Racism is real. Misogyny is real. And, unfortunately, in reaction to these real problems, progressive purity tests are becoming a bit too real.
Thanks to the way right-wing pundits and politicians have weaponized the term “cancel culture” to stir up the passions of their audiences and constituents, it is easy for people on the left to dismiss concerns that the campaign for equity and justice sometimes strays into an unforgiving, illiberal push for purity of thought. But, the fact is, good people are seeing their careers ruined for offenses that are forgivable human failings, not heinous acts of bias and hate.
It is not too surprising when this kind of excessive zeal arises on our college campuses. After all, those are places where young people who are forming their identities in pursuit of noble causes can become self-righteous inquisitors, especially when guided by academics who engage in politically-charged dialectical exercises divorced from the nuances of real life. It is more surprising – and no less disturbing – when something similar happens at news organizations that are supposedly dedicated to the search for truth and a full assessment of the facts.
What do I mean? A recent example is the way The New York Times dealt with Donald McNeil, an award-winning veteran reporter who had led the newspaper’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. In January, The Daily Beast published a story highlighting allegations of some prep-school students who had engaged in a discussion of race with McNeil. McNeil apparently was doing what mentors often do, challenging easy assumptions and oversimplifications. A couple of the students, perhaps unfamiliar with a discussion where all their ideas did not find praise and support, interpreted his comments as racist.
The Daily Beast story caused an uproar in The New York Times newsroom, and McNeil was quickly ushered out of his job with no chance to defend himself and no opportunity to engage with those in the newsroom who were upset. Times managers acted as if their primary concern was to rid themselves of a public-relations problem.
If you have no sympathy for a gruff old white guy like McNeil, consider what happened to Alexi McCammond at Teen Vogue last week. McCammond is a 27-year-old Black woman who was about to take over as editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue when a few crass references she made about Asians came to light. Her new bosses at Conde Nast accepted (or forced?) her resignation, even though the stereotyping remarks were made a decade ago when McCammond was a teenager, remarks for which she had repeatedly apologized.
Sorry, accused person, there’s no room for redemption, no process for working through a difficult issue, no opportunity for presenting a defense; just pack up your desk and don’t come back.
The cause of social justice is not served by banishing McCammond, McNeil or others in similar situations. It only feeds the narratives of right-wing opportunists like Tucker Carlson and Sen. Josh Hawley. If progressives, as well as publishers, editors and young journalists, cannot discern the difference between the insulting tweets of a teenager or the gruff comments of a skeptical reporter and the malignant effusions of dangerous racists, then we may be approaching a dark season where only the zealots of the right and left have license to speak – and to condemn.
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