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Western Carolina University and the new ‘script’ for appeasing the mob, Act II

Alumni Tower at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina.

Alumni Tower at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. (Bryan Pollard/Shutterstock)

This blog entry is part 2 of a series. You can read part 1 here.

On Aug. 25, Western Carolina University, a public university in North Carolina, announced that students depicted in two videos that made waves online the prior week were no longer enrolled at the university. There is, at this point, absolutely nothing surprising in WCU’s actions. As I wrote in the first entry in this series, this story will likely seem familiar, since we have been reading the same story over and over again since May. It is barely an exaggeration to say that this series of stories needs only the Mad Libs-style replacement of names, dates, and locations to keep it up to date.

What happened at WCU is a paradigmatic example of this trend. In my previous entry, I described Act I of the “script” that so many colleges and universities are following these days when students (and even faculty members) are called out over the internet for saying or writing things that offend against or dissent from the mainstream. I detailed what was said in the videos, pointed out that offensive speech is rife on social media platforms despite efforts to combat it, and noted that restrictions on offensive speech, including so-called “hate speech,” depend for their very viability on their not being enforced in an evenhanded way. 

What comes next in the script?

Act II: Anatomy of a Cancellation

Imagine that out of the thousands (more probably, millions) of items of offensive speech or expression posted each day on the English-speaking internet, your own expression is one of the few per day that, for whatever reason, inspires someone out there to start a campaign to get you “canceled.” What’s in store for you?

This use of the term “canceled” has come into vogue awfully quickly, but there is as yet no agreed-upon definition of what it means to be canceled. Author Jonathan Rauch and Yale professor Nicholas Christakis have both come forward with some useful definitions. After my friend, professor Mike Adams, committed suicide after being forced into retirement earlier this year because of something he tweeted, I came up with some proposed criteria of my own:

  1. Is the aim or predictable effect of the would-be canceler’s actions to silence or deplatform the target, rather than to persuade the target or others that the target is wrong?
  2. Is the would-be canceler demanding that the target be fired or otherwise punished for the target’s expression rather than his or her actions?
  3. Is the would-be canceler endeavoring to get others to join in making these demands, or participating in such a campaign?

(Thanks very much to Jonathan Rauch for suggesting to me the addition of the predictable effect language in point 1.) If all three of those criteria are met, I would suggest that what’s happening is a cancellation effort. It’s hardly the final word; right now, the real definition is basically “I know it when I see it.” So what does that look like when you’re scrolling through your social media feeds?

Here, again, the WCU case is a great example. There were two videos at issue, one posted to Twitter, the other to Facebook. The one posted to Twitter was the video with the three women I described in my last entry and is the one I will examine here.

At 12:07 p.m. on Aug. 22, the initial poster, “D,” posted the video with the accompanying comment, “I hope @WCU handling this cause y’all don’t want the Black students to act out!! [vomiting emoji].” D need not have worried; WCU was soon “handling this.” Less than an hour later, WCU replied on Twitter to say it would send him a direct message. That message was apparently a link to WCU’s “BIAS Reporting Form.” Anyone, on or off campus, can use the form to send in a bias report. No names are required, so there’s no risk in reporting that member of the WCU community that really gets under your skin as many times as you feel might be necessary. 

It’s clear that everyone knew this was a cancellation effort, including WCU, and nearly everyone was pretty enthusiastic about pitching in.

Reading the thread, it’s clear that everyone knew this was a cancellation effort, including WCU, and nearly everyone was pretty enthusiastic about pitching in. A person self-identifying as an RA at WCU encourages people to use the reporting form, the link for which WCU helpfully tweeted out for general use: “I do really hope that there are consequences for these students because it is unacceptable!” Account after account makes demands that action be taken against the students, from the summary (“@WCU expecting 3 expulsions here, thank you), to the indignant (“ANY OTHER SCHOOL would look into this and remove these students. But I’m SURE that @WCU will just brush it under the rug and allow these asshats to continue to go to school here instead of actually punishing them”). A person claiming to be a WCU professor weighs in with support: “As a prof here, I’ve got your back. This is not acceptable behavior for catamounts.” As another tweeter prophetically put it, “They’re finished [skull emoji] Black Twitter will handle it.” 

Several comments encourage violence against the women in the video: “Y’all might as well beat they ass tbh,” “Fuck it , best em all up . People always wanna test boundaries until it come to getting they ass whooped,” and “Someone beat they nasty asses.” Such comments are not legally incitement and are protected by the First Amendment, but would appear to violate Twitter’s policy against “Wishing or hoping serious harm on a person or group of people” since they, er, wish or hope serious harm on a person or group of people. Yet no action seems to have been taken. No surprise there, since, as I discussed in part 1 of this blog series, the very viability of such restrictions depends on them not being applied evenly. The scale of such a task makes it impossible, so decisions to enforce or not to enforce them are instead made unjustly and arbitrarily, as they were here. Thanks, Twitter, Inc., for so neatly proving my point. (To be extra clear, this is not an argument for Twitter to work harder at censorship. That will always fail. It’s an argument that they should not attempt it in the first place.)

The one or two people who popped up in the thread suggesting that perhaps the women in the video should not be severely punished or kicked out of WCU were swiftly disabused of any such notion. One wrote, 

As an alumni of @WCU I’m disgusted by this.

That being said I think teaching them a lesson (community service, classes on racial injustice & a lot of other requirements) would be better than expelling them. Again I HATE what these kids said but maybe they can GROW from this. [man shrugging emoji]

While what this user recommends would still be an unlawful punishment for constitutionally protected speech, this user is one of the very few who actually suggests that persuasion might be preferable to punishment. But that doesn’t last long. Another user replies, “If we have a zero tolerance policy for plagiarism on the basis of integrity, we can have a zero tolerance police of racism on the same grounds.” This is enough to change the alum’s mind: “Love the argument here and I agree.” There is no sign that this alumnus or his interlocutor recognized the irony here: The alum was persuaded, through (admittedly specious) argument, to change his mind about whether the students should have the chance to be persuaded to change their minds rather than thrown out of school.

Campaigns like this also highlight the detective skills of the internet community. Exactly one hour after D’s initial post, a user posted a screenshot of a woman’s Instagram page, replying to D and WCU and saying, “This one of they instagram,” referring to the second woman who appears in the video. Ten minutes later at 1:17, the same user reports, “This the first girl [in the video’s] insta,” to which another user replies with her alleged twitter handle, “if anyone wants to drag her on Twitter too [woman shrugging emoji].” Yet another user chimes in with what is allegedly the same woman’s “finsta,” a term for a user’s alternative, usually more candid Instagram account. The third woman in the video evades notice until 2:40 p.m., when the user posts her alleged Instagram page with the note, “Please don’t forget the third girl instagram right here !” The whole process was finished in three hours.

In such an environment, staying silent is a kind of insurance — it protects us (mostly) from the risk that we will ourselves be stripped of something we can’t afford to lose.

While amazingly efficient, the random-Twitter-users-as-informants investigatory method has some flaws. There have been plenty of incidents of people being misidentified during one of these campaigns, and while we have no reason to assume that happened here, one can only imagine the panic of a student wrongly identified to WCU being questioned about why she appeared in a video about which she knows nothing, knowing her denials are unlikely to be believed for some time if she resembles the person in the video. 

The justification, such as it is, for social media campaigns against people who use racist or offensive language is that the use of such language, even when not directed at a given person, is disrespectful to those who hear it, potentially contributing to their emotional distress and a hostile environment. Yet these campaigns frequently and predictably produce a plethora of deeply personal attacks against the targeted individuals, sometimes including their friends and family members. When aimed at women, it frequently includes insults about their appearance, as it did here in response to a screenshot of nine Instagram photos of one of the women: “God has punished her enough [laughing with tears in eyes emoji].” This comment received 112 likes. Far from advancing respect for one another, the only message this sends is that on social media, two wrongs somehow do make a right.

Another characteristic of such campaigns is the groupthink that arises out of them, and which chases out any dissenting views.

Another characteristic of such campaigns is the groupthink that arises out of them, and which chases out any dissenting views. D’s thread displays a near-total lack of anyone willing to disagree with the premises — this video proves that these people are bad, and they must be made to pay — that are, at this point, assumed without even needing to be stated. It’s hard to believe that while all this was going on, nobody who ran across this thread thought to themselves that perhaps this was not the best approach to dealing with these students. Registering dissent, under one’s real name or pseudonymously, is a matter of a few keystrokes. Yet in the entire, multi-page thread of comments, only one other user does so, and it’s literally the very last thing on the thread, hidden with some others under a warning that it may contain offensive content. It reads, “Whinny ass people. Like none of you ever said anything stupid. Get over it.” (Why Twitter would consider this comment to be more offensive than many of those not hidden, no small number of which also contain the word “ass” along with the usual panoply of four-letter words, is unclear.) 

Groupthink is a serious problem in many settings, the most obvious of which is college and university campuses, FIRE’s speciality. Even so, generally there will be a few people willing to stick their necks out and assert their right to be part of the conversation. FIRE’s case archive is full of them. So why not here? This is where Jonathan Rauch’s cancel culture checklist, also mentioned above, provides some important insight. He mentions “secondary boycotts” as a characteristic of cancel culture, writing:

Do people who defend you, or criticize the campaign against you, have to fear adverse consequences? … By choosing targets unpredictably (almost anything can trigger a campaign), providing no safe harbors (even conformists can get hit), and implicitly threatening anyone who sides with those who are targeted, canceling sends the message: “you could be next.” … In the resulting climate, people will often join public denunciations or refrain from defending targets they believe to be innocent, to avoid becoming controversial themselves.

In such an environment, staying silent is a kind of insurance — it protects us (mostly) from the risk that we will ourselves be stripped of something we can’t afford to lose. But insurance is never free, and the “premium” for this protection is the ability to use the right to free speech that belongs to each of us, individually, as an American. 

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