Public Judgments Behind Closed Doors09-02-2021
Anne Applebaum turns to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter to gain perspective on the chasm between the complexity within social and political interactions and the “rapid conclusions, rigid ideological prisms, and arguments of 280 characters,” by which mobs of the elect try and convict ideological deviations in the public sphere. She writes:
Partisans, especially on the right, now toss around the phrase cancel culture when they want to defend themselves from criticism, however legitimate. But dig into the story of anyone who has been a genuine victim of modern mob justice and you will often find not an obvious argument between “woke” and “anti-woke” perspectives but rather incidents that are interpreted, described, or remembered by different people in different ways, even leaving aside whatever political or intellectual
There is a reason that the science reporter Donald McNeil, after being asked to resign from The New York Times, needed 21,000 words, published in four parts, to recount a series of conversations he had had with high-school students in Peru, during which he may or may not have said something racially offensive, depending on whose account you find most persuasive. There is a reason that Laura Kipnis, an academic at Northwestern, required an entire book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, to recount the repercussions, including to herself, of two allegations of sexual harassment against one man at her university; after she referred to the case in an article about “sexual paranoia,” students demanded that the university investigate her, too. A full explanation of the personal, professional, and political nuances in both cases needed a lot of space.
There is a reason, too, that Hawthorne dedicated an entire novel to the complex motivations of Hester Prynne, her lover, and her husband. Nuance and ambiguity are essential to good fiction. They are also essential to the rule of law: We have courts, juries, judges, and witnesses precisely so that the state can learn whether a crime has been committed before it administers punishment. We have a presumption of innocence for the accused. We have a right to self-defense. We have a statute of limitations.
By contrast, the modern online public sphere, a place of rapid conclusions, rigid ideological prisms, and arguments of 280 characters, favors neither nuance nor ambiguity. Yet the values of that online sphere have come to dominate many American cultural institutions: universities, newspapers, foundations, museums. Heeding public demands for rapid retribution, they sometimes impose the equivalent of lifetime scarlet letters on people who have not been accused of anything remotely resembling a crime. Instead of courts, they use secretive bureaucracies. Instead of hearing evidence and witnesses, they make judgments behind closed doors.