Free Speech, Cancel Culture, and the Miseducation of Cousin Miles

As a person who prides himself on being critical — perhaps even to an excessive degree — I definitely support dissent and debate. But I also recognize that positions don’t emerge from the ether, without the weight of history and political power behind them. Opposing positions do not enter into some neutral “marketplace of ideas” uninformed by context. Rather, the context, as shaped by history and hegemony, dictates that any two positions will not “compete” on equal terms. For example, in the national “debate” over gay marriage, the weight of public opinion was for many years levied against it.

That a national debate wasn’t even possible for centuries before that, clearly indicates that the two positions — in favor and opposed — did not enter the debate on equal terms. Eventually, as public opinion shifted, and the basic civil rights of queer folx were recognized as worthy of defense, this lead to the legalization of gay marriage nationally. Even then, this didn’t really stop the “debate”, and there continue to be court cases over the rights of queer families, as private businesses deny them service on religious grounds, or states deny them the right to adopt children.

What is vital to understand in this example is that queer folx are and always have been an oppressed class in the United States. This means that any “debate” concerning their rights does not take place in some culturally and politically neutral space. Where the power of the state, reinforced by the cultural norms of the dominant classes are weighted against any group of people, it is often their voices, their perspectives, their rights, which are silenced and suppressed. We do not need any continued “debate” on people’s dignity or sovereignty or safety. Hegemony and counter-hegemony do not exist on equal terms.

Free Speech vs. Cancel Culture

In reading about this debate between “free speech” and “cancel culture”, as mediated by the Harper’s open letter, and the many different responses to it, I feel that there are a few critical points being left out of the discussion. First, it is important to distinguish “call out culture” from “cancel culture”. The former is about raising the issue of accountability, while the latter is about what the consequences should be once a person is held accountable. It seems to me that the two “sides” of this debate are confusing and/or conflating these two concepts.

Where the internet has allowed for a more equitable exchange of ideas (in theory), giving marginalized or oppressed people a platform they lacked before, people in positions of power and privilege can be “called out” for their abuse, and where this calling out is amplified by many voices, there may be in turn a public reckoning — from which “cancellation” is one possible outcome. The signatories and defenders of the Harper’s letter are clearly arguing against “cancel culture” — that is, what they see as the disproportionate punishment of people for expressing certain views, which also has a chilling effect on people expressing those views at all. While I think this can be reasonably seen as a suppression of free speech, punching down should not be granted the same liberty as punching up. The force of justice must back those who are subordinate to Power, just as Power is backed by the force of hegemony and the State.

Those arguing against the Harper’s open letter, most notably the response published by The Objective, are defending the right of people, particularly the marginalized and oppressed, to call out others, which is in itself a defense of their free speech. But there is some nuance to discuss here, with respect to opposing positions not emerging into a neutral space, free of context, or divorced from relationships of power.

As Anthony DiMaggio discusses in CounterPunch, the argument of the Harper’s letter is being made either in bad faith, or with a complete ignorance of or disregard for history and politics in the United States.

We live in a period when the rise of neoliberal capitalism and untrammeled corporate power have cheapened “public” political discourse to serve the interests of plutocratic wealth and power, while assaulting notions of the common good and the public health.

Anthony DiMaggio, “Free Speech Fantasies: the Harper’s Letter and the Myth of American Liberalism

DiMaggio goes on to argue how this power dynamic has historically been heavily weighted against those on the “left” of the political spectrum, particularly in the Academy, where discourses around “professionalism” dictate that all legitimate scholarship remain within a certain ideological “center”, silencing voices on the margins.

This constraining of ideas to the “median” seems to be rooted in white USAmerican norms of white upper/middle class “decorum”, specifically the pressure to avoid conflict, or rather, to avoid any public appearance of conflict. Settle the lawsuits out of court, sign a non-disclosure agreement, don’t talk religion or politics at the dinner table, leave race out of it, and for goodness sakes, put those rainbow flags away, and keep any discussion of sexuality behind closed doors. This is far more complicated than I have time or space to discuss here, but put simply, those who benefit from the status quo (and those who aspire to) — by virtue of social, economic, or political power and privilege — would really quite like it, if the rest of you wouldn’t much mind, if we could just keep things “civil”. A premium is placed on preserving the appearance, not just of civility, but of the fundamental “goodness” of those in power.

Muddying the Waters

The debate becomes confusing and downright bizarre, as the defenders of the status quo scramble, stumble, and fall all over each other in an attempt to keep up appearances, to maintain their claims to a moral superiority. In our current political moment, the Black Lives Matter movement approaches mainstream legitimacy — this only after the murder of George Floyd, a particularly egregious visualization of the Black oppression, suffering, and death which the “mainstream” could no longer ignore or wish away.

The dam finally broke, and countless white people scrambled to make it known that they were nothing like the murderous police officer, that they condemned and disavowed him, and that they had always valued Black lives. To prove it, they would post statements of support on social media, donate to Black causes, march in the streets, and most importantly, put on a performance of punishing those who did not do the same. These include the unapologetic racists, but also those who merely did not express their support publicly, who held the same positions as many of these new defenders of black lives, just minutes before they saw the video of George Floyd being murdered.

These white “woke” people — liberals invested in the performance of superior morality — have co-opted critical discourse and perverted it into some profane purity test of who can be the most symbolically “good” while doing much of nothing to change the reality of the situation. Where they trip and fall all over themselves in their performance of “wokeness”, cherry picking the language away from the substance, they obscure and invalidate the underlying logic of criticality, as advanced by people of color and other marginalized groups (see: critical race theory, queer theory, etc), undermining the very causes for which they claim to stand.

(As a brief aside, I find it extremely frustrating that the term “woke” — Black American vernacular meaning sociopolitical awareness — has been so co-opted and abused as to become a pejorative against white liberals.)

In the name of this fake purity, they’ll risk actual damage to vulnerable communities. I spoke about this in my critique of the Ralph Northam blackface scandal. Democrats (white liberals), in order to stake some imaginary moral high ground, were on the verge of losing the whole governorship of Virginia, which might have lead to policies that actually harmed black people. These are the same people, you’ll remember, who wore Kente cloth stoles in a misguided show of solidarity. Without irony — or self-awareness it would seem — they knelt for nine minutes, basically embodying the white police officer who killed George Floyd, rather than Floyd himself. Their obliviousness and ham-handed pandering might be funny if only these weren’t the same people who hold black lives in their hands as they make decisions for the rest of the country.

This whole conflict, supposedly between “free speech” and “cancel culture” has become so circular and recursive as to completely pollute the waters of reasoned debate. Take this article by Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic, which, at its core seems to be arguing against a narrow view or set of norms, outside of which people meet with disproportionate retribution (i.e. some damage to their reputation or livelihood). Friedersdorf’s argument doesn’t seem to be so much against cancel culture, as it is against its perceived excesses. Navigating this threshold between what makes the personal and professional consequences proportionate to the harm is extremely difficult, mediated as it is by the complex interplay of culture and the dynamics of power, each of which themselves are informed by long histories. Hardly anyone is evaluating a single act — or even a series of actions — within all of this context.

As part of his argument, Friedersdorf cites an New York Times opinion piece by Chad Sanders, in which Sanders makes demands of his friends to hold their own friends and loved ones accountable for various offenses. To be clear, Friedersdorf is critiquing Sanders, who is critiquing his associates, on the grounds that they should be critiquing their friends and family. Friedersdorf characterizes Sanders as using “cult tactics”, seeing him as trying to force other people to behave within very specific parameters. Ironically, what Friedersdorf does in order to make his point, is to take one small part Sanders’ article and divorce it from the larger context, confining it within his own narrow parameters.

Chad Sanders is black. This matters because his article is actually about his frustrations with white friends and colleagues, who in their outpouring of “support”, their expressions of “love”, were not providing him with what he needed or even wanted from them. He is arguing, like I am here, that much of this “support” is performative, a clarion call to the Arbiters of Virtue — the “black friends” of the world — to remind him/them/us that they are the “good” white people. The same dynamic plays out with all kinds of privileged “allies” of marginalized/oppressed people, and how they perform their allegiances.

Friedersdorf couldn’t be concerned with this context, perhaps because it would require too much work for him to navigate the dynamics of power at play, to parse issues of free speech and autonomy from how those things are leveraged by those with power against those without. Sanders’ white friends and colleagues are under no obligation, will not be under any particular pressure,to take his advice. Actual cults are entirely about power: who has it (the cult leader), and who doesn’t (the members). Sanders, as a Black man in America, even at this moment of national reckoning, has absolutely zero power over his white friends and colleagues. Friedersdorf conveniently ignores this dynamic because it better suits his argument to do so. In the process, he uses his power and platform to essentially invalidate Sanders’ entire argument. Is that the “free speech” he is defending then? The freedom to decontextualize and disregard the speech of others?

Friedersdorf also discusses the case of a bookstore called Tattered Cover, which released a statement explaining why they hadn’t come out publicly in support of Black Lives Matter, attributing it to a longstanding policy of political neutrality. This resulted in a backlash, summed up in the statement of author Carmen Maria Machado, who canceled a scheduled engagement at the bookstore, saying that “choosing neutrality in matters of oppression only reinforces structural violence”. The bookstore would later release a second statement, definitively in support of Black Lives Matter, and apologize for “violating the trust” of the community.

For Friedersdorf, this is madness, the bookstore committing “self-flagellation” for no useful purpose, other than “unanimity” — that is, the absolutism of a particular point of view, which he perceives as a threat to solidarity in itself. This is one of the rare times where I find myself in the “middle” of two opposing points of view. While I agree that being neutral within an oppressive dynamic is the same as being complicit, I don’t think this means everyone always has to speak up on behalf of the oppressed in every conceivable situation. Especially not where it isn’t solicited and where one’s action or inaction doesn’t really make a difference.

Does every business need to issue a statement in support of black lives? I don’t think so, especially where it is only symbolic and performative, not backed by any meaningful effort to change the material or social reality for black people. Tattered Cover’s mistake was in making any statement at all. They could’ve quietly donated to black causes, hired some new black employees, featured black books, without any additional performance. If someone wanted to call them out for not making a statement, they could’ve simply pointed to their actual support for black people, in contrast to so many other businesses’ symbolic gesturing. This is the essence of Chad Sanders’s argument.

Prior to the release of the Harper’s letter, Yascha Mounk, one of the signatories, also wrote an opinion piece for the Atlantic, in which he criticized the apparent trend of “innocent” workers and businesses being punished for offenses that violate what he calls a “zero tolerance policy on racism”. The examples he cites are indeed extreme, and speak to the sort of confusing recursion I mentioned earlier. In one case, a group of white executives fire a Mexican employee after another white person, outside of work, allegedly tricks him into flashing a hand sign that other white people (white supremacists) have repurposed to represent “white power”. In this instance, white people caused harm to a person of color (took away his livelihood) in order to, as Mounk says, “signal their good intentions”. This signaling isn’t done toward, or on behalf of people of color, but to other similarly performative white people, as if there’s a competition for who can be the most “woke”, and through that, the most “good”.

Mounk also brings up the case of David Shor, a data analyst who was allegedly fired, not for violating the “zero tolerance policy”, but for merely highlighting the work of someone else who was perceived as having done so. That person — Princeton professor Omar Wasow — came under fire for publishing a paper which argued that non-violent protest yielded better electoral returns than violent protest. Wasow was criticized perhaps for the timing of the release of his study, from which it was inferred that he was not in support of the Black Lives Matter protests. This is a bit of a leap in itself, and for Shor to be fired merely for tweeting a summary of Wasow’s posts — thereby similarly positioning him in perceived opposition to BLM — is indeed absurd. One problem with Mounk’s argument, however, is that in the two cases mentioned above, the employers in question either denied or did not comment on whether these were the reasons for the terminations. The larger problem with Mounk’s argument, which also finds expression in the Harper’s letter, is that these extreme cases are anomalous, and there isn’t any observable trend of “innocent” people being terminated for minor offenses in accordance with a “zero tolerance policy on racism”.

This is a major point raised by the Objective counter-letter:

The Harper’s letter cites six nonspecific examples to justify their argument. It’s possible to guess what incidents the signatories might be referring to, and it’s likely that if they listed specific examples, most wouldn’t hold water. But the instances they reference are not part of a new trend at all…

The Objective, “A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate

The Non-Power of Cancellation

Earlier, I made the claim that people on both sides of this “debate” are conflating two different concepts: calling out and canceling. To explain that further, I need to return to Friedersdorf’s article. In it he mentions another case, of a principal who is fired for making a statement against Black Lives Matter. Not an obviously racist statement, but criticizing what she saw as “coercion” in the Movement’s methods. She also made the fatal error of saying, in effect, that “Blue Lives Matter, too”.

What the principal did speaks to the critical error in the Harper’s piece, which is using false equivalence. As mentioned previously, in a conflict where two opposing sides do not enter on equal terms, the actions taken by both sides do not have the same social impact. In the conflict between black people and police, there is an enormous power differential to be considered — that is, the police have the power and often wield it against black people. Actions taken by black people against police, nearly the entirety of which are non-violent, cannot be compared, let alone equated to police violence. “Blue lives” aren’t even at stake in this conflict.

At the same time, while I vehemently disagree with the principal’s stance, I also do not think she should have been fired for that statement alone. She absolutely should have been called out and corrected. I also think she should’ve been subjected to some sort of professional “audit”, because if she holds these problematic views of Black Lives Matter, she is likely engaging in poor judgment in other situations of greater importance, given her position of power in the lives of black students. Firing her outright wasn’t about holding her accountable so much as it was about the district signaling that they are on the “right” side of the issue, that they have the moral high ground.

Alternatively, where an “audit” revealed that this principal’s statement was not representative of her views of black people in general, or were not reflected in how she treats black students under her care, this could’ve been an important “teachable moment”. This could’ve been an opportunity for the whole school to receive training on racial justice, or the pretext for bringing about other meaningful changes. Instead, the district chose to maintain the appearance of goodness, and in the process likely drove others with problematic views into hiding, where they may continue to do harm, under the cover of performative wokeness.

This example also reveals the difference between “call out culture” and “cancel culture”. Again, the former exposes the need for accountability, while the latter is about the actual consequences. But it is more nuanced than even this, once we again factor in the dynamics of power. Unlike the examples Friedersdorf and Mounk provide — “extreme” for the very fact that they are so rare — most instances of cancel culture are ultimately ineffective attempts by those without power to bring retribution for abuses committed by those in power. And it is because of the power differential that these attempts are ineffective.

J.K. Rowling, one of the signatories to the Harper’s letter, has been “called out” on numerous occasions for transphobic statements, or defenses of aggressively transmisogynist people. Despite the many calls for her to be “cancelled”, however, she has remained a best-selling author, and a billionaire, with no lasting stain on her reputation, or impact to her livelihood. This says nothing about whether or not she deserves such retribution, but everything about the power of those in a subordinate social position to hold those in power to account. In spite of the pearl-clutching concerns of the Harper’s letter signatories, “cancel culture” — and even this name oversells its reach and its impact — rarely has any lasting effect on the free speech of the powerful and/or prominent voices like the signatories themselves.

Journalist Zaid Jilani (another signatory to the Harper’s letter), speaking on the YouTube Program Rising, pointed to fact that some of the signatories to the Objective counter-letter had to do so anonymously. For Jilani, that they could not take their position publicly without fear of retaliation, is exactly the sort of thing that the Harper’s letter was speaking against. However, this is yet another failure to understand the nuances of power. That the Harper’s letter signatories felt free to sign their letter openly, has everything to do with the fact that the letter upholds the liberal centrist hegemony, evidenced most strongly in its vague, milquetoast language, uncommitted to any serious position, and therefore not a threat to the existing order.

On the other hand, the signatories to the Objective letter, are speaking from the same subordinate position as people of color, queer folx, and other marginalized populations, who regularly have to suppress our speech. This for the fact that our very existence — nevermind any demands for change or accountability — is not only a direct challenge to the existing order, but to Power’s sense of moral superiority. Every day, every instance of where we point to the ways that the status quo is immoral, seems to be perceived by these types as a direct attack on their very identities as “good people”.

Chatterton Williams and the End Run Around Race

Given that I have written about him in the past, there was no way I could address this issue without discussing the author of the Harper’s Letter: Thomas Chatterton Williams. Rather than rehashing the argument against him I made a two years ago, I’ll just say that this is a man who has yet to truly cope with his trauma, even as the entire thrust of his career seems to be in response to it. That he finds himself in a position opposite the majority of critical black voices is directly related to the fact that he has now written two books lambasting some aspect of majority black culture. It is directly related to his view of a uniquely black cultural product — hip hop — as incompatible with other cultural products, such as (mostly white) literature, which he regards as entirely separate, and superior. It may have been “books” which sustained him in his battle against hip-hop — a battle he won to hear him tell it — but books and hip hop were mere surrogates in the internal conflict between his conception of own blackness versus that of many others. This conflict was no doubt founded upon Williams’ experience of being rejected by black people in some way, indeed the definitive crisis for tragic mulattoes everywhere.

A conflict thus slices the tender soul of our young hero: Live the unexamined life of thuggish hedonism and machismo, or cultivate self-discipline and become an intellectual like [his father]? Some version of this tension drives every scene in the book, as the battle between brains and “hip-hop” is restaged with plangent, tiring zeal.

Tobi Haslett, “Irrational Man

For Williams, those other people’s conception of blackness is founded upon trauma and suffering, which he fervently rejects, as someone who claims to have experienced very little of it, and as the son of a man who “overcame” it. With the same sort of individualist thinking that characterizes white Americans at large, Williams disregards black people’s collective trauma and suffering, dismissing it as the discrete experiences of many individuals, who with just a small change in fortune, or by virtue of hard work, could’ve avoided it, or overcome it, as he and his father managed to do.

It seems as if Williams’s entire identity, his tenuous hold on his own blackness, depends on this premise. Because if blackness is defined by trauma and suffering, and he has not experienced these things, then it follows by his logic that he is not black, thereby validating his alienation. He does not seem to grasp that he has, in fact, experienced trauma and suffering, and that it is not these things that define black people’s collective identity, but our resilience. Williams saw the “battle” as being between himself (as represented by “15,000 books”) and other black people (represented by hip-hop), for the right to claim blackness. Really it should have been a collective struggle with other black people against white supremacy. In that he never even recognized the terms of the conflict, his defeat was so absolute, that he also failed to notice when he was converted into an agent in the continuing war against black people.

Because he has managed to cling to his own narrowly defined blackness, he is ironically even able to cite racism to defend himself from criticism, even where that criticism comes on behalf of other black people. At some point, another Twitter user — a white woman — critiqued Williams from a critical race perspective, arguing against his respectability politics, and in the process mentioned his “mixed-race”. Her critique was valid on the merits, but this was one of those times where a white person inserted themselves into an internal conflict between black people. His “mixed race” is actually important, in how it undoubtedly shaped his experiences with blackness and other black people. But that’s really not for a white person to point out, as this Twitter user later acknowledged. This brings up another murky dimension in the whole free speech debate: who should have a voice, and what they can rightfully say, within any given social or political context.

Williams responded by saying, “I believe in another era she would have simply called me ‘uppity.'”. What he evoked there was the historical dynamics of power between black and white people in the U.S., wherein any instance of black resistance, real or imagined, was regarded as black people not knowing their “place”. To be “uppity”, for white people, means a black person attempting to rise above their station, immutable though it may be due to racial inferiority. For Williams to take an argument based in critical race theory, and reject it not on the merits, but because of the race of the messenger, is stunningly hypocritical. This is yet another example of how the free speech vs. cancel-culture debate has become circular and recursive to the point of absurdity, transforming the discourse into an unnavigable slog through muddy waters.

Williams — who we must remember is the sole author of the Harper’s letter — has positioned himself more or less against most black people, in believing, against all evidence, that black oppression is individually experienced, rather than collective and systemic. This allows him to hold firm to the myth of a post-racial society, wherein his experience of blackness is as valid as any other. In fact, his experience is as valid as any other, but for Williams, it requires an invalidation of others’ experience: a rejection of those who rejected him.

His positioning has allowed him to accumulate some measure of prestige and validation — a salve, I imagine, for persisting wounds. But I think even he recognizes this validation as temporary and circumstantial, that he must “renew the contract” every so often by excoriating other black people — even if only implicitly — for reminding white society of our oppression, for challenging their deep sense of moral superiority. Williams, in redefining blackness as entirely divorced from trauma and suffering — in abject denial of history and our collective experience to the present day — serves as proof for his white friends and colleagues of their “goodness”.

The Rise of Cousin Miles

It would be so easy to label Williams an “Uncle Tom”, for his close proximity to and tireless defense of whiteness. But I think this overlooks the subtle complexities of what he’s been able to accomplish, and the historical evolution of Uncle Tom, as he moved on up from the House to the Board Room. Tom lived in constant fear of direct physical violence, bowing his head both to avoid the blows and to lower himself to a posture sufficiently subordinate to his white masters. As the machinery of white supremacy grew infinitely more complex, Tom did his best to understand it, to navigate it, to survive it long enough to pass on his knowledge on to the next generation.

Enter “Cousin Miles“, the mixed-race son of Uncle Tom, who for his integration into youth culture and the liberal pluralism of the modern era isn’t as blatantly self-hating as his father. But in the tension between his deep desire to fit in with the other black kids — tempered by the sting of their rejection — and the pressure to “succeed” from his father, within the narrow parameters of white supremacy, he is inevitably pulled toward the latter. With one foot in the white world, and with at least a whole toe in the black world, Cousin Miles is able to capitalize on his tragic mulatto identity to acquire limited status, wealth, or power.

Taking out a line of credit on on his RaceCard, he holds himself up as a paragon of New Blackness™, “clean” and “articulate”, the diametric opposite of the Angry Black Man® who continues to shout unintelligibly from the other side of the glass. Sustained by all the white liberal smiles and glad-hands he can stand, Miles ignores the itch of inauthenticity as they make another toast, not to him, but in tribute to their own tolerance.

Meanwhile, the rest of us continue to struggle, to find purpose and meaning and solidarity in that struggle, defining ourselves by what we can accomplish collectively, rather than by individual concessions earned through appeals to white moral superiority.