The "Gathering of Thought Criminals" and the False Dichotomies of Disgrace
Several people this week kindly sent me a link to this New Yorker story: The Party Is Cancelled. The site is paywalled for some of you, so here’s the opening to the story, written by Emma Green:
Every month, more than two hundred people from the media, academia, and other intellectual circles are invited to a private hangout in New York City, which is known as the Gathering of Thought Criminals. There are two rules. The first is that you have to be willing to break bread with people who have been socially ostracized, or, as the attendees would say, “cancelled”—whether they’ve lost a job, lost friends, or simply feel persecuted for holding unpopular opinions. Some people on the guest list are notorious: élite professors who have deviated from campus consensus or who have broken university rules, and journalists who have made a name for themselves amid public backlash (or who have weathered it quietly). Others are relative nobodies, people who for one reason or another have become exasperated with what they see as rampant censorious thinking in our culture.
The second rule of the gatherings is that Pamela has to like you. Pamela is Pamela Paresky, the gathering’s organizer, a fifty-six-year-old psychologist who lives in Chelsea.
(Honest first reaction: the New Yorker style guide still puts an accent aigu on élite? A bit fey, no?)
A couple of friends asked if I knew someone who could introduce me to Pamela. Perhaps I’d like to join this group?
Curiosity means I would not turn down an invitation, were I in New York, but I can’t say it has a great deal of appeal. “Gathering of Thought Criminals” seems painfully self-congratulatory, no matter how accurate. I’d prefer something more sardonically self-effacing: “The Lechers, Loudmouths, and Reprobates Lunch League.” The trauma of being socially ostracized and professionally erased is immense. It takes years to even begin to understand, much less heal from. Swagger and insouciance are tempting covers for that trauma. So is anger. I have a feeling I’d encounter a few too many people trading on their outlaw status, and then I’d feel tempted to trade on mine, and the next thing you know, I’ll decide that the world really, really needs my memoir of disgrace. My children would not like that.
One guest at these gatherings is Sarah Rose Siskind, who was cancelled for an article she wrote in the Harvard Crimson, and she encapsulates what troubles me about groups like this:
For Siskind, one of the worst parts about her notoriety was the “weird bedfellows and allies” it brought. “A lot of people will be, like, ‘I read your article, and I really thought it was insightful, and the reaction you’re getting is really hard, and, you know, there should be fewer Black people at Harvard,’ ” she said. “And you’re, like, ‘Oh, my God!’ ” She described a spectrum of how people react to backlash. Some people, like her, “utterly believe their detractors”; they see themselves as totally irredeemable. Others double down, defining themselves in opposition to their critics. “There are so many people who trade in cancellation—circles where they wear it like a badge of honor,” she said. “It is good to be brave. But you shouldn’t be an edgelord.”
Yes and no. I spent years “utterly believing my detractors,” convinced that I was a terrible person who should spend the rest of his life doing backbreaking jobs, an apology always first on his lips, a haunted look in his eyes. I needed friends who were a bit more defiant, even pugnacious, in the face of their own cancellations. Sometimes those “edgelords” give a needed jolt of confidence and hope to those of us locked in shame spirals. At the same time, the number of people who refuse to acknowledge their own role in their cancellation is depressing. Responsibility for the end of a career isn’t a zero-sum game. It is possible to have both sinned and been sinned against.
I wrote a policy that banned teachers from having romantic and sexual relationships with students in their classes. I violated that policy and cheated on my wife. I did wrong. The college hired investigators to harass my mentees and forced me into resigning for a pittance while I was under the influence of drugs and alcohol. I was high as a satellite when I signed the resignation agreement, and their lawyers knew it. That was disgraceful on their part. Two things can be true at once.
Some people who are cancelled have done or said stupid and hurtful things, but they have faced consequences wildly disproportionate to the offense. It’s almost always a “both/and” and not an “either/or.” And here’s the thing: it usually takes a very long time for the cancelled person to figure that out. The temptation to blame everyone else, or take all the blame on oneself, is immense. It’s easy to oscillate between the poles of self-loathing and rage, alternating between weeping in self-pity and wallowing in shame. It takes a lot of stillness to get to that middle ground of truth.
We meet another cancelled person, Stephen Elliott. Elliott was a journalist accused of sexual misconduct; he was outed by the writer Moira Donegan, who published a spreadsheet called “Shitty Media Men.” Elliott sued Donegan for defamation and won. He continues to face accusations of bad sexual behavior:
Elliott is unusual, even among the Thought Criminals. “One interesting thing that I’ve realized is that the people who have been cancelled for MeToo allegations are kind of like the black sheep of the whole cancel-culture debate,” Elliott told me. There’s a clear reason why: harboring an unpopular opinion is fundamentally different from allegedly committing assault. If the former is just a thought crime, the other is an actual crime.
Siskind and Elliott are both focused on a taxonomy for the cancelled, and I no longer have much time for that. I understand, as an intellectual exercise, that it’s important to draw distinctions. That matters in courtrooms. Guilt and innocence are real things, not just ephemeral concepts. There is a difference between rape and a consensual affair; there is a difference between saying something like “I don’t think George Floyd is a hero” and declaring “I wish Hitler had finished the job.” If the Thought Criminals want to distinguish sex pests from controversial comedians and columnists, they’re doing what the rest of society feels is necessary and important.
I want no part of that. I have spoken with dozens of cancelled people in the past few years, offering counsel and empathy. I approach these fellow travelers the same way I approach my work as a ghostwriter: I’m totally uninterested in the objective truth. (Not my circus. Not my monkey.) I’m interested in what the person I’m talking with is feeling. I’m interested in helping them survive. Maybe they want to restore an unfairly tarnished reputation; maybe they want to redeem themselves after having been fairly called out for egregious behavior. Either way, the feeling of desperation and bewilderment and fear is exactly the same. I’ve worked with men who really did rape women, and I’ve worked with writers who really did lose their jobs because of how they worded a column, and whether you want to believe it or not, they tend to process their falls from grace in more or less the exact same way.
It's pro-forma these days to push back a little against cancel culture by saying “We need to distinguish the Aziz Ansaris from the Jeffrey Epsteins.” (Ansari was famously cancelled after being accused of having behaved boorishly on a date. You know Jeffrey Epstein.) It is true that in the frenzy of #MeToo and early cancel culture, there was both a colossal failure to draw distinctions and a tendency to laughable hyperbole. Words like “predator” were used to describe both Harvey Weinstein and the older partner in a consensual age-gap relationship. Terms like “white supremacist” were deployed against mainstream Republicans (and Democrats!) and against the literal Ku Klux Klan. This flattening of language and refusal to draw distinctions was both dangerous and infantile.
And yet. The insistence on drawing distinctions does real harm too, not just because it is often arbitrary but because it ignores the humanity of the person who ends up on the wrong side of your moral dichotomy. I can already imagine those gatherings of Thought Criminals, with the Siskinds of the world whispering about the Elliotts. “Really, George, what was Pamela thinking, inviting him? This should only be a club for people who said bad things, not for those who actually did bad things. I can’t bear to be lumped in with a scoundrel like that. Shall we leave and find a party with Our Kind of Outcasts?”
A lot of people have told me, over the years: Hugo, you weren’t an Epstein or a Weinstein or a Cosby. It was wrong to sleep with your students, but they were consenting adults. It’s not the same as rape. I do not find that reassurance personally helpful. I know it is important to my friends, some of whom would not be my friends if they thought I had behaved more badly than I did. It is important to my children, or it will be. It is important to my mother, my brother, my sisters, my wife. “Hugo was well-meaning but weak, guilty of concupiscence and needy self-absorption rather than malice and outright sadism.” I imagine that that distinction is a comfort to those who love me. It isn’t a comfort to me.
The Australian poet Les Murray wrote
Whatever class is your screen
I’m from several lower,
To your rigged fashions, I’m pariah.
Nothing a mob does is clean.
It's a glorious “Go to hell” to the dichotomizers and the distinction-drawers. Whether the mob is coming for the Epstein client list, or the professor who used a racially insensitive term, they’re still a mob. They are still animated by the same raw, red-faced emotion, the same preening moral certainty, the same righteous indignation, the same howling outrage. Nothing a mob does is clean, and that is true irrespective of the sins of whom they march against.
This is your trauma talking, the reader says, gently. Hugo, you’re not being entirely rational about this.
Oh indeed, gentle friend, I am not. But. My trauma has healed enough that I can live and make a living. My trauma has healed enough that I can focus more on other people’s stories rather than my own. My trauma has healed enough that I don’t need to join a Gathering of Thought Criminals. And thank God, my trauma has healed enough that I don’t need to defend myself by telling the world that I am a better sort of cancelled person than those wretches over there.