Offenses of the Month, June – December 2023
Self-Cancel Culture: The Author Shreds Herself
Elizabeth Gilbert, an author most popularly known for the best-seller Eat, Pray, Love, canceled herself in June, withdrawing before publication her latest novel, The Snow Forest, a story set in 1930s Stalinist Siberia. The ostensible reason was the sensitivity of her Ukrainian readers. Claiming “an enormous massive outpouring of reactions and responses” that expressed “anger, sorrow, disappointment, and pain about the fact that I would choose to release a book into the world right now . . . that is set in Russia,” Gilbert averred that “it is not the time for this book to be published.” (In fact, its publication date was to be February 2024, not June 2023.)
What stirred her to action, according to Kat Rosenfield in Pirate Wires (in an article reprinted in The Free Press), was an orchestrated campaign on Goodreads that yielded 533 one-star ratings by “readers” who almost certainly had not read the book. The offended non-readers seem to have objected to a nearly century-old Russian setting because Russia, after all, is the place where Vladimir Putin is currently waging an obscene war against Ukraine. In Rosenfield’s nice phrase, it’s a “fourth-degree connection”—like complaining about a book set in New York City during the Depression because Rudy Giuliani was once mayor of the city and he has been a vociferous backer of the potentially nation-destroying lie by Donald Trump that the 2020 election had been stolen from him.
Unlike earlier instances of authors yielding to critics with malign motives, Gilbert’s groveling apology earned her little sympathy. Said Rosenfield: “Her video [announcing the cancellation] registers less as a brave and thoughtful act of altruism than as a very particular brand of cringe.” Rather than sympathizing with Ukrainians, an anti-Stalinist story that is pulled from the shelves seems rather to be a sop to Russian readers, among whom Gilbert has been an extremely popular author. On the bright side, it’s one less book you’ll need to think you ought to read.
The Ad was Unorthodox, Its Withdrawal Quite Conventional
Brandeis University halted a light-hearted national ad campaign celebrating its 75th anniversary after offended Orthodox Jewish students protested. The ad appeared in The New York Times Magazine on June 25 with this line: “Brandeis was founded by Jews. But, it’s anything but Orthodox.” [Note to line editors: Yes, you’re right; the comma is surplusage.] Brandeis President Ronald D. Liebowitz apologized via email to the Brandeis Orthodox Organization on June 30, and the student groups appeared to have accepted the apology in early July. According to the Boston Globe, Shoshana Soloman, VP of the Orthodox Organization, said she felt “the university was genuinely apologetic for the harm the advertisement made to some, including myself. I feel that Brandeis has seriously listened to the communal outcry and has immediately begun working to ensure an incident like this will not happen again.” While the willingness to accept an apology is refreshing, Soloman’s claims seem dubious. As is so often the case, the “harm” is far from evident and left unexplained, and the optimism that “an incident like this” will never recur seems refreshingly naive.
It’s Not Brainwashing, It’s Social Media Training
Jordan Peterson, the curmudgeonly Canadian psychologist, media darling, best-selling author, and self-help guru, was ordered to sit for “social media training” or forfeit his license to see and treat patients. Peterson calls it “forced reeducation.” Not because of malpractice or patient abuse but almost certainly because of his social and political views that offended his fellow practitioners, as Abigail Anthony detailed at length in a piece in The Free Press.
The College of Psychologists of Ontario (CPO), a professional licensing group for clinical practice (consisting of fellow psychologists), had investigated him in 2020 after receiving complaints about comments he aired on social media and in podcasts. The investigation concluded without discipline but with the suggestion that he conduct himself in “a respectful tone in order to avoid a negative perception toward the profession of psychology.” Public perceptions of the profession, though often the concern of licensing bodies, are almost never legally within the purview of public authorities, at least not in countries with a free speech tradition—especially when those entrusted with authority are one’s fellow practitioners. (The squelching of political views by professional licensing and ethics boards is an old story, one that I told more than 50 years ago in The Tyranny of the Experts: How Professionals and Specialists Are Closing the Open Society.)
In 2022, the CPO opened a new investigation, following more complaints, apparently, again, about Peterson’s worldviews, not his treatment of patients. (In fact, he had discontinued his clinical practice in 2017.) One of the complaints was that he referred to the actor Elliot Page as Ellen, the name the actor had been known by earlier in his career; Peterson also used feminine pronouns for Page, who now identifies as “nonbinary.” Peterson expressed his views of other people in a less than complimentary manner on a Joe Rogan podcast, for example, calling an Ottawa City Councillor an “appalling self-righteous moralizing thing.”
The CPO concluded that Peterson’s various comments were “degrading, demeaning, and unprofessional,” posing “moderate risks of harm to the public.” What harms? According to the CPO, Peterson’s comments potentially “undermin[e] public trust in the profession of psychology, and trust in the College’s ability to regulate the profession in the public interest.”
Peterson asked the Ontario courts to review the order directing him to undergo mandatory media training. In August the Ontario Divisional Court sided with the CPO. The court said the CPO “order is not disciplinary and does not prevent Dr. Peterson from expressing himself on controversial topics.” Peterson called the court’s conclusion “comical,” since the order came, after all, from a disciplinary board with the authority to issue such orders and assess fines (indeed, the CPO levied a $25,000 (CAN) fine against him). Expressing his opinions is what put Peterson in the soup to begin with. He pledged “war,” presumably meaning an appeal. There, as far as I can tell, the matter sits, at least for now.
Well, that’s Canada. Couldn’t happen here, could it?
Your Bluejeans Hurt My Feelings
Going out tonight? It is New Year’s Eve, after all. Perhaps you’ll show off that new Shetland sweater ($100 from Brooks Brothers) or those Prosecco Gold Vincenza silk pants ($275 from Ravella) topped with just the right cashmere. Yes, of course I looked it up; I can’t vouch for those prices after today. You’ll wear them to please your spouse, right? Or your date? Or your friends at the party. But wait, have you thought about who will be at the party? Maybe not a good idea to parade your finest before the boss’s eyes. Maybe that pal of yours from across town will mock you all evening at the sight of your Bass Weejun tassel loafers (prices vary). You think about these things, don’t you? I’m sure you do. But I’m betting that whoever figures in your concern for the appearance you’ll make, you won’t be worried about hurting the feelings of your fellow citizens or sweating the impression you’ll be making on the cab driver, the parking lot attendant, or the cash register guy at the local package store. Who would?
You would, if you were in China and the government has its way.
In September, the Chinese government issued a draft law (not yet enacted) that could result in fines and even jail time for “wearing clothing or bearing symbols in public that are detrimental to the spirit of the Chinese people and hurt the feelings of Chinese people.” No joke. The Chinese have a history of such control, and journalists report that there have been numerous incidents of ordinary citizens, and more ominously local officials, who have harassed ordinary people for their offensive clothing choices. In one widely-circulated video, police last year detained a woman in Suzhou for wearing a kimono, a traditional Japanese costume, in public. A month before the draft law was announced, people wearing “rainbow print clothing” were turned away from a concert in Beijing.
The draft law prompted something of an uproar, with critics attacking it on social media, calling out both its absurdity and the real potential for police overreaching and abuse. The law does not limit its sour gaze to clothes or emblems. It also forbids “insulting, slandering or otherwise infringing upon the names of local heroes and martyrs.”
Among the many things we’ll need to worry about here at home in 2024, this won’t be one of them.
If You’re Fond of Spouting Invective, Stay Clear of Switzerland
Be careful where you insult someone. Alain Soral, a 65-year-old rabble-rousing right-wing Swiss writer, actor, and film maker, was sentenced to 60 days in jail for calling Catherine Macherel, a Swiss journalist, a “fat lesbian” in a Facebook video that aired two years ago. A Swiss law (approved by a 2-1 margin in a 2020 public referendum) criminalizes denigrating, discriminating, or stirring up hatred against another person in public on the basis of sexual orientation. Soral didn’t help his case when he added that, as a “queer activist,” Macherel was “unhinged.” Soral is no stranger to such laws; as a serial Holocaust denier, he has been convicted of violating a French ban on Holocaust denial, and in 2019 was sentenced to a year in prison (though he was saved from serving the time after the Paris prosecutor’s office set aside the sentence). It shouldn’t need saying, but I will do so anyway for the record that under a long line of precedents in the U.S., such a law would be struck down under the First Amendment. Also for the record, Barron’s reports that the Swiss jail sentence was overturned.
Think Hard before Saying the Sky Is Blue
Beyond the actual deaths and devastation wreaked on Israel by Hamas in early October and the resulting deadly counterattacks in Gaza since then, the Mideast war has also loosed serious free speech controversies that will take a long time to resolve, as was briefly noted a few days ago in my post Tale of the Three Unwise Women. Perhaps predictably, it has also led to hallucinatory claims to, well, someone, over, well, something. For example, British retail giant Marks & Spencer was assailed in November for running a pre-Christmas TV clothing commercial that contained a scene showing a fire reflected in an actress’s eyes, which were highlighted by blue eye shadow. The sight unnerved various U.K. social media critics who accused M & S of referencing the Israeli flag in the shade of her eyeliner, which, they thundered, proved that the department store had sided with Israel (even though the commercial was filmed months before the Hamas attack). Fearing the consequences, M & S quickly deleted the scene from its advertisement. I suppose that’s one way to shorten commercial interruptions.
The Civil War? You’re Asking What It Was About? Hmm, Maybe, about How to Cook Grits?
Never offend anyone. Just the ticket to get on the ticket. Or so, apparently, thought Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina and now on the hustings seeking the Republican nomination for president. At a New Hampshire town hall meeting a few days ago, she was asked to explain what caused the Civil War. As has been widely reported, she marshaled a series of possibilities, none involving the taboo word “slavery.” No need to rile up the masses. In her widely noted, and ridiculed, opener, she said: “I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run—the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do.”
After Gov. Haley wandered around in a verbal thicket, throwing out lines like “We need to have capitalism” and “[government] was never meant to be all things to all people,” the voter who asked the initial question said he found it “astonishing” that she had omitted the word “slavery.” She replied: “What do you want me to say about slavery?” His response: “You’ve answered my question, thank you.”
Almost immediately, everyone took a swipe, even (especially) her rival, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, himself no master of eloquence or clarity, who critiqued her Civil War remarks as “incomprehensible word salad.” The next day Gov. Haley scrambled to regain her footing from the avalanche of criticism that had rolled down on her. “Of course the Civil War was about slavery,” she conceded. She hadn’t said so the day before because it was “a given.” (“I didn’t say I love you, dearest, because I thought it was a given.”)
Another former governor, and also a claimant to presidential candidate status, Chris Christie, remarked that Gov. Haley’s contorted answer shows that “she’s unwilling to offend anyone by telling the truth.” That’s almost wholly correct. More than ever, the prime rule for our sad times comes down to this:
Thou shalt offend no one but the Truth.
Happy New Year, but likely not.