Bari Weiss versus Brian Stelter: Does cancel culture exist?

This exchange circulated among righties today because Weiss is an unusually eloquent critic of the peculiar woke shibboleths to which so many institutions ruthlessly conform. Watch her rattle off a half-dozen examples at the start of the clip below without missing a beat. I could have come up with those half-dozen if you’d given me five minutes to think on it and make a list. Weiss somehow has them at her fingertips, seamlessly inserted into her train of thought.

The other reason it’s circulating is because of Stelter’s unintentionally comic arched-eyebrow reactions to her comments. Nothing she’s saying is new to him — I hope — but treating her descriptions of a dynamic that’s familiar to literally anyone who uses social media as if they’re controversial or revelatory inadvertently proves her point about how insulated liberals institutions are. Stelter challenges her by noting that everything she mentions has been covered and discussed in great volume. Right, but if you’re a member of a media organization or a faculty member at a university or a director at a nonprofit or any sort of stakeholder in the entertainment industry, just for starters, then taking the wrong position on certain topics may damage you professionally and personally. It’s not that everyone with an un-PC opinion is at risk of being punished for it. It’s that people who work for organizations that have outsized influence over public opinion are.

For cripes sake, Netflix made headlines across the country last week because it wouldn’t remove a new hour of stand-up by America’s most famous comedian simply because it offended some trans people. It’s legit news in 2021 when a progressive mob forms to punish a crime against wokeness and the accused opts to resist.

But I don’t know that Netflix and Dave Chappelle have “won” that battle, exactly. Chappelle’s special is still available on the platform and there’s no sign that Netflix will buckle. But it took a performer with a meaningful degree of fame and cultural currency on the left to hold off the mob in this case. I think J.K. Rowling is similar. There are too many lefties who love “Harry Potter” and Dave Chappelle stand-up routines to cancel them over a transgression. But if you’re not bringing that sort of immense cultural cachet to the fight, you’re in trouble. Weiss makes that point too in her exchange with Stelter. The problem with cancel culture isn’t that so many people are being fired; few are. The problem is that the spectacle of cancellation leads observers to censor themselves, not knowing whether they might turn out to be one of the unlucky few to suffer real consequences if they defy the groupthink in their institution.

Putting pressure on Netflix and Chappelle in a failed effort to cancel him still serves a purpose. It raises the cost of contradicting progressive orthodoxy, pour encourager les autres.

Weiss and Stelter also had an exchange about this subject on his podcast recently. Remember the fit thrown by New York Times staffers last year when the paper published Tom Cotton’s op-ed calling for the Insurrection Act to be invoked against rioters? Many Times employees insisted that the op-ed itself was tantamount to violence inasmuch as it made blacks fear for their safety.

She asked the host: ‘Do you believe, Brian, that an op-ed can literally put people’s lives in danger?…

‘Doesn’t there need to be room for the people who feel like the op-ed did endanger their lives?’ he asked Weiss.

‘It doesn’t mean there needs to be capitulation, but their voices should be heard, too.’

Weiss replied: ‘Anyone can feel anything. Do you believe that that op-ed put people’s lives in danger?’

The point Stelter fails to grasp is that making “room” for different opinions is expected of only one side. The Times staffers didn’t want the right to rebut Cotton’s op-ed in the pages of the paper. They wanted a standard in which, if they subjectively felt “endangered” by an opinion, it was unfit for public consumption. That’s the core of what Weiss objects to, the impulse to not just confront but to silence dissenting opinion through professional sanction.

Coincidentally, as I’m writing this post, a thread from a climate physicist is going viral on Twitter. Remember Dorian Abbot, the University of Chicago climate scientist who was disinvited from giving a lecture at MIT? Abbot had the wrong opinions, not about the science of climate but about affirmative action. Offending the orthodoxy on one subject is now grounds for cancellation in another notwithstanding your qualifications to speak authoritatively on it. David Romps is the director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center and had the idea of turning MIT’s loss into Berkeley’s gain by inviting Abbot to deliver his lecture on their campus instead. Upon raising the possibility with Berkeley faculty, he discovered that Abbot is now canceled at his school as well:

He’s resigning as director. Consider him collateral damage of a progressive culture that’s increasingly totalitarian in the true sense of that word. If your political opinions don’t match the hivemind in every particular, you’re at risk of being cast out even if they match in most. Romps didn’t want to collaborate in a totalitarian regime like that so he’s done.

There’s still some hope: Princeton has invited Abbot to campus to deliver his lecture this Thursday. We’ll see how that plays with the dogmatic enforcers among the student body there. Here’s Weiss.