BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Michael Hobbes makes a convincing argument that when you look under the hood of cancel culture, the term disintegrates into a flurry of disparate examples. Among the hodgepodge of endorsements lost and Substacks made, and egos bruised, is there any dispositive evidence that cancel culture really exists? At the moment, it depends on who you ask. Erec Smith thinks it does. An associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the York College of Pennsylvania, he believes cancel culture does describe a pervasive, dangerous cultural phenomenon. And it describes what happened to him.
EREC SMITH Well, the keynote address at the 2009 Conference on College Composition and Communication was all about teaching standard English to students of color, and the inherent racism therein. So, I criticized it on a listserv, saying this isn't really getting us anywhere. And here's the thing, I'm not the biggest champion of standard English. It's not an egregious sin to end a sentence in a preposition anymore. That is a thing of the past. But I am a big fan of giving students the tools that they will need in civic and professional context. And I think this idea that doing so is inherently racist is dangerous. And as a black person, it angers me. I've been accused of trying to placate white people. I'm not trying to have black students be as empowered as possible and not so fragile that they feel oppressed because they have to write “isn't” instead of “ain't.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE I read your response and it seemed a perfectly reasonable dissent. I also read one of the responses that was very stinging, and other people agreeing with that response. And then I read a few people saying, now, wait a minute here we can have discussion, and rather than just call it out, shouldn't there be a better formulated response to your response? How many people actually wrote?
EREC SMITH Let's say a dozen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE OK.
EREC SMITH And that doesn't count the storm that was happening simultaneously on Twitter to what I said. There is a lot of misrepresentation, if not all-out lies...
BROOKE GLADSTONE From students and colleagues, or mostly colleagues?
EREC SMITH Students and colleagues. In fact, I was accused of “going after graduate students,” quote unquote. What happened was I was scrolling through Twitter, as one does, and I saw many people slandering me. I guess it's technically libel. But I said, hey, that's not true. And I tried to defend myself and that was rendered as going after graduate students.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Have you gotten into Twitter fights before?
EREC SMITH No, not before this one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Because that is how they go.
EREC SMITH Well, here's the thing. I wouldn't have done this if I didn't think I was talking to mature academics. I was certain that we could have a civil and intelligent conversation. And I was wrong. I wasn't talking to academics, I was talking to middle school mean girls.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So earlier in this hour, I spoke to somebody who's very critical of this whole cancel culture idea. And he says cancelation is a word that never really contributes to the conversation. Instead, you could say someone was fired or someone was criticized. That to elevate this to a trend, creates a sense of moral panic when there is no cause for one.
EREC SMITH I guess if you're somebody like me who studies language and persuasion, it presents differently. It's a phenomenon to me. Something that is very telling about contemporary America. The idea that if you don't like something, the best tactic is to degrade the person who said it. To not only silence them, to show others this is what happens when you cross us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, what happened to you? What professional consequences did you experience?
EREC SMITH At the time of my attempted cancelation, I was writing a book where it was about the teaching of writing the meaning behind standardized English. After this incident, however, I realized that I have to write about these trends in academia. About the idea that everything is about power dynamics, the idea that everyone is reduced to being a body and not an individual. And I decided to revamp the book, I added chapters, I revised substantially other chapters. I wouldn't recommend doing that with three months left to the deadline – that took its toll on my psyche, but it was worth it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So, you didn't lose tenure, you're still able to publish and teach. You've said the experience has made you more outspoken.
EREC SMITH Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And created a book that is perhaps more relevant to this moment. You got slammed, but you're functioning in the world. And in some ways you're participating in the mainstream discussion now.
EREC SMITH Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How is that ultimately a bad thing? Especially since the number of teachers and professors and academics who are actually fired because of mobs on social platforms is vanishingly small?
EREC SMITH I speak up because I can. What I'm saying is something that many people agree with but aren't able to talk about. So, I'm not doing this woe is me thing. What I am doing is trying to address what I see as a problem in my field. There was a time in academia, and that time was like 6 years ago where, you know, if you criticize somebody's work, you're criticizing somebody’s work, not that person. That is gone, and when we can't have academic discourse, we are no longer academics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But even given all of that, what I see is this cancel culture notion, lumping things from criticism to murder into the same basket and then proclaiming it a threat to the American way of life. That is why I resist this phrase.
EREC SMITH I guess if I were to somehow justify the term, I would cite the idea of free speech and people silencing themselves on purpose, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE But it can be argued that this is the freest time for speech that we've ever had.
EREC SMITH Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So it's just different things that are at this moment, particularly explosive.
EREC SMITH I would agree with that. My main issue is just the lack of academic discourse. We can't ask questions anymore. It's called trolling now. If you ask a question after a panel presentation at a conference, for example, anything other than some variation of “how can I be more like you” is seen as threatening. It's not academia anymore. It's more like a church. You can't stand up in church and say, "Uh pastor, I don't agree with your interpretation of John 3:16."
EREC SMITH That's frowned upon, to say the least. Now, academia is like that. Becoming like that anyway. I think it's detrimental to the very people it's trying to help, specifically black and indigenous people of color. The concept of anti-racist pedagogy is fine. I like that. I think I do it. But when it becomes this infantilization of students of color, I don't like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm not arguing against agitating for all ideas to be heard. I'm arguing against the notion of a cancel culture. That is the thing that concerns me as somebody who looks at how the national narrative shapes and reshapes itself.
EREC SMITH Call it what you want. The label is less important than the actuality of it, what it implies about our ability to communicate as a society. Those are my issues. I'm focused on academia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
EREC SMITH Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Erec Smith is an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the York College of Pennsylvania.
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