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.

Our students were not picking a fight. They were attempting to implement the cancel culture that has become all too prevalent on university campuses. The hundreds of virtually identical protest emails we received in my office in advance of Commencement came with an explicit “cancel” hashtag, indicating an aim to prevent Mr. Zaslav from speaking. The attempt to silence a speaker with obscene shouts is a resort to gain power, not reason, and antithetical to the mission and purposes of a university.

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:

Some graduating students stood and turned their backs to the speaker and displayed signs. There were organized chants imploring Mr. Zaslav to pay his writers. For a university committed to free speech, protests are appropriate and common. The right to protest and freely express strongly held convictions is essential to sustaining the liberal democracy that we enjoy.

The protesters were a minority among the 23,000 people assembled on Nickerson Field. Students and guests applauded and cheered Mr. Zaslav as he described his life journey and offered advice to the graduates. Others listened respectfully. As it should be, Boston University is a noisy place of frequent, vigorous debate and discussion and where no one monolithic point of view dominates.

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.

But what we witnessed on Nickerson Field during Commencement veered, regrettably, in a different direction. A handful of students shouted obscenities at Mr. Zaslav. I flinched, as my reaction harkened back to my teen years, over half a century ago, on the south side of San Antonio, Tex. In that era, shouting the words that I heard from the field would be the precursor to a fistfight. I can’t imagine how Mr. Zaslav felt hearing these obscenities directed at him. I have apologized to Mr. Zaslav for the behavior of these students.

Obscenities? In Boston? Horrors!

The students who were appallingly coarse and deliberately abusive to Mr. Zaslav were entitled to attend Commencement because they were being awarded degrees that they earned from Boston University. They sought to make a statement, out of passionate conviction, but in the moment, they forgot that in a liberal democracy, personal autonomy and freedom of speech come with responsibilities. One responsibility, particularly in an institution for which freedom of speech is the oxygen that sustains our mission, is respect for the speech rights of others. The deliberate effort to silence a speaker is at odds with this fundamental value. I am disappointed that some members of our graduating student body seem painfully unaware—or perhaps even hostile to—this idea.

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.

I am also disappointed at the insensitivity to our many guests—especially parents and grandparents—who came from far and wide to celebrate the success of a cherished relative. The willingness to spoil the occasion for these literally thousands of guests to not only make a point, but also literally prevent the speaker from conveying his message, was painful and embarrassing to witness. I would stress that from my vantage point—and that of others—the individuals behaving badly constituted a small minority. But that fact does not diminish my disappointment.

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” . . . .

On reflection, it seems to me that the incivility on Nickerson Field is indicative of the divisions in our country. People shouting anonymously at each other, accomplishing nothing but feeling gratified for doing so, while generating material to post on social media. In our specific case the shouters infringed on the rights of others—to be heard or, more simply, to celebrate a milestone for a new graduate in a ceremony not disfigured with obscenities. We must do better and be a place where freedom of speech and the vital instrument of lawful protest can coexist and foster every individual’s sense of belonging.

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.

Do better.

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