The Enemy on the Other Side: Cancel Culture

In the United States with the best post-secondary education system in the world, the university is under attack by a reactionary aspiring fascist executive branch of government claiming colleges are bastions of liberalism and progressivism. The criticism focuses on the issue of identity politics, in particular, the issue of systemic racism. (See my last blog.) The drama may have been put into play on the same day Donald Trump gave his Mount Rushmore speech attacking cancel culture (see below) when hundreds of faculty members and staff at Princeton University sent a group letter to the President demanding radical changes to uproot systemic racism. The Administration agreed to the request.

In answer to the university administration response, the government initiated a probe of the university. The investigation was not to see how diversity policies impact on systemic racism. Rather, the government claimed that, since universities attest to being non-racist in their applications for research funds, they cannot admit to systemic racism. Presumably, they contradict themselves. On the surface, the government suggests, the university might not be entitled to such funds. However, it is readily apparent from the documents requested, the prospective interviews and the timelines that the purpose of the inquiry is to harass the university while advancing the proposition that an organization cannot confess to or even inquire into systemic racism at the same time as it professes to conform to anti-racist laws. The government, of course, denies that systemic racism exists.

Except possibly against Whites. Except possibly against men. Sometimes conservatives become defenders against the assaults of cancel culture and not just deniers of racism or sexism. For example, Donald Trump is contemplating appointing Amy Coney Barrett (ACB), a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, to the seat on the U.S. Supreme Court recently vacated by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG). ACB led a three-woman panel of judges that concluded, because of a failure to provide due process, that Purdue University may have abridged the rights of a male student accused of sexual assault when he was suspended for a year. ACB wrote that, “It is plausible that [university officials] chose to believe Jane because she is a woman and to disbelieve John because he is a man.”

At the extreme, the university is being undermined by postmodernists and others who deny the possibility of objective knowledge and insist all knowledge is about power. (See the blog before the last.) They too centre their argument on the depth of systemic racism or sexism in the university. The question is whether, in the efforts to attack systemic racism and sexism, rights of due process are being violated. Further, racism and sexism may be interpreted so broadly that adverse discrimination is imposed on Whites and males. After all, with respect to the latter, “President Barack Obama’s Education Department warned schools that they risked losing federal funding if they did not adequately prioritize sexual assault complaints. (Washington Post, 20 September 2020) In response, Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, “bristled at the prospect of “replacing someone like that (RBG) with a judge (ACB) who is eager to use the language of sex discrimination in order to defend the status quo, and to use the statutes that were created to forward gender equality as swords against that very purpose.”

There are cases where universities go much further. Richard Landes and Jonathan Hoffman in their coverage of the Lamonby Case at Solent University in the U.K, claimed in Tablet (15 September 2020) that, “the Stephen Lamonby case stands out for its bizarre accusations, high level of documentation, gratuitously humiliating treatment, and appalling judicial procedures. Few cases of politically motivated public shaming lend such insight into the way the new, merciless, woke orthodoxy has dug its talons into both academia and judicial systems.” 

This Stephen Lamonby is not the author if Children of Men or GoldenEye. Stephen Lamonby, 73, is an engineer, a special effects designer for films (see Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan) and was a part-time lecturer at the university in Southampton. He was born a Catholic and became fascinated by the role Jews played in the evolution of physics. He was also very supportive of disadvantaged students, in particular, two from Africa and one from Lithuania, who came from “environmentally disadvantaged backgrounds” due to growing up without any exposure to engineering. For him, the two African students were products of systemic racism, though he did not use the phrase in his discussion with his supervisor. She indicated that she was a physicist. He became excited, given his interests, since Jews make up 0.2% of the world population but have won half of the Nobel Prizes in physics. Lamonby asked if she (his supervisor) was Jewish.

The “shit hit the fan.” Jan Bonar – his supervisor or line manager in the university administrative hierarchy – loudly and publicly attacked Lamonby “for his abhorrent, racist remarks” even though she was not herself Jewish. “Bonar stormed out of the cafeteria, shouting imprecations about his racism, shoving chairs in her haste.” Though in his emails he reiterated his concern about the disadvantages Black students had as well as his admiration for the “cleverness of Jews,” Bonar claimed that he had said that the Black students “didn’t have the heritage in their DNA to be able to do engineering.” As far as she was concerned, Lamonby was a racist.

The DNA comment was not supported by evidence and was subsequently withdrawn. Nor was there any effort to check whether Lamonby had discriminated against any of the students that he taught. There was no due process. Lamonby was suspended.

Paul Marchbank, dean in the School of Media Arts and Technology, was asked to investigate and “concluded that Lamonby “holds values counter to the University which presents a risk to the University, undermines the Solent Values of respect and inclusivity, has caused offence to a colleague and has the potential to adversely affect the student experience.” Holding the view that Jews may be exceptionally clever, that many Black students are disadvantaged, evidently runs counter to the University’s values of respect and inclusivity. Lamonby had to be excluded. Besides, he had offended a colleague. Lamonby was never given a chance to question Bonar or to meet in a mediation session. Lamonby was dismissed and the dismissal was upheld on appeal, first by the Board of the university and then in a court of law by Judge C.H. O’Rourke.

Group generalizations were defined as racist, whether positively about Jews or negatively about the handicaps that Black students have to overcome. As the judge wrote: “generalisations about ‘young black males’, rather than referring to individuals… and stereotypical comments, based on race [sic] and nationality (with respect to the cleverness of Jews who study Physics)..have no place in modern society, or in the Respondent’s multicultural institution.”

This was a clear case of cancel culture in operation. There was no proper due process. Lamonby was dismissed and humiliated rather than found guilty of a crime. The adjudicators opposed so-called racist generalizations, even though Lamonby’s generalizations were all about culture. Further, the opposition to Lamonby’s beliefs was based on generalizations about acceptable comments in a multicultural institution in modern society, i.e. culture. What counts is not the evidential basis of the comments, but how they might be experienced by the supposedly offended parties. There was no examination of how the comments were actually received by the purported victims.

What was unintended is considered deliberate. Possible emotional subjective reactions counted and there was no attempt to gather objective evidence of pain and hurt. Victimization is asserted without any analysis. Moral indignation is the real proof. As the judge wrote, “Dr Bonar had been very upset at his comments, so, again, there was no need to test the fact of that reaction at the disciplinary hearing.” There was never any effort to empathize with Lamonby or become concerned about his hurt and pain.

As the authors of the article concluded, “This ‘insidious and potentially authoritarian character of cancel culture,’ imposed through moral panic and public shaming, reinforced by ‘woke’ administrators and judges, causes damage large and small to a civil society and above all to academia, entities that can only survive and thrive if their public discussion is based on accurate knowledge, clear thinking, and fairness to all.”

The incident above took place in Great Britain. But North America is awash with examples. Laurent Dubreuil wrote an article for Harper’s September issue entitled, “Nonconforming: Against the erosion of academic freedom by identity politics.” In it, he argued that, “The collection of presumed tastes, behaviors, desires, aspirations, and appearances that come with an externally defined identity rejects in advance anyone who doesn’t conform. “Intersectionality”—or bearing several identities simultaneously—does not change this conundrum; it simply adds additional prescriptions.”

American academia is a hotbed of proliferating identities supported and largely shaped by the higher ranks of administrators, faculty, student groups, alumni, and trustees. Not all identities are equal in dignity, history, or weight. Race, gender, and sexual orientation were the three main dimensions of what in the 1970s began to be called identity politics. These traits continue to be key today. But affirmed identities are mushrooming. The slightest shared characteristic, once anchored in a narrative of pain, can give rise to a new group. There is now a rural identity, a peanut-allergic identity, a fat identity, an ADHD identity, and so on. Each comes with stories of humiliation or of life-threatening experiences, with demands for official recognition, with products specifically targeted to the group, and with the sort of people the writer Touré called, in Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, “the self-appointed identity cops.”

Identity politics thrives on creating and recognizing classes of oppressed and academic institutions are seduced into liberating the group-of-the-week from oppression by multiplying restrictions. It is one thing to invent and characterize classes, such as dividing the population into generations – the Boomers, Gen-X, the Millennials, Gen-Z – and it is another to insist that if you are born between 1981 and 1996 you are a Millennial and, therefore, must have the following characteristics attributed to the general category. The first step is useful. The last is both illogical, limiting and insulting to individuals. Everyone should have the right to be and to be described by their individual characteristics which may or may not overlap with those generalized about one’s generation.

More importantly, these sorts of identity are often used to either brand or to honour groups as victims, as products of trauma and, hence, requiring additional attention and benefits. But this step can also lead to exploitation, adding an additional layer of oppression. It is one thing to give extra help to a student who comes from a poor district; it is another to brand students as having been accepted into a program only because they belonged to a disadvantaged group. Identity generalizations can be useful and do not in themselves amount to racism or sexism or agism. But stretching the generalizations into causal determinations creates a very dangerous path.

The blog on the documentary, The Social Dilemma, discussed the use of tractable algorithms to use social media to divide humanity into tranches, brand them and then set in automatic techniques to reinforce the brand through habituation. Hence, identity politics has become a mode of marketing made easier by reinforcement – like or dislike. The I is made into a we of a specific type. And the failure to resemble a type that is self-chosen is a source of humiliation. To prevent “hurt,” words are prescribed, songs are denounced, and statements are often decontextualized at the cost of creating more victimization. We are inclined to shut up lest we utter something that another interprets as hurtful. And we become silent partners in suppressing honest dialogue. According to sociologists, dissent, at least public dissent from the conventional thinking of a time, has become a practice of a small minority. Conformity, even silence, has emerged as the order of the day.

How can an academic teach properly in such an environment? How can he or she challenge accepted opinion and touch a student’s fears and desires without being charged with inflicting pain? How do we deal with songs and books and works of art branded as offensive without retreating to a defensive posture of resistance and considering that for some – for women, for Jews, for Blacks – they may be experienced as offensive. But does that mean this material should be banned, that those using it should be cancelled in order to protect the sensitivities of those who feel hurt? Or should the possibility that they do inflict pain simply become part of the discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the work?

Though there are plenty of outstanding cases, such as the one of Steve Lamonby summarized above, most “formal complaints of this sort rarely have spectacular consequences, though the anxiety of being called out, the stress of public shaming, even over frivolous grievances, at best wastes one’s time and at worst leaves a permanent stain on one’s reputation. But I do not believe that the goal is actually the removal of professors. The objective is to reach a system of self-censorship that would bind everyone in the room, eroding academic freedom. If the choice of our words, ideas, positions, and texts is conditioned by volatile mobs, if entire sets of questions are now off-limits in our classrooms, books, or labs, then we will no longer have the capacity to create or contest.”

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