I listen to, and am a patron of, a podcast called The Scathing Atheist. It’s three white dudes, with the usual addition of one of their wives in a segment called ‘This Week in Misogyny’ (TWIM). it often has original, satirical, music, skits based on the Bible, and funny commentary on news and cultural topics. I recommend it. It’s often hilarious, insightful, and I have been a patron for some years now. And I like the people on the podcast, and generally agree with them.
And, because all the people involved, including me a listener, are human, it’s inevitable that we’ll disagree. I’m not worried about that, in general. As the culture wars rage on, the makers of the podcast have definitely sided wit the SocJus crowd against the other parts of the atheist/skeptical world which has been somewhat, well, skeptical about the excesses of the Socjus aspects of the movement. None of that is unexpected nor is it the problem, in itself
If you’ve been following me, you know that I’m a bit critical of some of the excesses of the SocJus movement, despite being quite pro-social justice. So when they identified their position in this cultural fracturing, it was inevitable that I would disagree with them from time to time, and some of their jokes fell flat to me because of it. But I kept listening because it’s not a threat to me that I hear views I don’t agree with. I understand their perspective (having once shared it), so I’m more than happy to keep being a patron to a quality product.
Yesterday, a specific factor in our divergence became a little clearer to me when listening to their most recent episode, and it got me thinking. Here’s a quote from Noah Lugeons’ diatribe from the episode on April 29th, 2021, in which he’s ranting about the hypocrisy of the Christian Right, who have been canceling things for decades (at least) complaining about so-called “cancel culture”:
You motherfuckers invented cancel culture. Hell, you’d gotten so good at it that Nintendo pre-cancelled itself, as did virtually every other company in the goddamn country. But you abused your power and now when Million Moms complains about the H E double hockey sticks in a Burger King ad, the shareholders pat the advertisers on the back. Being condemned by Christians is a badge of honor if you’re trying to sell shit to the fifty and under crowd.
Of course, the method was never bad, just the target. And now the very people they were trying to shut up have picked up the weapon that they forged themselves and we’re slowly learning how to wield it. But instead of pointing it at the LGBTQ community, we’ve handed it to the LGBTQ community. We’re handing it back to the very groups that have been marginalized by it for all these years. And the more effective we get at it, the more willing they are to pretend the very concept is egregious.
But don’t let it fool you for a second. The instant the pendulum swung the other way, they’d seize the power back and cancel any cartoon with a wizard in it. They’ve never been against “cancel culture”, they’re against the good guys being so damn much better at it than them.Noah Lugeons, ScathingAtheist 428: Got Wood Edition
As soon as I heard this, the point where Noah and I diverge became clear. He says “Of course, the method was never bad, just the target,” and my reaction was to think about the nature of how we disagreed. So, today I want to elucidate why I think this is wrong, and why I think those who talk about “accountability” and “consequences” when defending what is often called “cancel culture” (a term which is not especially good, but identifies what I’m talking about, generally, very efficiently) may be missing something which I think is important.
Experience is the best teacher
I was canceled some years ago, and it was genuinely traumatic and instructive for me, in the long run.
It has been said that the usefulness of being canceled is only affective within one’s own segment of the culture. Being considered problematic, dangerous, or disliked by people who have a different worldview than you is, well, expected. So this is a question about those who are part of your social circle, community, or friends groups deciding you are unwelcome to their events and groups. It would be pointless and absurd for the Catholic Church to cancel me, because I’m not a Catholic and I don’t want to be part of their community. But when the only major local polyamory group decides your a problem, it effects your life.
So, I understand the emotional, psychological, and practical consequences of being canceled. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was traumatic (it’s a thing I still talk with my therapist about). The truth is that I am, in fact, responsible for some of the things I was canceled for. The irony is that the people who finally managed to convince the levers of power to be pulled to have me banned were the very same people who were abusive towards me, fabricated circulating rumors about me, and who continue, to this day, to thrive in a toxic world where their own mistakes are painted over and ignored. The fact that many of these people are friendly with Eve Rickert, who is credibly (IMHO) accused of abusive and manipulative behavior towards Franklin Veaux (who, admittedly, has his own things to work on) is just icing on that cake. The fact that she’s now revered by a the community as a victim is…a bit much (for those unfamiliar, think of the situation with Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, which is comparable in some respects)
But these aren’t evil people. They aren’t swamp creatures. I don’t want them canceled. I want them to actually be accountable for their actions, the way I have tried to be accountable for my own. In other words, I want them treated the way they should have treated me; with restorative justice and empathy. I just want them to own up to their mistakes, instead of taking up a weapon of banning, excommunicating, or canceling people who fuck up just as they have, but who were on the wrong side of the rift (from the people with their hands on the controls) when drama ensued.
So when I heard Noah’s diatribe yesterday, something clicked; it became clear that for many people concerned with “justice” and “accountability”, they mean something very different than I do, because they believe that, as Noah overtly claimed, that the method (of canceling) was never bad. It was just being leveraged against the wrong people, and now they are leveraging it against the right people.
This is a terrifying and distressing position to take, because it seems to miss that it’s very very easy to get caught on the wrong side of a dispute and lose a significant part of your life, happiness, and community because of interpersonal drama, and have it framed as being deserved justice, repercussions, and comeuppance for bigots. It’s also distressing because even if you actually are guilty, leveraging such a tool only makes the problem worse for everyone in the long run. There are better alternatives.
You may think that the tool is good because you can use it against the Christian bigot, but the problem is that when purity culture starts declaring people as bigots when the truth gets lost in interpersonal drama, then people get the ban hammer unjustly, and those that wielded it still feel righteous as if they just canceled another deserving bigot. Encouraging the use of this tool is irresponsible and will lead to more people being unjustly treated by more people who will see themselves as righteous in doing so. In short, it’s often difficult to tell the difference between actual bigots and people being smeared by interpersonal drama, especially when a small group of people are really good at messaging and controlling narratives. The situation with Jesse Singal is a recent example of this.
Having experienced canceling, I would never (again) leverage this experience on anyone. It traumatized me, I lashed out, and it took me much longer to actually heal, learn, and become a better person than it would have had the people who demonized me actually tried to talk with me, and enact restorative justice. Now it’s too late, because my ability to trust people is irreparably damaged, and I will spend the rest of my life dealing with the trauma and loss. And a lot of it was based on messaging, narratives, and fabrications that many former friends will continue to believe regardless of the truth of what happened and who I am today.
Canceling can be, in many cases, a form of abuse. And the ability to tell the difference between any potential deserved canceling and an unjust canceling is going to rest on people’s ability to be certain that their righteousness is actually just. Personally, I have seen and experienced just how easy it is to be wrong about this, so I think that framing cancelling as fine, so long as the people actually deserve it, is irresponsible.
Learning the Wrong Lessons from the Right
Some have argued that people in positions of influence and power will often wield such a weapon pre-emptively in order to “control the narrative.” Yes, I think this sometimes happens, and is something to keep in mind when you see people with messaging skills talking a lot. I’ve experienced this directly, and I have seen it in the peripheries of my life in subsequent years.
The take-away is that the loudest person telling their story is not always completely trustworthy. It’s not necessarily that they are lying (they often aren’t), it’s that they are convinced that they are on the right side of justice. Eve Rickert seems to believe this now. Wes Fenza obviously believed this years ago. And I believed this when all that drama happened so long ago (and I now realize I wasn’t completely right about all of that). It’s natural that we see ourselves as the righteous victim, when we feel hurt.
So, when Noah Lugeons draws a parallel between how the Christian Right leveraged their cultural power to cancel certain music, video games, etc and how the “Woke” (another term which is inadequate, but makes my point easily) Left are doing so today, the parallel is telling and, ideally, instructional. It tells us that the victim has learned, from one unjust cultural power, how to wield that same power. But what if such a power should rarely, if ever, be used?
Certain parts of the Progressive (“woke”) Left have started to leverage their new cultural power, and it seems they have convinced themselves that they are just using a useful tool/weapon better than the bigots did and obviously they are doing so justly, unlike the bigots. This is the view of Ibram X. Kendi, who talks about learning to leverage cultural and political power in the name of justice, equity, and anti-racism. And while I liked much of Kendi’s book, How to be an Anti-Racist I think he is wrong in the same way that Noah Lugeons is wrong in his diatribe. I think it’s the same mistake, in fact.
This is all-so-familiar; remember #FTBullies? I do. I was on PZ Myers’ side back then, but in subsequent years I began to understand that the problem was more complicated, and while I still occasionally read PZ’s blog, I also have some peripheral exposure to the people he’s vilified, and his version of events is not without error. I don’t think PZ is a bad person, I think he’s convinced that he’s using his leveraged power for good, and I’m not convinced that he’s right.
It’s very easy to convince yourself that you using the weapon is good because you are the “good guy” (reminds me of the “good guy with a gun” trope). It is so easy to convince yourself that your cause is just. People with good intentions and goals make mistakes and leverage power for their cause, and end up having been wrong and do harm despite their intentions. Those Christians in the 80s and 90s believed they were doing the right thing. I think they were wrong, and I think I have good reasons for that, but what I learn from this is that it was the leveraging of their power where the crime happened, so maybe I should be careful about emulating their actions. Beliefs have consequences, right? Well, they have consequences because they compel actions. A bunch of 1980s Christians who believe a game is evil because it has a devil in the game is wrong, but it’s not a problem until such a person cooperates with like-minded people to have such games banned. The leveraging of that power is where the problem occurs.
So, is the lesson to give that lever to a person with a different, perhaps better, opinion? Or is it that this lever is potentially dangerous, and maybe people should not use it?
Turnabout is fair play?
It is true that many marginalized groups, including the LGBTQ+ community, BIPOC, and so forth have had a rough ride in the world. And it’s definitely the case, IMHO, that cultural, political, and legal changes need to be made to improve their access to legal protection and to facilitate cultural growth towards a more just world. But in the same way that when stopping someone from beating another person with a stick you don’t merely hand the stick to the original victim, it’s not wise to encourage the prior and current victims of our culture to be handed the levers of power which were the efficient cause of the problem (Kendi’s argument). It’s all-too-likely that it will lead to a different kind of injustice because people are fallible and will utilize power badly when they get it, especially if they are ideologically-driven, traumatized, and angry.
The people who wield the power need to be as neutral as possible, and former victims are not usually neutral. Just as it was irresponsible for me to lash out at people who hurt me when I was traumatized, it would be unwise to simply hand over a powerful cultural tool, such as what we refer to as “cancelling” to just anyone, even if many of us think they deserve some justice. The framing of Noah’s diatribe didn’t elucidate this important distinction, and I’m afraid it can be heard as a call to legitimize handing a weapon to victims and leave them alone in a room with their former abusers. I think we need to be more careful and considered than that.
The tools of canceling are not necessarily justice. At worst, they are a tool of abuse. At best, they only push people who make mistakes away where they will likely find common cause with your cultural interlocutors (IOW, other tribes in the culture wars). This gives momentum to the viscious cycle of tribalism and makes our cultural rifts worse. I’ve seen it happen to the atheist/skeptic community, the polyamorous community, and to American culture in general. The culture wars are not a neat divide between the good and the bad, they are a tribalistic fight between different worldviews, none of which are right, completely.
Now, I happen to think some factions tends to be more right than others (and I may be wrong). But because each faction demonizes each other and can’t understand their perspective, they see no problem unleashing any cultural weapon against them, which is what Noah Lugeons seems to be arguing for here. This is classic dehumanization, and it’s most definitely not humanism. As a result, wise leaders and influencers need to be cautious about encouraging use of certain tools, such as canceling, because it’s so easy to think your cause is just when it very well might not be. Or, even if it is, it’s possible that cancellation might not be a good tool to begin with, and your cause loses it’s righteousness by utilizing it.
Rationality Rules, a youtuber who has faced the cancellation cannon before and learned from his mistakes (again, IMO), makes a powerful argument as to why the AHA should not have revoked Richard Dawkins’ 1996 Humanist of the Year award. I’m no fan of Dawkins (I find him to be incorrigible, personally), but I think RR is correct in his analysis here. And his points are relevant to this issue because RR’s perspective is consistent with one where we are more cautious about when and where to use the power to cancel.
What about the truly awful?
So, I know many of you are thinking, ok, maybe you have a point. But what about the actual bigots, irredeemable assholes, unrepentant abusers, etc?
What about, say David Silverman? Or James Lindsay? Or whomever your personal bogeyman is; what about them?
There is obviously a point at which, in trying to help someone, reason with them, etc you will decide that you no longer want that person in your community. We want safe communities, after all. I’m not saying that this is easy, and I certainly don’t have the answers. But I’m worried because I’m seeing too many situations where people are considered bigots, racists, etc where I just don’t agree that the label fits. And, for many, that’s where I lose them, and now I’ve just condemned myself, to them, as one of the bigots. I don’t know what to do with that, because I don’t think they are right, and I don’t know if I can convince them otherwise. All I ask is don’t take my community away merely on the basis of disagreement.
I think James Lindsay is an interesting example to discuss here, and it’s also relevant because his name has been one of jokes by the same podcast in recent weeks as well. You see, James Lindsay has at least one video of himself with swords which he put online. The video I saw was…ridiculous, and I get why people are laughing at him. Fine, laugh away, I guess. I did, too, if I’m being honest. And if you pay any attention to Lindsay’s social media (which I no longer do), he doesn’t seem to care. Cool.
And many of his political opinions are, IMO, poorly thought out. He’s kind of an asshole. He’s convinced he’s right, he’s arrogant, and I don’t think I would like him much, personally. And yet I read his book (co-authored with Helen Pluckrose, who I like much more, and whose organization Counter Weight the same podcast has laughed at a few times).
Now, I thought the book was interesting. It gave me some more context about the origin of much of the intellectual foundations for so-called ‘woke’ views about equity and racism. I realize that most people who are in favor of equity and anti-racism have little to no awareness of these philosophical underpinnings, and I don’t think most of the worst examples from these postmodernist/poststructuralist writers, included in Cynical Theories, would reflect most actual people’s views who ascribe to these ideas. Thus, while I do agree that some of the philosophical underpinnings of the thought leaders are not especially convincing to me, I am not willing to demonize or throw out the entirety of the Progressive Left’s social justice cause because I’m worried about the fringes and the excesses of that community (although I think it’s important to be able to be critical of them, when they are wrong). And thus, I think James Lindsay is ridiculous, but also not completely wrong.
I read his book. I tried to take him seriously. I actually paid attention to the content behind the dancing clown with swords, and I think he has a few important things to add to the conversation, even if I find him personally idiotic and ridiculous. Like I said, I much prefer Helen, who I know the Scathing Atheist crew also find absurd and laugh at. Like I said, we differ in some areas. Perhaps The Scathing Atheist crew has actual good intellectual reasons to dismiss Cynical Theories and Counter Weight, and I have not been following them closely enough to know if any of them have been more clear about why they find them so bad, but all I’ve heard, on their podcast, is laughter (it is a comedy podcast, so I am not saying they should have an in-depth critique, only that they do, in fact, point and laugh.). Noah has said, if I remember right, that James Lindsay has asked to be on the show. They refused, Noah joked that he’s be willing to debate him (he seemed to imply it would not be much of a debate, but I am unaware of what his reasons are).
In brief, I don’t think James Lindsay is completely wrong, even if I might find him mostly wrong and an ass. Will I go out of my way to invite him onto any platform? No, I will not. Should people laugh at him? meh, whatever. Would I be willing to use whatever cultural power I have (which is almost none) to convince people to dismiss, de-platform, or demonize him? Nope. Because that’s a tool I don’t think should be used in most situations. I don’t want to add momentum to the cyclone of the vicious cycle of tribalism and enmity causing more misunderstanding, demonization, and general shittiness than it seems to be adding justice.
If you want justice, you absolutely need to give it a strong foundation of authenticity, fairness, and truth. You need to intentionally burst your own cultural bubble. You need to avoid tribalism. Noah Lugeons, who I think is quite smart, funny, and worth paying attention to has an opinion I disagree with, and all I want to do is add to that conversation. There will, undoubtedly, be people who consider his opinion dangerous wokeness gone mad (as Lindsay would probably say). Fine. I think they are wrong too (even if I understand their feeling, underneath their arguments).
I just think that insofar as we are going to use cancellation as a tool in our culture, we need to be more careful with it, and not frame it as the good, morally correct side using a weapon their enemies used, but doing so better and for the side of justice. To paraphrase John McWhorter, I think that’s a bit religious of an attitude.
I am not sure, honestly. There are truly awful people out there, though they are few. I’m not sure who they are, but I have my biases.
David Silverman is, IMO, odious but I leave open the possibility that he might say something I agree with or maybe eventually grow and change. I will likely have to hear this second-hand because I no longer follow him. Does this mean I’ve canceled him, at least from my own life? Perhaps. Do I think people who will never take him seriously again are wrong and being trigger-happy with their willingness to cancel? Maybe. Do I think he’s necessarily an evil bigot who has written himself off from good society forever, as some seem to have done?
No, I don’t.
Who should be canceled? This is a thing I am still thinking about. I don’t have any certainty here. I’m just worried that some people have taken on a self-view as being righteous, and I’m skeptical of anyone who sees themselves, or their cause, that way. I’ve seen too many people overplay their hands and end up overcompensating, getting caught up in power, etc to trust anyone with any powerful tool, such as “cancellation.” Therefore, I’m opposed to what we call “cancel culture,” even where I might think I’m right and the person I might seek to cancel is obviously a bigot.
I’m merely suggesting more caution at very least. But otherwise, Noah’s diatribes are great (I have volumes of them at home on my bookshelf), and I encourage you all to give them a listen. He’s great with language and has made me chuckle many times. So no, I’m not cancelling Noah Lugeons.