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Cancel Culture Cuts Both Ways

On October 13, The Onion shared on X (formerly Twitter) the headline for a new satirical article: “Dying Gazans Criticized for Not Using Last Words to Condemn Hamas.” The tweet was liked by nearly 100,000 people.

Within a couple of hours, Michael Eisen, a genetics professor at UC Berkeley and the editor of eLife, an influential open-access journal for the life sciences, retweeted the post with the comment that The Onion “speaks with more courage, insight and moral clarity than the leaders of every academic institution put together.” As Eisen told me in a recent phone interview, he did this “on Friday the 13th—I should have known that was a bad idea.”

At first, reactions to Eisen’s tweet were muted. On X, a scientist asked Eisen, who is Jewish and has relatives in Israel, whether he condemned Hamas’s October 7 terrorist attack; in response to another post, Eisen wrote, “I condemn Hamas. I condemn the way Israel has treated Palestinians. I condemn the way one abhorrent act is used to justify another.” But then the responses to Eisen’s posts started to get heated. “I haven’t heard anyone criticising dying Gazans for not condemning Hamas,” one poster wrote. “I only heard people criticising smug, condescending American academics for not doing so.” Another poster shared a screenshot of an old tweet in which Eisen had written “Fuck Israel.”

The following day, eLife’s X account posted: “eLife condemns the atrocities committed by Hamas last week.” The message, which did not explicitly mention Eisen and has since been deleted, added, “We wish to highlight that, while the opinions of eLife staff and editorial board are their own, they are covered by our code of conduct. We take breaches of this seriously and investigate accordingly.” (I asked the board’s spokesperson why that post had been deleted but did not receive an answer to that question.)

The following week, the journal’s leadership convened for a regular board meeting. Afterward, Eisen was, he says, asked to delete the offending post and promise to refrain from posting on X in the future. Because Eisen did not want to disavow the original post, he offered a compromise that, he hoped, would save his position: He would deactivate his X account.

Over the following days, the board concluded that this action was insufficient. It gave Eisen, he told me, a choice: Resign or be fired. On October 23, Eisen announced on his reactivated X account: “I have been informed that I am being replaced as the Editor in Chief of @eLife for retweeting a @TheOnion piece that calls out indifference to the lives of Palestinian civilians.”

Eisen’s ouster is a startling example of someone getting fired for expressing a view about the conflict in the Middle East, but similar incidents have proliferated.

David Velasco, the editor of Artforum, an influential art-world magazine, was fired for publishing on October 19 an open letter calling for “Palestinian liberation” and an “immediate ceasefire” that was signed by thousands, including many prominent artists and curators. The magazine’s publishers said that he had not followed the correct “editorial process,” allowing the letter, which condemned Israel without mentioning Hamas’s terror attack, to create the impression that it represented the institutional position of Artforum.

The 92nd Street Y, a Jewish cultural center on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, abruptly canceled, and then postponed, an event with the writer Viet Thanh Nguyen. Although the organization did not fully explain its reasoning, it did cite the Hamas attack and its traumatic effect on the community the Y serves; many observers interpreted the postponement as connected with Nguyen’s signing of another open letter, similar to the Artforum one but published in the London Review of Books.

Much of the debate about “cancel culture” has focused on people targeted for offending left-wing sensibilities. But the same dynamics can evidently also operate against left-wing activists, particularly those critical of Israel’s response to Hamas’s terror attack. Far from being a culture-war canard, cancellation turns out to be a weapon that many people on both the left and the right are willing to wield to silence anyone who violates their orthodoxies.

The recent wave of cancellations of pro-Palestinian voices is worrisome because it stifles public discourse about an important issue. More generally, cancel culture narrows political debate about all kinds of topics, encourages people to abstain from expressing any belief that might turn out to be controversial, and undermines trust in valuable institutions. And as the details of these cases suggest, a genuine culture of free expression requires broad protections from adverse consequences for political speech—even for those who may already be controversial within their organizations for other, more legitimate reasons.

Many of the factors behind headline-grabbing cancellations turn out, under examination, to be more complex than they first appear. Those involved in Eisen’s firing are no different.

His posts understandably spurred outrage. Many people and institutions have taken a stance on the conflict in Israel and Gaza without properly acknowledging the gruesome and sadistic nature of the October 7 attacks on Israeli civilians. At one university after another, collective letters have denounced Israel or called for an immediate cease-fire without a word of condemnation for Hamas’s mass killing or any call for the release of more than 200 people held hostage in Gaza. One such letter, signed by some of Columbia University’s most prominent academics, describes the worst murder of Jews since World War II as a “military action.” The Onion headline blithely implied that there was nothing wrong with this form of moral blindness.

According to a statement that eLife released, Eisen had previously received “clear feedback from the board that his approach to leadership, communication and social media has at key times been detrimental to the cohesion of the community we are trying to build and hence to eLife’s mission. It is against this background that a further incidence of this behaviour has contributed to the board’s decision.”

When I first read that statement, I was tempted to dismiss it as an exercise in damage mitigation. But Eduardo Franco, a cancer researcher at McGill University who is a senior editor at the journal, insists that the board’s account is basically correct. “Over the years,” he told me, “the board had not been very happy with the way Eisen used foul and passionate language to advance his own views.”

Franco called Eisen “brilliant” and emphasized that he did not object to Eisen’s advocacy for Palestine. But he also expressed misgivings. “If you’re using four-letter words that begin with f repeatedly, that’s not conducive to your position as someone who is supposed to use the English language to convey science to a broad audience,” he told me. “When you use extreme language like that, you destroy the gravitas that is required to represent an institution such as eLife.”

In our conversation, Eisen acknowledged that his critics have a point. “Being completely candid, it’s not the first time I have had conflict with the board about things I’ve done that caused controversy for the organization,” he said. When those previous controversies arose, he was “not being perfectly politic” in how he responded.

To some people, this context may turn Eisen’s firing into a “fake” cancellation. What looks like a story about cancel culture turns out to be a more mundane instance of an academic who, whatever his abilities, seems unsuited for the prestigious leadership role he has occupied. But to me, the real takeaway is not that Eisen deserved to be fired; it’s that principled defenders of free speech must be willing to stand up for those who cause offense even if their past comportment has been less than perfect.

Many institutional leaders and public figures will have made some kind of misstep or controversial decision in the past; if institutions can retroactively identify some such excuse in order to justify firing somebody who engages in unpopular speech today, they will be able to censor at will. (In response to my request for comment, the eLife board’s spokesperson insisted that “the particular content of Michael Eisen’s tweets is not the reason behind the decision to replace him.” She reiterated the board’s concern about Eisen’s “patterns of behaviour” but declined to answer my question about whether the board had followed a process involving formal warnings when it fired him.)

The Onion has a right to make a simplistic joke. A professor, even one employed as the editor of an influential journal, is at liberty to express his approval of its satirical point. Eisen’s endorsement of the article should count as free speech—not just free from government censorship, but free from interference by his employer, too. Whatever the larger context of concerns about his prior conduct, the board’s decision to act was motivated by the angry response to a social post that fell squarely within the realm of academic freedom—and so the manner of his firing is likely to have a chilling effect on other scholars. Even if Eisen’s views or manners are questionable, principled defenders of free speech must oppose his dismissal.

That broader context nearly always exists. Very commonly, some people already dislike the target of a cancel mob before the offending incident. And in many cases, I can see why some might genuinely be offended by what a canceled person has said. But if such complications can serve as a rationale to fire somebody for expressing controversial views, then those who seek to stifle debate will always be able to find some excuse to shut down unpopular opinions.

The space for free speech in American life has been shrinking. A professor was removed from her teaching post for offending the religious convictions of her students. For several months, Facebook banned from its platform discussion of the coronavirus lab-leak theory. Private companies have turned into self-appointed censors, severing their relationships with clients because of the views they have hosted or expressed.

The left was once known to be a stout defender of the First Amendment. But lately many on the left have either excused or even welcomed severe limits on free speech. When companies have fired employees for controversial political speech, progressives have pointed out that the First Amendment does not cover the actions of private businesses. And when free-speech advocates have warned about the illiberal effects of cancel culture, some progressives have argued in favor of a new “consequence culture” that would, they hope, serve to discourage what they regard as harmful speech. As Denise Branch, a self-described anti-racism consultant cited in a Forbes article, said, “‘Consequence culture’ is needed to build safer, more inclusive, equitable and accountable workplaces.”

Others have claimed that left-wing critiques of free speech are an invention of right-wing culture warriors. Eisen himself used to be one of these cancel-culture deniers. “Has anyone, anywhere actually been cancelled?” he tweeted as recently as March 2022.

Many of these progressives see recent stories of cancellation as proof that nobody defends freedom of expression for principled reasons. As one Guardian writer put it on X, “Watching the Cancel Culture Panic brigades entirely switch their positions now that the issue is Palestine is a very valuable learning experience that I hope people remember for a long time so that we don’t have to repeat that charade again.” (The Onion was also on the case: “Free Speech Absolutists Explain Why People They Disagree With Should Be Fired,” ran another recent headline.)

Unlike many other progressives, Eisen has had a change of heart. When I asked whether those who, like me, have warned about the ways in which our culture stifles controversial views may have had a point, he conceded that “you were completely right to be concerned about it, and we were wrong to dismiss that.”

Eisen is especially concerned about institutions’ failure to stick by their principles when under external attack. “What happened with me, and with lots of other people, is that organizations don’t like being involved in controversies,” Eisen told me. It is, he pointed out, incredibly easy to create controversy online. So “if the standard for an organization is that we will get rid of anyone who creates controversy, that has a very bad effect on speech.”

Eisen worries about the unfair effect this has on those who get on the wrong side of a social-media mob. But he is even more worried about the prohibition on expression that such cancellations impose on everyone else. “This is sending a message to lots of people that you’re only one political expression away from being fired,” he told me. The lesson that many rational people take from that, he believes, is that “if you value your job, you can’t speak out on anything.” If we allow the new restrictions on free speech to stand, our institutions will suffer, and “we’ll just have more and more chaos—or institutions are going to be run by complete dullards.”

The logical end point of cancel culture is a race to the bottom that pits different groups against one another. Once universities, academic journals, and other institutions of American life set the expectation that people will be fired for political speech that some find offensive, others will demand that anybody who offends their sensibilities must likewise be fired. And when each ethnic, religious, or ideological tribe responds to perceived restrictions on its own freedom to speak with demands for restrictions for everybody else, censorship’s scope will keep on growing.

To make things worse, our political polarization will make it impossible for either side to see punishment for causing offense as evenhandedly meted out. Rather than encouraging greater harmony, a “consequence culture” for supposedly offensive views will end with everyone convinced that they’re being persecuted.

The only way out of this crisis is to embrace a principled defense of free speech. We all have a responsibility to tolerate words and ideas we find offensive, regardless of the cause or ideology they claim to serve—even in situations, like Eisen’s, that involve real complexity. Otherwise, the boundaries of permissible speech will be dictated by an ever-shifting and easily manipulated consensus of what the loudest activists on social media find outrageous.

Eisen told me that he does not see himself as a martyr. His position with eLife was not his main job; as a tenured professor, he can weather this storm. His real concern is about the wider impact that his experience will have on academia. “How are we ever going to have a functioning institution,” he asked, “if we cave to this sort of public pressure on a whim?”

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