Sometimes People Are Wrong, a Response to David Wippman's Inside Higher Ed Article on Cancel Culture
President David Wippman and Glenn C. Altschuler’s article “How Colleges Can Counter ‘Cancel Culture’” in Inside Higher Ed argues that the best way to tackle “cancel culture” is by encouraging discussions with contrasting viewpoints. They claim “constraints on discussions of important social issues, however sensitive, subvert the goals of a liberal arts education.” However, the examples he uses to support this claim are not examples of “sensitive” social issues that deserve to have “both sides” heard. He uses three examples: one from the popular Netflix show The Chair, one from the University of Southern California, and one from the University of Michigan.
In the Netflix show The Chair, the professor that is “cancelled” for a mock Hitler salute is met with criticism from the protagonist not because his students are responding inappropriately, but because of his actions. The impact of not addressing his salute would be emboldening white supremacists on campus to feel comfortable in their beliefs. The students protesting against his actions aren’t mad because they are sensitive liberals, they are mad because they are put in danger if there is a Nazi professor on campus.
Wippman’s examples that don’t come from fictional TV shows are inconsequential. Bright Sheng, a University of Michigan professor who showed a performance where the main character was in blackface without providing context, didn’t lose his job or face any real consequences at all. He only apologized and stepped down from the class, and the Title IX allegations were dropped months later without explanation. However, the harm felt by the Black students in that room was consequential, because their professor was so culturally ignorant that he didn’t know not to show a video of blackface.
Wippman’s use of these examples elucidates two things: he believes there are two sides to issues such as racism and bigotry, and he doesn’t have enough examples that demonstrate that “cancel culture” has devastating, tangible impacts. Because too often, the harm that comes from these examples is not felt by the “cancelled” one, but by the victims of morally reprehensible behavior.
Real-world examples of “cancel culture” also contradict Wippman because the impacts of “cancellation” are usually negligible. Louis C.K. was accused of sexual misconduct and continues to profit off segments about it. Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special, containing homophobic and transphobic jokes, is supporting and driving his career. These examples show that “cancel culture” is a fallacy because no one is actually feeling the impacts of “cancellation” in real time. Perhaps Harvey Weinstein is an example that supports Wippman’s argument about the impacts of “cancel culture,” except his “cancellation” manifested in a conviction. Because he was guilty of sexual assault. Yet, from his article, it seems that Wippman would argue these are the types of “sensitive” topics that deserve to have “both sides” heard.
Wippman’s criticisms of “cancel culture” and his principles of liberal arts are aligned: that critically different viewpoints must be respected and “sensitive” discourse must happen. However, this fails to consider the fact that we, in 2021, are often faced with issues of fact vs. opinion. For example, the conservative “viewpoint” that vaccines don’t work are opinions that are directly contradicted by fact. The progressive viewpoint is contemporarily supported by scientific evidence.
Furthermore, this article raises a question of responsibility. Is David Wippman aware that it is his responsibility, as a person in a position of power, as well as the responsibility of the professors he refers to, to be culturally aware? It is on professors, especially tenured ones who have had years around students to catch up, to understand that blackface is offensive and that there are consequences for morally reprehensible behavior. It is 2021, and by now academics should be educated enough to understand that racism and sexism is wrong, and that certain “opposing” viewpoints are not to be respected because of the harmful impacts that has on members of our community.
Later in the article, Wippman dives into “Encouraging Dialogue Across Differences,” which he believes Hamilton does. David Wippman plugs his favorite invention: Common Ground. This program is indicative of the problem because relegating sensitive issues to academics doesn’t improve “cancel culture” by facilitating tough discourse. Instead, it shows an ignorance of the lived experiences of communities affected by the harmful impacts of these issues. Intellectualizing the harms of “sensitive” issues like the last Common Ground, where the question posed for debate was “Does income inequality matter?”, dehumanizes issues. This particular question opens up space for the opinion of “it doesn’t matter,” which Wippman clearly believes is a “contrasting viewpoint,” but directly contradicts the lived experiences of many and is therefore harmful to promote.
This is not to say that discussions about real-world problems don’t have a place in the academic community, but it is indicative of Wippman’s priorities. If his preferred method of countering “cancel culture” is to theorize about opinions and be ignorant to the harmful impacts of intellectualizing “sensitive” issues, then his priorities do not lie with elevating accepting attitudes and fact. Therefore, his resistance to “cancelling” people is resistance to having more progressive and therefore accepting values.
Wippman’s opinions on “cancel culture” make me ask several questions: What sort of viewpoints does David Wippman want to see emboldened at our college based on the examples he uses? Does he even care about the harmful impacts that certain “contrasting” opinions would have on marginalized members of our community? Who is the President of our college defending?