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- Speech or Cancel Culture At Boston University?
Speech or Cancel Culture At Boston University?
Nah Fam That's Speech, Come On Now
90% of invocations of “cancel culture” are bullshit. Of that 90%, maybe two-thirds is cynical partisan bullshit and a third is just thoughtless bullshit.
Where did I get those numbers? I made them up, obviously. Duh. But I’ve been arguing this point for a long time. The epithet “cancel culture” is overwhelmingly used to express disagreement with speech, not to defend speech. Rather than a principled description of people trying to prevent others from speaking, it’s a form of special pleading that some kinds of criticism are too mean, too uncivil. It’s certainly possible to approach a speech incident and analyze it in some kind of methodical way, that’s not the way the term is generally used. It’s generally used to mean “I disagree with these critics and their values and values I associate with them.”
For a prime example consider, consider Boston University President Robert A. Brown.
President Brown is upset that some students protested and heckled Boston University commencement speaker David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. With impeccable timing that only a university administration could achieve, BU announced Zaslav as its commencement speaker the day after the Writer’s Guild of America went on strike. This generated controversy. This led to letters asking BU to “cancel” Zaslav, protest signs, protests, and some heckling and swearing at the commencement, mostly focused on labor issues.
This, President Brown claims, was CANCEL CULTURE.
This, of course, is sheer jiggery-pokery. President Brown got a lot of similar emails with #cancel in them because labor groups encouraged students and alumni to write them and provided a form.
Moreover, the protests and heckling against Zaslav weren’t because he said something controversial. They weren’t even about his ham-handed meddling with your binge-watching. The protests were explicitly about labor issues, which is why the chants included both obscenities and slogans like “pay your writers.”
Now, I recognize that it’s fashionable to claim that everyone knows what “cancel culture” means and that it’s just pedantry and dishonesty to claim you don’t. But are labor protests cancel culture now? Is not paying writers a form of controversial expression that we ought to hear out and react to with refined and well-moderated debate? Is the entire history of the American labor movement's raucousness a history of woke censorship?
Or is that all cynical partisan bullshit, a way to delegitimize certain (usually left-leaning) political views while pretending to be noble and pro-free-speech?
President Brown’s complaint is a halfhearted yawp, an old-school pearl-clutch about civility dressed up unconvincingly in cancel culture terminology. He begins with the obligatory genuflection to free speech:
Exactly. Protests at graduation — including back-turning, signs, heckling, and the occasional rude word are as American as apple pie or school shootings. Angry protests of controversial-to-some commencement speakers is common, as is controversy about the controversy. As commentators have long pointed out, a university’s choice of a particular speaker is an expressive act, and protest is a response to that expressive act.
Despite this, President Brown is mad. None of the coverage I have seen supports the idea that the protesters stopped Zaslav from speaking or the audience from hearing, as the quote above suggests. As I’ve argued before, arrogating to yourself the power to decide who can speak and who can listen is contemptible and could reasonably be described as “cancel culture.” No, President Brown seems upset that Zaslav and graduates and their families had to hear some heckling and rude words.
Obscenities? In Boston? Horrors!
Wait a minute, President Brown. You’re begging the question. How did a “handful of students” shouting obscenities amount to a “deliberate attempt to silence a speaker?” Again, President Brown, you said yourself just a few paragraphs before that Zaslav was able to speak and the crowd to listen.
Oh, God, somebody’s grandma may have heard the word “fuck”? That’s terrible. But again, how did they “literally prevent the speaker from conveying the message”? It seems almost as if President Brown is mad at something other than “silencing” . . . .
There we go. Now we’re hearing the truth. It’s about civility, and about Kids These Days and That Terrible Social Media. Thrown in the imagined “right “ to not have a ceremony “disfigured by obscenities”. (Note: there is no such right, but making up imaginary rights is absolutely a thing in "cancel culture" discussions..) Take out the social media reference and this could be any old person griping about Kids These Days stretching back to Socrates.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with making a point about civility. Want to argue that protestors shouldn’t say “fuck?” Knock yourself out. Want to decry rude signs at commencements? I mean, I guess, if that’s your thing, but far better to shade the sign-waivers like Gerald Ford did. Want to argue that heckling at commencements is uncivil? Great! That’s a specific critique that can be debated. Heckling at commencements is at at least as old as I am as an American tradition, so maybe ease up on the Kids These Days aspect of it, but let ‘er rip. Let a thousand civility debates bloom.
But unless you are, and pardon my incivility, an utter fucking hack, please spare me the “cancel culture” gloss. Protesting commencement speakers is free speech. Slapping on the “cancel culture” label is a transparent attempt to delegitimize dissent, usually dissent from the left, and to make yourself a free speech hero instead of someone with an opinion about civility. Maybe you’re not being a right-wing hack with this spin, but you are, at a minimum, being a useful idiot for right-wing hacks.