DWR (5): On Cancel Culture, Comedy, and Compassion

The other day, in the New York Daily News, one of my favorite comic strips, “Pearls Before Swine”, by Stephan Pastis, featured this commentary on our age:

“The Judgment Age”… or maybe, the “Snap-Judgment Age”… either way, Pastis is just touching upon a very touchy subject.

In my ongoing Facebook engagement with my very dear friend Ryan Neugebauer, the discussion turned to these touchy subjects—to issues of social justice, cancel culture, the limits of comedy, and the effects of the 2020 riots in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

As Notablog readers know, I’ve addressed many of these issues before in my own Notablog posts. See, for example, my discussion of the Floyd murder—and it’s aftermath (“America: On Wounded Knee”), my examination of the attack on statues and monuments (“On Statues, Sledgehammers, and Scalpels”), and my exploration of the commonality between Rand’s view of racism and Critical Race Theory (“Ravitch, Rand, and CRT: The Ominous Parallels?”).

A professional psychotherapist, Ryan comes from a dialectical left-libertarian perspective. In a very personal, wide-ranging Facebook post, Ryan grappled with many of the issues mentioned above. That post is not public, but is worthy of a larger audience, in my view, for the thoughtful compassion it exhibits and advocates. Here’s what Ryan had to say:


This should be prefaced by the fact that all of my positions are constantly evolving, so what I am going to write is not the final word on anything (nor should it be). I welcome all helpful, critical feedback.

Where to start? It’s difficult because there’s so much in all of this and so many people feel very strongly about where they stand on these issues. So, I think it might be helpful to start elementary by discussing a foundation for handling any issue, social justice or not.

My foundation is a “Dialectical Left-Libertarian” one. The dialectical part is based in Chris Matthew Sciabarra‘s “dialectical libertarianism”, where he conceptualizes dialectics as “the art of context keeping”. In a 2005 article of his for the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), he states: “If one’s aim is to resolve a specific social problem, one must look to the larger context within which that problem is manifested, and without which it would not exist.” Kevin Carson, in further describing Sciabarra’s approach, states that: “Individual parts receive their character from the whole of which they are a part, and from their function within that whole.”

Despite my differences with him—I’m not as much of a free-market propertarian and not big on the “nonaggression” principle—I love Gary Chartier‘s description of the “Left-Libertarian” here. Wikipedia describes it as “a political philosophy and type of libertarianism that stresses both individual freedom and social equality.” That Wikipedia article mentions Anthony Gregory and says that: “Gregory describes left-libertarianism as maintaining interest in personal freedom, having sympathy for egalitarianism and opposing social hierarchy, preferring a liberal lifestyle, opposing big business and having a New Left opposition to imperialism and war.” Ultimately, the Left-Libertarian framework has a concern with social authoritarianism, whether from government or culture or both, and a concern with economic injustice and dependence on wage labor relations. The core concern is with individual freedom & flourishing.

Now that I have sketched out that foundation, I would like to talk about an important communication concern. Whenever you are discussing issues with someone who disagrees or who holds a very different framework than you do, you have to “know your audience”. You have to get in touch with their concerns and learn how to frame your responses in a way that speaks to those concerns. You don’t want to be dismissive and you don’t want to get them wrong. Otherwise, you will probably do a lot of talking past each other or find yourself in tense and hostile space. Therefore, if you are a Leftist talking to a typical American Conservative, you have to address their concerns with societal stability, government overreach, and family values. If you are a Conservative talking with a typical present-day Leftist, you have to address their concerns with social equality, economic justice, and environmental protection. If you are instead interested in beating these people over the head with how right you are and how trivial their concerns are, you will have ended any hope for reaching them.

Let’s get started on “social justice” (I have to make headway at some point!). The John Lewis Institute for Social Justice describes it as follows:

“Social justice is a communal effort dedicated to creating and sustaining a fair and equal society in which each person and all groups are valued and affirmed. It encompasses efforts to end systemic violence and racism and all systems that devalue the dignity and humanity of any person. It recognizes that the legacy of past injustices remains all around us, so therefore promotes efforts to empower individual and communal action in support of restorative justice and the full implementation of human and civil rights”.

I feel like that’s a difficult thing to oppose for most people. You may see differences on the specifics, but at least the spirit of it is hard to oppose for most. Personally, I am absolutely committed to this conception of social justice.

In contrast, there are people called “social justice warriors” (SJWs) or “woke” individuals, more often used in a pejorative sense these days (though some own one or both of these terms in a positive sense). A Wikipedia entry on the matter describes social justice warrior as “a pejorative term and internet meme used for an individual who promotes socially progressive, left-wing and liberal views, including feminism, civil rights, gay and transgender rights, identity politics, political correctness and multiculturalism”. That’s a mouthful and not very helpful. On that description alone, I would count for a significant chunk of it (I take issue with the varying ways “identity politics” and “political correctness” get used though). In regard to “woke”, one article states: “The dictionary defines it as ‘originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’.” That article goes on to say: “It has become a common term of derision among some who oppose the movements it is associated with, or believe the issues are exaggerated. It is sometimes used to mock or infantilise supporters of those movements”. This gets at the key point of all of this: application.

Two people could both advocate strongly for social justice but take very different approaches to it. When people are derided as “SJWs” or “woke”, it is sometimes used to indicate the degree of aggressiveness or rigidity surrounding their advocacy for social justice. And to be fair, there is no shortage of examples of people who advocate for social justice in the lousiest of ways. You have people (taken from my own personal interactions) who say ridiculous things like “science is white male supremacy” or “the only legitimate pronouns are they/them” or “all Trump supporters are fascists”, etc. They often make very extreme or harsh claims that don’t stand up to the slightest of scrutiny. When they get pushback, they often get even more aggressive and dogmatic. Much like very dogmatic religious individuals. I will say without hesitation that I don’t defend these approaches and find them counterproductive to social justice efforts. Putting aside their inaccuracies or foolishness, they push people away from seriously important causes. Therefore, a Dialectical Left-Libertarian approach would want to find ways to communicate effectively with others and ensure that any actions are not harming the push towards greater freedom and flourishing for all.

And here we get to “cancel culture”. First, we must point out that “cancel culture” to the degree that it exists, happens on both the right-wing and left-wing. McCarthyism was institutional cancel culture from the Right in a very extreme way that present-day cancel culture accusations can’t put a candle to, especially with the “wild west” of the World Wide Web at our fingertips. Just watch the movie “Trumbo” (2015) to see how bad it got in one area: cinema. That said, it is more often discussed in association with the Progressive Left these days, so we will focus on its widespread association today. Dictionary.com describes it as “the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming”. It has more broadly been associated with shouting down speakers, physically shutting down events, getting speakers cancelled from universities, and preventing certain media or materials from being consumed. This topic overlaps with the topic of “comedy” mentioned above.

From a Dialectical Left-Libertarian perspective, one should be concerned with how the things associated with “cancel culture” aid or curtail the project of increasing freedom & flourishing for all. Some actions are perfectly legitimate, such as boycotting when harmful actions are done. That signals that we want the boycotted to do better and potentially to do restitution before we are to support them in any sense again (if at all). However, shutting down speakers and banning books I am much less comfortable with. This more often than not leads to negative pushback and people seeking out or defending the shutdown or banned entities more. In my opinion, this happened with the awful Milo Yiannopoulos. The aggressive demonstrations against him drew more attention than his talks could on their own. It was the highlighting of his comments on adult sexual relationships with 13-year-olds that led to everyone distancing from him and him losing his limelight. You rarely hear from him today (please let’s keep it that way!). Nonetheless, most people I have spoken with across the political spectrum have been uncomfortable with a lot of these previously mentioned “cancel culture” tactics. They may support the underlying causes and some specific implementations of the various tactics, but they don’t like the normalization of the tactics against everything perceived as wrong or offensive. Maybe there are times when stopping someone’s speech is necessary, especially without question when it treads into dangerous territory of inciting violence. However, it’s hardly clear that it should be something we are comfortable with normalizing.

When it comes to comedy, I can’t help but think about this George Carlin interview [YouTube link]. He talks about the importance of comedy targeting people in power and those that abuse others. He appears to have a concern with those who target the marginalized in society, even if he wouldn’t want to ban any comic’s ability to make such jokes. However, there is an ethical question regarding when comedy can “go too far”. On this question, I mentioned in a recent Facebook livestream that I laughed very hard at Lisa Lampanelli’s comedy routines [YouTube link]. They were very offensive without question. And her packed, very diverse audiences were always laughing very hard.

However, in the chat section of the livestream, I responded to a dear friend by saying: “On the one hand, few of us can deny that we find her comedy hilarious. People of all backgrounds in her very diverse audiences were on the floor. On the other hand, there does seem to be a limit of ‘going too far’, but that’s going to vary with each person and their values. So, what’s the way forward? A messy, difficult one that probably has no absolute standards.”

So, in short, I don’t know what the reasonable limits of comedy are. I imagine the answer isn’t “everything is permitted” or “nothing offensive can be permitted”. If that’s the case, and we can’t fall back on simple standards of condoning everything or condemning anything offensive, then we have to make the tough calls, risk being inconsistent or wrong, or, in dialectical fashion, look at the context and see that something may not be right under one context rather than another. But I won’t claim to know where to come down on everything. I just know that I reject the rigid extremes here. Check out one approach to this subject by George Carlin [YouTube link; especially 9:42 to 11:50). I have issues with it, but I still like hearing his perspective as a comedian who was sensitive to these issues. Just like me, he doesn’t get the final word.

You might ask: What should we do about all of this? Well, that’s easier said than done. And I am not going to claim to have all the answers here. However, I think we have an obligation to stand up for those who are oppressed and should not remain silent just because it is easier or more comfortable. I think we should organize and seek to increase inclusivity and justice in our culture and governance institutions. We should have more than deconstruction and disruption. We need a positive way forward. We need an opening of society. No such opening will come without significant changes to our society, including, importantly, to the economy. Supporting gay marriage and transgender inclusivity in schools isn’t going to help the homeless gay or transgender individual. Those things matter but they are not the only things that matter. At the end of the day, unless we start having more open and honest conversations about these matters, rather than avoiding discussing them (common with the right-wing) or shutting down anyone who doesn’t measure up to peak SJW performance (common with the Progressive Left), we will not make the progress we want on these various important issues.

What about the 2020 demonstrations and riots following the killing of George Floyd by police? First, let us point out that the killing of George Floyd took place in May, just two months after the COVID pandemic took off in the United States. So much of society shut down, many had died or were dying with COVID, people were out-of-work with little to do, finances were rough, tensions were high, we were in a heavily divided election year, and had a president who played on the discord for his own gain. Whew! That’s a lot! This was far from the first wrongful killing of an African American man by US police. But it was the first one that gained major attention post-pandemic. Once it happened, the long history of anger and frustration surrounding this ongoing problem with police erupted into mass protests and riots across the country. My knee-jerk reaction was to come out in full support of anything fighting against this despicable institution. However, I dialogued with a lot of people who disagreed, including African Americans themselves. Several pointed out the harm it caused to so many minority neighborhoods. It’s one thing to protest, demonstrate, and disrupt powerful institutions (like Wall Street and the police). It’s another to burn down and destroy small businesses, the local pharmacy, and homes.

Some may say this is the price of activism and standing up for what is right. I’m not so sure that’s the case. I wouldn’t disagree that it is the price of a very immoral and bankrupt system. But it’s true that once people take to the streets en masse, you often get people who take advantage of the disruption to cause reckless damage with little concern for the lives and well-being of others. Most protesters and most people were not in support of such destruction. An important point is that we should be more angry with the cause of the discord than the discord itself. In contrast, the reactionary who is fine with things being as they are gets more upset with the discord. The reactionary would just love for everyone to go home or protest in ineffective ways that don’t stress the system and incentivize it to change for the better. I certainly don’t want to come across as defending that. However, I think we need to do better than raising our fists and getting excited over watching the local pharmacy burning to the ground. I reject the idea that we must defend every action that happened during the summer of 2020. I also reject the idea that that was the most effective way to address these matters. Regardless, I also know that such social upheavel is difficult to manage or plan ahead for, so we should put more of our resources and thinking towards making our society better so that we don’t warrant such upheaval in the first place. My Dialectical Left-Libertarian approach applied to the 2020 George Floyd protests/riots would want to ensure that any actions were in line with increasing freedom & flourishing for all, especially those most marginalized. If a given tactic or action leads to the destruction of the very lives and neighborhoods that we seek to strengthen and empower, then something is very wrong.

My last point applies to all these topics. There is a real problem with forgiveness, compassion, and flexible thinking in many social justice circles. Though I have hit on the dogmatism and rigidity already before, it is necessary to bring it up again because it is linked with an increased difficulty with forgiveness and compassion. Many people in these circles become so charged, rigid, and intense, that they start to treat others who fall short of their views with callousness, indifference, and aggression. You could be largely in line with them on most things—but fall short anywhere (how dare you, imperfect human!) and get prepared to be cancelled, attacked, smeared, and thrown away without a moment’s thought! We need to distance ourselves from some people or get them out of our lives—especially when they are actively hostile and don’t care. It’s not our responsibility to engage and try to “reform” everyone. But people like the ones being addressed here go to such extremes. They tend to lack compassion for others and look for things to condemn them for with no forgiveness on the horizon. That’s a toxic phenomenon that has no potential for building a just world. If we can’t forgive and show compassion, we fall into permanent war with nearly everyone. Permanent war is not preferable or sustainable, and it doesn’t have seeds for building a free and flourishing society for all. So, if we are to advocate for social justice, we are going to need to get in touch with compassion and forgiveness. If we don’t, we won’t get social justice. Instead, we will get social isolation and decline.

Like I have said many times at this point, this is not my final word or the final word on any of these matters. However, I wanted to cover these various contentious issues and find a way to apply my Dialectical Left-Libertarian approach to them. Let’s continue the project of “context-keeping” for freedom & flourishing together by continuing to dialogue and finding out better ways to approach very difficult issues and topics.

And don’t forget! You (which includes me) most likely didn’t always hold the views you do now. You most likely didn’t always advocate for social justice for all. You most likely suffered (and maybe continue to suffer) from serious ideological blindspots. Before you beat people down with the social justice stick, think instead about the compassion and support you would have liked to have had during a previous stage of your life. Then attempt to give that to the person in need. If they reject it and get hostile, move along. At least you tried rather than writing them off. And who knows, maybe a social justice seed was still planted and will sprout down the road.


In the Facebook thread that followed, I stated:

I am so very impressed with the careful way in which you laid out your case, and even more impressed with the ways in which you have applied the whole notion of context-keeping, so essential to dialectical thinking, to the process of exposition. If people cannot articulate their views in ways that even attempt to “reach across the divide”, they will forever be speaking in an echo chamber. And if they surround themselves with nobody but people who think likewise, they will find themselves caught up in the righteousness of their ideas without any concern for how those ideas are to be implemented in a pluralistic society. In other words, people need to exhibit the very charitable and compassionate ideals they claim to extol in the communicative process. If folks can’t even do that, then they are likely never to achieve those charitable, compassionate, or just ideals. To “know your audience”, as you put it, is essential, therefore, not only to the ability to communicate, but also essential to effectively making your point.

I also think that it is important to note, as you do so clearly, how we all need to have active minds that are open to our own self-acknowledgement of an evolution in our thinking—intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally.

I cannot take issue with anything you’ve said above. A job so very well done. It does not solve every problem—nor is it intended to—and if it leads to “pushback”, so be it. And if that “pushback” only goes to prove the points you have made (something that I’ve seen in threads on my own Timeline), so be it. It is just refreshing to see honesty, self-awareness, and compassion shedding light on topics that too often generate heat. …

Since this is a very touchy subject, there are many people who are literally afraid to discuss this issue; hence, they engage in the self-censorship of silence. And that, perhaps, is the greatest casualty of the phenomena that you so bravely address.

Since I’ve devoted so much space to Ryan’s post, I’ll let him have the last word here:

That’s a very fair point. To speak positively about social justice in most right-wing spaces gets you hit with nasty comments, accusations, and demands that you answer for every extreme taken by someone in the name of social justice. To speak critically about social justice in most left-wing spaces gets you cancelled, accused of being a fascist or racist, told you are simply speaking from a place of privilege, or some other dismissive or harsh response. Very unfortunate. Maybe we can work towards undoing that with more of these type discussions. ❤  

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