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May 1·edited May 1

I also find it interesting how this rhetoric is now so common among people who have absolutely zero public profile. Not to get all my-uncle-at-Thanksgiving, but my aunt was recently complaining about all the things she's not "allowed" to say. I pushed back a little on what she meant by that - she owns her own business, she's not online at all, her social circle is pretty aligned with her politically. Who exactly is not allowing her to say things? Basically what she conceded she means is her kids get mad at her (and I should be clear, they still have a close relationship and see her often). But there's this broader language out there about cancellation that allows her to put an age-old phenomenon of kids disagreeing with their parents politically in this language of persecution and fear.

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I feel like there's two parallel phenomenon involved here, there's the kind of direct, whipped up outrage people like Matt experience regularly on Twitter that I think this article is right on about. Twitter is not really life. 99.9% of the time, online outrage can simply be ignored as the impotent whining of an overamplified minority.

The second version is more pernicious. This is the one where your personal ability to disregard bad faith criticism is secondary to the whims of the middle management/hr/dei/administrative drones that have real power over your employment prospects. A growing subset of corporate, government and non-profit institutions maintain fully ideologically captured layers of bureaucracy who's entire purpose seems to be to sheild the entity from criticism on Twitter. Some of these people are academically inflected true believers, a larger subset are simply cowards looking for easy answers, but none have the incentive to stand up for an individual's attempts at boldness.

Most people can't make more money by ditching the HR department and moving to substack

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A strong fish can swim upstream and clever blogger who can write 3,000 words of interesting prose a day has less to fear from cancellation than a journeyman at the New York Times.

Many highly intelligent, well credentialed people struggle and even fail early in their careers. The United States turns out 55,000 PhDs per year. They can’t all become professors, and an assistant professorship at the University of West Georgia is kind of meh. There inevitably must be a filtering process to determine which PhDs get the cool gigs and there is no ideologically unbiased way to determine whose social science dissertation was best.

Three out of four sociology PhDs will never get a tenure track job, and there aren’t many jobs in industry for sociologists. This creates overwhelming pressure to kiss up to the professors on hiring committees, thereby empowering group think. Early career selection doesn’t get much attention in the discourse. When Yglesias left Vox to escape group think, that was news. When a young PhD ends up working as a paralegal, that’s life.

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It is odd to write a newsletter on the topic of whether the power of cancel culture is overstated, and then only include examples of people who survived cancelation attempts.

In particular, every counterexample cited involves a senior person who was already established in their field. One of the most harmful effects of cancel culture is the impact it has on people just starting out. They do not have the option to start a substack to pay the bills. So they either fall in line, or choose a different profession.

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Thank you for the nuanced article. This is honestly my big beef with the Weisses and Rogans of the world. You can shout, "I'M BEING CANCELLED!!!1!1!!!" at the top of your lungs (online, that is) and you'll get a rush of supporters... and end up not losing your job or leveraging it into another high-paying one. These people are literally given a platform to broadcast their views in MSM outlets! That's not cancellation!

I guess for the rest of us who lean left and have questions about these sorts of hot button topics, it really comes down to (a) arguing in good faith (and while MY almost always does even when I disagree with him, there are plenty of others in this space who do not) and (b) recognizing that the Christopher Rufos of the world are leveraging all of this to ACTUALLY CANCEL left wing thinkers by, you know, getting them fired or taking over a left wing college and installing their cronies. It's why I can't take Bari Weiss seriously... she got her start by demanding professors get fired by taking a pro-Palestine stance!

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Perhaps it would be better to call it a "culture of dishonesty", rather than cancel culture.

The same kind of theocratic culture of dishonesty, prioritizing "reading the room" and "allyship", as led those in the Catholic Church who knew better to hold their tongue rather than speak up about the unacknowledged sex abuse scandal, or that led calcified Brezhnev era Soviet nomenklatura to hold their tongue about the obvious need to reform the parts of the system and abandon parts of the ideology that weren't working, etc, etc.

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Just a quick note on this article: I think it is right on, but I think an important way to understand the phenomenon is kind of baked in, unnoticed, to the discussion of economics (and the mention of sociology and psychology).

Cancel culture is a little bit of truth and a lot of advertising bombast, and you find that across a lot of disciplines and situations. But a lot of academic work--across all disciplines, honestly, but public-facing work, especially--is subject to this kind of critique because the work itself very often is a little bit of highly-questionable truth wrapped in a ton of bombast. This burst into public view a bit more with the replication crisis, but the truth is that you see it everywhere.

I don't know how you solve this problem, because it is deeply, deeply baked into the incentive structure of academia at ten different levels. People need "significant" research to get published. They need to get published to get, and keep, their jobs. But people also want to feel like they are doing things of real importance in the world, and sadly most people just don't feel like teaching is an activity of real social significance (even though I would argue that it is the most socially significant thing that a lot of academics do, and really valuable) because we have tended to devalue that activity for a variety of cultural and ideological and market reasons. Also, it feels fun to have your work cited in the press or discussed in public. To make that happen, you have to really (over)sell the significance of your conclusions.

I strongly suspect that there is also an underlying problem, which is just that we, as humans, want to Know Things with more empirical certainty or rigor than is actually possible in the infinitely complex system that is reality. A lot of "empirical" research, when you really scratch it, is only a step or two better than having a system for figuring out roulette wheels. That doesn't make it worthless, and you really CAN, in some circumstances, figure out roulette wheels. Humans are cool that way. But MOST of the guys claiming they have figured out roulette wheels at your local casino are just losing a lot of money. Humility is your friend, here.

But bottom line is that I think the impulse to oversell what you can "know" based on research like that done by Doleac and other academics in these types of policy spaces creates simultaneously a huge incentive to fight bitterly over the conclusions AND plenty of fodder for the battle, because you can just argue until the cows come home over methods when you are actually talking about very tiny effect sizes or high-complexity systems where you can always add or subtract another variable to change the conclusions or the analysis.

It's research as theology, with a similar outcome, and I'm not sure how you solve the problem, honestly, because incentives are a thing, but it is a problem that we are really struggling with as a society.

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May 1·edited May 1

One strand of comments here is like “just get off Twitter”. I’m very frustrated with these comments. I’m personally not on Twitter. However people still occasionally tweet about me (despite being a total nonentity). If i ever commit a faux pas - according to *twitter’s* fickle and unpredictable standards- a small Twitter mob may very well decide to go after me. The fact that I’m not even there is *irrelevant*. My employers are there! And they can and will fire me if the Twitter storm is too much for their liking. *that’s* how cancel culture work. Online *is* real life.

Moreover, in my line of work I have a choice of staying off social media, for now (though possibly it hurts my career at the margin). Journalists, to my understanding, do not. Modern journalistic career are apparently made there. You simply cannot avoid it if you want your career to go anywhere. The “get off Twitter” comments are tone death to the extreme.

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One under-discussed element of the Doleac controversy -- a small (but loud) faction of the left believes that economics as a discipline is a thin veil for arch-conservatism.

Anytime you read the phrase "X is a mouthpiece for Y," X is pretty often an economist.

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Many people clearly find it really hard being criticised online. The richest man in the world spends time discussing it in interviews. This is despite people also knowing that much of online discourse is pretty nuts. I wonder if over time this will ameoliorate...I'd imagine folks Milan's age find random weird stuff happening online a routine part of life and not something to pay too much attention to

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Nice thoughtful piece, but the examples of Rohan, Chapelle, Weiss and Matty are not actually illuminating. They represent like the top 0.01% of those who could face repercussions for their views. Most research is actually done by more junior people (post docs, asst profs, PhD students) who could become basically unhireable in an academic job market flooded with applicants. Individual faculty almost have veto power in that buyers market. Many unconventional thinkers simply never reach positions of influence because of that selection effect (like survivorship bias of conformists).

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So this post kind of hits on something that has been one of my "bones to pick" with this debate from the more progressive side of things; whatever excesses there are with left wing attempts to "silence" free speech pale in comparison compared to the current right wing movement to curtail speech.

Ok, you might say, you lean left, of course you would say that. But let me touch on a few things in real life right now:

- Two state senators from TN were expelled from the state legislators were banished for protesting lack of gun control

- House GOP votes to banish Zooey Zephyr from the Montana state legislature

To zero in on the narrow topic of professors:

- Texas votes to end faculty tenure (https://www.texastribune.org/2023/04/20/texas-senate-tenure-universities/)

- GOP bill is introduced in NC to end faculty tenure (https://www.wral.com/story/end-tenure-for-north-carolina-professors-gop-bill-would-shift-system-to-contracts/20832603/).

- Florida appoints 7 new trustees to New College in FL (https://news.wfsu.org/wfsu-local-news/2023-04-24/florida-senate-committee-recommends-confirmation-of-7-recently-appointed-new-college-trustees). The trustees include right wing lunatic Chris Rufo.

- Florida passes bill severely curtailing tenure (https://www.tampabay.com/news/education/2022/04/19/desantis-signs-bill-limiting-tenure-at-florida-public-universities/).

Let's not beat around the bush here. The three measures I noted last are about curtailing free speech in the classic sense of the term. The state doesn't like certain professors are teaching or advocating policies they don't like so they are coming after their ability to speak their minds and their livelihood. And yet professors are having conferences about being "cancelled" from the left.

I'm glad Matt pointed out that a lot of these worries are at the very least overblown. But I'd like to maybe extend and say these professors' worries are not just overblown but your being distracted from the real or at least more dangerous threats to your free speech.

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I'll try to touch on this in a sensitive way. I've talked to a romance author who needs to maintain an online presence to promote her books. She's said that she would lose this career (well, more of a side gig) if anyone saw her real feelings on trans issues. I've also heard a few people saying they'd lose real-life friends if they did.

To some extent, this is just a controversial issue that people disagree on. In one important way though, it's different from basically every other political topic. Many of the nonbinary and trans identified people will say that major mental anguish, up to an including suicide, can be caused by not agreeing their views on these topics. Many of the allies take hard stances to, in their view, protect from this.

If I go up to a group of people and say "we should gut social security" or "Ukraine deserved to be invaded," I would encounter a lot of disagreement. But I wouldn't encounter people saying I was putting them at risk for suicide.

I agree that Joe Rogan and Bari Weiss are posturing when they say they're getting cancelled for saying men and women are different. That's clickbait. Behind that clickbait, though, I think are real experiences of people who think something weird is going on in progressive circles around these issues, yet those people face a lot of social risk for bringing it up.

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"If you want to create an environment that supports better discourse, then you need to encourage everyone to be a little bolder and more heterodox at the margin. And that means you need to try to be reassuring at the margin, not just feed their worst fears."

This is too simple a model. There's a tradeoff between encouraging people to publish potentially controversial research by downplaying the possible negative repurcussions and trying to reduce those repurcussions by making people aware of the problem.

I regularly encounter people who underestimate the number of positions which, if publicly stated, could lead to severe repurcussions (and sometimes this leads them to think that social repurcussions limiting what positions people will state is only a minimal problem). For example, I've encountered people (within academia) who assume that so long as you state your view dispassionately and professionally, with evidence, there would be no reason why talking about genetics and IQ differences, or cultural differences between groups causing differences in outcomes, or various sex/gender related arguments, would cause any objections or problems (which is demonstrably untrue).

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pour encourager les autres

I agree that people need to stand up to bullies, but I think your examples that try to show that canceling isn’t as big an issue as it’s made out to be are not representative. Joe Rogan wasn’t kicked off Spotify because he makes them a ton of money. I think if he had been some unknown or up-and-coming podcaster he could have been gone.

Same with Dave Chapelle. Same with JK Rowling. A-listers with “fuck you” levels of money and influence are, indeed, hard to cancel. The young comedian, author, journalist or podcaster who is trying to build an audience is comparatively much easier to cancel.

Similarly, you and Weiss are well-known and established figures who now have independent sources of income. Someone new to journalism would not be protected by the brands (and associated income) that you and Weiss built up over decades. You both are harder to cancel for that reason.

But the attempts to cancel still send a message to the less powerful, who understand they don’t have the money or established network to survive in the way that you, Weiss, and the others can.

At some point you will probably need to have a talk with your kid about all the dangers of social media. I have two - soon to be three - teens and have shown them what can happen if they post something “edgy” online. The internet is forever and they need to understand future employers can find that and cancel you at the hiring process before you even know about it.

And there is always the very small chance that the fickle God of Internet Virility will anoint something dumb you said or did which is never good one’s future.

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