salt so nothing will grow for 100 years.

    1. Wait – salt is white, you racist! What about pepper?

    2. I think all the people who went to Princeton need to be identified and forced to apologize in public and in great detail for their contribution to the sins of colonialism, patriarchy, and white oppression of Colored bodies.

      1. it’s ‘bodies of color’, you fascist.

  8. I think it’s interesting that the cancellers are the ones that think they’re pushing the envelope. To them, this country has been a racist cesspit since 1619. All they believe is that they’re pushing the envelope of progress. Anybody in their way is not pushing the envelope, but simply holding back progress to a more equal and just world.

    How do you reason with that?

    1. “How do you reason with that?”

      I don’t try reasoning with crazy people. Wastes both of our time. People in the midst of a secular religious fervor are close enough to that for government work.

      1. The left is trapped in the metaphor of original sin. People used to say socialists want to create heaven on earth; it’s clear they want to create eternal purgatory in earth.

  9. Look, nobody’s threatening anybody, and if you claim you’re being threatened we’ll break your fucking kneecaps, capisce?

  10. “Chickens comin’ home to roost”!

  11. The student newspaper also noted that a university spokesperson said the administration “will be looking into the matter further.” What does that mean, exactly?

    “Oh, very well. The administration will be looking into the *Black Lives* Matter further.”

  12. We read that Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber, said, “While free speech permits students and faculty to make arguments that are bold, provocative, or even offensive, we all have an obligation to exercise that right responsibly…Joshua Katz has failed to do so, and I object personally and strongly to his false description of a Princeton student group as a ‘local terrorist organization.’

    Very well. Would President Eisgruber please also object personally and strongly to the outrageous suggestion by the Princeton Classics Department that Professor Katz is inciting violence, as this section of its condemnation of him implies:

    “The use of such language is abhorrent at this moment of national reckoning with the continuing legacy of systemic racism and violence, and it has heedlessly put our Black colleagues, students, and alums at serious risk.”

    That is a serious charge and is far more incendiary than anything Professor Katz wrote. Does Eisgruber approve of such language and character assassination by Michael Attyah Flower, Chair et al of the Princeton Classics Department? Professor Katz is being maligned and if Eisgruber cares about fairness, as he claims, he should chastise Flower and co. in the same way he did Professor Katz. Is that a “responsible” statement by Flower?

    1. The notion that anyone questioning your preferred narrative is somehow making you unsafe or “at risk” is one of the most fucked up parts of all of this. And is totally illiberal and contrary to any reasonable notion of free speech and inquiry.

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  14. Libertarians are right to insist on strict definitions of censorship as something that only governments can do

    Uh, I can self-censor, can I not? People use the term that way. A television network can censor the bad words out of a movie. I see censor as a broader term than that. Anyway…

    In a world where a young policy analyst was fired after tweeting about peer-reviewed research on the impact of violent protests on the 1968 election, do we really want to pretend a convulsion of censorial behavior is not happening?

    Was he censored by the government here?

    1. Yeah, of course non-government entities or individuals can censor. It’s just that it’s illegal when government does it.

  15. It would seem prudent for people to stop using Twitter.

    Let’s not pretend the snowflakes are actually reading peer reviewed literature. If you don’t tweet it, they’ll never have the chance to be offended by misinterpreting the abstract.

    1. The snowflakes aren’t even reading Time, which will undoubtedly put BLM on the cover for Person of the Year.

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  18. I remember when this was a weird college campus thing and the real world of work had a way of straightening things out. What the fuck happened? I’m still grappling with how corporate virtue signaling can be profitable. Selling a few BLM mugs couldn’t possibly be enough to explain the corporate suck up to a VERY fascist movement.

    1. “the corporate suck up to a VERY fascist movement.”

      It’s not unusual. Fascism has always been about authoritarianism, collectivism, and a centrally planned economy where a certain few corporations are favored and supported. Do you not think industrial giants like Krupp and Mescherschmitt “sucked up” to the Nazi party in exchange for lucrative contracts and the elimination of any competition? Even Daimler-Benz was cranking out officers staff cars and transport trucks throughout the war. I don’t think SS officers rode around in British Austin’s or Chevrolet.

  19. Who says cancel culture doesn’t exist? Most people might disagree with what it does, but it’s silly to believe it’s not real.

    As for the Black Justice League, whatever they were in actuality at Princeton, this longtime comics fan can’t help imagining them as a superhero group…or maybe an alliance of supervillains, like the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

  20. but we should also always and everywhere push back against people and forces that would restrict and shrink the range of public opinion to the equivalent of a comically undersized “free-speech zone” on a college campus

    So don’t subscribe to the New York Times, and don’t go to Princeton. Problem solved.

  21. Just how much are parents paying to send their kids to Princeton? It would seem if you wanted to send your kids to a totally PC campus, you could save a few bucks. Surely there must be a community college somewhere that’s removing all books written by white men from the library.

  22. On the subject of Doxing, as someone who is not on social media I often wonder what is Twitters official policy toward it? I know they had no problem booting those who mis-gender or have non-PC opinions, but what do they do with those who are doing this doxing crap? Seems to me that is as bad or worse and can cause actual physical harm.

  23. One thing about Reason, it will never fall prey to this by insisting its writers be libertarian.

  24. Freedom of speech was NEVER achieved, as the article says it was (in the late Fifties/early Sixties). There may have been times (within my memory) when lesser UNfreedom was in play, but any such notion that freedom was achieved is complete balderdash.

  25. “…ultra-conservative Sen. Tom Cotton?”
    Ultra NEOconservative Tom Cotton….Cotton is not fiscally conservative in any way, shape, or form. Left liberals are unable to make this distinction

  26. “ such as the school formerly known as the College of New Jersey.“

    What is wrong with “such as Princeton?”

    This phrase is so pretentiously overwritten it decided not to vote for Bernie because his whiteness is problematic.

    This phrase is so self-serving it farts in a bag to smell them later.

    When you wrote a high school essay and put this in there, did you chuckle slightly because you thought inserting some obscure fact that no one cares about into a perfectly good sentence made you smarter than everyone else?

    Forget who watches the watchmen, who the fuck over here is editing the editors?

    #cancelnick

  27. The things are gone crazy at the moment. All this actions would kill a reasonable human sense. I would run for custom dissertation writing then!

  28. Does it count as ironic that in the Washington Post’s print edition of 7.21, there is a full page ad by people associated with Princeton urging the Philippines to honor the free speech rights of Maria Ressa? In the meantime, Princeton considers whether to clamp down on the rights of its own faculty.

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