Discover more from Glenn Loury
The New Culture of Conformity
with John McWhorter and Ian Buruma
Ian Buruma’s brief stint as editor of the New York Review of Books came to a close when he found himself on the wrong end of a revolt among some of his staff. He published a piece by Jian Ghomeshi, a Canadian musician and media personality, which explored the aftermath of Ghomeshi’s experience being accused and acquitted of charges relating to alleged sexual misconduct. The staff objected to Ian “platforming” a figure who, despite the acquittal, was as good as guilty in the eyes of the public. As a consequence, Ian was forced to resign.
Ian wanted to publish a piece that explored the nature of punishment. What happens when someone accused of a heinous crime is found not guilty in a court of law but must then serve a kind of socially legislated sentence: shunning, unemployability, and general disgrace? As a consequence, Ian himself was made to serve the same sentence. It’s probably cold comfort to Ian that his own fate demonstrates how right he was to publish the piece in the first place. I don’t think I need to underscore the irony.
As I point out in today’s clip, there is a coherent logic to the cancellation-by-association that Ian suffered. Any group wishing to enforce a norm must punish not only violators of the norm but those who refuse to sanction violators of the norm. Otherwise, dissent may emerge from within the group and the norm may crumble. It’s a good strategy if you want to enforce norms but a terrible strategy if you want to analyze them. One would think that staffers at a publication like the New York Review of Books, with its history of publishing penetrating, sometimes combative literary essays by its era’s most influential public intellectuals, would see the value in exploring the very issues Ian wanted to explore. Apparently not.
When future intellectual historians inquire into our era’s conformity and censoriousness, Ian’s experience at the New York Review of Books will make a fascinating case study. This is how a free country’s intellectual life withers and dies. We don’t need a totalitarian government to lock the doors to our libraries and censor our writers. We seem happy to do it ourselves and call it “social justice.”
This is a clip from the episode that went out to paying subscribers on Monday. To get access to the full episode, as well as an ad-free podcast feed, Q&As, and other exclusive content and benefits, click below.
GLENN LOURY: Ian, I wanted to ask you about the New York Review of Books, where you were editor until September of 2018 and stepped down amidst some controversy after publishing Jian Ghomeshi, a piece by the Canadian personality who was accused of sexual impropriety and wrote somewhat in his own defense under your editorship. And that created a firestorm.
IAN BURUMA: Yes. Well, of course I wasn't accused of sexual impropriety or anything like that myself, which made it a rather unusual case. The reason that I decided to publish that article was not because I wanted to defend him or defend what he may or may not have done. That was a question of the law courts and, rightly or wrongly, he was found not guilty. My interest in it was the nature of punishment by public opinion. What happens to people whose alleged misdeeds are not punished by law, in fact found not guilty? But then there's another punishment, which is a social punishment, disgrace and losing your livelihood, et cetera.
I was interested in that issue and wanted people to discuss it and have a debate about it. So I thought a personal account of what it feels like to be subjected to punishment by public opinion would be interesting. Again, it was not to excuse or defend what he'd done. And I think the issue there, by critics, was not the merits of his arguments or the literary value of the piece or anything like that. It was that it was felt that a person like that who was disgraced should not have a platform, especially not in a liberal-left literary magazine, to give their account. Of course, it should not have led to me being kicked out of my chair.
It was also an example of how ideological shifts in the zeitgeist usually involve politics as well. And that's the national politics, but also politics within editorial rooms, museums, and so on, when it becomes a way for people to get rid of somebody who is either, in their eyes, too old or too conservative or too white or whatever it may be.
Which is not to suggest that there was a revolution in the office of people who all actively wanted me ousted. But it was certainly an opportunity to get rid of somebody like me that has a longer history with the New York Review, in that I followed an old-fashioned editorial tyrant, my predecessor, whom I adored and think was one of the great editors of the twentieth century, Robert Silvers. But he was certainly very old-fashioned in that way. Me following him, of course, made me the receptacle of an awful lot of resentments that had been building up.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Ian, did you feel—and this is a genuine question—that the people who wanted you out were a minority of people and that they had disproportionate influence upon others who ended up holding their noses and doing something they knew wasn't right but figured that they had to do because of the zeitgeist and the public square? What a leading question. But did you?
IAN BURUMA I don't know how many people I worked with, the editors in the office, actively wanted me out. I'm not sure many of them did.
JOHN MCWHORTER: They didn't.
IAN BURUMA: But the arguments that arose in the office about articles, where I sometimes had to protect writers from the overzealous editing of people who felt they were, you know, straying from the progressive course, followed very much not gender divisions but generational [divisions]. Those over 40, or certainly over 50, were on the whole entirely on my side, shook their heads and rolled their eyes, but in the end, when it came to a crunch, preferred to examine their shoes rather than to peek up.
JOHN MCWHORTER: See, that's the kind of thing that makes me so angry about these sorts of things, when it isn't even real. It's that kind of religion that made me write Woke Racism in one bourbon-fueled six weeks three summers ago because I just thought ...
JOHN MCWHORTER: It was Bulleit bourbon. This is really an excrescence, is what I thought. This just isn't fair, because most of the people in question doing these things don't even believe it themselves. I just wondered if that is what happened to you.
IAN BURUMA: No, I entirely agree. And what was most shocking to me—this goes beyond the New York Review itself—is not so much the zealotry. We know that there's zealotry. We know that there are zealots. We know why some people, for whatever psychological reasons, become zealots. What is much more shocking is the cowardice of people who know better and should stand up for it. There's an awful lot of that kind of cowardice. And you see this in so many different countries and so many different periods of history. I mean, this is not at all unique to out time.
But people are fearful. And the number of people, let's say in the early '30s in Germany, that really stuck their necks out, of course, was very small, even though many people would not have agreed with anything that the Nazis would do. And that was a much more dangerous situation than we're having today.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Most people don't want to fight, and I completely understand that. Most people figure that their priority is their dear ones and their livelihood. That is completely natural. But that's just the thing. It's one thing to not want to stick your head out in Germany in 1934. It's another thing to not want to stick your neck out when it's about whether or not Ian Buruma should edit a very prestigious journal or any number of other things, where it seems to me that the stakes are lower and it's really just a matter of, will you be popular? For some people, they're not afraid they're going to lose their job. It's just, are they going to be able to stand tall near the water cooler? And I consider that petty.
IAN BURUMA: Well, it goes further than that. Once that happens to you, people become afraid of contagion. So they'll shy away from you. Not socially at all in my case, but professionally. They'll shy away from you because they don't want to be associated with it, just because it could possibly then taint them.
There is perhaps a certain American aspect to this. My uncle was a film director and made films in Hollywood as well, although he was British. And he always used to say that when you have a success in America, you're king. Everybody will want to serve you in any way they can. Once you have a failure, suddenly the telephone stops ringing, suddenly doors close, suddenly people won't take meetings anymore, and so on. In a very, very, very, very mild way, I certainly experienced something like that.
You know, there is a certain logic to this behavior that you're describing, in that if a boycott is going to work—a social constraint requiring conformity to some norm or some pattern of behavior—if it's going to work, you can't just sanction violators. You have to also sanction the people who don't sanction the violators. You have to close the circle. It's a bit like not crossing the picket line. I'm not on strike myself, but I'm not going to cross the picket line because I don't want to seem to be afoul of the general norm of labor power and whatever.
So I'm not surprised that this very effective environment of conformity finds within it the phenomenon that you're describing, what you're calling cowardice. But in a way maybe it's also just an affirmation of the sense of righteousness, of trying to signal “I'm on the right side of history,” of trying to communicate that “yes,” to affirm the value here, anti-racism, anti-misogyny, or whatever it might be.
IAN BURUMA: Well, it's comfortable to conform. But one of the things that some people objected to, some of the younger editors in my case, was something that I find very important. And that is, in order to make people think, which I think is the primary duty of a writer or editor, to make people think, especially people whose politics and views are fairly similar to one's own, you have to examine your own assumptions or the assumptions of people who are with you on your side. As Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher, once said, the best way to protect Enlightenment values is to constantly subject them to criticism.
As an editor, I enjoyed running pieces that went a little against the grain. And I think one of the unfortunate consequences of let's call it “the woke wave” is that people have become very, very afraid of doing that. Of course, that has to do with the polarization of the United States and many other democracies today as well. You don't want to give ammunition to the other side. So what you do in the end is you don't criticize your own side. You just affirm the the rightness of your side. That leads to a great deal of conformity, and it'll end up being a very boring culture. I fear that we're in a period of very timid, conformist culture in the arts as well as intellectual life.