Top Stories

It Wasn’t My Cancelation That Bothered Me. It Was the Cowardice of Those Who Let It Happen

It doesn’t take much to get cancelled these days. Last month, my turn came around. The experience was unpleasant, but also completely ludicrous. And I learned a lot. I learned how easily an institution will cave to a mob. I learned how quickly the authorities will run for cover, notwithstanding the lip service they may pay to principles of free speech.

After all, they’re terrified. They’re afraid that if they don’t beg forgiveness and promise to do better, they’ll be next at the guillotine.

I was cancelled by one of Canada’s quainter institutions, a University of Toronto graduate residential school called Massey College. Few people outside Canadian academia have heard of it. But the cultural revolution has entered its mass-spectacle Reign of Terror phase, and so my story made news across Canada. I was depicted as a racist, anti-feminist heretic whose mere presence inside Massey’s halls would have presented a threat to students.

But Massey College hasn’t fared too well, either: In this climate, every fusty institution is just one trivial scandal away from public-relations crisis and knives-out infighting, as all concerned flail about in a bid to prove their moral purity. I’ll survive. I’m not sure Massey will.

* * *

Massey College was created in the early 1960s by Torontonians eager to evoke the genteel old Oxbridge days. And it remains a charming place, though a bit precious. It is made up of senior fellows (distinguished professors from the university, as well as luminaries from the city’s intellectual elite) and junior fellows (graduate students), who don their gowns to dine together, and perhaps mingle over a glass of port. The senior fellows are overwhelmingly white; the junior fellows increasingly multicultural. Until recently, the head of the college held the anachronistic title of “Master”, after the British style. Yet despite these antiquated trappings, Massey College prides itself on being a vibrant forum for high-minded debate and liberal ideals.

The college has an appendage called the Quadrangle Society, which is basically a jumped-up book club. Its members, of whom there are hundreds, are drawn from the non-academic world. Although membership is by invitation only, it is not terribly exclusive, and nobody is quite sure of its purpose. It is a WASPish take on what once might have been called a “salon”—back in the days when words like that could be used unironically without provoking eye rolls.

Last winter, I was asked to join. I said yes because I have several friends who belong to the Quadrangle Society, and I thought this would be a fun excuse for us to have lunch together in Massey’s great hall. Two Quadranglers wrote too-kind nomination letters for me. I was assured that the approval process was a mere formality. And sure enough, in due course I received a call from the recently appointed head (whose title now has been changed to “Principal”). She was delighted to inform me that I’d been accepted. And there my troubles began.

I am a journalist, now mostly retired, who for several decades served as a senior editor, and then an opinion columnist, for the Globe and Mail, the closest thing Canada has to a New York Times. Some of my opinions were controversial—or at least what passes for controversial in this country. My specialty was deflating Canada’s numerous liberal pieties. I did it rather well. Among Canada’s liberal elites, who take their pieties very seriously, I was an abomination.

I attracted controversy for another reason, too. In 2012, I was accused of plagiarism. While my newspaper found me guilty of nothing more than carelessness, there is no question that I screwed up by failing to attribute material to other sources. My critics gleefully seized on the incident, and I’ve been trolled on social media ever since. The issue also became a convenient rallying point for the mob that assembled once my appointment to the Quadrangle Society was announced (along with about two dozen other appointees).

Massey College was besieged by enraged students and faculty. Racism featured heavily among the sins attributed to me, even though I’d scarcely written about race at all during my career. (This was in June, at the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests. And in that moment, some race-related accusation figured in most mobbings.)

Sexism, too. Because I had written in the Globe and Mail that the prevalence of rape on university campuses had been highly exaggerated, I was accused of “creating an unsafe environment for disclosures of misconduct.” I was also denounced for questioning the science behind “implicit bias” training (which has, in fact, been thoroughly discredited). I was even accused of “self-plagiarism,” the journalistic equivalent of #MeToo-ing oneself.

“I thought Massey had just resolved to educate its members about racism and microaggression and do better to create a safe and welcoming environment for marginalised people,” one complainant wrote. “And then we invited Margaret Wente to join us? Seriously? How are my friends and colleagues supposed to feel safe sitting across from her at dinner?”

Dozens of scholars threatened to resign from the college if my appointment were allowed to stand. A few did so pre-emptively, in fact. They included Alissa Trotz, director of the University of Toronto’s Women & Gender Studies Institute. “Margaret Wente is someone who has demonstrated consistent and outright hostility to questions of equity, women and gender studies and anti-racism,” she wrote in her letter of resignation. Trotz claimed that she hadn’t been aware of my nomination—an odd claim given that she’d been a member of Massey’s governing council and sat on the governance and nominating committee.

The principal of the college (a francophone from Ottawa) was blindsided. She seemed to be the only person among Toronto’s intellectual elite who wasn’t aware of my chequered reputation. As for the board of governors, I don’t know how my name sneaked by them. (Actually, I do know. They thought the Quadrangle Society was an innocuous outfit that could continue holding its book clubs and cocktail parties in well-heeled obscurity.)

It didn’t help that Massey was already under a racist cloud, due to a single bad joke. Three years ago, a retired professor named Michael Marrus, then a senior fellow, attempted to make a clumsy poke at the old designation of “master” within Massey College. “You know this is your master, eh?” he said to one of the Black junior fellows, referring to the then-head of the college. “Do you feel the lash?”

Needless to say, this joke did not go over well. Prof. Marrus was forced out, and offered his profuse apologies; as did Massey College, begging for everyone’s forgiveness for longer than was necessary or dignified, and thereby setting the stage for the even sillier scandal involving me. Last year, a new principal was found who, it was devoutly hoped, would help the college turn the page: Nathalie Des Rosiers, a lawyer, academic, and former Liberal politician who once served, if you can believe it, as general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

It was Ms. Des Rosiers who called me to deliver the unpleasant news about the firestorm. She sounded stunned, as if she’d been whacked by a two-by-four. She wasn’t specific about the allegations, but apologetically told me she would have to strike a committee to look into them. She also told me she hoped this unpleasantness could be resolved by respectful dialogue. I thought this sentiment was utterly naïve. Mobs aren’t interested in dialogue. The whole purpose of a mob is to punish heretics and prove to everyone where the power lies. She gently asked if I might want to resign. I said I didn’t know.

Shortly after our little chat, Massey College issued a statement announcing that in light of the objections, my appointment was going to be re-examined in order to determine whether I was really fit to receive the honor that had been bestowed on me. “New information” had come to light since I’d been approved—which everyone knew was complete nonsense, since everything I’d ever written exists on the Globe and Mail web site and various searchable media databases. For good measure, Massey College cited the college’s code of conduct, which “expresses specifically a commitment to equity and diversity,” and added that “racist statements cannot and will not be tolerated.” Ms. Des Rosiers hadn’t bothered to inform me that this denunciation was in the works. From what I could tell, everyone at Massey was in full panic mode, completely focused on protecting their own positions.

Two days later, the principal called me with an update. Massey’s governing board had called an urgent emergency session to deal with the Wente crisis. It was clear where this was heading. So I quit.

Massey’s statement announcing my resignation followed a now familiar formula, with the authors reciting lurid confessions of vast thoughtcrimes that extended well beyond inviting a former newspaper columnist to occasional literary cocktail parties. The governing board promised to launch a “fundamental rethink… in order to eliminate any impediments to an environment that is completely free from anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, anti-gender identity views and discrimination of any kind.” It pledged that this effort “will become the primary focus of the Governing Board in the months to come.” In the few weeks between my joining the Quadrangle Society and my leaving it, the group had apparently gone from a cheese-plate book club to a full-time woke struggle session.

Without a hint of irony, the Massey College statement also described the school as “a beacon for the expression of the widest range of academic viewpoints.” But as my case shows, these two goals are completely contradictory. You can raise a beacon for free expression. Or you can run a puritanical campaign to enforce moral purity and root out heretics. You can’t have both. And to an astonishing extent, the people who run places with names like the Quadrangle Society have chosen moral purity.

* * *

I’m not ashamed to find myself in the company of the cancelled. Indeed, I’m proud to share this honour with some of the finest minds in the world. One example is Steve Hsu, a brilliant scientist who, until late June, was vice-president of research and innovation at Michigan State University (whose status he’s helped to vastly improve). Hsu was forced out by the university’s president, who caved in to pressure from the graduate students’ union (though Hsu will keep the academic part of his job because he has tenure). Among his sins: He mentioned published research, from his own university, that found no racial bias in police shootings. He also once wrote approvingly of peer-reviewed, government-funded research on variations in brain architecture that is now casually labelled as “scientific racism.”

In the latter case, Hsu was writing about a 2015 article in the journal Current Biology, and his comments were not immediately seen as particularly controversial. This was only five years ago. Yet the times have utterly changed during that period. The wrong kind of science is now seen as hate speech. The same is true of any failure to place Black Lives Matter activists in the firmament of earthly angels. Even liking the wrong tweets can cost you your career. Mike McCulloch, a math lecturer at the University of Plymouth, was recently investigated by his employer for liking a tweet that read “All lives matter.” Here in Canada, Michael Korenberg, chair of the board of governors for the University of British Columbia, was forced to step down because he liked some tweets praising Donald Trump. Nobody is safe—not even the phenomenally popular author J.K. Rowling, who has been hounded and harassed for saying that, when it comes to trans women, biology is still a thing.

My own field, journalism, has become notoriously full of little inquisitors. In the most disturbing example, James Bennet, opinion editor of the most important paper in the world, the New York Times, lost his job in June for publishing an opinion piece that many of the younger staffers didn’t like. It was written by a Republican senator, Tom Cotton, who argued that Donald Trump would be justified in deploying military troops to cities if local police could not maintain order in the streets. Staffers claimed the piece was so toxic that it put some of their colleagues’ lives in danger. Like many others, Mr. Bennet departed with a grovelling apology.

If you think the radical mob is now editing your daily paper, you might well be right. Last month, Stan Wischnowski, top editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, was forced to resign over a headline that read, “Buildings Matter, Too.” All of this is dolefully reminiscent of China’s Cultural Revolution, during which students denounced their elders and made them parade through the streets in dunce hats before they were packed off to the pig farms for re-education.

And there is no statute of limitations. Last week, Boeing’s communications chief, Niel Golightly, abruptly resigned after an anonymous employee filed an ethics complaint over an article he wrote in 1987, 33 years ago. In it, the former military pilot had expressed the opinion that women shouldn’t serve in combat (a mainstream position at the time). “My argument was embarrassingly wrong and offensive,” he said in another cringeworthy mea culpa. “The article is not reflective of who I am.”

So be warned. Everything you ever said or wrote is fair game. As the well-known social psychologist Jonathan Haidt tweeted the other day, “If scholars scan each other’s collective work—every word written or recorded—searching for the least charitable reading of every snippet, we can all destroy each other.”

* * *

Compared to other cancel-culture targets, I’m one of the lucky ones. I no longer have a job on the line. And so I get to spend the summer reading books and visiting with friends instead of mucking out the pig farm.

As a columnist, I had strong editors to back me up. And I wrote at a time when you could speak your mind. In the last few years, by contrast, the window for even mildly controversial opinions has shrunk dramatically. It has shrunk the most at places that have traditionally prided themselves as champions of free expression. As ideological correctness becomes the modern currency of spiritual virtue, rational dissent has been cast as heresy.

I wish the folks at Massey College well. But they’ll have a hard time turning their 1960s take on Oxford into a woke utopia that will satisfy their critics. And the sight of their panic is blood in the water for the same folks who came after me. There is no way they can cleanse themselves of the stain of white privilege. Ultimately, the only way they’ll be able to atone for their sins is to cancel themselves.

 

Margaret Wente is a former editor and columnist for the Globe and Mail newspaper. Now happily retired, she lives in Toronto.

Comments

  1. They don’t care in the slightest about anything besides themselves.

    The mob, and the institutions that cave to it.

    Cancel these monsters. Forcefully.

  2. Sure, it’s not James Damore-level bad. But the entire tedious bureaucratic wrangling speaks to the same phenomenon. A wrongspeak writer can’t even sit down with a few friends in an inoffensive environment without some overdramatical agitators pointing to the witch suddenly thrust into their midst.

    Wente herself mentions it wasn’t about her own compromised future since she’s basically retired. It’s about the gutless actions of those who control these institutions to bow before the slightest hint of perceived opposition.

    If an upscale book club filled with wealthy, convivial exchange has to be protected from the occasional cross-room glance of a woman with out-of-times political opinions who just wants to chat with friends and eat a few canapes, then what does that say about what the decision makers at these institutions will do to journalists who offer a opposing and factual retort to the madness on display in multiple issues, with multiple incidents, every day?

  3. What kills me is when adults use phrases like “How can we feel safe with Margaret Wente sitting across from us?” How does such a person even make it past age three without their fragile nerves exploding in a heap of weeping hysteria?

  4. It’s rapidly becoming fashionable to be cancelled. The Cancel Club is quickly becoming the group with the daring and challenging thinkers and speakers. There are no sheep in that club.

    I’d rather belong to the Cancel Club than not.

  5. Oh, I quite enjoyed Wente’s column before cancelling my G&M subscription (for reasons). I remember not believing that the mob hadn’t gone after her yet. I’m sad to hear that it got to her in the end. I didn’t always agree with her but her tough-love-baby attitude was quite refreshing; these young people shitting themselves at the thought of sitting across from her could learn a thing or two from her.

  6. Albert Maysles- ‘Tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance’.

    There is seems to a consensus amongst the proponents of cancel culture that if they can only cancel enough people, the public will read their books and newspapers, watch their movies and shows and finally subscribe to their ideas. As though removing anyone of worth or merit would make the scribblings of second-rate hacks shine for the lack of anything noteworthy to compare it to.

    A far more likely scenario is that the cultural means of production either collapses or diminishes greatly. For millennials this will be no great loss as their main source of reading materials is Twitter or other social media- they only cite books or use them as decoration. But for the rest of us it will be a loss, although I guess we’ll have to content ourselves with classic books and movies, along with rare talks by contrarians on YouTube, for as long as they’re still allowed.

  7. I wasn’t asking you to accept my assessment, merely stating my conclusion. But thank you for having the courtesy to ask me to respond more fully.

    It is wrong to conclude that because of one mistake made years before that anyone should be cancelled for something completely unrelated. Your comment was unconvincing because it dealt with an irrelevant matter. It was an example of the red herring fallacy.

    Next you’ll be telling us that Wente has to be removed from history because some self righteous twat in the Grauniad claims that in 1985 she was mean to her dog.

  8. So how is this exactly relevant for the topic at hand? Even if she had done something really bad, would her unrelated story not be worth listening to? Please enlighten us when she has her facts wrong but her unrelated past sins make you look like a low level snitch that wants to change the subject.

    At least a real religion has forgiveness and recognizes we’re all sinners.

    Bah @bellye66 , you made me feel dirty.

  9. “I’m not ashamed to find myself in the company of the cancelled. Indeed, I’m proud to share this honour with some of the finest minds in the world.”

    That’s right, ma’am, exactly the right way to take it.

  10. It is inarguably a pressing issue that a certain faction of the population seems to sincerely believe that things we could say yesterday are now grounds for exile. The target and offense do not matter. That people are out there taking these assertions seriously is a huge problem with ramifications that go far deeper than the loss of a club membership.

    As a professor committed to teaching students to synthesize various sources, I have been labeled “controversial.” This does not bode well for scholarship. If I so much as suggest that there is another side to, say, the transgender issue, I could be accused of making the useful idiots feel “unsafe” and there goes my livelihood. But it is imperative to look at an issue holistically if one is to synthesize their “research.”

    Why are people stepping down when pushed like this? Why, when a group of disgruntled millennials say they will “walk out” if Woody Allen’s book is published, do those in charge pull the book? It’s one thing for the mob to complain, quite another to actually address it. In other words, let them cry all they want. But a “cancellation” or a stepping down should not be the result. Recently, John McWhorter left the National Book Circle after it imploded over insidious accusations of racism. These people are wreaking havoc with institutions and by caving, we are actively allowing the puritans to destroy them. More need to stand their ground. Stop fearing the words “racist” and “sexist” etc. The literary world has been colonized by this infantile thinking and the damage will surely extend well into the future if more people don’t say no to this “feeling unsafe” crap.

    The people who are TRULY unsafe are the victims of these anti-intellectual cretins. Say NO. LOUD. In their FACES. Like sergeants in good old fashioned military films. Say: edit this book or I will hire someone else. Say: you will read a variety of sources for this paper or get an F. Say: you will not disrupt the workplace with your hyperactive emotions or get fired. And if you’re black and you feel uncomfortable with a meritocracy, say: You’re great and you are equal so adhere to the standards or GET OUT AND CREATE YOUR OWN DAMNED INSTITUTIONS.

    The other concern is the sheer, unmitigated EVIL that fuels this behavior. Because that’s what it is. EVIL.

    Stand up to EVIL, you cowards.

  11. There is one silly canard I keep reading about in stories about someone who complains that they cannot feel safe with you.

    Safety is not a feeling. It is an objective situation. Someone either is safe or in danger. Or perhaps one could say they think (not feel) that their safety is at risk. Thoughts and feelings are not the same. I think 2+2 = 4; I don’t feel that.

    Feelings are emotions like love, hate, anger and fear. I could understand someone saying they are afraid of you. But unless you are carrying a weapon aimed at them that alleged feeling would have to be explained. They would have to explain why they are actually afraid of you. Because most of the mobsters know they have no real reason to be afraid, and actually are not afraid of you, they don’t use that word.

    By falsely labelling safety as a feeling no explanation is demanded because there is almost unanimous agreement that we should all be safe. This fake feeling label appears to be a very effective weapon because as soon as someone grabs the baseball bat of unsafe feeling everyone cowers in terror.

    The truth is that what they are feeling, if anything, is probably anger, because your point of view may differ from theirs. Or perhaps what they are feeling is excitement and exhilaration, a high at the power of mobbing you by using “feeling unsafe” as a weapon.

    The questions that should be asked of someone who says they don’t feel safe sitting across the table from you or listening to a lecture from you is something like "how are you actually in danger, and in danger of what being done to you”? Unless their physical or their mental safety is actually, demonstrably in danger they should be told that the institution can’t see any actual danger, so if the complainant(s) have personal objections to you they should absent themselves from events at which you are present. In short, the illusion of danger is their problem, not the institution’s problem, unless it chooses, needlessly and dishonestly, to pretend the danger is real…

  12. And we have every right to criticize them and ridicule them for their behavior.

  13. What kills me is when adults use phrases like “How can we feel safe with Margaret Wente sitting across from us?” How does such a person even make it past age three without their fragile nerves exploding in a heap of weeping hysteria?

    Only the weakest or stupidest among them genuinely don’t feel safe. It’s not fragility, it’s a passive-aggressive tactic to exert power, and it will keep happening as long as it works.

  14. Wrong! Let’s waste no time in debunking your lies.

    Let’s see what her article says.

    First are told that somebody called Mr Wade is asking some questions. These are Wade’s questions, not the author’s. And none are obviously racist. She does mention that some answers are “provocative”.

    These paragraphs tell us the article is an overview of a book by Wade - we expect to see the author to explain the arguments advanced by the book and discuss them somewhat. This does not necessarily mean she endorses them.

    In the first paragraph above, she first recites some various explanations, and then she explains that Wade presents an argument based on genetics. She then criticises his book for being “highly speculative” in the second paragraph. She notes how it is likely to be “deeply unpopular” for some, but she gives also a justified criticism of those who believe everything is a social construct. So far, she’s giving a balanced overview of the book and the controversies surrounding it. So far it looks like she’s going to be fairly critical of Wade’s book.

    This paragraph summarises the “new findings of genetic science” mentioned before - she is reviewing a book and is summarising the evidence advanced by the book. She’s not making these claims in her own name, but is instead having to take on board what the existing scientific knowledge suggests. I don’t think anything is racist here, but even if you do, you can’t pin it on her.

    Here she is doing her job of explaining why this book is likely to be controversial. She is talking about how Wade’s book might be perceived, and she quotes him to portray his position.

    She is now summarising one of Wade’s arguments. She is not saying she agrees with it, but she is doing her job of reporting what the argument is, so that the reader can examine it. The only comments that she interjects in her own voice seem to be “this thesis has a certain powerful explanatory force” - in other words, she acknowledges it does some amount of explaining, but she also notes that “the genetic basis for traits… is still opaque” which is a form of criticism of the evidence. Overall, this seems like a fairly neutral and objective position.

    These are the last paragraphs of the article. She clarifies further Wade’s position. Then she correctly criticises some alternative positions that want to ban all discussion of genetics.

    So @barberp425 - you are definitely wrong to claim she is racist. She is summarising a book in an objective and largely neutral tone, with some more than obvious hints of criticism along the way. She correctly notes that some people don’t understand what racism is, and that obviously includes you.

    I think you need to go back to learning some basic reading skills in how to distinguish between when the author is discussing somebody else’s ideas from their own.

  15. Once you oversimplify it like that, of course it’s not controversial. The problem is that you don’t understand a great deal of the science, and nor does she. Piling up genetic examples that she doesn’t understand is a poor idea too. If his ideas are bad, she needs to make others aware of them so that they can deal with that by providing correcting information and correcting ideas.

    One of the things you should understand is that this is how science works. You collect data, formulate hypotheses, and other people knock them down. If he is presenting something that is deeply troubling to you on an ideological level, then you haven’t properly understood what he is presenting. Myself, speaking as a geneticist, what are you talking about is very interesting, and is manifestly evident in nature. There are diseases in some populations that don’t show up very much in others. There is regional selection, and there are very good reasons for it as different regions have different challenges , such as disease, geography, Etc. As we have globalized, Evolution and selection have actually slowed down a bit because we have so much intermarrying between those different Regional groups. However, this leaves us with some interesting problems because now different alleles are mixing that didn’t evolve to mix, and can cause some issues. This is both good and bad, because some of those alleles are going to cause some fairly nasty diseases, and some might want to spread through the population because they’re fairly advantageous.

    If anything about human genetics smacks of Hitler to you, then you really don’t understand genetics.

Continue the discussion in Quillette Circle

1156 more replies

Participants

Comments have moved to our forum