Canceling Cancel Culture

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S1: The following program may contain explicit language.

S2: It’s Tuesday, July 7th, 2020, from Slate, it’s the gist. I’m Mike Pesca. In every area where there was a site of police violence in the past few months, violence that killed civilians. What happened was an unpoliced camp has popped up in an effort to say, we got this. We don’t need the police. And in every case, this has gone poorly. In Minneapolis, Powderhorn Park is quite close to the site of George Floyds killing. Crimes are being committed there.

S3: Incidents happen at Powderhorn Park and two homeless encampments popped up at the park last month. Originally, Park Police were going to ask those staying there to leave. But neighbors in the area objected and asked they’d be allowed to stay. Park police say two of the sexual assaults happened last weekend. Another one happened Sunday. Police say a suspect was arrested.

S2: And two of the three cases in Louisville, a camp that popped up in the wake of Breonia Taylor’s killing was the site of another homicide when a homeless man evicted from the camp returned with a gun and a grudge. In Atlanta, near the burned down Wendy’s, where Rashad Brooks was killed, a group has set up residence. And then just the other day, an eight year old girl in a car driving by was shot.

S4: Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said this civil rights movement there was a defined common enemy. So we’re fighting the enemy was in. Well, we are shooting each other up on our streets in this city. He shot and killed a baby. The one one shooter. There were at least two shooters.

S5: An eight year old baby.

S4: And you want people to take us seriously and you want you don’t want us to lose this movement. We can’t lose each other into this pattern.

S2: You may put Seattle’s Chaz Chope district, which though Seattle had no police killing in the last few months, that encampment was broken up by police after shootings and deaths there. Also in New York City, protesters are occupying city hall. Now, I have to say, there is no violence yet there, but New York does have stricter and better gun laws than the rest of those places. I present all these developments without too much analysis just because I haven’t heard anyone really pointing out this pattern. It’s just what seems to have happened. There is police misconduct into the more that follows. There’s people power and then things quickly fall apart and often in a horrible way. I have no prescription except to advise activists who won’t be listening to me, but they should know about these developments and they should know that nothing will turn the people off more than lawlessness. And if you want to be cynical, lawlessness will create an easy opportunity for the forces opposed to reform. It will also make much harder the job of reform minded politicians who are balancing disparate constituencies to the occupiers. I would say, yes, hold those in power accountable, but also put a lot of work into guarding against the enemies within your midst. You have to. What’s the word? I would say police them on the show today. I spiel about the letter that one hundred forty nine brilliant thought leaders and Barry White signed about free speech and discourse in the pages of Harper’s Magazine. But first, a little levity and also a little soul, a little perspective, a little Tom Popper. His new Netflix special is You’re Doing Great. His new book is also You’re Doing Great and Other Reasons to Stay Alive. And his new interview on The Gist, I shall hereby title. You’re doing great. Resume conversation for the ages. Tom Popoff up next.

S6: Tom Poppa is a funny man and extremely successful comedian who decided in 2020 to just rebrand his empire. Now there is a Netflix special and a book called You Are Doing Great. The book has a subtitle, Netflix specials Seldom Joe, it’s called And Other Reasons to Stay Alive. Also, I’ve been listening, although I’ve been a big fan of the Come to Pop a podcast. I’ve been listening to his new podcast called Breaking Bread and a Bread theme runs through a lot of his work. Hey, Tom, welcome back to The Gist. Thanks for having me. It’s good to talk to you again. It’s great to have you on. And first, let me start with this observation about perhaps this moment. I had Mike Kaplan on and he did a whole comedy special, essentially, where he took the idea of the angry comedian rallying and everything, turned it on its head and talked about instead of fight club, we’re gonna have a love club. And it’s all about love and giving our patent Oswal to I know a friend of yours and even blurbed your MIRVs your book. I just saw his Netflix special last night. It’s called I Love Everything. And then your book is on the positivity of doing great. Now, one might say, oh, it’s a reaction to our current pandemic, but that’s not how timelines work in Netflix, publishing or everything else. Do you think it’s a coincidence that comedy is or at least the some forms of comedy are getting away from the punch line and the punching up or punching down and just trying to be a little more positive about everything in life?

S7: Yeah. I don’t know. I’m not sure what the. I can’t speak for them of course, but I know from my for myself, when I was on tour, I was just feeling that there was this overwhelming anxiety that people were having that, that they were unhappy and that they were struggling. They thought they were doing working hard and taking care of their families. And they weren’t. But they weren’t being rewarded for that or weren’t being told that they were doing a good job. And when I started just saying, you’re doing great and pointing out like, you know, we kind of have this idea of what a life should be now, but calm down, take a deep breath. You’re at a comedy show. You’re healthy, you’re doing great and just kind of recalibrated that it kind of opened up for me this whole area of positivity where that’s kind of how I live and a little more optimistic and I’m less cynical and so a little. Well, let me just try and lean into that a little bit more, because it was what I was feeling and that the audience was feeling it as well. So in answer to your question, I think that probably Louis Egham comedians are always speaking about the culture and kind of evaluating it and chewing it up and spitting it out. And they were those guys. I would I would guess we’re feeling the same thing out there that people were done with, with all of the negative. And we’re just craving something else.

S6: I s yeah. I well, I have a couple other theories, and I tried them out on Mike and he basically said, yeah, I could just be from my own experience, but they were something like they go something like this one. Societally, we are pretty much and I. I don’t. I mean, pre pandemic. We’re in a moment of negativity. And even if you are either you’re aggrieved by the presidency of Donald Trump, let’s say, or even if you are a fan of Donald Trump, it’s a fandom based on grievance and sees a grievance president. So either way, lot of grievance, lot of negativity in society. And then, you know, we’ve all seen the statistics about less doing well, doing less well than the last generation income inequality. So it is a lot of negativity there. And add to that that what is comedy except a benign transgression, zigging when everyone else is zagging. So it’s almost more fun or a little more interesting instead of complaining about. Have you seen this stupid ad on TV which kind of everyone is doing now? The transgressive thing is to say actually what a great ad that is. Or actually, isn’t it great at the pretzels or birds or that we’re we’re eight pounds overweight?

S7: Yeah, I, I agree. And I think that, you know, I think things get stuck and comedy. You know, somebody comes up with a fresh idea for a joke and then everybody else starts telling variations of that joke and they put it in in romantic comedies and you see it on late night television and everything kind of like flows. You know, there’s this like guys for a reason. Everybody kind of like captures on these ideas and moves along with them. And, you know, I saw Gary Golman, great comedian, and he had a funny joke about childhood and that it was like, you know, the common thing is to mock children today that they need a drink of water all the time. And it’s like, no, in a normal way. The comedy work for years was to just do that. And he kind of shifted it similar to what we’re talking about with the other with my act and these others. It is it was like, no, you know, we were thirsty, even though we didn’t think that we we needed it. We had this awful, awful of water fountains that we had to drink from and be abused, that when we were trying to get a drink. And it was it was refreshing. And it’s it’s not like when I watched him, it seemed to me like he wasn’t doing it in the reaction because things have been done that way. But it was really it was for me watching. It was like relief because he was taking a new direction and where he broke out of, oh, everybody always does it this way. We should move on. It’s at some point we should talk about different things and different angles and and why not look at it with a little like a little more a little more kindness. And, you know, I this is right. This is over the last two years. So like you said, freep endemic. But there was this feeling of and there’s so many reasons to go into it of everybody feeling like woe is me and this is hard. And there was this malaise and all these articles about Americans being unhappy. And I just couldn’t get over the you know, I was I credit my grandparents for this a lot in that they were always these are people who went through the depression, went through polio, went through world wars. They had all the reason to be angry, bitter people. And they did not stand for that attitude. They did not. Not only did they not carry themselves and complain and carry themselves the negative way, but they made it. They told us over and over again, you should be grateful and snap out of it and stop complaining. No one likes to complain and they really, really just drilled it into us. And I, I, I felt like that, that they’re right. They are right. Whatever we’re dealing with, it is can you can be hopeful despite the darkest of times.

S6: Yeah, that is a great point. I should have included Gary. His whole routine about millennials. He likes them. They’re sensitive. They’re kind. And they’re well hydrated. It is. And it’s so much funnier. It’s so much funnier than you. I wouldn’t say criticize the younger generation. You do it specifically with your daughters in a hysterical way. And maybe there’s nothing so groundbreaking as the dad complaining about the daughters. But I think the great thing is when you bring it back in the book, especially talking about family dinners or in the special, maybe in this special, you’re a little harsher and talk about them as members of the Taliban. But you definitely bring it back to a place of, you know, real love and affection.

S7: Yeah. No, 100 percent. I think, you know, there’s nothing. Look, I’m always conscious of not being happy and trying to go into new territory and stuff. And but I do live in a very family oriented world. And I think I said when I spoke to you last time, you know, I write about my family or I write about the community or I write about my neighborhood. But I always it’s always through a familial lens. And people have been talking about family since the beginning of time. So I’m always looking for something a little more fresh and a little more. You know, I don’t want to fall into the tropes of of just kids are stupid and I can’t in my day and all of that kind of stuff. Not only is it retread, it also either way, if you want to be relevant at all, there’s nothing more irrelevant than an old guy standing up there and saying, well, in my day, no one wants to hear that you should be open to these people. I mean, even now, like when we’re all in the house together and my kids are pointing out all of my flaws of how I eat and what I do, and and I’m not fighting it. I’m like, you know, like maybe I do eat with a talk with food in my mouth. You know, I mean, like, they’re they’re they’re in their prime. These are more they are more aware and more sensitive to things than I am. So it’s you put your pride aside comedically and in life and just be open to a you know what they’re seeing things that maybe you aren’t because you’re set in your ways and you shouldn’t be set in your ways, in life or in comedy.

S6: So the book is written mostly as straightforward essays. There are these in there are these rhetorical questions laced throughout the kind that you do on the Chris Theel Show live from here, which you are the head writer for. You know, have you ever enjoyed dinner at a gas station, food mart, much more than a meal and an expensive five star restaurant? I have mostly the tone. The audience, the intended audience, I guess, is pretty consistent. But there’s this one chapter just kind of plopped in the middle of the book called Let’s Go Back. And it’s, I guess, a wistful recollection of how you lived in college. And it seems to be written to one person, your best friend. It doesn’t seem it’s as you can tell me about who that chapter’s for and why you wrote it.

S7: Yeah, that was that one in particular was for my friend Dave, who is a really great friend of mine, who passed away shortly after college, maybe five years after college. And he was such a huge, huge part of my college experience. And, you know, college, I have a daughter that’s going away to school and it just brings up all of those feelings of what a great moment that is. Those four years are just such shape. You’re an adult. You’ve got freedom. You can do anything. You’ve got a little money for whatever little side job you have, but you don’t have that much responsibility. Life hasn’t really bear down on you. You’re in this very rare, rare space. And he was one of my best friends. And he just I just miss him so much. So I just. The essay just started not only being a recollection about that time, but as a as a a note to him and and saying that wouldn’t that have you know, it’s kind of my craving, which you have whenever you lose somebody is like, oh, if we could just go back and have that one more day or that one more phone call, you just have one more. If I could just see you again is basically basically what that is. And, you know, not only is it a goodbye to him, you know, but look, as a human being, the worst the hardest thing we have to deal with is saying goodbye to anything and saying goodbye to people is the hardest and the ultimate goodbye is the hardest. And also saying goodbye to your past is difficult. So, yeah. Just kind of all wrapped up into one. You know, there’s a couple of moments in the book where I have a similar one about New York with my wife and our old apartment. And there’s just I don’t know, I got I kind of hit that and some stuff about my childhood with my parents. And, you know, it’s nice. It’s been it’s been a nice experience writing these books and that I can actually. Not only record it, but like actually relive it and kind of as you write and rewrite and rewrite it, like especially like that chapter, you brought up that essay. You know, I I wrote that probably over and over for a year. And each time there was like little memories, little things that actually did transport me back to those times. So in a way, I, I did get to go back and spend some time with them.

S6: Karl Popper, you’re doing great. I mean it. But also it’s a plug for the Netflix special and the book Tom Popper. You’re doing great. And other reasons to stay alive. A pleasure, Tom.

S7: You’re the best. Always great talking to you. I’m going to keep writing books just so we can do this.

S2: And now the spiel. A bunch of public intellectuals signed a letter in Harper’s generally decrying illiberalism on the left. They write, quote, an intolerance of opposing views of vogue for public shaming and ostracism and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. End quote is what motivated them to write in. To me, it seems blindingly obvious. I mean, right now we’re not living in Fahrenheit 451. It might not be truly dire. It might not be the Stasi informing on neighbors. It might be a consequence of social media, more than a concentrated effort by actors on the far left to punish dissent. But it’s happening. So in this space. Here’s what I will do. I will say why I think the Harper’s letter gets it right. Mostly right. That part will be short. I believe by being short and terse and to the point, it’ll be hard to argue with. And then I will list all the arguments, all the complaints and reactions against the Harper’s letter. I will try to state them fairly. I will sometimes do so in the actual words of the actual critics. So here is the problem. There are words for this like cancel culture and silencing and sicking the Twitter mob. And these words are somewhat dramatic. And because you use dramatic words like cancel, it’s easy to argue against it. No one’s really cancelled. But I will tell you what I specifically think the problem is, and this is it. We can’t disagree as well as we need to. We are losing the ability, the capacity and the desire to disagree. Well, and by well, I don’t mean gently. I mean productively. I mean in a way that leaves the disagreeing parties and also those paying attention better informed. We need to be able to hear arguments we disagree with and say, I disagree and here’s why. Here’s the counter argument. We have more tools than ever to counter argue, but these tools can be used to do something more than argue, something really different from arguing they could be used to punish. So in America, many people have been and will continue to be punished in some ways via a loss of income, a loss of influence, a loss of status, a loss of stature because their opinions are disagreed with. I can caveat and contextualize this forever. There are lots of places that do that. But I say, let’s get to the objections that will serve as a contextualisation. Enough. One. This is Wilfred Chan of the nation. He’s not the only one saying it. He said of the signatories, quote, Think about how many of these clowns networth is over a million dollars. Answer. They’re not all worth over a million dollars, though. J.K. Rowling’s presence on the list ensures that the mean income is definitely over five million dollars. But who cares? Sometimes wealthy people have correct opinions. It’s true. It’s true. I know, too. Second criticism. These people are generally losing influence and just grasping on to what they once had. The New Yorker writer Doreen St. Felix writes of the letter, quote, We are losing our relevance type beat. Sure, there are some older writers there. It’s probably true of some of the writers. But also there is Kohlman use who’s, what, 23 or 24 just graduated Columbia this year. And Chloe al-Dhari, who’s like twenty six ish others are on the list because they are professionally accomplished, which often takes a lot of time. Sometimes though, you are a wunderkind like Coleman or to take some of the oldest signatories, Margaret Atwood. I don’t think she’s losing her relevance to me. The wealth of the people on the list, the age of the people of the list, the perceived relevance of the people on the list is entirely subjective. All it is, is dismissing the argument based on the motivation by the arguers. Just logically speaking, this is usually a terrible thing to do next. I don’t like the opinions of the people on the list. To quote Santa Saïd, who is a writer with 61000 followers on Twitter and a blue checkmark fave thing about this open letter in Harper’s magazine about free speech and institutions is that it’s signed overwhelmingly by people with established shit opinions. Some are named by Daily d’Hondt writer Anna Vallens. This is the greatest hits of people with rightfully criticized beliefs Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Finney Doyle and David Brooks, Jeffrey Eugenides, Caitlin Flanagan, David Frum, Malcolm Gladwell, Michelle Goldberg geat here. Katie Herzog, J.K. Rowling, Jesse Singel, Gloria Steinem.

S1: She just doesn’t like the opinions of those writers. She, in fact, goes on to tweet fun fact. Shutting down fascistic rhetoric is an anti free speech. In actuality, letters like this are anti free speech because they are making room for hate speech. Yes, Gloria Steinem with her making room for hate speech. So shutting down the voices isn’t free speech. They should be shut down. Hold that argument your head. You listen to this arguing. This is journalist Jed Lagom cancel culturists, something that does not exist. You hear that a lot. Cancel culture isn’t real. That’s a major claim. So let’s just remember that those two arguments, one cancel culture isn’t real to shutting down fascistic rhetoric is an anti free speech. And let’s as careful thinking people realize those two arguments are in opposition to each other. They can’t both be true. Many people have gone through the list and said, oh, David Brooks is on it. He has terrible opinions or J.K. Rowling is a turf or someone on the list has opinions. I don’t like therefore, the argument cannot follow. If I don’t like someone who signed this, their previous opinions. Well, first of all, I would say that between David Brooks and Noam Chomsky, who’s on the list, lies a lot, lot, lot of political thought. If you discount both Linda Greenhouse and Mark Lillah signatories, maybe Zephyr Teachout does the trick for you. If you follow these debates, you might expect to find Steven Pinker and Emily Yoffie on the list. But Nell Irvin, painter and choreographer Bill T. Jones. I mean, an argument against considering the premise because some bad thinkers are on it, has to, if it’s being honest, grapple not with the arguers you like least, but with the arguers you like most, the signatories that are least dismissible. Again, Noam Chomsky causes my eyes to roll, but he’s like Bernie Sanders. The man does believe in lots of debate, not less debate. If words really were violence, he would be doing hard time. And you sing about ideas. Is that it’s usually a bad thing to disregard the overall premise because you disregard some of the people who are adherence to that premise. This happens with ideas all the time, especially big ideas. Lots of disparate people glom onto big ideas. And if a bad person agrees with a big idea, that doesn’t make the idea wrong, especially if a bunch of other people who are bad people agree with the idea, it can in fact be the case that Barry Weiss does offer less than rigorous arguments quite often. I agree with that. But that this specific argument is a sound one. I also agree with that. It is less the case that Zephyr Teachout, Dahlia Lithwick, Katha Pollitt and Barry Weiss, along with the tool Guandong, Margaret Atwood and Gloria Steinem, would all share a belief system that should be discredited just because Barry Weiss adheres to it. I don’t think that that’s a good way to jettison an idea, of course. Now, let me acknowledge this. Been talking about the bad arguments. Cancel culture isn’t real is the maximalist way to say it, and it is, of course, true that there are some things that are called cancel culture that’s not real. Right. Basically, if this guy says it, it’s not real.

S8: One of their political weapons is cancel culture, driving people from their jobs. Shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism.

S1: I once saw the comedian Joe Rogan opening for him was the comedian Andrew Santino, and they had an opening act. I can’t remember they were playing before about two to 3000 people in Atlantic City. And each of these comedians had a fairly long chunk about being canceled. But guess what? They weren’t canceled. They were taking home a minimum of 20 thousand dollars per show. They were being applauded and laughed with by thousands of people who clapped at the premise. These are things you can’t say. Taylor Swift can’t really get canceled. Malcolm Gladwell at this point probably can’t get canceled. And if we really could cancel people explain how Donald Trump Junior and Michael Moore both have thriving careers based on the premise that their opponents want to shut them down. However, statistician David Shaw certainly faced horrible professional consequences for retweeting another respected researchers work accurately summarizing this. And there are professors who are investigated for accurately quoting James Baldwin. There was the utilities employee who was unfairly fired after a bad faith actor mistook his okay sign or purposefully mistook his okay sign for a white power symbol. The president and separately the CEO of a charitable organization who were made to step down because their Black Lives Matter tweet was seen as too vague. The college professor, who was physically attacked and concussed for daring to lead a panel discussion with the verboten Charles Murray anecdotes, anecdotes. I could spend this whole show and every other show this week just listing anecdotes. Maybe at some point they become data. I know that I personally used to chalk up all the supposed excesses of campus political correctness as a right wing exaggeration or pretending that the exceptions were the rule. But now I really do think that this way of thinking that words are violence, that shutting down fascistic speech is righteous. I think this is a fairly common argument on the left. And the critics of this letter are engaged in this argument. And I don’t think it disproves the prevalence of what this argument of what this letter is out there pointing its finger at. I think it proves it. The last argument that the critic. There are many others, but the less big one that the critics of the Harper’s letter make is that there might all be these tiny, tiny, isolated incidents, but they’re just not important compared to the big problems of today. Well, a lot of things that are bad aren’t the most horrible things that are even horrible might not be as horrible as some other really horrible things. That’s how many horrible things we have, no matter how bad anyone in America has it. Ninety nine percent of America is better off than ninety nine percent of the rock hingle people of Burma trump firing inspector generals. I think it’s bad, but if I look at the Syrian civil war, how could I even muster any outrage? Think about those trap laws, the anti-abortion laws in Louisiana. You know, they didn’t even go into effect. They were just called unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Clearly, there are bigger problems in society than laws that never happened and never affected anyone. But I do say they are a problem. I do say it is right for people to write a letter and put their names on a call to pay attention to this problem, because if these laws, laws like that aren’t called out for the potential they represent to a fundamental erosion of rights, then that erosion becomes more likely to happen because that’s how rights work. We have to guard them zealously. And maybe we guard them too zealously. But if that happens, so what then? You screwed up a little and damn, you get to enjoy your full freedoms. I say when things are unjust, say they’re unjust. The scale of the injustice. It’s really hard to contemplate. I agree. What’s going on with quote unquote cancel culture isn’t as bad as falsely accused people on death row. It’s probably a little more dire or a little bigger threat to American society than the use of black face on 30 Rock or mud packs on the Golden Girls.

S2: I do think a lot of the people who oppose this from the far left don’t oppose it based on a principle.

S1: They oppose it based on the fact that there is an argument being had and they’re being argued against and they have found a way not to be argued against. That requires a counter argument. They have found a way that when they are argued against, you can do an end around. Not engage in an argument and call it violence and talk about fascism and talk about harm to communities that won’t just hear an argument and not like it, but hear an argument and maybe die with her or suffer the next day. It’s a little bit of a gray area. There are certainly some arguments that, if acted upon, really are dangerous and pernicious. But in general, I say we need to default to the premise that arguments should be counteracted by other better arguments. That has served us pretty well thus far. The history of America isn’t one of bad arguments being defeated by good actions. It’s more that the arguments lose based on arguments, terms, and in fact, a lot of the history of America is bad actions countering good arguments.

S2: Look at abolition, look at deconstruction, look at the women’s rights movements. I’d be on the side of the arguers both times as opposed to the people who acted to shut up the arguments. People say it’s not cancel culture, it’s arguments having consequences. While consequences are a neutral concept, honor cultures are based on consequences, aren’t they? Consequences can be fair or unfair. Consequences can be proportionate or disproportionate. Arguments are usually almost always the proper consequence for an argument you disagree with. So, yeah, I’ll also admit that it is true that when we’re talking about free expression, it’s very important, perhaps overly important, because expression in and of itself might not seem that vital, but it is the bulwark against oppression. Then again. Areas of expression also seem important or are felt acutely by writers and thinkers because their writers and thinkers. I don’t think that cancel culture or as I prefer to think of it. Our inability to disagree well is going to be the death knell of the republic within the next year. I do, however, think it’s real, that it’s pernicious and that it is good that some smart, accomplished people of whom your eye might have differing opinions on are in fact saying something about it. And that’s it for today’s show, The Gist is produced by Daniel Shrader and Margaret Kelly with executive producer of Slate podcasts, Alicia Montgomery. They’ve put their signatures on the following open letter C and also E. U. That’s open at the top. And finally, ah, but only lower case are upper case. Our close letter, the gist. So what are the biggest problems? Here are the top 10 covered climate change. Trump income mobility, trump health care cost college costs, trump criminal justice. And finally, Joe Shapiro, the guy who supposedly took Trump’s essay to Cooper, desperate to Peru. And thanks for listening.