Social codes are changing, in many ways for the better. But for those whose behavior doesn’t adapt fast enough to the new norms, judgment can be swift—and merciless.
“It was no great distance, in those days, from the prison-door to the market-place. Measured by the prisoner’s experience, however, it might be reckoned a journey of some length.”
So begins the tale of Hester Prynne, as recounted in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter. As readers of this classic American text know, the story begins after Hester gives birth to a child out of wedlock and refuses to name the father. As a result, she is sentenced to be mocked by a jeering crowd, undergoing “an agony from every footstep of those that thronged to see her, as if her heart had been flung into the street for them all to spurn and trample upon.”
After that, she must wear a scarlet A—for adulterer—pinned to her dress for the rest of her life. On the outskirts of Boston, she lives in exile. No one will socialize with her—not even those who have quietly committed similar sins, among them the father of her child, the saintly village preacher. The scarlet letter has “the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.”
We read that story with a certain self-satisfaction: Such an old-fashioned tale! Even Hawthorne sneered at the Puritans, with their “sad-colored garments and grey steeple-crowned hats,” their strict conformism, their narrow minds and their hypocrisy. And today we are not just hip and modern; we live in a land governed by the rule of law; we have procedures designed to prevent the meting-out of unfair punishment. Scarlet letters are a thing of the past.
Except, of course, they aren’t. Right here in America, right now, it is possible to meet people who have lost everything—jobs, money, friends, colleagues—after violating no laws, and sometimes no workplace rules either. Instead, they have broken (or are accused of having broken) social codes having to do with race, sex, personal behavior, or even acceptable humor, which may not have existed five years ago or maybe five months ago. Some have made egregious errors of judgment. Some have done nothing at all. It is not always easy to tell.
Yet despite the disputed nature of these cases, it has become both easy and useful for some people to put them into larger narratives. Partisans, especially on the right, now toss around the phrase cancel culture when they want to defend themselves from criticism, however legitimate. But dig into the story of anyone who has been a genuine victim of modern mob justice and you will often find not an obvious argument between “woke” and “anti-woke” perspectives but rather incidents that are interpreted, described, or remembered by different people in different ways, even leaving aside whatever political or intellectual issue might be at stake.
There is a reason that the science reporter Donald McNeil, after being asked to resign from The New York Times, needed 21,000 words, published in four parts, to recount a series of conversations he had had with high-school students in Peru, during which he may or may not have said something racially offensive, depending on whose account you find most persuasive. There is a reason that Laura Kipnis, an academic at Northwestern, required an entire book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, to recount the repercussions, including to herself, of two allegations of sexual harassment against one man at her university; after she referred to the case in an article about “sexual paranoia,” students demanded that the university investigate her, too. A full explanation of the personal, professional, and political nuances in both cases needed a lot of space.
There is a reason, too, that Hawthorne dedicated an entire novel to the complex motivations of Hester Prynne, her lover, and her husband. Nuance and ambiguity are essential to good fiction. They are also essential to the rule of law: We have courts, juries, judges, and witnesses precisely so that the state can learn whether a crime has been committed before it administers punishment. We have a presumption of innocence for the accused. We have a right to self-defense. We have a statute of limitations.
By contrast, the modern online public sphere, a place of rapid conclusions, rigid ideological prisms, and arguments of 280 characters, favors neither nuance nor ambiguity. Yet the values of that online sphere have come to dominate many American cultural institutions: universities, newspapers, foundations, museums. Heeding public demands for rapid retribution, they sometimes impose the equivalent of lifetime scarlet letters on people who have not been accused of anything remotely resembling a crime. Instead of courts, they use secretive bureaucracies. Instead of hearing evidence and witnesses, they make judgments behind closed doors.
From our October 2021 issue
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I have been trying to understand these stories for a long time, both because I believe that the principle of due process underpins liberal democracy, and also because they remind me of other times and places. A decade ago, I wrote a book about the Sovietization of Central Europe in the 1940s, and found that much of the political conformism of the early Communist period was the result not of violence or direct state coercion, but rather of intense peer pressure. Even without a clear risk to their life, people felt obliged—not just for the sake of their career but for their children, their friends, their spouse—to repeat slogans that they didn’t believe, or to perform acts of public obeisance to a political party they privately scorned. In 1948, the famous Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik sent what he later described as some “rubbish” as his entry into a competition to write a “Song of the United Party”—because he thought if he refused to submit anything, the whole Union of Polish Composers might lose funding. To his eternal humiliation, he won. Lily Hajdú-Gimes, a celebrated Hungarian psychoanalyst of that era, diagnosed the trauma of forced conformity in patients, as well as in herself. “I play the game that is offered by the regime,” she told friends, “though as soon as you accept that rule you are in a trap.”
But you don’t even need Stalinism to create that kind of atmosphere. During a trip to Turkey earlier this year, I met a writer who showed me his latest manuscript, kept in a desk drawer. His work wasn’t illegal, exactly—it was just unpublishable. Turkish newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses are subject to unpredictable prosecutions and drastic sentences for speech or writing that can be arbitrarily construed as insulting the president or the Turkish nation. Fear of those sanctions leads to self-censorship and silence.
In America, of course, we don’t have that kind of state coercion. There are currently no laws that shape what academics or journalists can say; there is no government censor, no ruling-party censor. But fear of the internet mob, the office mob, or the peer-group mob is producing some similar outcomes. How many American manuscripts now remain in desk drawers—or unwritten altogether—because their authors fear a similarly arbitrary judgment? How much intellectual life is now stifled because of fear of what a poorly worded comment would look like if taken out of context and spread on Twitter?
To answer that question, I spoke with more than a dozen people who were either victims or close observers of sudden shifts in social codes in America. The purpose here is not to reinvestigate or relitigate any of their cases. Some of those I interviewed have behaved in ways that I, or readers of this article, may well consider ill-judged or immoral, even if they were not illegal. I am not here questioning all of the new social codes that have led to their dismissal or their effective isolation. Many of these social changes are clearly positive.How much intellectual life is now stifled because of fear of what a poorly worded comment would look like if taken out of context and spread on Twitter?
Still, no one quoted here, anonymously or by name, has been charged with an actual crime, let alone convicted in an actual court. All of them dispute the public version of their story. Several say they have been falsely accused; others believe that their “sins” have been exaggerated or misinterpreted by people with hidden agendas. All of them, sinners or saints, have been handed drastic, life-altering, indefinite punishments, often without the ability to make a case in their own favor. This—the convicting and sentencing without due process, or mercy—should profoundly bother Americans. In 1789, James Madison proposed that the U.S. Constitution ensure that “no person shall be … deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” Both the Fifth and the Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution invoke due process. Nevertheless, these Americans have been effectively deprived of it.
Many of the people described here remain unavoidably anonymous in this essay. This is because they are involved in complicated legal or tenure battles and do not want to speak on the record, or because they fear another wave of social-media attacks. I have tried to describe their current situations—to explain what price they have paid, what kind of punishment they have been handed—without identifying those who did not want to be identified, and without naming their institutions. Necessarily, a lot of important details are therefore excluded. But for some, this is now the only way they dare to speak out at all.
Here is the first thing that happens once you have been accused of breaking a social code, when you find yourself at the center of a social-media storm because of something you said or purportedly said. The phone stops ringing. People stop talking to you. You become toxic. “I have in my department dozens of colleagues—I think I have spoken to zero of them in the past year,” one academic told me. “One of my colleagues I had lunch with at least once a week for more than a decade—he just refused to speak to me anymore, without asking questions.” Another reckoned that, of the 20-odd members in his department, “there are two, one of whom has no power and another of whom is about to retire, who will now speak to me.”
A journalist told me that after he was summarily fired, his acquaintances sorted themselves into three groups. First, the “heroes,” very small in number, who “insist on due process before damaging another person’s life and who stick by their friends.” Second, the “villains,” who think you should “immediately lose your livelihood as soon as the allegation is made.” Some old friends, or people he thought were old friends, even joined the public attack. But the majority were in a third category: “good but useless. They don’t necessarily think the worst of you, and they would like you to get due process, but, you know, they haven’t looked into it. They have reasons to think charitably of you, maybe, but they’re too busy to help. Or they have too much to lose.” One friend told him that she would happily write a defense of him, but she had a book proposal in the works. “I said, ‘Thank you for your candor.’ ”
Most people drift away because life moves on; others do so because they are afraid that those unproven allegations might imply something far worse. One professor who has not been accused of any physical contact with anybody was astonished to discover that some of his colleagues assumed that if his university was disciplining him, he must be a rapist. Another person suspended from his job put it this way: “Someone who knows me, but maybe doesn’t know my soul or character, may be saying to themselves that prudence would dictate they keep their distance, lest they become collateral damage.”
Sometimes advocates of the new mob justice claim that these are minor punishments, that the loss of a job is not serious, that people should be able to accept their situation and move on. But isolation plus public shaming plus loss of income are severe sanctions for adults, with long-term personal and psychological repercussions—especially because the “sentences” in these cases are of indeterminate length. Elliott contemplated suicide, and has written that “every first-hand account I’ve read of public shaming—and I’ve read more than my share—includes thoughts of suicide.” Massey did too: “I had a plan and the means to execute it; I then had a panic attack and took a cab to the ER.” David Bucci, the former chair of the Dartmouth brain-sciences department, who was named in a lawsuit against the college though he was not accused of any sexual misconduct, did kill himself after he realized he might never be able to restore his reputation.
Mike Pesca, a podcaster for Slate, got into a debate with his colleagues on his company’s internal Slack message board about whether it is acceptable to pronounce a racial slur out loud when reporting on the use of a racial slur—an action that, he says, was not against any company rules at the time. After a meeting of the editorial staff held soon afterward to discuss the incident—to which Pesca himself was not invited—the company launched an investigation to find out whether there were other things he might have done wrong. (According to a statement by a Slate spokesperson, the investigation was prompted by more than just “an isolated abstract argument in a Slack channel.”) Amy Chua, the Yale Law professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, told me she believes that investigations into her relationships with students were sparked by her personal connections to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Many of these investigations involve anonymous reports or complaints, some of which can come as a total surprise to those being reported upon. By definition, social-media mobs involve anonymous accounts that amplify unverified stories with “likes” and shares. The “Shitty Media Men” list was an anonymous collection of unverified accusations that became public. Procedures at many universities actually mandate anonymity in the early stages of an investigation. Sometimes even the accused isn’t given any of the details. Chua’s husband, the Yale Law professor Jed Rubenfeld, who was suspended from teaching due to sexual-harassment allegations (which he denies), says he did not know the names of his accusers or the nature of the accusations against him for a year and a half.
Kipnis, who was accused of sexual misconduct because she wrote about sexual harassment, was not initially allowed to know who her accusers were either, nor would anyone explain the rules governing her case. Nor, for that matter, were the rules clear to the people applying them, because, as she wrote in Unwanted Advances, “there’s no established or nationally uniform set of procedures.” On top of all that, Kipnis was supposed to keep the whole thing confidential: “I’d been plunged into an underground world of secret tribunals and capricious, medieval rules, and I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone about it,’’ she wrote. This chimes with the story of another academic, who told me that his university “never even talked to me before it decided to actually punish me. They read the reports from the investigators, but they never brought me in a room, they never called me on the phone, so that I could say anything about my side of the story. And they openly told me that I was being punished based on allegations. Just because they didn’t find evidence of it, they told me, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
This pattern is now repeating itself in the U.S. Many of those I spoke with told complicated stories about the ways in which anonymous procedures had been used by people who disliked them, felt competitive with them, or held some kind of personal or professional grudge. One described an intellectual rivalry with a university administrator, dating back to graduate school—the same administrator who had played a role in having him suspended. Another attributed a series of problems to a former student, now a colleague, who had long seen him as a rival. A third thought that one of his colleagues resented having to work with him and would have preferred a different job. A fourth reckoned that he had underestimated the professional frustrations of younger colleagues who felt stifled by his organization’s hierarchies. All of them believe that personal grudges help explain why they were singled out.
The motivations could be even more petty than that. The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently described how two younger writers she had befriended attacked her on social media, partly, she wrote, because they are “seeking attention and publicity to benefit themselves.” Once it becomes clear that attention and praise can be garnered from organizing an attack on someone’s reputation, plenty of people discover that they have an interest in doing so.
America remains a safe distance from Mao’s China or Stalin’s Russia.
EDITOR – Does it?
Neither our secretive university committees nor the social-media mobs are backed by authoritarian regimes threatening violence. Despite the right-wing rhetoric that says otherwise, these procedures are not being driven by a “unified left” (there is no “unified left”), or by a unified movement of any kind, let alone by the government. It’s true that some of the university sexual-harassment cases have been shaped by Department of Education Title IX regulations that are shockingly vague, and that can be interpreted in draconian ways. But the administrators who carry out these investigations and disciplinary procedures, whether they work at universities or in the HR departments of magazines, are not doing so because they fear the Gulag. Many pursue them because they believe they are making their institutions better—they are creating a more harmonious workplace, advancing the causes of racial or sexual equality, keeping students safe. Some want to protect their institution’s reputation. Invariably, some want to protect their own reputation. At least two of the people I interviewed believe that they were punished because a white, male boss felt he had to publicly sacrifice another white man in order to protect his own position.The censoriousness, the shunning, the ritualized apologies, the public sacrifices—these are typical behaviors in illiberal societies with rigid cultural codes.
But what gives anyone the conviction that such a measure is necessary? Or that “keeping students safe” means you must violate due process? It is not the law. Nor, strictly speaking, is it politics. Although some have tried to link this social transformation to President Joe Biden or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, anyone who tries to shoehorn these stories into a right-left political framework has to explain why so few of the victims of this shift can be described as “right wing” or conservative. According to one recent poll, 62 percent of Americans, including a majority of self-described moderates and liberals, are afraid to speak their mind about politics. All of those I spoke with are centrist or center-left liberals. Some have unconventional political views, but some have no strong views at all.
The censoriousness, the shunning, the ritualized apologies, the public sacrifices—these are rather typical behaviors in illiberal societies with rigid cultural codes, enforced by heavy peer pressure.
This is a story of moral panic, of cultural institutions policing or purifying themselves in the face of disapproving crowds. The crowds are no longer literal, as they once were in Salem, but rather online mobs, organized via Twitter, Facebook, or sometimes internal company Slack channels. After Alexi McCammond was named editor in chief of Teen Vogue, people discovered and recirculated on Instagram old anti-Asian and homophobic tweets she had written a decade earlier, while still a teenager. McCammond apologized, of course, but that wasn’t enough, and she was compelled to quit the job before starting. She’s had a softer landing than some—she was able to return to her previous work as a political reporter at Axios—but the incident reveals that no one is safe. She was a 27-year-old woman of color who had been named the “Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists, and yet her teenage self came back to haunt her. You would think it would be a good thing for the young readers of Teen Vogue to learn forgiveness and mercy, but for the New Puritans, there is no statute of limitations.
It’s not just the hyper-social and the flirtatious who have found themselves victims of the New Puritanism. People who are, for lack of a more precise word, difficult have trouble too. They are haughty, impatient, confrontational, or insufficiently interested in people whom they perceive to be less talented. Others are high achievers, who in turn set high standards for their colleagues or students. When those high standards are not met, these people say so, and that doesn’t go over well. Some of them like to push boundaries, especially intellectual boundaries, or to question orthodoxies. When people disagree with them, they argue back with relish.
That kind of behavior, once accepted or at least tolerated in many workplaces, is also now out of bounds. Workplaces once considered demanding are now described as toxic. The sort of open criticism, voiced in front of other people, that was once normal in newsrooms and academic seminars is now as unacceptable as chewing with your mouth open. The non-sunny disposition, the less-than-friendly manner—these can now be grounds for punishment or ostracism too. A relevant criticism of Donald McNeil turned out to be that he was “kind of a grumpy old guy,” as one student on that trip to Peru described him.
What many of these people—the difficult ones, the gossipy ones, the overly gregarious ones—have in common is that they make people uncomfortable. Here, too, a profound generational shift has transpired. “I think people’s tolerance for discomfort—people’s tolerance for dissonance, for not hearing exactly what they want to hear—has now gone down to zero,” one person told me. “Discomfort used to be a term of praise about pedagogy—I mean, the greatest discomforter of all was Socrates.”The interaction between the angry mob and the illiberal bureaucracy engenders a thirst for blood, for sacrifices to be offered to the pious and unforgiving gods of outrage.
It’s not wrong to want a more comfortable workplace, or fewer grumpy colleagues. The difficulty is that the feeling of discomfort is subjective. One person’s lighthearted compliment is another person’s microaggression. One person’s critical remark can be experienced by another person as racist or sexist. Jokes, wordplay, and anything that can have two meanings are, by definition, open to interpretation.
But even though discomfort is subjective, it is also now understood as something that can be cured. Someone who has been made uncomfortable now has multiple paths through which to demand redress. This has given rise to a new facet of life in universities, nonprofits, and corporate offices: the committees, HR departments, and Title IX administrators who have been appointed precisely to hear these kinds of complaints. Anyone who feels discomfort now has a place to go, someone to talk to.
Some have used Wilder’s case to argue that the conservative criticism of “cancel culture” has always been fraudulent. But the real, and nonpartisan, lesson is this: No one—of any age, in any profession—is safe. In the age of Zoom, cellphone cameras, miniature recorders, and other forms of cheap surveillance technology, anyone’s comments can be taken out of context; anyone’s story can become a rallying cry for Twitter mobs on the left or the right. Anyone can then fall victim to a bureaucracy terrified by the sudden eruption of anger. And once one set of people loses the right to due process, so does everybody else. Not just professors but students; not just editors of elite publications but random members of the public. Gotcha moments can be choreographed. Project Veritas, a well-funded right-wing organization, dedicates itself to sting operations: It baits people into saying embarrassing things on hidden cameras and then seeks to get them punished for it, either by social media or by their own bureaucracies.
But while this form of mob justice can be used opportunistically by anyone, for any political or personal reason, the institutions that have done the most to facilitate this change are in many cases those that once saw themselves as the guardians of liberal and democratic ideals. Robert George, the Princeton professor, is a longtime philosophical conservative who once criticized liberal scholars for their earnest relativism, their belief that all ideas deserved an equal hearing. He did not foresee, he told me, that liberals would one day “seem as archaic as the conservatives,” that the idea of creating a space where different ideas could compete would come to seem old-fashioned, that the spirit of tolerance and curiosity would be replaced by a worldview “that is not open-minded, that doesn’t think engaging differences is a great thing or that students should be exposed to competing points of view.”
Worse, if we drive all of the difficult people, the demanding people, and the eccentric people away from the creative professions where they used to thrive, we will become a flatter, duller, less interesting society, a place where manuscripts sit in drawers for fear of arbitrary judgments. The arts, the humanities, and the media will become stiff, predictable, and mediocre. Democratic principles like the rule of law, the right to self-defense, the right to a just trial—even the right to be forgiven—will wither. There will be nothing to do but sit back and wait for the Hawthornes of the future to expose us.