Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Is Cancel Culture a Thing?

Is it censorship to not be forced to pay for someone else's speech?

A reader asks me what I think of  "cancel culture" as much of what I write here could be "censored" on today's college campuses - or indeed, on Fox News, as much of what I write isn't "leftist" or "rightist" but just what I think, and I think I'm a pretty typical middle-of-the-road American.  And the middle of the road is a good place to get run-over.

The term "cancel culture" has been expanded to include a number of things over time, from students protesting speakers at college, to tearing down confederate monuments, to eliminating people from history books, rewriting a college curriculum to excise certain authors - to whatever Sean Hannity says it means this week. Like "Fake News" - a term appropriated by Trump to describe anything he disagrees with, the term "cancel culture" has been used by the right to mean "anything we don't like" - which in turn has diluted the term and turned it into the butt of jokes.

The thrust of the argument is that people are "censoring" right-wing views and under the first Amendment, people have a right to express their opinions, anytime, anywhere, even if someone else is forced to pay for it.  This is Constitutional Law for people who never read the Constitution.  They talk a lot about the Constitution, but rarely read or understand it. Under the first Amendment, the government cannot restrict free speech - it does not prohibit private enterprise or individuals from restricting free speech, nor does it obligate others to listen.  And even the government can regulate the time and place of free speech - you cannot walk into the halls of Congress with a bullhorn and shout out your beliefs (it's been tried, of course).  You cannot scream "fire" in a crowded theater.  You cannot block a public road with your protest (without a permit, anyway).  The right to "free speech" is not absolute, just as the second amendment "right to bear arms" is not absolute.  The government can regulate the sale of firearms and require their registration and permitting - and regulate the types of arms sold.  They just can't banish all arms, as was tried in Washington, DC.

As a private organization, Google could censor my blog or even delete it entirely - its their nickel, so they decide what gets posted and what doesn't.   I have no say in the matter.  Whatever you might think  is in the Constitution, it doesn't apply to Google.   You may have a right to "free speech" and a "right to bear arms" but Google can determine what does and doesn't appear on their platforms, and whether employees can bring their guns to work.  That's real freedom, by the way.  The idea that the Constitution "forces" people or companies to put up with other people's nonsense is the real tyranny.

Addressing all these ideas about "cancel culture" would take a book - or several volumes - so I will limit myself to one of the issues that started all this nonsense - the idea that people have a "right" to speak at a college campus - and the protesters have a "right" to physically prevent them from doing so.  Both are wrong, of course, and both are nailing themselves to the cross to get sympathy.

One thing that made me somewhat uncomfortable when running the Gay Student Association was that it was paid for with the student fee.   Most Colleges and Universities have a "student fee" which is used to support clubs and organizations and other "extra-curricular" activities on campus, from the College Republicans to the Greek Life organization, to the GSA and beyond.  What was kind of funny about this money is that much of it was spent on services provided by the University.  If we wanted flyers printed up, we didn't go to Kinkos, but rather to University Printing Services, which was run by the University.  If we wanted to rent some chairs and tables, we didn't go to rent-a-center but to the University, which would "charge" us a fee for such things.  So in a way, it is a way for the University to subsidize its own operations.

But some monies were spent on outside organizations, and one popular thing to spend money on was an outside "speaker" who would come and give a speech and often have a question-and-answer session afterwords.   The idea was that having such speakers on campus was educational and would generate discussion.   Such speakers, however, were often paid generous speaking fees.   As you well know, popular political figures often command huge speaking fees - in the tens of thousands of dollars - which is an awful lot of money.  A lot of people get pretty rich on these speaking fees, and students, who can ill-afford to pay these "student fees" end up each a little poorer.

Like I said, it sort of made me uncomfortable accepting this money for the GSA - after all, there were other students who felt that their money shouldn't go to supporting our organization.  And the same is true for other organizations on campus, whether they be political or religious or what.  Some of these groups were diametrically opposed to others.  Is it fair that students have to pay for things they don't believe in?   That is the question.  I'm not sure I have a concrete answer.

It is, in a way, similar to the situation with United Way.  I used to work the United Way campaigns at GM, Carrier, and the Patent Office (a task usually foisted off on the newest employee).  I was pretty naive back then (and even today).  But more than one employee pointed out that the charity supported both Planned Parenthood and Catholic Charities - at the same time!  And given the strong feelings people have about the abortion issue, they had a point.  No matter what your view on the issue, do you want to be funding "the other side"?   Again, an interesting question.  I am not sure I have a concrete answer.

Of course, when the head of United Way was caught spending our donations on limos and hookers, well, that kind of sealed the deal for me - I stopped giving entirely.  I started to realize that many of these organizations took on a life of their own - often more concerned about the perks for the organization leaders than with the good deeds they are doing.  I suppose living in Alexandria, Virginia, where many national organizations are (or were) located, sort of opened my eyes a bit on this. When the head of a do-good organization is taking in a million a year, you wonder if this is really "charity" for anyone other than the local Mercedes dealer.  But I digress....

Charity - that's a voluntary donation.  At most Colleges and Universities, the student fee is mandatory.  You are forced to pay for causes that only are not your own, but that you may be diametrically and vehemently opposed to.

So what do you do, if your school fund is paying for someone to come speak about a topic you don't like?   You can protest - legally - to be sure.  Or if you are smart, maybe ask some pointed questions during the question-and-answer portion of the presentation.  But physically preventing a speaker from speaking, or starting a riot - well, that's against the law.  On the other than, of course, some speakers have canceled speeches (but kept the fee, thanks!) claiming "intimidation" or threats - and then gone on to use this fame to get booked on all the talk shows and create an "issue" to aggrandize themselves with.  We are being baited here, to some extent.

But suppose the Palestinian Student Association invites Yassir Arafat to speak - and pays him a $50,000 speaking fee out of the student fund?  As a member of Hillel, you might be opposed to this.  And you might rightly point out that the PSA is inviting an actual terrorist to come speak.  And you might rightly point out that the student fee is funding terrorism.

It sounds far-fetched, but in today's climate, where being an actual Nazi is thought, in some corners, to be a rational political view that has to be respected, you have to wonder where this all ends.   You can't have a conversation or a discussion or a debate with someone whose basic viewpoint is that  you should be annihilated off the face of the earth.

In the past, societal norms acted as informal "censorship" of radical ideas.  Nazis were not invited to campus - nor terrorists - because that was just beyond the pale.   Today, that would be shouted down as censorship, and this idea has been promoted that all viewpoints are of equal value, and should be presented in an evenhanded manner and "let the viewer decide".  So you have a debate with a Nazi and a Jew, and "let the viewer decide" whether annihilating the Jews is a good idea or not.

Sorry, but that just doesn't work.  At some point, society has to step in and say, "This is not a valid idea - this is not worth debating.  This is not 'balanced' by an opposing idea".  And we are seeing this today with the so-called "censorship" by "big tech"of ideas that are outright lies.   Big Tech got caught in the trap of "fair and balanced" by letting lies masquerade as facts - and the election of Donald Trump was the result.  Technology platforms are not obligated to spread rumors, conspiracy theories, and outright falsehoods.  As the recent pandemic has shown, lies can be deadly.

Many complain this is censorship and an abridgment of "free speech rights" under the first amendment - again, never bothering to read the Constitution.  People are free to migrate to other soap boxes or internet platforms, if the guy who owns the soap box decides not to support you.  And the flock of right-wingers to "Parler" is an example of how the system works.   But of course, Parler is just an echo chamber, and what the conspiracy theorists and nutjobs want is to be able to spread rumors, lies, and wacky theories to the general public.  They can't change public opinion on Parler.

Of course, many of these folks are not many of these folks - they are a small minority of people in Russia or Iran or China, who use the Internet against us, to get us to hate one another and to spread insane ideas like Qanon or whatever.   They are trying to use our freedom against us by claiming they have a "right" to spread mental poison in the world.  Of course, no matter how you interpret (or misinterpret) the Constitution, the bill of rights doesn't apply to members of the Russian Internet Research Agency.

Is cancel culture a thing?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.   From my perspective, I think the far right is using it as a means of nailing themselves to the cross and obtaining their fifteen minutes of fame.  Odious scumbags like Danish De-Sousaphone can claim their speech was "cancelled" due to "intimidation" and then gain notoriety - which was the goal all along -  only to later fall from grace for mocking victims of school shootings.  Or Yanni Yaniyapalopalous, who played the same game, and since then has fallen from grace, being exposed, apparently, as a pedophile. They were "cancelled" by the very people who decry cancel culture.  Or do we give a platform to pedophiles and school-shooting deniers in this free-speech libertarian nirvana that the far-right seems to want? (Fucking foreigners.  They come to this country and then tell us they know how to run the damn place. Sheesh!)

You see, this "cancel culture" thing gets complicated.

Quite frankly, I don't see much "censorship" involved here, as the far-right (and indeed far-left) are shouting as loudly as possible these days and we all wish they'd just shut up.  Very few political views, if any, no matter how odious, are being squelched. If anything, this "cancel culture" canard is being used to amplify extremist views by giving them a platform.  After all, what is the best way to get people interested in an idea?  Tell them it is verboten! 

* * * 

The video clip above is, of course, the famous incident during the 1980 election, where the Reagan campaign paid for the cost of a debate, and insisted that all the GOP candidates be allowed to attend. Reagan paid for the debate, as the newspaper nominally sponsoring the event wanted to limit the debate to just Reagan and George Bush - what the FEC claimed was an illegal campaign contribution.   Reagan invited all the candidates, only to find only two chairs on the debate stage.  While they scrambled to find more chairs for the other candidates, Reagan tried to explain what was going on, and the moderator tried to shut off Reagan's microphone.  He indeed had "paid for" the microphone, and his comment may have catapulted him to the Presidency.

This is why today, we have a Commission on Presidential Debates regulating these things.

Some on the Right are contrasting this to the more recent Presidential debates where Trump's microphone was muted - claiming this is "censorship" and a parallel to the Reagan event.  Of course, Trump didn't pay for the microphone (he never pays for anything - even the lawyers filing his election lawsuits, which is the real reason they withdrew) so the parallel isn't apt.