Does our culture need a Woke Index?
If we're going to police books and art, maybe we should do it right
Is anyone actually in favor of "cancel culture?"
Nearly the entire conversation about the topic operates at least one level of meta away from the phenomenon itself. An institution somewhere fires an employee, or changes the name of a building, or stops selling a book, and the outrage fest is on. Is such and such an instance of "cancel culture"? If it is, should we be worried? Did this particular person or work deserve to be "canceled?" What can we do about it anyway?
I've read far too many words taking all sides of this debate except one: I've almost never heard a defense of "cancel culture" as such, by which I mean an argument that the best way to police expression is in a completely decentralized manner, with masses of self-appointed critics and a variety of institutions maneuvering to avoid their disfavor.
I wonder if that's because it's not really defensible — on practical rather than moral grounds. If you want to make sure the culture is well-policed, surely you wouldn't assign the task to random people on Twitter — nor even to the authorities at institutions who know what havoc random people on Twitter can wreak. Those who believe — sincerely — in the importance of policing expression really ought to start talking about whether there's a better way.
What prompts this rumination is a Chicago public library's decision to stop circulating six books written by Dr. Seuss. This is an instructive instance because it crosses a clear rubicon. We're not talking about a store exercising its freedom not to sell a given product, or a corporation engaging in brand-management by culling certain unfavored lines. This is a library, so the issue is reduced to the thing itself: Should certain works not be read?
Which, I hasten to add, is a legitimate question! Few people think hard-core pornography or neo-Nazi literature should be on display on library shelves. Nor are everyone's concerns confined to those extremes; Plato wanted the poets banished for describing the gods' immoral behavior, after all. And I do not presume that the Seuss books are completely harmless; the most objectionable illustration in "If I Ran the Zoo" really is pretty awful, and I take seriously those who find racism and anti-Blackness more deeply rooted in his work, even to the point of being grateful to have grown up in a household where Seuss was "canceled." We vary in how liberal we are and where we draw the lines, but nearly all of us want lines drawn somewhere.
How did the Dr. Seuss books wind up even being discussed for removal from circulation, though, and at this one library? Presumably because they were in the news. It's possible the library is undergoing a thorough review of its collection to decide which works are unworthy of being read, and that we will shortly get reports that Babar is fine but Peter Pan is no longer available. It seems much more likely, though, that when the Seuss estate took the books out of print for making wrong and hurtful representations, the library took that as a moral judgment they had to respect, at least by default and pending review.
That's a problem, because the Seuss estate has no particular authority to pronounce on such matters. They are manifestly conflicted (since they're in the business of maximizing Seuss-related revenue, not curating American culture), and they have no reason to consider Seuss' work in any kind of comparative context (If Seuss' illustrations are unworthy of being seen, what other works should properly be veiled?). In current conditions, though, with no widely-respected authority or set of standards to consult, nobody can be sure what is acceptable and what isn't. So institutions are exposed simply for exercising judgment and they try to limit that exposure any way they can.
Maybe what we need is precisely such an authority. Maybe we need a Woke Index.
I can imagine several benefits. For one, there would now be an address where people could lodge complaints. If the Index permitted something you found appalling — or if it rejected something you found unobjectionable — you would know who to yell at. And the yelling would be expected to come from both sides, enabling it to, over time, find an equilibrium. If the promulgators of said Index didn't want to lose credibility — and with it market power — they would have to hold a line that, even if it didn't represent a broad social consensus, would have to represent something like a consensus within its own censorious sphere. They couldn't simply say no to everything; they'd have to stop being critics and start being judges. They'd have to develop standards, and make those standards public.
Being public would have other benefits as well. Consider the insidious effects of the American military's or the Chinese government's partnerships with Hollywood, and imagine how you would feel if you knew, up-front, which films participated in such a partnership and which refused. I'm sure there are people who would appreciate the opportunity to only attend films with a woke seal of approval. I'm sure there are other people who would appreciate the opportunity to seek out films that advertised that they had never sought such a seal. We already treat sex and violence this way; why shouldn't these issues be any different?
I'm engaging in deliberate hyperbole here, along with a certain amount of Swiftian modest-proposal-ism, so let me be clear. I think government censorship would be a terrible thing, and when I've had influence over private institutions I've tried to nudge them towards inclusivity and against self-censorship at one and the same time, because I see no contradiction between the two. I think our society would be much better off if there were an across-the-board consensus around that view.
But there isn't one. And given that fact, I wonder whether we wouldn't benefit from a widely credible private organization comparable to the old Legion of Decency but for the identitarian left, that would pronounce on the acceptability of cultural products. People who really did care about such things could look to it for guidance. And institutions that honestly didn't care about such things could still look to it for posterior-covering.
Of course, such a thing isn't going to happen. Nobody wants the job of chief censor, and it's not clear that anyone could herd the necessary cats to make such a job effective. But if that's the case, we should ask ourselves what that implies, about us and what we are really up to. Leave aside the question of whether the focus on policing culture is strategically misplaced, and whether we wouldn't all be better off focusing on material conditions. Is anyone even interested in policing culture effectively? If not, then what exactly are we doing?
Maybe, if none of us actually want an accountable authority deciding what is acceptable, we should stop acting like we're yearning for one, and just go back to being liberals.