Arvanitakis on American politics: Correction v cancel culture

| July 25, 2020

As an educator and researcher, I have always worked to create safe yet uncomfortable spaces for my students. In so doing, I am inspired by the concept of ‘brave spaces’ and argue that if we cannot have difficult conversations at a university, then we have failed our students.

As such, I try and talk through any topic that is raised and ask my students to wrestle with a series of sociological, cultural and historical trends. When discussing Australia’s focus on ‘boat people’, for example, I place that in a historical fear of invasion.

Australia, a nation built on invasion by an Empire in decline in first quarter of the twentieth century, saw itself as a British outpost and the population lived in fear of invasion – something that remained real in people’s minds until relatively recently.

My position is that we can and should place this in context of historical racism, but just as importantly, we need to draw on our ‘sociological imagination’ to understand the people of the day. I take the position that judgement is easy, understanding is much harder.

This concept of the sociological imagination demands that we remove ourselves from our daily experiences and look at broader social issues. In so doing, I also remove myself from the violence I experienced as the son of immigrant parents: physically and verbally attacked for everything ranging from for the ‘wog food’ I ate, to being kissing my dad on the cheeks when he collected me from school. I was even forced to change my name from ‘Dimitri’ to ‘Jim’ and then ‘James’ in an attempt to fit in.

While in Wyoming, I found myself ‘living blue in a deep red state.’ I moved there as part of my Fulbright to force myself out of my own intellectual and political bubble and understand those who often myself vehemently disagree with on everything from how the economy should be managed, immigration to the role of international organisations and drug reform.

As someone who promotes context, nuance and challenge asked my students to embrace their sociological imagination, I wanted to delve deeply into the lives of those who I had seen as ‘hill-billy caricatures.’

Nuance and contemporary politics

Few people would argue that nuance and context play a role in contemporary politics. In the United States, The Washington Post outlined how Americans have seen the last four Presidents as illegitimate. No matter how you feel about their politics, it highlights that nuance is not only absent from the political ‘bear pit’, it is now also absent from our own discourse.

Throughout the Clinton years, many Americans claimed that he was ‘not their president.’ The controversial way that George W. Bush seized the presidency also saw many Democrats refuse to accept him as legitimate. This changed dramatically after the September 11 terrorist attacks but quickly dissipated with the ill-planned Afghanistan War and the poorly conceived and disastrous invasion of Iraq.

The Republicans did everything to delegitimise the Obama Administration and in many ways, the Trump Administration has fought an uphill battle from the beginning, with Democrats taking antagonistic positions at every point.

None of this is to identify who was right or wrong. Rather, it is a zero-sum game as both political parties take a ‘you are with us or against us’ approach.

Conflict attracts viewers, so it has worked in the media’s favour to promote conflict: Fox News never got enough of attacking Clinton and Obama, while the Trump and Bush Presidencies proved a bonanza for the New York Times (Disclaimer – I subscribe to the Times).

Cancel v. Correction Culture

As noted, this lack of nuance is frequently characterising our daily lived experience. The tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers reignited the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). BLM has existed since 2013 and worked tirelessly to confront issues of police violence towards people of colour in the United States.

The death of George Floyd sparked the movement in a way that previous incidents of police brutality had failed to.

Much like the #metoo movement, this has proven to be a moment of reckoning. All of a sudden, things that people too often overlooked started to matter. Many Americans who had never considered issues such as history, displacement, slavery, racism, exclusion and poverty started reflecting on their own privilege.

What has followed is remarkable: statues of Confederate generals defaced and torn down, conservative parts of America removed the Confederate flag, street names changed and past cultural ‘masterpieces’ such as Gone with the Wind where removed then reinstated with historical context and notes about racial stereotypes.

This can aptly be described as ‘correction culture.’

While progressive movements have worked to identify and correct historical injustices, right wing commentators have screamed ‘cancel culture.’ Ironically, these same commentators who suddenly demand ‘context and nuance’ have often been guilty of generalising and totalising entire populations.

Can we draw a line?

Recently, the New York Times reported that progressive Harvard Professor Steven Pinker has been vehemently attacked over historical tweets.

Professor Pinker, a linguist, is well known for books such as The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). In October 2015, Pinker referred to an article in the New York Times that analysed data on police shootings and tweeted:

Data: Police don’t shoot blacks disproportionately. Problem: Not race, but too many police shootings.

In June 2020 amidst the Black Lives Matter protests, Pinker referenced an article by Dr Rod K. Brunson, an expert on public life in the school of criminology at North Eastern University. Pinker’s tweet was as follows:

Another expert on urban Crime, Ron Brunson, points out: Protests focus on over-policing. But under-policing is also deadly.

What has followed has left many feeling uncomfortable with 632 academics signing a letter seeking to remove Professor Pinker from the list of Distinguished Fellows of the Linguistic Society of America.

The letter states that the undersigned are not “…concerned with Dr. Pinker’s academic contributions as a linguist, psychologist and cognitive scientist.” Rather, is directed at six of his tweets dating back to 2014, and at a two-word phrase he used in a 2011 book about a centuries-long decline in violence.

The accusation is one that Pinker has minimised racial injustices and drowned out the voices of those who suffer sexist and racist indignities.

I have read and been challenged by Pinker’s work: finding some interesting insights and passionately disagreeing with other points. In reading the letter, I was left feeling unsure if many of those who had signed had read anything more than the tweets: not the article the tweets were referring to nor Pinker’s work.

I am not defending Pinker’s work – I ask you to read it and make up your own mind. Rather, I am left wondering what the vast majority of the American population are thinking. Many, appropriately described as the ‘exhausted majority’, are looking on in dismay and attempting to come to grips with where they stand on all of this.

The problem is, that far too many are paralysed to make a comment in case it whatever is said is deemed to be ‘politically incorrect’ by the different sides of the debate. No wonder so many are choosing to keep quiet and turn away from politics.