Cancel Culture: An Intergenerational Dialogue (guest post)

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The following is a guest post* by Sigal Ben-Porath, Professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and Associate Member of the Penn Philosophy and Political Science faculties. It’s part of a series of weekly guest posts by various authors this summer at Daily Nous.

[detail of tape art instllation by Aakash Nihilani]

Cancel Culture: A Dialogue Between Generations
by Sigal Ben Porath (with Itamar Ben Porath)

In the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on free speech on campus and elsewhere, and on “abandon culture” and how it organizes our moral vision and social interactions. Obviously, many other philosophers (and others) are pondering similar issues, whether or not they are personally publicly affected by the “Annulment.” As I was working on my previous book and upcoming book on these subjects, my family was often my first sounding board for ideas and reality check as I attempted to help colleges and universities address language guidelines and tensions at the frontiers of protective expression.

For this post, I took up Justin’s suggestion to have a dialogue with my eldest child, Itamar, about the actual and desirable effects of “breakaway culture” on philosophy and philosophers. Itamar graduated from Vassar College last year and they have always encouraged me to reflect on the implications of protected speech in philosophy and elsewhere. Her voice and beliefs are different from mine, which always makes our ongoing conversations enjoyable and challenging. I hope you feel the same way.

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SIGNAL: Philosophers seem to be quite involved in the “culture of annulment” – a loosely defined term. While there is reason to question the accuracy or completeness of databases on professors facing language-related pressures, it is easy to observe that scholars of the discipline regularly become embroiled in, or throw themselves headlong into, battles over the boundaries of language . Philosophy seems to educate us to do just that: to refuse to take assumptions and claims for granted, to challenge long-held norms, to analyze concepts, and to look for fallacies. From Logic 101 to epistemology to political philosophy, the habits and practices that animate the discipline are helpful in considering assumptions about what is permissible, desirable, and appropriate. As philosophers, we are taught to appreciate the brake, the questioning of common sense, the innovative idea that pushes boundaries (or buttons). The process of doing this sometimes gets philosophers into trouble. I sometimes wonder if philosophers should embrace the possibility of annulment as a risk inherent in their work, as Agnes Callard seems to do.

ITAMAR: The fact that “abandonment culture” is only vaguely defined speaks to its main functions, in my opinion: the bringing together of disparate entities whose only general similarity is that in all of them one party reacts negatively to the words or actions of another party. It may also be worth noting that the charge of “cancellation” is overwhelmingly likely to be leveled at favored targets of the reactionary media apparatus, including feminists (defined as any woman who accuses a man of sexual misconduct), blacks, and queer activists. For example, when was the last time you heard about NDAs being called a “quitting culture”? By the way, what about the disappearance of tenure track positions with all the consequent weakening of the protections for free speech in academia? Challenging common sense may be an essential part of the philosophical project, but ignoring the ins and outs of “common sense” at a given moment is allowing yourself to slip from brake to troll.

SIGNAL: So you’re denying that cancel is properly defined, or maybe even that it’s an actual threat as currently used. But it seems that it is having a real impact, especially in colleges and universities. Philosophy as a discipline is not alone in these struggles. At law schools across North America, battles over racial inclusion — sometimes focusing on the permissibility of mentioning libel — have garnered much attention in recent years, drawing a number of professors a lot of media attention, whether they opted in or out Not. The MLA recently erupted in its own controversy over who gets to police the limits of open speech. Philosophers would find these struggles recognizable. In philosophy journals and sections, the generational struggle over perceived tensions between seeking truth and avoiding harm often focuses on feminism and trans rights, or the struggle over the definition of who a woman is. This battle rages on, costing some their reputations, their relationships, or their jobs. Expressing views on social media can lead to a firestorm; and even “Devil’s Advocate” in class can be public enough—whether students are capturing the moment on their phones or not—to elicit significant resistance from students, peers, alumni, or parents.

ITAMAR: If, as your sources suggest, the impact of dropout culture on academia includes: a white professor who is on par with his students and chooses to stop using the N-word; a professor who claims “trans women are a fiction”, faces protests and resigns; and impact on a professor who, among other school administration findings, called racial minorities “cockroaches” and denounced their involvement in civil rights claims, then I fight to see “cancel culture.” per se as unfounded. While there are genuine concerns about freedom of expression around the world today, many of them affecting the work of academics, I fail to see how these issues form a larger whole with the cases listed above, all of which involve a case of bigotry resolved non-violently .

SIGNAL: Fair enough. The term “abandonment culture” is probably confusing and doesn’t make sense. But these cases seem to meet a challenge that many of us feel in our work: fear of saying the wrong word, of being trapped in a culture that is changing beneath our feet. How do you think we should normatively think about this? Should we double down to create controversy, or should we be careful what we say? And if the latter is the case, can we still participate in an open investigation? In order to do our work, we need to be able to openly explore (among other things) concepts at the heart of public discourse, from demands for justice to the definition of race to the categorization of gender.

ITAMAR: I would suggest that philosophers redouble their commitment to the challenge of power! Insisting on the illegitimacy and possible danger of trans women, demeaning people of color and using insults, and repeating well-known right-wing dog whistles like “What is a woman?” in a philosophical tone – these are all questions that can masquerade as subversive, but each of them is in its own way a reinforcement of existing power structures. To insist on the innate value neutrality of philosophy as a discipline, or of the questions we raise and our methods of seeking answers, is to passively align with power. This process not only harms the weakest, but also serves to undermine the foundation of democracy on which philosophy itself rests. Philosophers who “pose only the difficult questions” should reflect back on themselves the discipline’s tradition of open inquiry and consider the purpose of certain “difficult questions,” or even the call for philosophy to leave no stone unturned, in could serve at a time like this . So “what is a woman” is not a neutral question; Discussing this is a political act with public ramifications and this fact needs to be taken into account in the work.

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Sigal here – I have the last word because I have a job. 😊

Those of us who teach philosophy can easily see a generational shift in attitudes toward outspoken expression, a shift that sometimes creates tension between our scholarship and our teaching. Students more often seem to prefer sensitivity to potential harm to a harsh, borderline style of exchange. This raises ongoing concerns among professors about the deterrent effect of damage worries and about the mob mentality that can generate or propagate calls for annulment. Some of us associate these social changes with technology: students can easily record our words, and calls for punishment can go viral in new and urgent ways. Others, including myself, see the greater diversity of the student body as a key driver of concerns about harm and see some positive implications for efforts to be effectively more inclusive. Some suggest students hold real power here, but elements of institutional power, from tenure protections to recent court rulings, suggest otherwise.

I have long learned from my children and students that in order to have truly open inquiry and genuine discussion, in which we can freely exchange opinions, we must implement norms of respect and listening. Otherwise we can only strive for a discussion dominated by the voices of those who already have confidence, power and presence. Itamar asks me to consider whether this means not only that we need to include more voices, but that we should also consider excluding, and possibly even avoiding some questions, those who maintain biased views or disregard the harmful effects of their questions. I’m not sure I’m ready to go there, but I look forward to continuing the conversation.

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