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Why We Shouldn't Cancel Pro-Hamas Protesters
This moment is an opportunity for us to show our political opponents that they have no reason to fear us as we have feared them.
In the wake of Hamas' brutal attack on Israeli civilians on October 7, many prominent individuals and groups leapt to defend Hamas. Thirty-four student groups at Harvard cosigned a petition saying that they "hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence." At the University of Pennsylvania, protestors chanted, "Israel, Israel, you can’t hide: We charge you with genocide." Columbia University professor Joseph Massad called the terrorist attack "awesome," and Cornell professor Russell Rickford said of the attacks, "It was exhilarating. It was energizing. . . I was exhilarated." (to his credit, Rickford has since apologized).
The pro-Hamas statements drew swift ire. Some of the responses were justified; for example, three students who signed the petition (or a similar letter at Columbia) had job offers rescinded by Davis Polk & Wardwell, an elite law firm. Freedom of association is a bedrock principle in the United States, and it's fair for companies to exercise that freedom by turning down applicants who support terrorism. Suppose a Jewish businesswoman extended a job offer to an applicant on October 6. In that case, there's no reason that she shouldn't be able to rescind that offer upon learning that the applicant spent the weekend afterward chanting "death to Jews."
Some of the pro-Hamas protestors have even engaged in incitement to violence or physical intimidation, and this should be punished in line with bedrock principles of free speech (incitement to violence was clarified to be unprotected speech in the Supreme Court case Brandenburg v Ohio). At Cooper Union, Jewish students allege that pro-Hamas protestors broke through security and began banging on the windows of the locked library while these students were trapped inside. If the students' accounts are accurate–the protestors' conduct goes far beyond protected speech.
But some on the right have gone too far. They've gone beyond simply refusing to associate with the protestors and have tried to exert social pressure to get others to refuse to associate with them as well. In other words, they've been attempting to cancel the protestors. Accuracy in Media has broadcast the faces of the signers of the Harvard petition on mobile billboards. Wajathat Ali claims that at least one Columbia graduate student has been doxxed for signing a similar petition. The Intercept reports that "A number of new websites have sprung up in recent weeks listing names of university students and corporate employees accused of issuing or endorsing sentiments deemed hostile to Israel."
Most concerningly, Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) wants the United States to deport any foreign nationals (including students here on visas) who express support for Hamas.
No matter how sickening it is to glorify terrorist attacks, we should be wary of canceling people who praise Hamas.
For one thing, all of the arguments that free-speech advocates have made over the years decrying cancel culture still hold now that the shoe is on the other foot. Cancel culture isn't justice; it's just an online mob formed to punish someone based on a tiny snapshot of their life. Cancel culture also offers no opportunity for repentance and growth. If we blacklist the protestors, we give them little opportunity or incentive to learn from their mistakes. We might even radicalize them further.
Turnaround is not, in fact, fair play. Destroying people’s lives for speaking their opinion is not moral, and that doesn't change just because it's our political opponents in the crosshairs. If those of us who have lamented the rise of cancel culture for years succumb to our baser instincts and try to destroy these protestors' lives, then we can no longer claim to be better than the people across the political spectrum who would do the same to us.
This isn't just a moral question; there's also a practical aspect. According to a recent poll by the Knight Foundation, 90 percent of Americans agree that "people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions." Seventy-seven percent agree that "having different points of view, including those that are ‘bad’ or offensive to some, promotes healthy debate in society." These men and women are already turned off by the far left's embrace of cancel culture and the cultural erosion of free speech. Let's not turn them away too. The fight to preserve our liberal social contract is too important to alienate 77 percent of our fellow Americans.
Plus, no one likes a hypocrite. If we oppose cancel culture for years only to turn around and support it when we're in power, the primary thing we'll accomplish is to show millions of Americans that we lack moral principles and courage. This is not conducive to winning hearts and minds.
But there's a more significant reason not to cancel the protestors. Tribalism in the United States is near all-time highs. According to a 2018 Axios poll, 61 percent of Democrats see Republicans as "racist," "bigoted" or "sexist." Fifty-four percent of Republicans see Democrats as "spiteful." 21% of Democrats and 23 percent of Republicans consider the other party to be "evil."
If we cancel the pro-Hamas protestors, the main result will be to spike our tribalist instincts. Social justice warriors will become more scared of us, reducing good-faith efforts on their part to reach across the aisle. They'll also be more likely to retaliate, making those of us who want to preserve our liberal social contract more scared of them, which will reduce bridge-building on our end and make us want to retaliate against them in turn. Motivated partly by (justifiable) grievance and partly by fear, each side will continue to retaliate and distance themselves until we resemble nothing so much as two warring camps, always on guard and bristling at the other side.
This scenario would be bad for all involved. It would leave us all lonelier and more miserable. It might even exacerbate our mental health crisis—does anyone think that spending our lives in fear and anger towards millions of Americans in the other tribe is actually good for our mental health?
Even more perniciously, our further descent into tribalism would kneecap our ability to substantively address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In his book The Way Out, Columbia University professor of psychology and education Peter T. Coleman notes that we make better decisions when we're part of diverse communities. As he puts it:
Our lab research on conversations over hot topics supports this; difficult dialogues with thoughtful, reasonable people who hold opposing opinions make us smarter. In our studies, the groups that were able to have more nuanced and constructive conversations over their moral differences were consistently able to generate joint statements that offered more sophisticated and reasonable analyses and positions.
When we fall further into tribalism, we do the opposite of what Coleman describes. We rob ourselves of the perspectives of intelligent people who see the world differently and, in so doing, become stupider ourselves. We become more prone to black-and-white us-vs-them thinking, and to believing that there are only two sides to any given issue and one of those sides is incontrovertibly correct. Coleman notes that this mentality is not conducive to solving or ameliorating complex problems like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Or we could go a different direction. Instead of playing tit for tat, we could extend the same grace and mercy to our opponents that we wish more of them would show us. Again, this doesn't mean that we have to hire them ourselves; even as a free speech absolutist, I'd be leery of hiring someone who openly praises Hitler (as one New York Times reporter has). But we should stop our attempts to dox, blacklist, and even deport people who express awful views. Those are not tools of liberalism.
Many of us have seen stories of ordinary people being canceled and have feared being next on the chopping block. This moment is an opportunity for us to show our political opponents that they have no reason to fear us as we have feared them. We could reach across the aisle with an olive branch and find common cause with our brothers and sisters across the political spectrum. In so doing, we could start healing the rifts in our great society and move towards a more generous world.
This isn't just wishful thinking. Leonard Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education (disclosure: my employer), used to give a seminar in which he would turn every light in the lecture hall off, bathing the room in darkness for his students, and then light a single electric candle. The candle's light would look feeble, but Read explained that looks were deceiving.
"What, then, is the purpose of this wee candle?" Read would ask. "Well, maybe there’s just enough light for one standing right here to find and light his own candle… Those two may make it possible for a few others right nearby to find and light their own candles, and it might go on until everybody in this room has lit their candles….”
If we become a candle in the darkness, diligently shining the light of our principles rather than giving into anger, fear, and tribalism, we can be the light that encourages other people to find their own. We can heal our country, if only a little bit, and even increase our ability to address thorny problems like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict along the way.
In The Way Out, Coleman talks about the power of shock waves. A shock wave is a sudden, massive event that destabilizes the current order and offers us an opportunity to build something new. Hamas' attack on October 7 was a shock wave—not just for Israel and Palestine, but for the United States as well.
The key is that a shock wave is not guaranteed to produce either positive or negative change; it can break in either direction. We can let this shock wave push us further into tribalism and "an eye for an eye" thinking. We can let it make the darkness of our country more intense. Or we can use it to help heal some of our wounds in the West and thus create a silver lining, however slight, to this brutal episode of violence.
Let us choose wisely.
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