Is there anything left to say about “Cancel Culture”? Actually, quite a bit. For example, it would be nice to have a coherent definition. That’s a tall order – we may have to fight over it for a few more years. But at a minimum, it would help us to know the contours of situations where the concept of ‘cancellation’ doesn’t helpfully attach. That’s my task in today’s Truth Fairy – to help us avoid misusing the idea. I’ll use three fairly recent stories of ‘cancellation,’ and I’ll try to be concise.
Sunday, the BBC announced it had launched an investigation into one of its news reporters covering Palestine and Israel, Tala Halawa, after a Twitter user unearthed a series of Tweets Halawa had written in 2014, which tend to suggest she was less than an reasoned observer of the Middle East conflict. To wit: “#Israel is more #Nazi than #Hitler,” “Zionists can’t get enough of our blood,” “#HitlerWasRight” and “#IDF go to hell.” (According to the Spectator, she also published a graphic of a child being burned on a menorah. Charming gal.)
Last week, the Associated Press retracted a job offer from Stanford graduate Emily Wilder, after the Stanford College Republicans exposed her comments about right-wing Jews and Israel. Her published remarks, made as an undergraduate in 2018 and 2019, included referring to the late Republican donor Sheldon Adelson as a “naked mole rat,” and Ben Shapiro as a “little turd.” She wrote that Jews had “ethnically cleansed” Palestinians from Judea and Samaria (a lie), and publicly defended Hamzeh Daoud, a Stanford residential student who threatened to “physically fight Zionists on campus.”
Wilder’s statement on her termination—containing no apology—proclaimed: “I am one victim to the asymmetrical enforcement of rules around objectivity and social media that has censored so many journalists—particularly Palestinian journalists and journalists of color—before me.” (Wilder is neither a Palestinian journalist, nor a journalist of color.)
While I am typically no fan of the “Other people committed the same infractions and got off scot-free!” defense, it is also hard to ignore that the timing of her firing seemed bum luck: the Associated Press had spent the last few days submitting to public tarring-and-feathering, when it was reported that the AP’s Gaza headquarters shared office space with Hamas.
Third in our trifecta: Kyle Kashuv. In 2019, Harvard rescinded the admission of the Parkland shooting student survivor, after a reporter learned that, as a high school sophomore, Kashuv had used the N-word 11 times in a Google doc with friends. Kashuv wrote an apology to Harvard, rejecting the racist language he used; he is the only of the three to have apologized.
But there are other obvious differences among them. Kashuv was the youngest when he made the offensive remarks (only 16), and both Kashuv and Wilder were still students. While few people outside of the right were willing to defend Kashuv, Emily Wilder’s firing was widely decried, including by both the left and ‘classical liberal’ moderates:
“This is indefensible,” wrote Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institute. “In no sane world should one’s views of the Palestinian-Israel conflict in college disqualify you from covering local matters in Arizona.” More than 100 Associated Press reporters signed an open letter in protest. Thomas Chatterton Williams, one of my favorite voices of reason in today’s world, wrote: “This is cancel culture and it’s toxic. People should not be fired for tweets, especially not tweets that predate their employment.”
Perhaps no one’s juvenilia should disqualify her from a job—and the reason isn’t merely that most of us said idiotic things in adolescence—but because that’s as it should be. If we are ever going to test out an extreme idea or hurtful comment, adolescence is the time to do it—a period of identity formation when we require all the feedback we can get. We demand adults behave themselves precisely because we assume this was preceded by beta-testing, a period of adaptive idiocy, when they tore through adolescence’s maze, hungering for affection, altering behavior in response to every dead end, registering each shock of pain. It seems compassionate—perhaps even necessary—to place a black box around statements made in high school and college, particularly where a young person has later disavowed them.
But is there no public statement predating one’s employment so vile as to render someone an obviously bad hire? (The emphasis on public statement seems critical because all social life might end if we did not retain the freedom to explore half-baked or foolish ideas in private with intimates.) How about a preschool teacher, whose school learns he has commented on social media that he finds small children “sexy?” Or a police officer who is found to have made racist proclamations on social media? Even if these statements predate the officer’s employment, even if he has only ever behaved honorably on the job, his past comments would likely provide sound basis for undermining any arrests he makes, any testimony he gives. His past public comments are relevant because they compromise his ability to do his job at all.
Or, in an egregious real-life instance, the Ohio medical resident who was fired from the Cleveland Clinic, after tweets surfaced in which she had suggested she would “purposely give all the yahood [Jews] the wrong meds”? (Here’s the link) That wasn’t inappropriate cancellation—nor really any cancellation at all; given the doctor’s ability to harm, it was closer to a rescue mission for the clinic and its patients.
Put plainly, there are some jobs you cannot be entrusted to do after you've made public statements that compromise your ability to do them.
The judiciary has long understood this point. A judge who has tweeted #BelieveAllWomen, for example, is not going to be permitted to preside over a sexual assault case, even if she tweeted it before hearing the case. She’s also likely to be reprimanded for making those types of pronouncements, which are inconsistent with her role as a neutral arbiter and trier of law. If she does slip through and judge that case, it will form the basis of an appeal. That’s not cancel culture; it is a necessary protection for the rule of law and public confidence in the legal system.
Here, then, is a standard for separating nefarious “cancellation” (say, firing and deplatforming designed to curb and chill speech) from the common-sense recognition that certain public statements may make it impossible for someone to carry out a specific job: The Al Campanis Rule. (Remember him?)
Al Campanis was general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1968 until his firing in 1987, after he made several racist remarks in interview on ABC’s Nightline, including that blacks “may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or perhaps, a general manager.” Campanis’s libelous remark was cruel and obviously wrong. It not only denigrated fellow Americans based on race, it jeopardized the Los Angeles Dodgers’ good standing with black athletes and fans built over three decades of risk-taking and bridge building since the days of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey.
Campanis’s continued employment with Major League Baseball made it impossible for black managerial candidates to believe that they could ever have a fair shot at a GM position. The point of his firing was not principally to “silence him” or “deplatform his ideas,” which, by 1987, were already anachronistic and discredited. The point was to remove a man who could no longer do his job. Had Campanis made the statement via tweet prior to his employment, all of that would remain true.
The same applies to Halawa, the BBC reporter whose enthusiasm for Hitler’s rightness and proclaimed hatred for Israel simply obliterates any pretense BBC has to fair Mideast reporting. A news reporter has no business in the job if she cannot promise fealty to truth and a belief in pursuing objectivity. Good judgment matters, too. After Halawa’s tweets surfaced, she could claim none of those. The Al Campanis Rule applies.
Cancel culture is different. Cancel culture is gangrenous because it encourages ordinary Americans to self-censor, to inform on one another. It creates a climate of dangerous conformity, forbidding inquiry where it is needed most. Open discussion anneals our thinking, rendering it steelier, better depended upon. It offers necessary vent to frustrations and worries which, sent underground, might reach higher temperature. In the regular collision of viewpoints we hope to avoid a violent collision of bodies—and the contest between ideas remains an essential prerequisite for arriving at a truth.
What does that mean for Wilder’s case? Her online comments weren’t great—but neither were they damning. Her refusal to meet censure with any regret is hard to condemn, given that we are told—again and again—that the worst response to a mob is genuflection.
But her letter, painting herself as a victim, claiming that all she had done was to share “the painful experiences of Palestinians” and “interrogat[e] the language we use to describe them”—suggests a rather remarkable hubris. She pledges, at the end of her letter: “I will not be intimidated into silence.”
If this means a refusal to stop telling the stories of the Palestinians, good for her. If it means defending her right to make grotesque and unseemly characterizations of a conservative she disagrees with, then I am grateful there are still journalists who consider that this might be a discredit to her employer.
Is it unreasonable to expect reporters to disavow biases? Many think so. Glenn Greenwald put it this way: “Journalists aren’t ‘objective’ because they’re human. Humans are subjective, not objective. The difference isn’t between journalists who have political views and those who don’t (they all do). It’s between those who acknowledge theirs & those who pretend they have none.”
That may be right as an empirical matter. But abandoning objectivity as a goal is a perilous strategy for journalism. The striving for fair balance and a neutral pose (even more than actually achieving it) makes news reporting credible and possible. Without it, we sink into conspiracy theory and mistrust.
For good reason, we would want a conviction overturned—and a judge replaced—if she publicly aired views that compromised her ability to fairly adjudicate. And any doctor who jokes online about killing patients—just like any preschool teacher who jokes about sexually molesting students—should be promptly fired. Not to silence their speech (which is not really at issue), but to protect the public both from harm and from losing all faith in crucial institutions.
Should the AP have canned Emily Wilder? It’s a borderline case, a judgment call. I can easily see both sides. I have my own opinion, and I’ll probably keep it to myself.
Not every thought needs to be turned into public proclamation.