What Our Cultural Elites Can't Understand About Justice

The obvious solution to the “cancel culture” panic is the one that they just can’t bear.

Hamilton Nolan

(Image via Johiho.com)

I fear for the fingers of our cultural elites. They are in grave danger of being mangled by all this hand-wringing. The ongoing panic over the evils of cancel culture threatens to send the highest reaches of media and academia into a spiral of self-pity from which they might never recover. The shame of it all is that the solution they are grasping for has been sitting in front of them the whole time — if only they had not spent their entire careers carefully cultivating a blindness to it. 

The latest cry of dismay at The Way Things Ain’t What They Used To Be is by Anne Applebaum, in a long Atlantic story that seems to have been the product of some nationwide search for the most obvious metaphors: The New Puritans,” Mob Justice,” The Scarlet Letter” — it’s all there. The essay is, for the most part, a diffuse litany of anonymous people saying that they were treated unfairly, paired with an overwhelming sense that this is all some enormous cultural shift that portends a creeping era of totalitarianism. Anonymous reports and Twitter mobs, not the reasoned judgments of peers, will shape the fate of individuals. Writers and journalists will fear publication. Universities will no longer be dedicated to the creation and dissemination of knowledge but to the promotion of student comfort and the avoidance of social-media attacks,” warns Applebaum, a Pulitzer prize-winning Atlantic staff writer. The arts, the humanities, and the media will become stiff, predictable, and mediocre.” 

The only hint of something resembling a solution to this situation is a vague plea for due process,” couched in confused allusions to the U.S. Constitution, which seem to conflate the legal duties of the United States government with those of an employer working in a system of at-will employment. I do not write today to mock the cancel culture fears that have caused utter frenzy in the small portion of people who enjoy the nation’s cushiest cultural jobs. (That has already been done.) Rather, I want to gently suggest a path forward that might allow all of these tenured professors and millionaire authors to channel their concern productively, before they all combust in a pyre of self-pity. 

First of all, it must be said that the quality of analysis surrounding this phenomenon has not been very high. Reading most of these periodic Applebaum-esque pieces would give you the impression that America has been mysteriously overtaken by a profound cultural shift akin to the beginning of the Salem Witch Trials. In fact, the root of this issue is far more technological than it is cultural. In the past, only the publisher of the local newspaper had the power to spread news of someone’s misdeeds and turn them into a villain; now, with the help of internet publishing and social media, anyone can do that. Power that was once in the hands of the very few is now in the hands of many. The cancel culture panic concerns itself not with the large set of cases in which this change is socially beneficial (we can all see police misconduct), but with the small set of cases in which a very specific subset of people may have been treated unfairly in a very specific way. (A student in my class at Yale says I said something racist in class!) They then use this small subset of cases to demonize the entire, much larger social change. This is a classic propaganda technique, but we will set that aside for now. 

In the spirit of generosity, let’s stipulate that A) The concern that all of these people have about being canceled” for some careless remark is genuine, and B) There have been cases of people being treated unfairly or fired unjustly after something they did goes viral, and their employer panics. Neither of these things are hard to believe. Nor are they very novel. So why the outpouring of concern now? 

In the past, the ability to stay in good standing as, say, a college professor rested on pleasing a few gatekeepers — the department head, the college president, fellow academic elites. Today, that same college professor can be undone by a formerly powerless student who can rally widespread attention to some misdeeds via the magic of the internet. The people made most uncomfortable by the specter of cancel culture” are, in general, those dealing with the fact that power that once rested in their in-group has now been spread more broadly in society. Can thousands of people on Twitter make an ill-informed, harmful rush to judgment that ruins a career? Sure — just like a single lazy, elitist, culturally insulated college administrator or business executive or top editor or boss of one kind or another could make an ill-informed rush to judgment that ruins a career of someone less powerful than them, which is how this has historically worked. What is new here is not the existence of some ill-informed rushes to judgment but, rather, who feels threatened by them, and why. In the past, the janitor at Yale might have to feel nervous about being canned when someone of higher social status complained about them, but the professors at Yale did not, because they were members of the same in-group that made the decisions about everyone’s fate. Now, that higher social status is no longer an impenetrable protection. Shifting power dynamics make people feel shaky. 

It is not that injustice, mistreatment, or persecution in culture and on the job did not exist until recently; it is that there is a group of cultural elites who formerly felt protected from those things, and now feels vulnerable to them. That is what is producing the many zillions of articles about this wave of persecution that seems to have arisen out of nowhere. In this sense, the anti-cancel culture brigade is similar to wealthy homeowners who become environmentalists as soon as someone wants to build something that might disrupt their view. If their concern for the underlying issue was genuine, they probably would have been talking about it long before now. 

Here is where we come to a discussion of solutions. Even if the newfound obsession over due process and justice in the workplace is a product of self-interest from one of the most coddled segments of our society, it is still good to have due process and justice in the workplace. So I am happy to inform all of these people that there is, in fact, a way to pursue justice at work besides writing articles on Substack and in The Atlantic: a union. Yes! There is actually an entire institution, invented centuries ago and enshrined by law, that can help ensure you get due process on the job, and make certain that you are not railroaded by a cowardly boss, and see to it that your career is not destroyed unfairly by false allegations. This is a core function of unions! We have been doing this forever! Workers figured out generations ago that solidarity could help protect them from the predations of those on the other side of power imbalances. Everything old is new again, is it not? 

It is odd, then, that virtually none of the alarmed dialogue from those worried about cancel culture has spoken about solidarity and labor power — the most obvious tool for preventing the things that these people claim to fear — even as their own industries, academia and journalism, are experiencing a highly visible upsurge in unionization. I suspect that the reason for this is the dishonesty that lies at the heart of this entire ongoing dialogue. This is not really about navigating the balance of free speech on the job. Nor is it about due process. It is about a group that has long enjoyed the privilege of being on the right side of a power imbalance suddenly finding that privilege to be insecure. 

A tenured professor does not deserve injustice any more than a janitor does. But to use the power of organized labor to protect both of them means that the professor must acknowledge that their concerns are not more important than those of the janitor. In order to wield solidarity, you must first set down a belief in elitism. This, it seems, is a bridge too far for the newly besieged elites. They would prefer a restoration of the old arrangements instead. The only thing worse than being canceled is being forced to admit that you were never better than everyone else in the first place.

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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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