Renowned Buddhist scholar and teacher Pema Chödrön tells of her correspondence with Jarvis Jay Masters, a Buddhist scholar on Death Row. In one of his letters, Masters describes watching angry protesters on TV with the sound off and being unable to determine whether they were from the right or from the left. Similarly, in this terrific series of videos by sociologist Ilana Redstone, she recounts experiments in which people were shown a protest on screen and were much more likely to assess the protests as nonviolent when told that the protest aligned with their own political views.
I bring up these examples because of the prolonged, heated argument on social media over the existence and direction of “cancel culture.” Right wingers argue it’s a left-wing problem; left wingers argue that all the canceling is coming from the right.
I’d like to offer a more complicated perspective, rooted in my own experiences. Having been in American academia for twenty years, experienced my fair share of bigotries, threats, and ugliness, and heard plenty of stories from people I know personally, I think that no one has cornered the market on weaponizing social media. Plenty of academics across the political spectrum go to work every day feeling like they’re walking on eggshells. They spend inordinate amounts of mental, emotional, and pedagogical energy tiptoeing around minefields–especially when they are, like most people in academia now, adjuncts or untenured folks. Who they fret about largely depends on which institution they’re in, what the student body is like, what they teach, and what kind of public speaking (if any) they do.
My personal cocktail of bracing and trepidation is a consequence of the fact that I teach and work in a politically complicated space. I talk about issues of high political and emotional valence–criminal justice, civil rights and politics–in a state that has very blue and very red counties. I teach in a very progressive institution, in which our student body is among the most progressive in the country. This has complicated implications for my pedagogy, similar perhaps to the ones that a colleague teaching in a predominantly conservative institution might take: I have to craft what I say to protect the few centrists, moderates, and conservatives in class, who often have good points to make and make them eloquently and politely because being in a largely progressive space has made them stronger, as well as to prod the vast majority of progressives in class out of intellectual laziness and into developing the kind of resilience to upset and disagreement that they will need in their professional lives. But we can talk about all that some other time: Today, hatred is on the menu.
Here is a quick-and-dirty typology of the kinds of blowback, negative feedback, threats, hatred, etc etc., that I have received so far: From the right–nastygrams and screeds via email, often poorly spelled, ranging from garden-variety insults to specific death threats. From the left–anonymous complaints taking my words out of context and ad-hominems that focus on my Israeliness.
Which is more frightening? Hard to say. The right-wing death threats were a constant thing (ironically, often coming from folks who support the death penalty for homicide) and I hadn’t taken them too seriously until the 2016 election, when they became more vicious and started including a time and place for my demise. I especially remember the one that came in shortly after I spoke on KQED about the havoc that Prop. 66 was going to wreak on litigation on behalf of wrongfully convicted people. That one I even reported to the police. In addition to the email vitriol, there are radio callers, and occasionally co-interviewees, on TV and on the radio who can be hostile and difficult; one particular example is the right-wing politico who bloviated about the “liberal professor” and the “liberal media.” People near and dear to me, like my colleague Dorit Reiss who does world-improving work on vaccine advocacy, or my colleague Veena Dubal who advocates for labor rights, experience concerted efforts aimed at them, professionally and personally, by political opponents.
The left wing stuff has been frightening in a different way, because it threatens my job security. One of the biggest frights in this department came in 2011, when I taught torture and spoke of the Israel Supreme Court decision to abolish it. To show that the decision was not followed, I showed the Human rights org B’Tzelem report, which included a diagram of a man being tortured, drawn based on his later testimony. Result: An anonymous complaint to the Dean, strategically sent three weeks before my tenure vote, accusing me of “trivializing Palestinian suffering with a cartoon.” Later, in 2019, an editorial board member of a law review to which I submitted a paper asked me to erase my relevant professional experience (as a public defender in the Israeli army) from my CV so that he could “sell” my paper more effectively to his friends. Stuff like this terrifies me, because I know personally of several people who were more careful and diplomatic than me and had their lives wrecked by a few folks who misunderstood them and took their grievances to twitter (it’s telling that these folks want to keep their fears confidential, but there’s certainly the cases of Greg Patton, Erika Christakis, Laura Kipniss and others, which have been made public.)
I’ve also received cancel efforts from both directions in the form of two 1-star reviews on my books (reviewed with 5 stars by everyone else). In both cases, these were calculated to trash me and hurt sales, but the difference in style was instructive. The right-wing review, sent first to my email inbox, was a lengthy, insult-filled screed misinterpreting my book and calling it “rat droppings.” The left-wing review was headlined, “Israeli militarist on the loose!” and full of ad-hominem insults that had nothing to do with the book (which was not about Israel) or my actual opinions/biography.
As I review my experiences being on the receiving end of ugliness, I notice the following insight: When right-wingers have attacked me, they attacked my opinions (misconstrued and insult-filled.) When left-wingers have attacked me, they attacked my Israeliness. Which was the worse experience? Again, hard to say. Both of these essentially consist of efforts to box me into a hated stereotypical category that’s not quite cut to my size and shape.
Here’s why this matters: the public conversation about who is getting “cancelled” and who is doing the “cancelling” ignores the importance of milieus of reference. Yes, it’s true: nationwide, the threat to science and academic freedom is greater from science-denying administrations, who are cutting funds, reducing opportunities, hindering scientific integrity, and vilifying higher education. But people don’t live and work only in “the nation.” They also live and work in their local communities and academic institutions, where their ability to freely present ideas and pursue research agendas is impacted at least as much by their students’ evaluations, colleagues’ opinions, and administration’s preference, than by the Trumpian kakistocracy. This can explain the wide variation of opinions on what the bigger “cancellation” threat is: people simply do not experience the same threats because they are not exposed to the same milieu. An environmental science professor teaching at a rural college in a red county, with students who are staunch climate deniers ready to complain about religious oppression, faces a very different set of concerns than a law professor teaching race and politics in an urban school in a blue county with students who came from liberal arts colleges ready to perceive slights and take offense at trivial faux pas.
Having the unique experience of absorbing both left and right critiques makes me sympathetic to the concerns of lots of different people; I believe all of these concerns are valid. Who threatens you and who you’re afraid of in academia depends on where you stand. Because of this, I wish we were less resolute and vitriolic in the debate about who “really” instigates cancel culture and who “really” suffers from it.
And why is it that we’re at each other’s throat arguing about who is victimized and who is doing the victimizing? As I explained elsewhere, I suspect a lot of this has to do with the primacy that victimization has taken in American society as a precursor to having a public voice. Years of punitivism (which, in itself, has done very little for victims, as Leigh Goodmark, Aya Gruber, and Justin Marceau have explained in their respective books) have acclimated Americans of all political persuasions to the notion that they will not be listened to unless then can claim victimization. I really wish we could listen to ideas without this extra prism because it primes us to marinate in the uncomfortable, scary place of being a victim for far longer than is good for us.
Unfortunately, unbridled hatred abounds, as well as channels to deploy it. I’ve often thought about the fact that, while stories of academic careers destroyed over misunderstandings and misconstructions have always been around, the role of social media as an amplifier of grievances has greatly increased the risk of wrecking people’s reputations and prospects because of political contention. Working like this is not only upsetting, but unsafe–and when I say “unsafe”, I mean genuinely threatened in terms of one’s livelihood, not “unsafe” as in “upset over something disagreeable that someone said.” I don’t know how to solve this problem, but I do know that both sides of this debate might do well to accept the possibility that their enemies have not cornered the market on stifling academic freedom and scaring others into silence.