Dre(a)dfully fake outrage

The New Yorker's contribution to the "cancel culture" rage machine is embarrassing.

Last month, I wrote an article about the expansion of Fox News’ annual “War on Christmas” narrative into a year-long freakout, which was itself an expansion on a piece I wrote back in 2018 about how Tucker Carlson Tonight was “the local news broadcast from hell.” For years, right-wing media have stoked the “cancel culture” flames with this sort of outrage-bait. Recently, more respectable outlets have been getting in on disingenuous rage curation.

For instance, take this story published by The New Yorker:

The story’s headline (“The Importance of Teaching Dred Scott”) and sub-headline (“By limiting discussion of the infamous Supreme Court decision, law-school professors risk minimizing the role of racism in American history.”) make it sound as though there is a growing movement in law schools to gloss over the 1857 SCOTUS decision that held that Black people were “not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution.”

It’s now recognized as a horrific decision that was effectively nullified by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, but it is part of US history. If there was a movement to exclude discussion of the cases in law schools, that might be worthy of an article -- but no such movement exists. The article is based entirely on a single Twitter discussion that the author witnessed.

By now, people who work in media are well aware of how these types of stories get used to fuel “cancel culture” narratives about oversensitive “snowflakes” on the left who can’t handle discussion of ideas they disagree with. It’s become something of a cottage industry. But those stories, like this one, usually don’t add up.

On Twitter, the replies to the article consist of precisely two points of view.

One point of view: people expressing outrage/anger/righteous indignation over this controversy, arguing in support of teaching about the case.

The other point of view: people correctly noting that this entire story was based on a single tweet thread from a single law professor.

One thing you may notice when looking at these replies is that the people buying into the fake outrage tend to be the ones with titles like “Labor & Employment deputy team leader at Bloomberg Law” and “Senior National Correspondent, ABC News” in their bios. The more internet savvy and media-literate responses seem to be mostly coming from people who don’t have verification checkmarks and who don’t work in media. This isn’t some super complicated issue. Literally, anybody can see what is happening, and yet those with the largest platforms of all can’t help but fall for this outrage bait every single time it pops up. It is a choice -- they choose to push the “cancel culture” outrage narrative.

There aren’t many (if any) people in the replies arguing in favor of omitting bad SCOTUS decisions from law school discussions. The entire premise of the piece is a straw man.

Here’s a preview of Friday’s newsletter, featuring a Q&A with Michael Hobbes of the You’re Wrong About and Maintenance Phase podcasts.

A few weeks back, I had the chance to chat with Michael Hobbes. As it just so happened, a large portion of our conversation had to do with the role of moral panics in society, with “cancel culture” being the latest iteration of one. You’re Wrong About recently put out excellent episodes about both “political correctness” and “cancel culture,” and you should make a point to check them out.

I plan to post our Q&A in Friday’s edition of the newsletter, but for now, I wanted to share one of his answers that just seems relevant in the wake of this sort of manufactured outrage.

On the difference between “political correctness” in the 1990s and the “cancel culture” backlash of today:

I feel the one story for both of our lifetimes is the … gradual transformation of the Republican party into a radicalized political party that is mainly interested in white grievance. And they're figuring out how effective that is for them. They're figuring out different methodology, they're testing out different messages, they're exploring different tactics and different policies. The 30-year trajectory, really, since Reagan, has been the radicalization -- asymmetric polarization is the academic term for it. All of these moral panics are, in some ways, offshoots of that. Where it's a political party that becoming slowly unmoored from reality, its own electorate is becoming less diverse, ideologically, racially, on every dimension they're becoming less diverse.

And so as you have this coalition that's forming, what do you do for an aging, anxious, misinformed electorate, is you just give them more of the catnip that they want. And that is just cultural grievance. To me, political correctness is just, it's the same thing as cancel culture with a couple of the particulars swapped out. It was in a pre-social media moment, so there wasn't the outrage mobs, there wasn't the online harassment, and the Justine Sacco-type element that has now been folded into cancel culture. Like, "No it's about people being fired for their views on social media."

That wasn't really a thing, because there wasn't social media. But ultimately it was the same thing, where it was a backlash to changing social mores. American society was becoming more ideologically progressive, and it was a backlash to that. You read the old articles and you're like, "Oh right. It's the same, not even the same themes, but literally the same arguments."

But the more of this moral panic you look into, you're like, "Oh, it's just the one moral panic." It is society becoming more progressive, and conservatives expanding the danger of that shift and making it seem like there's some sort of creeping fascism, or some sort of slippery slope that we're on, when it's like, "No, man, it's just society tends to become more progressive over time." It's just history marching forward.