The Volokh Conspiracy

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"Cancel Culture Comes for Will Wilkinson"


An excellent piece by Robby Soave here at Reason:

Will Wilkinson is a vice president at the left-leaning Niskanen Center, a contributing writer at The New York Times, and someone who has frequently quarreled with me about so-called cancel culture. (I think it's generally bad when people are fired, expelled, or dragged on social media for saying stupid or poorly phrased things they quickly come to regret; Wilkinson has suggested to me that I've made too much of this problem.)

On Wednesday, Wilkinson tweeted, "If Biden really wanted unity, he'd lynch Mike Pence."

Lynching humor is virtually never a good idea, and this joke was especially badly executed. (Wilkinson said he was making a joke not at the former vice president's expense, but in reference to the Capitol rioters who had expressed a similar sentiment. The joke being that this time it was the far right calling for violence against a Republican official rather than the left.)

Nevertheless, widespread outrage—some of it stoked by conservative news sites like The Federalist and The Daily Caller—ensued on social media. Wilkinson apologized, describing his tweet as a lapse in judgment.

"It was sharp sarcasm, but looked like a call for violence," said Wilkinson. "That's always wrong, even as a joke."

Nevertheless, the Niskanen Center fired Wilkinson and made it clear that they did so explicitly because of the tweet. "The Niskanen Center appreciates and encourages interesting and provocative online discourse," wrote Niskanen President Jerry Taylor in a statement. "However we draw the line at statements that are, or can in any way be interpreted as, condoning or promoting violence."

The New York Times, too, may take action. "Advocating violence of any form, even in jest, is unacceptable and against the standards of The New York Times," a Times spokesperson told Fox News. "We're reassessing our relationship with Will Wilkinson."

And thus a noted doubter of cancel culture has been canceled for a problematic tweet—ironic, but also regrettable, in my view….

There's much more I'd like to quote, but instead let me encourage you to click to read the whole thing.

NEXT: Legal Scholars' Letter Supporting Constitutionality of Impeaching and Convicting Presidents After they Leave Office

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  1. Yeah, this is crap, and I see a lot of pushback amongst those I follow on the tweeter machines. I hope Niskanen sees how dumb this was and eats some crow.

    1. uh huh.... funny how it's only "crap" when its a lefty who gets nailed.

      1. "Cancel culture" mostly affects the left, who are typically in more of a position to get cancelled.

      2. I call them like I see them. As I have when this has come up in the past, if you'd bother to check.

        I don't know from this Wilkinson guy, but it a really dumb choice.

        1. Right....

          I did check, BTW. And when it happened in the past, but it was on the more conservative side of the spectrum, your response was different...

          "Largely cries of future victimhood, and exhortations for current violence."

          But now, it's not " exhortations for current violence" but "this is crap".

          I wonder what changed?

          1. I was pretty clearly posting about the commenters making things up.

            the post you link isn’t about a particular incident!

            You are going to need to try harder when yiu throw around accusation like that. Not that guy much care.

            1. "If you'd bother to check."

              "Ha ha -- I didn't actually SAY anything."

              Whatever, smug troll.

              1. Y'all are the ones throwing around accusations of double standards and then not backing it up.

                And not agreeing with you is not being a troll.

                1. You're the one who claimed that you opposed this stuff in the past, if I bothered to check. So I did.

                  But you clearly didn't oppose it then. You found time to comment on other commenters, apparently...If that exortations of violence bit wasn't about the OP. But absolutely nothing condemning the cancel culture.

                  As expected.

                  1. Clearly.

                    Read my 9:18pm.

    2. In 2021, a "woke" professional wrote that.

      Hew gets to suffer the consequences....

    3. Two Quotes from Niskanen President Jerry Taylor make their policies on encouraging violence very clear "However we draw the line at statements that are, or can in any way be interpreted as, condoning or promoting violence."
      "If I were in that march, and these racist lunatics were waiving [sic] guns at me, I'd like to think I'd rush them and beat their brains in"

      He should be commended for having such clear and unwavering standards about what kind of discourse is permitted.

  2. "Cancel culture," is rapidly joining, "Benghazi," "Woke," "SJW," "Democrat Party," and a host of others as markers to stop reading. Neither readers on the political right, nor readers on the political left, nor anyone in the center, ought to waste time on empty solidarity signals among movement conservatives.

    1. What about empty solidarity signals among progressives?

    2. Stephen, I’m trying real hard but I’m having trouble connecting your two sentences into one consistent thought.

  3. "Nevertheless, widespread outrage—some of it stoked by conservative news sites like The Federalist and The Daily Caller—ensued on social media. Wilkinson apologized, describing his tweet as a lapse in judgment."

    There's something that needs to be said about this.

    Imagine a country with two groups of people....greens and blues. The greens hold the majority of social power, and deem an it "putting"...socially undesirable, and worthy of condemnation. Repeatedly, the greens accuse the blues of "putting" and use it to condemn them. The blues don't like it, and they think putting is being too harshly condemned. But they keep being targeted due to it. Meanwhile, when greens "putt," if it isn't mentioned, they're never condemned for it. So, the greens see nothing wrong with condemning "putting", because they never have to pay the cost themselves if they do it.

    Only by when the blues bring to the fore the evidence of green "putting" ....and only when greens face the consequences of their own they realize that the penalty doesn't match the offense.

    1. Yeah, it's not that you're being hypocritical it's just a clever move to keep the other side honest!

      The Federalist and The Daily Caller are full-on bad faith and don't much care about the truth and principle when going for a scalp.

      1. The only way to stop cancel culture, is to strictly enforce it against everybody! What a dumb approach this is by The Federalist. First they aren't credible on the issue at all, since they only fight for enforcement it in cases that are marginal (and involve their opponents). Second, even if they were credible, they're not going to convince the people who engage in cancel culture anyway.

        The only way to win a culture war is to not participate. Of course neither The Federalist (as an example) has any interest in ending the culture war. It sells the culture war. If the culture war ended tomorrow, The Federalist would cease to exist.

        1. If one "group" doesn't suffer any of the consequences for the actions they promote, then there is less reason for that "group" to advocate against the actions.

          That just makes sense.

      2. This is why it’ll never stop sarcastr0. Our two warring sides, in their seemingly endless immaturity, have reached the “You started it!! No, you did!!” phase of the argument. It’s now a loop that feeds itself.

        1. The way to stop this is not to joyfully engage in it.

          1. point out how the side which supports "cancelling" others violates its own standards...and ask them what they intend to do about it, enforce the standards or relax them?

            1. How about this - whenever the cancellers violate their stated standards, demand they un-cancel one of their victims, or cancel their own guy.

          2. I know that. You know that.

            They don’t seem to know that. Or, more likely, they don’t want it stopped.

            1. Certainly The Federalist and Daily Caller seem into it. At least until they inveigh against it in their next column.

      3. Yeah, it’s not that you’re being hypocritical it’s just a clever move to keep the other side honest!

        This is idiotic.

        Believing that cancel culture is garbage doesn't translate into a moral obligation to defend advocates for cancel culture from being devoured by the beast.

        This is the world they wanted. They got it. It sucks. Standing back and letting them experience how much it sucks in a very real and personal way doesn't make me a hypocrite, any more than critics of the ACA are hypocrites for believing that forcing Congress onto the exchanges might clarify the law's deficiencies.

        1. This wasn’t not defending, it was invoking,

          1. It's called making others live up their own standards.

            Just like pointing out when high government officials ban travel, and then jet off 1000 miles away and more to holiday with their extended family, or a vacation house in the Caribbean.

      4. The Federalist and Daily Caller didn't make the rules, Saul Alinski did:

        "4. Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules."

        Saul Alinski, Rules for Radicals

        1. No, that's just a weak excuse to indulge in hypocritical tactics.

          1. No it's an application of what Scalia wrote in RAV v. St. Paul:

            St. Paul has no such authority to license one side of a debate to fight freestyle, while requiring the other to follow Marquis of Queensberry rules.

            Sorry, it is not hypocrisy to make someone live up to his own rules, even if you think those rules are ill-considered. If he now thinks they are indeed ill-considered given that he was hoisted on his own petard, then let him say so.

            IOW, the apology he needs to give is not for making a bad taste joke about Mike Pence, but trying to impose a standard on the rest of us that he now finds uncomfortable.

    2. "Imagine a country with two groups of people….greens and blues. The greens hold the majority of social power, and deem an activity…call it “putting”…socially undesirable, and worthy of condemnation."

      I still say that the Klu Klux Klan is a better analogy -- it's not condemnation as much as terrorization.

  4. "Lynching humor is virtually never a good idea, and this joke was especially badly executed."

    Is the violent rhetoric really necessary?

    But seriously, the lynching humor at issue was pretty funny.

    1. I just don't understand how it could in any way be interpreted as condoning or promoting violence. It was a sharp bit of wit, nothing more.

      1. Jmaie, I think you might missed a punchline.
        "This joke was especially badly executed."

  5. The left somehow thinks we haven't read "rules for radicals" -- or perhaps we can't read at all. They are wrong...

    1. Dude, we noticed the right wing was playing the Ayers playbook sometime around the time they... loudly started shouting about Ayers, I think roughly in 2011.

      Pretty sure it is you who thinks everyone else can't read.

  6. As much as I think the reactions from both the NYT and Niskanen were stupid, I think they're different in magnitude from each other.

    Niskanen wants to influence policy and they can't afford to alienate half of the policy makers through stupid statements. The NYT doesn't have to care and is supposed to encourage diversity of expression. I don't think keeping him would've alienated anybody in either company's target audience, so neither should've fired him for that.

  7. If violence isn't funny, how has AFV been around for decades?

  8. I disagree with cancellation in general.
    But if we are going to cancel people, those who cancel others or who dismiss cancellation as a problem are the first ones we should cancel.
    This will serve to deter the practice

    1. The Volokh Conspiracy, which cancelled Artie Ray Lee Wayne Jim-Bob Kirkland for making fun of conservatives, likely disagrees with that standard.

      It has engaged in repeated, partisan, viewpoint-driven censorship while criticizing others for such conduct. Nice gig if you can maintain it, at least from some perspectives, which tend to be on the wrong side of history and the losing end of the American culture war.

      1. "The Volokh Conspiracy, which cancelled Artie Ray Lee Wayne Jim-Bob Kirkland..."

        They did worse than cancel him, they forced him to post as "Arthur Kirkland". It's hard to imagine anything more humiliating than that.

  9. Look, talking about a "cancel culture" is a cop-out. If an organization cancels someone for what they said, the cancelling organization (the Niskanen Center in this case) is responsible for its action, not some "culture", and you should make your own judgment as to whether cancellation in this specific instance was justified. Not very long ago, the response to a thoughtless or exaggerated comment by someone was either (a) ignore it or (b) that's stupid, you should apologize. We really ought to go back to the "not that very long ago" practice. I think the Niskanen Center would serve an important public service by doing that in this case. And other organizations, left and right, could/should follow their example.

  10. You guys cherry pick what you call cancel culture. How about you let people post x rated photos on "Don't do cancel culture."

  11. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy...

  12. Since he likes cancel culture so much and if you ask him he probably hasn't retracted his position, in this case he can stay fired I think.

  13. I support cancel culture. Zero tolerance for male and female neo-Marxists, PC whores (anyone making a living off PC), and miscellaneous diversity promoters. Most are ugly, filled with hostility, and cannot cook. When they are gone, the scene gets nice.

  14. Is the Niskanen Center a non-profit organization? If it is, cancel all its government privileges for its cancel decision.

  15. Don't call it "cancel culture," call it what it really is: Black Listing.

  16. When I read the tweet initially, I didn't read it as sarcastic -- the sarcasm just was not evident on its face.

    Now, would I actually have thought he was serious? No, not really. Still, there wasn't enough laying it on thick here, IMO.

    I could probably be persuaded either way if I were on a committee making the decision. But if you gave the decision to me, acting alone, I think this just crosses the line.

    And in any event, this definitely, and recklessly, veers close enough to the line that I can't really muster up a ton of sympathy here. This was in poor taste, it should have been obvious, and if the punishment is nonetheless excessive, well, the ice was thin enough that falling through it inspires more "I hope you've learned a lesson" than "dude, sucks to be you".

    1. I did also see one tweeted suggestion that Niskanen could have put out "we're investigating and have directed him not to tweet til that investigation is done", then they sit on it for a week or two, then at the end of it they issue some sort of formal censure, with promised consequences if any other intemperate tweets occur. That would also be an acceptable outcome to me. Tho I think it is slightly more grace than Wilkinson ultimately ought be entitled to.

  17. The key thing, the only thing, Professor Wilkinson needed to do at that meeting was inquire into how his interlocutor would have seen things if a black person had said the same words.

    Professor Wilkinson’s best weapon is very likely Bostock. Under Bostock it is prohibited racial discrimination if a white person is not allowed to do or say the same things that a black person is allowed to do or say. And that is very likely the case here.

    If the complainer was offended by what Professor Wilkinson said but would not be offended by if a black person had said the same words, then Bostock makes clear that what offended him had nothing to do the words at all, but was solely Professor Wilkinson’s whiteness.

    1. You understand the difference between a policy "You'll be fired if you say this but a black person won't" and "I guess that if a black person had said this he wouldn't have been fired," right?

      1. 1. I doubt the complainer, a college student certain he is in the right, would have been sophisticated enough or concerned enough about legal consequences to make distinctions like that.

        2. The basis of the university’s liability and the liability if those making decisions omits behalf would be failure to investigate. They have a duty under the law to investigate and determine if the underlyling motivation is racist or not before taking any action.

        3. But if university officials had said something like what you wrote above, a reasonable jury could easily find discriminatory intent based on it, considering how Professor Wilkinson was in fact treated. I suspect it’s a distinction without a difference.

  18. My position on cancellation is, and has always been, that I feel more sympathy for (1) a good-faith, humble intellectual who says or does something controversial, than I feel for (2) a provocateur who makes a habit of dancing up to the line and happens to misjudge where the line is.

    If Wilkinson is a victim of something, it is of letting the current climate of online discourse transform him, slowly but surely, from the first sort of person to the second sort.

    Pay attention to how severe his punishment is. Pay attention to what reasons are given for it. Fight always against the establishment of bad precedents. Make sure that bad facts don't make bad norms. But don't let this one keep you up at night.

  19. This did not happen. Any take that starts from the premise that it did is either very stupid or brazenly disingenuous. It was an extremely obvious joke at the expense of angry people on both sides, not really targeted at Pence at all.... Los Angeles

  20. I together with my buddies ended up taking note of the best hints found on your website and unexpectedly developed a horrible feeling I never expressed respect to you for those strategies...

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