Trying to Cancel Harvard President Claudine Gay for Plagiarism is Missing the Point
Harvard President Claudine Gay was one of the several who, last week during congressional hearings on anti-Semitism on campus, proudly and firmly informed us that they’re simply free speech advocates, and that includes — checks notes — calls for the destruction of Israel. …but apparently not speech that might make, say, overweight people feel bad.
The case against her is strong, because for years, right up to the present, they have been champions of censorship, cancellation, safe spaces, and other woke policies where free speech is nowhere to be seen. Suddenly becoming a champion for free speech when Jews are the target is laughable.
But that’s not my point here. That’s the obvious part, and just gets you up to speed in case you missed it.
What happened next was that there were charges made popular by Chris Rufo that she engaged in some instances of plagiarism in her Ph.D. dissertation.
Now the story is mostly about that.
So what? What’s wrong with that?
Going after an academic’s past plagiarism is in principle fine, and especially for those like a university president who enforces the very standards they themselves once violated.
The trouble here is that the prompt for this plagiarism-scrutiny was her unprincipled and unethical take on free expression and anti-Semitism.
The focus should be on humiliating her for THAT take, not canceling her for unrelated plagiarism from decades ago.
If you “succeed” in canceling her for her plagiarism, you fail to get the wanted win concerning free expression and anti-Semitism. That’s the issue at hand.
I don’t much care to win the “university presidents shouldn’t have any examples of plagiarism in their work.” That’s hardly a deep ethical issue folks disagree about.
And, whether you succeed or not, you’ve ended up engaging in cancel culture, the very behavior I despise. I thought you did too?
Some people are responding that, “No, this is war. You destroy the canceling opposition by engaging in cancellation just as they do.”
(1) As I said just above, if you “win” by cancellation, you’re not actually championing and winning on the principles the argument is even about. That’s a loss. Or at least not the win I’m looking for.
(2) The opposition can tell the difference between principled disagreement and cancellation, just as you can. When they perceive it to be cancellation, they perceive it to be an unprincipled attack, and then often circle the wagons, making it even harder to remove the target in the opposition.
(3) Politics follows culture, not the other way around. Winning is not simply defeating the opposition. Winning is the creation of a culture and social narrative that believes, in its bones, the principles we cherish. If you violate those principles in defeating the opposition, you encourage the same illnesses in the culture you were trying to cure.
Learn the difference between argument and cancellation.
ARGUMENT: Claudine Gay’s stance on free expression and anti-Semitism is wrong because blah blah and she should resign.
CANCELLATION: Claudine Gay’s stance on free expression and anti-Semitism is wrong; she engaged in plagiarism in her dissertation and she should resign.
CANCELLATION: Claudine Gay’s stance on free expression and anti-Semitism is wrong; she had fifty speeding tickets and she should resign.
CANCELLATION: Claudine Gay’s stance on free expression and anti-Semitism is wrong; she has sexual proclivities of type blah and she should resign.
You see the difference?
Here’s another way to drive home this point, one emanating from our experience with Covid.
What brought the Great Covid Debacle — the unprecedented civil liberties violations, and the massive harms they wrought — was the sudden development of a new culture. New social narratives bubbled up and burst sideways across most of the minds on Earth by March 11 or so in 2020.
It wasn’t existing laws or existing pandemic plans that caused the Debacle. There were no existing structures advising or sanctioning any of it. And there were loads of legal barriers to the implementation of the civil-liberties-violating measures, but the new Covid cult-like culture took no notice of those barriers. The quasi-religion flows right over them, right through them. (The courts only later redress those barrier breaks.)
It’s these narratives that matter. It’s the ideas held by culture that matter.
If you abandon your efforts to shape the culture’s narrative to cherish the things we cherish, you have a culture primed to slosh over those cherished principles at the drop of a “muh emergency” hat.
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