My online lecture today for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East: Cancel culture has “morphed into an extremely dangerous targeting of people, attempts to destroy their lives, to so-called dox them, to harass them, to harass their employers, to harass people who know them to get them fired”
I gave an online lecture today for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), a “grass-roots community of scholars” who “believe that ethnic, national, and religious hatreds, including anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism, have no place in our institutions, disciplines, and communities. We employ academic means to address these issues.”
Asaf Romirowsky is the longtime Executive Director of SPME, and along with others in the organization, on June 12, 2020, issued a statement suporting me when I was the object of Cornell Law School’s two minutes of hate, SPME Stands By Professor William Jacobson:
Does the Dean not realize that such a categorical misrepresentation and dismissal of Jacobson’s opinions as “offensive” and “poorly reasoned,” is a form of punishment, another voice in the chorus of ostracizers who make life for their colleague deeply hostile?
What is happening at Cornell is part of a much larger pattern. On campuses in particular we see ongoing pressure for conformity in the name of outrage which plays a decisive role.
That public message of support was deeply appreciated, so I was happy to oblige when Asaf asked if I would be willing to speak at an online event for SPME on Cancel Culture in Higher Education.
That event was today, and we had over 100 scholars in attendance. My initial comments were just under a half hour, and the remainder of the hour was question and answer.
You can listen to the lecture and Q&A at the SPME website, and also below.
Here is a transcript of my opening remarks. (Note: Transcript is auto-generated, and may contain transcription errors. Hyperlinks added.)
Thank you for that introduction. I appreciate it. And I also appreciate being here because I’m scrolling through the list of attendees, and I actually know some people, which is really rare. Usually when I’m doing these things, I don’t really know anybody. So, Hi everybody. Good to see you.
I’m going to talk a little bit about cancel culture, and what I have perceived [as] the changes, how it’s impacted things over the years, and really what the status of it is now. Now “cancel culture” is a relatively new word. I don’t think we were using this term even three years ago or five years ago, certainly. But many of the things, many of the tactics, many of the problems have existed for quite some time, and I’ve observed them because I started Legal Insurrection website in October 2008. And that was really my first introduction to what I guess, nowadays we would call “cancel culture.”
I started it right before the 2008 election, really with no plan just because I wanted to. And I was absolutely amazing what I was writing was getting attention. And within two weeks, by the end of October 2008, the law school was already getting emails from people demanding I be fired, how terrible it was to have somebody like me because what I wrote was against the Obama candidacy, which really shocked me because it never really dawned on me that somebody would do that sort of thing. I guess I was very naïve. But it happened within two weeks within two to three weeks, which is absolutely amazing.
And that campaign to get me fired because of what I was writing on a variety of topics really continued for at least several years in a very concerted, very determined sort of effort. All of it, at that time, [came] from off-campus, from people who weren’t on the campus. And, all of it, the harassment of my colleagues, threatening boycotts of the law school if I wasn’t fired, threatening me to the extent that one graduation, the university actually assigned a detective to accompany me to graduation. And the thing is, I wasn’t writing anything really out of the mainstream of modern conservative thought. But it was unacceptable to people to have somebody on the campus and on the law school faculty who disagreed with the majority on campus. I probably was in more or less representing half the population, but at the law school, and at Cornell, a tiny fraction of the population.
And the one thing that, now that I look back upon it, is these were not, threats or really related to my work with Israel. These were not anarchists, or I guess what we would call now Antifa. These were not any of those sort of people.
The people trying to get me fired and complaining about me and harassing people at the law school about me were mainstream Obama Democrats, mainstream liberals, most of whom used their own name. I mean, there were some anonymous things, but for the most part, they felt no shame, no hesitancy in [using] their own name [to] write to the Dean of the law school about how I should be fired. It was truly amazing. And it was an intolerance that did not come from the radicals. It did not come from the anti-Israel people. It came from mainstream liberals. And I think that that is something which has gotten worse over the year.
So when I think of cancel culture, I don’t think of the instances of Antifa trying to take over a courthouse or something like that. I think of it as an intolerance from the mainstream liberal Democrat America to anyone who disagrees with them, and it’s gotten a lot worse. So that was my introduction to cancel culture. There were people who actually wanted to cancel me because what I was writing on this solo blog, that I didn’t even know anybody really would even notice. But the other thing I noticed is the history.
Since 2008, we have been following various forms of cancel culture. And while that was targeted at me, my first introduction to things, for the most part, for the early years of our coverage, most of it was anti-Israel cancel culture. It was events being disrupted by SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine] and various offshoots of SJP. It was speakers being shouted down. It was students being harassed for bringing Israeli or pro-Israel speakers to campus.
And so, as I look back upon our history of covering these events, not surprisingly, it kind of started with the [targeting of] Jews. It started with the targeting, at least in my experience, of pro-Israel speakers or Israeli speakers, pro Israel students, pro-Israel events. I remember one event at Cornell. It was Israeli Independence Day. I think it was 2017, but there were many instances earlier than that, where Hillel put on an Independence Day event in a room, and SJP crashed the event and held the die in, in the middle of the room. They thought it was their right to disrupt our event. And it’s just that sort of a constant disruption of Israeli and pro-Israel speakers and students. That is the first thing that I noticed.
And this is not a precise timeline, but I think it’s a rough timeline. And then things began to shift a little bit more, and we began to see a lot more of the similar tactics used against people I would say we’re right of center. I won’t even say conservative, but people who were dissenting from the liberal orthodoxy on campuses, and their events started to get disrupted and speakers shouted down. You’ve probably seen a lot of coverage of these things, mostly or most significantly at smaller liberal arts colleges. Like Middlebury College had a famous incident where speakers were shouted off campus, and the professor was actually attacked. But it’s been many places.
At Cornell. Rick Santorum was heckled at Cornell. There was one of the original TEA Party people, Michael John Sr., whose son went to Cornell at the time, [who] was invited to a debate forum. It wasn’t even a right-wing debate forum. It was a non-partisan group on campus, which sponsors debates between speakers and students. And so they bring in speakers, and that speaker essentially debates the students from the club. And they invited Michael John Sr., who was a Tea Party founder and was vocally pro-Trump. And they had to move the location of the speech to a private location because Cornell police, with this history of disruption of conservative speakers, actually monitored social media, saw that there were planned disruptions, went to this debate group and said, we’ve picked up that there’s going to be a disruption. We will provide police protection, but it’s going to cost you $2,000. They said, well, we don’t have $2,000. [The Cornell Police] said, well, then you have to make the event private and move it to an undisclosed location, which is what they did. And the students who were protesting found out the new location, anyway (surprise, surprise), banged on the doors, to disrupt, couldn’t get into the room. And this is Cornell University. As far as I know, there was no action taken against any of those students who threatened disruption and did try to disrupt.
And so there was a lot of that on almost every campus. So it started in my observation with attacks on pro-Israel and Israeli speakers. It kind of shifted over time to right-of-center speakers. For some reason, I don’t know why, I seem to be a lightning rod for these things.
So, there was a general intolerance building on campuses, trigger warnings for certain language, and basically the concept of free speech on campuses and academic freedom devolved into, “How do I feel about this? You only have a right to speak on campus as long as I am not insulted, as long as I am not made to feel uncomfortable.” And that became the dominant ideology five years ago, whenever it was. And that has grown worse.
I had that experience at Vassar College. I went to Vassar College as a guest speaker invited by the Vassar Conservative Libertarian Student Union, which was nine students on a campus of 2,400 students. And people freaked out because I was going to speak about why hate speech is actually protected under the Constitution. And they organized protests against my coming to campus, two all campus-wide meetings, to prepare for my arrival with over 200 people, faculty, student, and staff at each one, how they could protect students. They spread false, completely false rumors that I was a white supremacist bringing my white nationalist friends to target marginalized communities at Vassar. I mean complete fabrication. They had very tight security. The students had set up safety teams. The safety teams were there to help guide students who were feeling triggered to safe locations. They established safe spaces. This is all over me coming to campus. They established safe spaces. And one of the safe spaces was the Vassar main library where they had, and I kid you not, coloring books and crayons available to students who were feeling stressed by my being on campus.
Well, my appearance on campus, which normally probably would have attracted 20 students, the nine students in the Vassar Conservative Libertarian Union, and a couple of their friends, because of this absurdity they had over me. And I think it was the largest classroom there. I think it was 200-plus capacity. It was completely overflowing. It was into the hallways. There probably were 300 students there, coming to see this horrible person coming to campus. And there were, fifty or sixty students dressed all in black in protest of my being there. And it actually turned out to be one of the greatest events on a campus I’ve ever had because they realized within two minutes that I wasn’t this monster that had been portrayed. The student government had actually petitioned the president of the university to keep me off campus too, to breach the agreement I had with them to speak, which she did not do.
And it was really actually a great night. There were no interruptions. There was a 45-minute speech on the basics of free speech and why it’s important even on campuses, and an hour and 15 minutes of question-and-answer. Students lined up long lines to ask questions. And one thing that taught me is that a lot of what we see is coming from a minority of students on campus, it’s coming from a smaller group. There were actually were several hundred students who wanted to hear what I had to say and who once I started speaking, were interested in learning, and it was very clear while it was in many ways that basic civics lesson that they’d never heard any of this stuff before, about what the First Amendment means and why it’s important. And so any conservative speaking, even little old me, was getting attempted to keep me off campuses.
And then things began to broaden out the concept of microaggressions. Again, everything focused on how things make me feel. And now it’s much worse. I mean, it is not even close to what it was years ago.
It’s the rise of Critical Race Theory. It’s the rise of Black Lives Matter movement. It is the move towards mandatory, coercive “antiracism training,” which of course, as we know, is really one of the greatest linguistic sleights of hand to call what they do “antiracism,” when in fact, in many ways it’s the opposite.
And now the atmosphere on campuses is really bad. Just about everywhere. There is close to zero tolerance for dissenting views on anything regarding race relations, anything regarding Black Lives Matter, anything regarding the topics of systemic racism, things like that.
One of the things we’ve always done at Legal Insurrection is come to the assistance of faculty who are under attack and try to get them publicity, maybe try to hook them in with legal help, whatever it happens to be. So we see a lot of these cases, and I’ve covered many just in the last few months. We’re just since June of last year, probably eight or 10 significant cases to faculty being run off of campus, being censured, being attacked in some cases, all because they expressed dissenting views over the riots and the looting and the other things that happened after the death of George Floyd as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. So now it’s really bad. There is zero tolerance.
Many universities, including Cornell [where the Faculty Senate [will] take a vote on May 5th, imposing mandatory training for students and for faculty mandatory educational requirements. They are adopting what amounts to an official ideology, which is variations on Critical Race Theory. And it’s truly oppressive.
And as many of you know, that cancel culture visited me in a very big way, a little over a year ago, the beginning of June 2020.
We have covered, in Legal insurrection, the Black Lives Matter movement since [its] inception. We covered the George Zimmerman case. It was after that acquittal that the hashtag, Black Lives Matter, was created. But it really was the Michael Brown shooting that launched the Black Lives Matter movement to national prominence. And we were there, we were covering it, not just the riots and the looting, but the Michael Brown case itself, as well as the rise of Black Lives Matter and how anti-Israel activists were deeply embedded from the start in a lot of that activism and have sought to hijack that movement to turn it against Israel.
So I was very familiar with Michael Brown. I was very familiar of the narrative of “Hands up. Don’t shoot.” And I was also very familiar with the fact that that was actually a false narrative that the Justice Department under Obama, the Eric Holder Justice Department, after the local grand jury, refused to indict the policeman who shot Michael Brown did a thorough investigation and exhaustive investigation, as you can imagine, to determine whether there were any civil rights violations and found that there were none, that there was no racial motivation. In fact, it was a justifiable use of police force because, contrary to the narrative of Michael Brown being shot with his hands up while he was saying, “don’t shoot,” he was shot when he punched a policeman, sitting in a patrol car, in the face, reached in and tried to steal his service weapon. He was shot once, the policemen got out of the car, Michael Brown made another charge at him, and the policeman shot him again. And that was the fatal shot.
And even the Obama Eric Holder Justice Department found that, because of the physical assault, because of the attempt to steal a weapon, and because of the second charge at the policemen, who [used] a justifiable use of force, I guarantee you virtually nobody in the country knows that. Instead they know “Hands up, don’t shoot! And “Hands up don’t shoot!” became the operative narrative of the Black Lives Matter movement so much so that in the protests, after George Floyd and the riots after the George Floyd killing, people were marching saying, “Hands up, don’t shoot!”
And I knew that was false. I had written about that multiple times in the past. And so I wrote a blog post saying that, “You know, ‘Hands up don’t shoot’ is a fabricated narrative from the Michael Brown case.” And people lost their minds at Cornell. And that led to an email campaign by alumni, petitions by alumni. I was denounced by twenty-one of my colleagues who never had the courtesy, although I’d known many of them for a decade and consider them work friends, to talk to me before they signed this letter against me. Students organized a boycott of my course, which, by the way, failed. We were oversubscribed again. But 15 student groups organized the boycott. The dean of the law school denounced me, really twisted what I said, claimed that I was writing against protest for black civil rights or something like tha when it’s very clear that that post about Michael Brown and a subsequent post, or another post I had, were critical of the looting and the rioting, not black [individuals] seeking civil rights and human rights. So that really visited me.
And, I do thank the people at SPME. They wrote an open letter defending me, Some other groups did too, but not a lot on campus. I mean, a lot of people were, I think, afraid. I got a lot of emails from students who said, “You have a lot of support in the building. Don’t think these student groups actually represent everybody. It’s just, everybody is afraid to speak up.” They’re afraid of becoming a target. And I completely understand that. I got emails of support from some faculty, not a lot, at Cornell university. None from the law school. Supportive, but again, quietly.
I think that’s the campus culture we live in. It’s that everybody’s afraid, and the polling and the surveys show this, that people are afraid to speak up on campuses. And it’s, of course, moved off of campus. People are afraid to speak up at work. The campus cancel culture has very much moved off campus into the corporate world and into other aspects of society. And that’s really where we are now.
So as I look at the history, it went from anti-Israel cancel culture, to anti-conservative cancel culture. to an ideology that the most important, the only thing that matters when it comes to free speech, is how what you are saying makes me feel, not the truth of what you’re saying. Not your ability to have other views to the Critical Race Theory view of the world, which is now predominant, predominant, and evidenced, in some ways, by the Black Lives Matter movement. And the Ibram Kendi style, anti-racism indoctrination and training. And so it’s a very, very negative aspect to it.
One thing I do think has changed since the early days is that where, in the early days, people would try to stop a speaker from speaking. They might try to disrupt an event. They didn’t really try to destroy people, so they didn’t try to destroy the speakers. As long as the speaker stayed off my campus, it was their view, we’re okay. We’re not going to try to get them fired from other places. We’re not going to try to get their publishers to drop them. Now, this is morphed into an extremely dangerous targeting of people, attempts to destroy their lives, to so-called dox them, to harass them, to harass their employers, to harass people who know them to get them fired.
That was another thing you didn’t see a lot of in the early days of Legal Insurrection. You didn’t see organized attempts to get people fired that you see now, fairly frequently. So things have changed over the years for the worse.
Before I end my opening comments, ‘cause I know we have a limited amount of time, I do encourage you to think about what are some of the responses to cancel culture? Well, the most common response is, “Oh, you just don’t like being criticized. This isn’t cancel culture. You’re just thin skinned. You’re the snowflakes. You’re always complaining about [this], and you just don’t like being criticized. It’s not cancel culture.” And that of course is not true.
An author named Jonathan Rauch wrote a post, I think it was at Medium or some independent location they called “The Cancel Culture Checklist.” And then I think it’s worth looking at this. How do you know if you’ve been subject to criticism, or you were being subject to the modern 2020-2021 form of cancel culture. And he’s got a checklist of a few points, which I think are really useful.
One is Punitiveness, that they’re denouncing you to your professional groups, your social connections, trying to get you blacklisted. It’s a very punitive type of approach, as opposed to mere criticism. You’re trying to get you deplatform-ed. They’re trying to prevent you from publishing your work, from being on social media, from attending or giving speeches. So it’s punitiveness, deplatforming. Organization, the criticism is highly organized. It’s not simply people criticizing you. And that’s of course what it was in my case. It was a coordination of faculty and students in an organized manner, and alumni targeting me and trying to get me fired or trying to get me censured or something like that. It was very organized. It wasn’t just people complaining or criticizing you. It was an organized targeting. Secondary Boycotts, that there’s an implicit threat, that to go after people who were associated with you, that’s a very common factor of it. Moral Grandstanding, is his second to last factor, that they attack you in very ad hominem ways to make themselves seem morally superior. And Truthiness, that they don’t actually tell the truth about what you’re saying. They create straw-man arguments, like the argument by the dean of law school that I was supposedly casting, in his words, “broad and categorical aspersions on the goal of those protesting for justice for black Americans.” That’s a complete fabrication. There’s nothing in what I wrote that says that. So they create the straw-man arguments and then knock down those straw-man arguments, truthiness.
So cancel culture, as it exists now, is more than criticism. It’s more than stopping a single speech. It’s more than that. It’s really the warfare of personal destruction that we’re seeing across our culture more broadly now.
So with that, I will stop and answer questions.
I’ll note one comment from the audience (at 39:05):
Professor Jacobson, thank you very much. I wanted to mention that I’m a significant donor. I was a significant donor to Cornell and an alumnus. That you’re really a hero to a lot of pro-Israel and conservatives, and to just people who cherish American values. And, as of about a year ago, one or two years ago, I let Cornell know that I will no longer be donating as long as they have these restrictive policies that allow the rejection or the censorship of pro-Israel speakers, of conservative students, and basically promoting their quote unquote anti-racist policies that actually promote racism and division. And I just hope that other Cornell alumni will follow my example, because maybe that will make a difference.DONATE
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