What the ‘cancel culture’ zealots get wrong about Twitter

What the likes of Bari Weiss insist is Twitter-inspired ‘cancel culture’, I call reader-inspired accountability.

NYT AP photo
Bari Weiss, an editor and writer for The New York Times' opinion section, publicly resigned in July, citing bullying over her centrist views [File: Julio Cortez/AP Photo]

Journalists can be such insufferable bores and hypocrites. 

This is particularly true of columnists who, like me, perpetually pass judgement on the failings, misdeeds, or inadequacies of others – usually powerful public figures. As a corollary to this, our prescriptions for the failings, misdeeds and inadequacies of others tip to the obdurate. 

Traditionally, we have shared our remedies in the comfortable certainty of their righteousness and without the discomfort of any measure of accountability that the powerful public figures we routinely reprimand or excoriate may face and, sadly, too often evade.  

Herein lies the columnists’ grating hypocrisy: we demand accountability of others, but rarely welcome or tolerate it when readers point an accusatory finger our way.   

For too long, columnists could sit high atop their distant, cosy perches to scold, lecture or pontificate to all manner of people about all manner of subjects.  

And far too many writers were pleased with the agreeable status quo and hoped for it to continue uninterrupted and undisturbed by the rabble  – otherwise known as readers. 

For generations, the dynamic between a columnist and a reader was, de facto: we speak, you listen.  

Gladly and all too belatedly, times and technology have changed. 

Social media has, undeniably, had a profound and irreversible impact on the relationship between columnist and reader. 

Today, astute readers are no longer content just to listen to sermons delivered by mainly white establishment columnists writing for “elite” establishment publications from their well-entrenched mountaintops. They are more than able, prepared and willing to respond and challenge – alone or en masse.

Many writers have acknowledged, even embraced, this relatively new, sometimes disorienting paradigm to try to forge a more intimate and immediate rapport with their audience – with varying degrees of success. 

Others, however, who claim, ad nauseam, to be apostles of unfettered “free speech” prefer, instead, to cling like whiny curmudgeons to an old, less complicated time when, as I said, the columnist spoke with an almost divine authority and readers were obliged to listen like grateful parishioners or, if moved, to pen an occasional letter to the editor by way of dissent.

Happy days, indeed.

The pleasant, persistent buffer between the once remote, omnipotent, know-it-all-all-the-time columnist and the compliant reader has evaporated. Twitter has made sure of that. 

This is not to dismiss or excuse, of course, that the anonymity afforded to readers by Twitter and other social media platforms lends itself, depressingly, to a barrage of infantile, ad hominem attacks against columnists publishing work in corporate-backed or public and independent media.   

But this regrettable fact should not be employed by grumpy reactionaries as a convenient cudgel to denigrate more adroit readers as a “mob” intent on “cancelling” columnists of differing ideological dispositions.  

I was reminded of this boring refrain when former New York Times columnist and editor, Bari Weiss, recently “cancelled” herself, it appears, pre-emptively.  

I gather Weiss felt compelled to quit before she was ex-communicated for her “wrongthink”.

In a rambling resignation letter, Weiss insisted that she was a casualty, in part, of an “orthodoxy” to “satisfy the narrowest of audiences … to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative”.

Tellingly, in her fit of ponderous hubris, Weiss failed to address the following: what precisely is the “orthodoxy” that allegedly stifled her; who makes up the “narrow” audience the aforementioned “orthodoxy” is designed to “satisfy”: and, finally, what is the “predetermined narrative” she alludes to.

Still, Weiss fatally undermines her vague, conspiracy-tinged broadside by proudly listing the names of a slew of “centrist and conservative” writers she attracted to the Times’ op-ed page as an editor, a page that only two paragraphs later she thrashed for its “orthodoxy”, “narrow” audience and “predetermined narrative”. Oh well. 

Predictably, Weiss – her martyrdom complex, by now, in full bloom – takes an overheated, rhetorical rod to Twitter as the tool the amorphous mob inside and outside the Times wields to enforce the “new orthodoxy” against her and other free-thinking columnists who dare to test it.  

“Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor,” Weiss wrote. 

In Weiss’s lazy construct, Twitter is a euphemism for the “mob”. Unlike the “centrist” avatars of tolerance and literacy, Twitter (aka the “mob”) is populated by closed-minded, illiterate bullies who smear brave contrarians that defy the “predetermined narrative” into silence and, in some cases, unemployment.

How many other centrist columnists have penned the same, myopic indictment in countless other forums before Weiss was obliged to make the near verbatim case that the Twitter “mob” is out to muzzle them?  

The obvious answer to that admittedly rhetorical question should disabuse anyone of the notion that, try as the Twitter “mob” might, Weiss and aggrieved company can, alas, be silenced.

If Weiss could possibly pry her eyes from the parochial prism of her abiding sense of grievance, she might be able to recognise how many discerning readers have leveraged Twitter and other social platforms not as a retributive device, but as vehicles to question, confront, and if need be, expose the fourth estate’s failings, misdeeds and inadequacies. 

Consider these examples of that laudable, necessary work.

In 2012 and 2016, a marquee columnist at Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, was revealed to be a serial plagiarist not by her complacent editors, but by a shrewd Ottawa-based artist and media critic who catalogued the now-retired columnist’s history of theft of other writer’s words. 

The Globe’s editor grudgingly issued a qualified apology to readers. The “work”, he wrote, “fell short of our standards”.

In 2018, “Twitter-detectives” – as Wired magazine aptly put it – were quickly able to unearth a prospective NYT columnist’s disturbing Twitter archive of employing degrading terms to describe African-Americans and her cockeyed defence of a friendship with an avowed Nazi she considered “redeemable”.

Then Times editorial page editor, James Bennett, issued a mea culpa and rescinded the paper’s offer to the would-be columnist.

In 2019, more quick sleuthing by a wave of perceptive readers disclosed that a high-profile Times columnist cited a 2005 “paper” co-authored by an anthropologist with ties to white supremacist groups to argue that Ashkenazi Jews have higher IQs than the average population. Reportedly, the paper appeared in a journal previously known as The Eugenics Review.

Wisely, the Times subsequently removed the reference to the paper from the disputed column. 

In June, the Times published a column by US Senator Tom Cotton in which the ever-reliable Trump sycophant suggested, in effect, that American soldiers should reprise what they did to peaceful protesters at Kent State University in May 1970.  

Cotton’s blatant call to put down citizens exercising their constitutional rights had received the imprimatur of the self-proclaimed world’s most powerful newspaper and, in doing so, triggered justifiable outrage from within and outside the Times. 

Ultimately, Bennett resigned, having acknowledged that he did not read the incendiary column before it was circulated online.  

No doubt, Bari Weiss et al would insist that Bennett was yet another victim of the Twitter-inspired “cancel culture”.

I call it reader-inspired accountability.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.