Cancel Culture and Failing to Fine-tune Norms

The other tail of the “cancellation” spectrum

Here in New Zealand, a moderately big news story in the last week has been the fallout after the owner of a craft brewery called Maori (NZ’s indigenous people) the “scurge [sic] of New Zealand” in a public Facebook post.

After a number of beer stockists began pulling his products, he’s since resigned from the company (although claimed sales went “through the roof”).

I highlight this not as an example of ”cancel culture gone mad", but as quite the opposite - an example of racism resulting in consequences that seem proportionate. The statement that got the owner into hot water wasn’t a bad taste joke or mildly politically incorrect statement - even the hardest “woke critic” would concede that calling an entire race the “scourge of the country” is pretty clearly racist. Nor was the statement dredged up from a decade ago by a motivated muckraker - it was posted publicly to Facebook by the CEO of the company. The responses to stop stocking the beer seemed organic, as opposed to being a reaction to a manufactured outrage.

In contrast, examples of “cancel culture going too far” that get posted here tend to be ones where the “cancellee’s” case is far more sympathetic. And maybe you can thread the needle where you condemn the overreactions while being open to the possibility of proper reactions or even underreactions. But I’m not sure that happens a lot in practice. Firstly, the overreactions seem much more likely to be posted here, potentially giving a skewed indication of their prevalence. And secondly, maybe it’s not really possible for social norms around racism to be especially nuanced. Perhaps it’s controlled by “Molochian” processes which are rather blunt, such that any attempts to reduce the number of “false positives” (people unfairly cancelled) will increase the number of “false negatives” (racism that goes unchecked) in such a way that many people would find to be a bad trade-off.

I’m reminded of a section from a Conservations with Tyler [Cowen] where he interviews Quillette founder Claire Lehmann

(I also recommend the episode (link is to a transcript)).

COWEN: We both agree, in the past and still the present, racism has been a problem. Gay individuals have not been treated well.

If someone wants to make the norms tougher, but they honestly told us, “You can never fine-tune a norm. A norm will either be too tough or not tough enough.” And they say, “I’d rather the norms against racists, in a sense, be too tough and maybe catch some cases that don’t deserve to be caught because that’s the only choice we have. In the past, injustices have been so great.”

What would you say? You think we can fine-tune the norm in accord with reason?

To me, this is probably the most convincing steelman of “cancel culture”, as someone who personally finds many of the “cancellations” that get attention to be wrong. I wouldn’t say I agree with it - I think there probably are some ways of threading the needle to reduce false positives while not significantly increasing false negatives. Or maybe the current equilibrium is already too far in the direction of false positives, at least in places where “cancel culture” is most powerful. Still, I think it’s a worthwhile consideration, and is partly why I’m not on board with the harshest “anti-woke” rhetoric.