A blog about academic freedom and other issues in higher education, from John K. Wilson
Tuesday, July 21, 2020
Bari Weiss and Coward Culture
Bari Weiss is a coward.
That claim may seem incredible to those who have read the fulsome praise from conservatives about Weiss’ decision last week to quit her job as an op-ed editor and writer at the New York Times, and her open resignation letter.
Newt Gingrich tweeted, “Bari Weiss’s Letter to the publisher of the new york times is the definitive explanation of the replacement of the news media with the propaganda media. Everyone watching the lies about covid should remember weiss and understand we are being fed baloney to beat President Trump.” Lindsey Graham tweeted, “Unfortunately, it is not breaking news that the @nytimes is an intolerant media outlet.” Brent Bozell declared, “The resignation of Bari Weiss should send shockwaves through the world of journalism.” James O’Keefe (an expert on journalistic ethics) tweeted about the New York Times in response to Weiss’ letter, “Their culture ignores journalistic ethics and moral values.” Josh Hammer at the Forward called Weiss “a casualty of the Left’s woke culture war.”
Rush Limbaugh (who was so clueless he thought Weiss was the Times op-ed editor who took over from James Bennet) devoted an hour of his show to reading Weiss’ letter and concluded, “The New York Times has become the epitome of tyranny and authoritarianism. You’re not allowed to have any other point of view if you read the paper. You must conform to the opinions in the news stories or you’re not even welcome as a subscriber.”
David French last year wrote a piece for National Review called “Courage is the Cure for Political Correctness,” where he argued that “the prevalence of conservative timidity is both worrisome and self-reinforcing” and “truly confronting illiberal political correctness requires personal courage.” Sadly, French responded to Weiss’ resignation by praising her “courage.” In reality, there’s nothing courageous about quitting a job because you’re criticized.
Weiss herself praised her own courage in her own letter: “Showing up for work as a centrist at an American newspaper should not require bravery.” That’s true. And it doesn’t.
Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller (legendary for helping the Bush Administration spread the false story of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq) reported about Weiss (falsely) at Fox News: “Weiss was apparently stripped of her role as editor, and not immediately offered another position; the implication that she was no longer welcome was clear.”
It’s easy to understand how Miller might have made this incompetent mistake and falsely assumed that Weiss was stripped of her role as editor. After all, Weiss’ whining letter and the doting expressions of sympathy from across the internet for her oppression all made little sense if Weiss had simply quit her job. But Weiss did, in fact, simply quit her job and was not “stripped of her role as editor.”
Why did Weiss quit? In her letter, Weiss tries to suggest that she was forced to leave and makes some unsubstantiated legal threats about “unlawful discrimination, hostile work environment, and constructive discharge.” But the key part of the letter is this paragraph:
“My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist; I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m ‘writing about the Jews again.’ Several colleagues perceived to be friendly with me were badgered by coworkers. My work and my character are openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in. There, some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly ‘inclusive’ one, while others post ax emojis next to my name. Still other New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action. They never are.”
So what “appropriate action” was Weiss demanding? Should her critics be summarily fired, or merely censored by the bosses at the Times?
Weiss has not provided any evidence for her allegations, and I would prefer to have proof and context before commenting; Weiss has many talents, but the neutral and objective recitation of facts is not her strong suit. But let’s assume that what Weiss says is true. Suppose she was called a racist, a Nazi, and had people urge her firing on the Times internal gossip network. That is mean behavior, but it is not repression. (By contrast, Weiss’ demand that her critics be silenced by the bosses is a form of repression.)
One of the key charges Weiss made in her letter was that her colleagues had publicly called her a liar, and she complained that the bosses had failed to silence her co-workers who disagreed with her. This is apparently a reference to an internal meeting in June, when Weiss tweeted about a generational “civil war” at the New York Times where the younger New Guard staffers all believe in “safetyism,” a creed “in which the right of people to feel emotionally and psychologically safe trumps what were previously considered core liberal values, like free speech.” Other staffers in the same meeting responded on Twitter that Weiss’ account wasn’t accurate, and therefore Weiss complains they were calling her a liar.
The irony here is that Weiss is the one demanding safetyism for herself, where her emotional security from being criticized trumps the free speech of other staffers. Coward Culture merges with Cancel Culture when someone like Weiss demands the silencing of others. The fear of being criticized turns into the demand not to be criticized. To Weiss, she needs to have a “safe space” (that space being her entire workplace and also all public commentary about the work and opinions by co-workers) or she is being “bullied.”
One of the crucial slogans of Coward Culture is “bullying,” and Weiss makes full use of it in her resignation letter: “My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views.” Weiss thinks bullying is a terrible crime. She told Vanity Fair, “I hate bullies. In college I protested bullying professors who used their classrooms to promote propaganda and to silence opposing views. Now I criticize bullying students…”
For Weiss, defining her critics as “bullying” her entitles her to demand that they be censored. The almighty free speech that Weiss pretends to love doesn’t apply to bullies, of course. Bullying is a term of infantilization. We think free speech doesn’t apply to bullying because bullying is what children do to one another, and free speech doesn’t apply when we’re protecting someone from bullying. As I have argued in the Journal of Academic Freedom, bullying is a dangerous concept to apply to adults. It’s especially dangerous to apply to the discussions about the New York Times op-ed writings.
Like many people who crusade against bullies, Weiss is a bully herself. After freelance writer Erin Biba used the F word on Twitter in 2018, Weiss wrote on Twitter to several magazines that had published Biba’s freelance articles, apparently trying to get her fired: “What kind of social media etiquette do @BBCScienceNews, @Newsweek, @sciam expect from their freelancers?” Nothing embodies right-wing Cancel Culture more than someone like Weiss who thinks freelance writers should be punished for violating nonexistent “etiquette” rules on their personal social media.
Weiss launched her career as a right-wing pundit in 2006 as a student at Columbia demanding the investigation and punishment of professors who criticized the Israeli government, with Weiss denouncing “the racism of these professors.” As Glenn Greenwald noted about Weiss, “her whole career was literally built on ugly campaigns to attack, stigmatize, and punish Arab professors who criticize Israel.”
Although Weiss was angry when Columbia refused to punish the professors she disliked, her efforts at censorship still had a powerful impact. To appease pro-Israel critics like Weiss, Columbia enacted one of the most repressive speech codes against faculty in America, a speech code that still exists, allowing formal complaints and penalties against any professors who “advocate any political or social cause” in a class.
Weiss’ personal hypocrisy on free speech may be noteworthy since she was one of the signers of the infamous Harper’s letter on justice and open debate.But there’s a bigger story here in the reaction to her resignation letter. Weiss herself provides the best testimony proving the hypocrisy of the cries about Cancel Culture. A Vanity Fair profile of Weiss noted how she was censored by the right-wing Wall Street Journal when she worked there: “During the campaign, she tried to sound the alarm about Steve Bannon but was told that she ‘didn’t have the standing.’ She wanted to write about Melania Trump’s hypocrisy with her cyber-bullying issue but wasn’t allowed to.” Weiss told a Reason podcast, “all of a sudden I was being told that I didn’t, you know, have the standing to write about these things, or that they were too anti-Trump.”
This is a remarkable story. Weiss says she was censored by the Wall Street Journal because her views were too liberal, yet this fact never generated any outrage about right-wing Cancel Culture. By contrast, Weiss was never censored by the New York Times, but simply complained about co-workers who dared to criticize her, and yet the Times became the embodiment of Cancel Culture repression in this public debate. As Weiss has realized, there’s a lot more attention and celebrity status to be gained from calling out a fictional version of left-wing Cancel Culture rather than the real pro-Trump Cancel Culture that actually prevails.
After reading all this, you might be surprised to learn that I have nothing against Bari Weiss. I can’t judge her work as an editor because that’s not visible to a reader. Based on my very limited exposure to her writing, while it is occasionally factually flawed, it seems mostly adequate and sometimes is very good (such as her piece on defamation in Australia).
I don’t think Weiss should have been fired, and I would have been upset if her political views or ability to anger people would have led to her dismissal. But when people quit their jobs, that’s on them. Weiss is under no obligation to stay at a job she doesn’t like. But she shouldn’t be celebrated for bravery in leaving it. Being harshly criticized at work might be disturbing in some occupations, but it should be part of the job description at the New York Times op-ed section.
There are real victims of Cancel Culture on the left and the right, and real dangers to our discourse when people are afraid to speak freely. Quitting your job and then playing the victim card is not a case of Cancel Culture. What Weiss did is Coward Culture, and we must reject this celebration of Weiss’ cowardice as a tool to demand censorship of her critics.