The Case For Shunning
People like Scott Adams claim they're being silenced. But what they actually seem to object to is being understood.
So there’s this comic stripcalled Dilbert that a lot of people used to think was funny—certainly enough to sustain an enormously successful career in the funny pages for its creator, whose name is Scott Adams, a man who I discovered will block you on Twitter if you tell him that you expected better from the creator of Garfield.
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I read Dilbert occasionally back in the day—that is, in the 1990s. I thought it was pretty funny, I think. It’s hard to remember. The central message of Dilbert is that everybody is stupid except you, if I’m remembering correctly. It’s a popular message, which I presume helped make it a popular strip. There were books and plushies and even a TV show for a while. It broke through.
Anyway, time passed as time does and before you knew it, it wasn’t the 1990s anymore. Eventually social media happened to us all, and everybody got online and broadcast their thoughts for all to hear, and we all got to find out that Dilbert creator Scott Adams is a massive bigot and a reactionary crank, which is something anybody who has been paying attention has known for at least a decade now.
Scott Adams the creator of Dilbert sure does seem to believe the central message of Dilbert. He’s very impressed by his own lack of stupidity, and also very impressed by what he perceives as the extreme stupidity of almost everyone else.He’s not impressed by too much else. He’s mostly skeptical.
He’s skeptical about the science, for one thing. What science? All of it, as far as I can tell. He’s skeptical about climate catastrophe, and doesn’t believe it’s caused by human activity, even though we are now in the midst of a rolling series of climate catastrophes. He’s skeptical about the severity of the Covid pandemic, which has caused millions of deaths worldwide. He’s skeptical about the existence of anti-Black and anti-trans and anti-woman bigotry, even though he has claimed to believe that Black people have a naturally lower average IQ than other races, and that women are not as naturally well-suited to technical fields as men, and that atavistic discomfort is a natural and perfectly understandable reaction for a person to have at the sight of a trans person. Adams is very proudly a skeptic on all of these matters, and is skeptical as a general rule, which is unsurprising, since skepticism is a common posture among those who believe one of the foundational tenets of supremacy—that reality must be mediated through and approved by them in order to be deemed real by the rest of us.
Again, Adams’ authority for positioning himself an arbiter of reality is that he created Dilbert, which looks like it was drawn by a modestly talented 11-year old, and which recently has started incorporating anti-diversity and anti-trans material reflecting the worldview of its creator, who in case I have not mentioned it is Scott Adams.
It’s worth noting that Scott Adams the creator of Dilbert is not a climate scientist, or an expert in the fields of racial or gender studies—which are areas of studies being criminalized as felonies in the state of Florida—and he isn’t a medical professional dedicated to the latest developments in transgender treatment, or an epidemiologist, all of which are areas of study so rich and deep and complex that very smart people devote their entire lives to understanding them so they can finally butt up against the edges of human knowledge in hope of advancing it. Nevertheless, they have all committed the regrettable sin of not being convincing enough to Scott Adams the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, who cannot draw hands as far as I can tell.
The skepticism of Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) does have its limits. He is not skeptical about Donald Trump, who is the former President of the United States and who is also one of the most profoundly ignorant and grotesquely obvious scam artists of the century, and who is also an open authoritarian and white supremacist bag of dicks, and so on. Adams finds Trump perfectly credible on any number of issues that neither he nor Trump are expert in, and he finds discredited race science and discredited climate change denialism and discredited Covid conspiracy theories to be very convincing, too.
The thing that seems to make Adams skeptical is credible evidence. Wherever credible evidence exists, he’s skeptical of it; where it is absent, he is a believer. It’s a sort of upside-down worldview, unless you realize that it reflects exactly the sort of rhetorical condition that would be necessary to exist in order for the creator of a crudely-drawn comic strip to be able to position himself as an arbiter of reality.
But now something apparently brand new has happened. Creator of Dilbert Scott Adams took to the YouTube airwaves and decided to go on a very racist tirade indeed.
Here’s how it happened.
There’s a saying that is very popular among white supremacists and neo Nazis and other far right bigots, and that saying is this: “It’s OK to be white.” It’s a catchphrase of theirs, which tries to position people deemed “white” as an oppressed minority, which they are not, instead of an artificially privileged class, which is what they are.
And there’s a right-wing polling company called Rasmussen, who decided, for some reason they’d probably like us all to pretend is unknowable, to ask people whether or not they agree with the statement “it’s OK to be white”—which is, again, a well-known catchphrase among white supremacists.
Apparently only about half of Black Americans polled agreed with the phrase, which is a pretty high level of acceptance for a well-known white supremacist catchphrase, and which probably only shows the degree to which Black Americans are aware that this is a catchphrase among white supremacists.
Dilbert creator Scott Adams got into the crosstabs and found this little tidbit, and proceeded to have a decidedly non-skeptical meltdown about it. He decided to not know that “it’s OK to be white” is a white supremacist catchphrase (or at least managed not to mention it), and proclaimed that this result meant that Black people are a hate group, and advocated that white people stay the hell away from Black people, and he said some other racist things, too, which is the sort of thing he does from time to time.
And now his strip is being pulled from newspapers.
Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) seems surprised that there are consequences for him having said the exact sort of horrible things he’s been saying for so long without consequence.
That’s fair. I’m also surprised.
It appears there are still lines you can’t cross without consequence these days, and I guess Scott Adams the creator of Dilbert crossed one of those lines.
John Hiner is the vice president of content for MLive Media Group (the conglomerate that gobbled my local paper up about 15 years ago), and he is quoted as saying “MLive has zero tolerance for racism,” which is a sort of funny thing for somebody to say when they have for so long been publishing the work of openly racist Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. It would seem to me that there is some level of tolerance for racism at MLive, and that level hovers somewhere above zero.
And I suppose there are people who will see the application of this consequence as chilling to free speech, and will choose to focus on it, during a time when entire fields of study are being criminalized in the state of Florida, and marginalized people of every kind are being targeted for supremacist menace and hate by Republican legislation and jurisprudence and policing. I suppose they’ll say that Adams is being silenced, even though he’s still talking. I suppose they’ll say he’s been destroyed even though he’s still perfectly fine.
I’m kidding. I don’t suppose. I know. They’re out there. They’re always out there.
One of those people who thinks that Scott Adams the creator of Dilbert is being destroyed is Dilbert creator Scott Adams.
“Most of my income will be gone by next week,” he told about 3,000 live-stream viewers. “My reputation for the rest of my life is destroyed. You can’t come back from this, am I right? There’s no way you can come back from this.”
It’s such a weird thing to think about: the idea that we have destroyed Scott Adams’ reputation, simply by observing that he has said the things he said. That you should be able to hold onto your income stream after advocating a racially separatist state, as if being a racist fuckwit puts you in a protected class.
It’s almost as if he wants us to make him the beneficiary of the same indestructible and persistent skepticism in the face of direct evidence that he has employed to spend his career positioning himself as an arbiter of truth, which he is not, instead of a dilettante operating far outside his extremely limited areas of unimpressive expertise and an irrefutably bigoted conspiracy-minded crank, which he is. Certainly it’s what he expects us to do, and he has some good reason for expecting is; after all, newspapers and television producers and other publishing media have been providing him that skepticism for his entire adult life.
What Scott Adams objects to is what all supremacists object to, which is the existence of other people and their ability to form conclusions apart from his own will, based on readily available evidence.
His complaint is that he’s not being heard, but we know he is being heard, because we heard him.
His real objection is something he can’t say without giving away the game.
His real objection is that he’s being understood.
It’s almost gotten to be boring, the degree to which people believe that what they refer to as “free speech” should not only allow them to say whatever they want (which it does), but should also prevent other people from understanding them to be the sort of person who says those things.
I brought up Scott Adams because he’s such a recent example, but we could be talking about many instances of similar indestructible skepticism.
We could be talking about Marjorie Taylor Greene, the white supremacist congresswoman and rising star within the Republican Party, who spent the week advocating for “a national divorce,” a proposal with unquestionably secessionist and genocidal motivations. We could be talking about how Republicans are going to allow her to continue doing so without consequence, while receiving indestructible skepticism from our media apparatus about the fact that their rising stars are all conspiracy-minded white supremacists pursuing policies that will menace and harm and kill already marginalized minorities, or about the fact that this pretty obviously makes them a secessionist party with genocidal motives.
We could be talking about how the books are coming off the shelves in Florida while the governor of Florida, who is being puffed as a likely president, insists they aren’t. We could talk about the indestructible skepticism that attends his obvious lies.
We could talk about how so many people who insist that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” for bigotry—by which they mean that bigotry should be allowed to expose itself, and thus be shunned by a public that won’t tolerate bigotry—also seem to insist that every instance of a bigot getting publicly shunned after exposing their bigotry represents a very dangerous trend for free speech, while simultaneously never seeming to object to any of the actual attacks on freedom—of speech, of movement, of bodily autonomy—that are happening across the country. At a certain point, it seems to me that we have to conclude that what such people are actually advocating for is not to use sunlight to expose and disinfect our society of bigotry, but simply to have a society in which bigotry is free to dance in the sun.
We could be talking about the New York Times, which received an open letter from thousands of employees and contributors asking them to stop extending indestructible skepticism in their coverage about medical care for trans people, to stop elevating the junk data of professional hacks, to stop keeping their toxic and corrosive and discredited questions in circulation, to stop framing supremacist dilettantes on the same level as experts, to stop placing strategic lies on the same level as observable evidence. We could be talking about the way the Times responded the very next day by publishing a fawning piece in defense of J.K. Rowling, giving a fellow transphobic skeptic a platform from which to explain, at great length, why we shouldn’t understand Rowling to be the sort of person who has engaged in a years-long campaign of vilification against trans people, which is something Rowling has done; explaining at great length how dangerous it is that people who were once fans of Rowling’s wizard world are no longer fans, because they understand the author of Rowling’s books to be exactly the kind of person she has proven to be.
Or we could talk about the other letter; the one the Times editorial board published last year, openly targeted at the left in defense of the right, in which they advocated for the categorical end of social consequences for anyone saying anything at all.
Really? That’s a fundamental right? To speak without being shamed or shunned?
To be able to say anything without being understood as somebody who said it?
No matter what is said?
I don't know about you, but I get shamed for the things I say all the time, from supremacists and bigots, from people whose disapproval I seek and from whose company I hope to be shunned, who in fact I would be ashamed to discover approved of my beliefs. And I think they know it, too. They may mischaracterize my words and my meaning, but I think they understand me very well.
And I crave their understanding. I want them to know exactly what I think of them.
That’s what the shunning is for.
Is there nothing somebody would say that would cause you to criticize them or call shame upon them? Is there nothing anybody would say that would cause you to cease your association with them? If so, then what you are is not a proponent of free speech, but of lazy amorality.
Incidentally, the Times also responded to the open letter last week by rebuking the signatories, releasing a memo stating they “will not tolerate” such speech from its employees—so we can see very clearly that they actually don’t believe that people should avoid consequences for speech. We can see very clearly that the Times is actually motivated by a desire to control reactions to speech and to enforce who is licensed to speak, and who is not. Based on the evidence of their own actions and words, they pre-suppose that some are allowed to speak, and others should not be allowed to respond.
What they want is not more voices. They want fewer voices.
What they want is not a dialogue. What they want is a series of monologues that they can mediate.
They don’t want the extremist voices on the right to be understood, they only want them to be heeded.
This posture demolishes what I would say is an actual fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to think some beliefs are shameful.
The position the NYT Editorial board proposes represents the most cowardly possible vision of free speech I can imagine. It's a way of holding beliefs without paying for them. It's renting the benefits of speech and paying with your listener's time; leasing your beliefs without having to own them. As powerful arbiters of what should be free discourse, the New York Times Editorial Board should—and I say this in full awareness and enjoyment of the irony—be ashamed.
I think it’s time for us to strangle this urge for an indestructible skepticism for evidence, this indestructible credulity for hateful nonsense.
There has to come a point when we finally insist on taking the evidence before us and drawing moral conclusions—because unless we do, we won’t ever be able to address the problems before us. If we don’t make moral judgments about speech, we’ll find ourselves on a treadmill of discourse, always running but never getting anywhere, endlessly compelled to apply an indestructible skepticism to the evidence, and an indestructible credulity to specious conjecture and lies.
It’s time for us to understand people for what they insist on being. To understand that participation with the popularized genocidal urges gripping our country is an unacceptable moral failing, as is support for the politicians and pundits who are pursuing it, as is membership in the political party around which it is organized and energized. To understand that unforgivable moral failings deserve not our ears, but our backs.
To shun, and to let the shunning be our expression. Our free expression.
There are worse things than shunning. There are shelves empty of books. There are people dying from deliberately manufactured medical policy. There are actual attacks upon freedom and speech. There is supremacy. There is genocide.
So I’d say it’s time—far past time—for shunning.
This doesn’t preclude speech. Anyone can say whatever they want, even the creator of a comic strip that people thought was amusing in 1996.
If you're going to speak, speak. Say anything you want. Unless you are a teacher or professor in a Republican-controlled state, you won’t be arrested or prosecuted.
Speak bravely. Own what you say.
Prepare to be understood.
A.R. Moxon is not the creator of Dilbert, but he is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places, and is co-writer of Sugar Maple, a musical fiction podcast from Osiris Media which goes in your ears. He left his wallet in El Segundo, he’s gotta get it, he’s got got to get it.
For those of you born in more modern times than me, the “funny pages” are a section of newspapers devoted to comic strips, and “comic strips” are a little bit like manga if a manga were a sitcom and the sitcom were about 10 seconds and 1 joke long, and “newspapers” were … you know what? We could be here all day. Look up the archaic words you don’t know please.
You know what they say about you when every single person you meet throughout your day is an asshole? It seems to me we can make similar assumptions about what it means when everyone is stupid except you.
Pretty much everyone across the spectrum criticized NYT for their stupid “you have the right speak without fear of being shamed or shunned” line. No one believes that and basing an argument on it is just a straw man. And of course bad actors like the Dilbert clown are going to claim censorship when they are absolutely fairly ostracized.
But that doesn’t mean there’s not a pattern of “The Lottery”-style mob mentality branding Scarlet As on everyone before the full story even has a chance to come out. Jon Ronson wrote a whole book on it and Monica Lewinsky has a great documentary on the subject. For every Marjorine Greene or Dilbert guy, there are piles of people whose lives have truly been ruined by social media mobs and credulous journalism. The issue isn’t black and white. There’s a lot of grey area that needs nuanced debate. Like, where do we draw the line between the Harvey Weinsteins and the Emmanuel Caffertys (who got fired from his working class job at a utility company because someone took a pic of him holding his hand out the window in a vaguely 👌 way and was smeared online as throwing white supremacy signs - he’s Hispanic)?
I’m not worried about the Dave Chapelles (the Streisand Effect usually backfires on the criticism anyways by making him MORE popular) getting criticized, but the tons of everyday people who are branded, fired, or pressured to keeping their views quiet for fear of an overzealous Twitter mob. Even professors at a rate never seen in academia are being flushed at the first sign of criticism for very minor mistakes, which stifles discourse in the place most relied on for fostering open inquiry. From FIRE: “Since 2015, we documented 563 attempts (345 from the left, 202 from the right, 16 from neither) to get scholars canceled. Two thirds (362 incidents; 64 percent) of these cancellation attempts were successful, resulting in some form of professional sanction leveled at the scholar, including over one-fifth (117 incidents; 21 percent) resulting in termination … In 2001, the idea of one tenured professor being fired for protected speech seemed impossible, yet since 2015 there have been 30.” 65% of students on the left and right (black and white) surveyed said they felt they couldn’t express their views without fear of ostracism. (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/09/academics-are-really-really-worried-about-their-freedom/615724/)
This clearly has slipped past social enforcement of new norms to a culture that survivors of the USSR and Mao’s China say is becoming reminiscent of the stifling atmosphere they escaped. (Anne Applebaum wrote a good piece for the Atlantic on that https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/10/new-puritans-mob-justice-canceled/619818/)
And Moxon illustrates this slippery slope when he goes from focusing on actual racists to legitimate journalism from the NYT on transgender care (Reuters did similar reporting that supported the evidence in Emily Bazelon’s piece for NYT). Whether or not the evidence turns in favor of the activists condemning the NYT or the NYT’s reporting is a legitimate topic up for discussion, and the experts and public should be able to freely debate that evidence through open discourse without being pressured into self-censorship.
I'd say accurate. And I'm not Scott Adams.