I often stick to my knitting: I write columns about things of interest to in-house lawyers or to lawyers generally.
But I’ve been writing this column for more than a decade now, heaven help me, and I occasionally branch out into other subjects.
I wrote one column a while back about whether my book, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law, and law firms in general, were “woke.” (My thesis was that both my book, and large law firms, insist that one strive for excellence. If excellence cannot be defined, or is an improper goal, then neither my book nor the firms are woke.) I had my adult children, far more in tune with wokeness than I am, read the column before I published it. Their response was violent: “You can’t publish that, Dad! You’ll get fired!”
That’s cancel culture.
I ought to be able to speak publicly — in measured, inoffensive words — mildly provocative, and arguably true, things. If I could get fired for saying those things, then society has indeed popped a gasket.
(I distinguish “cancel culture” from “reaping one’s just rewards.” If some jerk intentionally says or does things that ought to be punished, and the jerk is punished, that’s “apt retribution,” not “cancel culture.” If, for example, the allegations about either Matt Gaetz, on the right, or Andrew Cuomo, on the left, are proven, there may well be an appropriate punishment for that. Although both politicians may scream that this is “cancel culture,” it’s no such thing. It’s appropriate punishment for misconduct.)
I also recently wrote a few columns that took more political stances. (Here’s one example.) I again had my trusted aides — my adult children — read the columns before I published them. My kids’ reaction was again violent: “You can’t publish that, Dad! You’ll get shot!”
I told my kids that any nutcase who would take up arms to kill me over a column at Above the Law would have assassinated a long line of people before the nutcase got to me. The nutcase would have to kill all of the Democrats in Congress, and many of the Republicans, and all of the on-air personalities at MSNBC and CNN, and a bunch of people writing for more visible outlets than this one, before finally deciding that I too had committed a capital offense. By then, I figured the nutcase would have run out of bullets.
Anyway, I told my kids that I loved them, and that it had been a good ride while it lasted, and I went ahead and published my little ditties.
On reflection, I must say: “Cancel culture” concerns me far less than “assassination culture.” The first stifles speech. If someone chooses to, or accidentally, speaks the forbidden idea, then cancel culture unfairly robs a person of a livelihood or a reputation.
Assassination culture also stifles speech. But, if someone chooses to, or accidentally, speaks the forbidden idea, then assassination culture “takes away everything [a man’s] got and everything he’s ever gonna have.”
If I have to choose between the two, I’ll take cancel culture every time.
(I was pleased recently to read about a new online tool called “Polis.” This tool can be used to allow people to post 140-character statements online. But the people who read the statements cannot insult or otherwise respond to the speaker. The people who read the statement can only agree or disagree with it. This can then be used to show which statements attract the largest consensus in the responding crowd. This gives me hope: In our deeply polarized society, a tool that rewards building consensus, rather than running to the extremes to attract more attention, may be just the sort of thing that we need. Maybe creative thinkers can bring us back from the brink, after all.)
Mark Herrmann spent 17 years as a partner at a leading international law firm and is now deputy general counsel at a large international company. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Drug and Device Product Liability Litigation Strategy (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at email@example.com.