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How an AI Giant Beat Cancel Culture (You Can Too!)

A Twitter mob led by an AI industry bully made a mistake when it came for University of Washington's Pedro Domingos

These days Cancel culture can descend suddenly on anyone who doesn’t think the way a Twitter mob likes about one or another issue. For example:

➤ Celebrity atheist scientist Richard Dawkins was Canceled from speaking at Trinity College in Ireland because he has said critical things about Islam and about some claims of sexual assault. Note: Dawkins says critical things about all religions but Cancel mobs focus narrowly.

➤ The enforcement is irrational. Antiracist author Ibrahim X. Kendi can make negative statements about transgender culture comparatively safely but J. K. Rowlings, in a similar circumstance, became the target of a vicious “deplatform” campaign, against which she ably defended herself. However, people who cannot write like Rowlings have not nearly been so lucky, as she explains in her essay.

➤ Some, like Chris Harrison of Bachelors, have been Canceled simply for asking for compassion for others who are threatened with Cancelation. Pity isn’t a mob virtue.

➤ As Rowlings and others have noted, most victims of toxic Cancel Culture are not well-known or highly placed. Evan Gerstmann writes at Forbes:

They are often vulnerable people who suffer devastating harm. A previous post discussed an African American school security guard who was fired for using the N-word in the course of telling a student not to direct that word at him. (Thankfully, he was eventually re-hired after a national furor erupted.) The same post discussed a teacher who was fired for inadvertently failing to address a student by his self-identified gender pronoun. The security guard and the teacher each have four children to support and lost their health insurance as well as their income when they were fired. They are hardly examples of the rich and powerful.

Evan Gerstmann, “Cancel Culture Is Only Getting Worse” at Forbes
laughing schoolchildren bullying sad girl with smartphone in school

Cancel Culture is a product of the new social media enabled by artificial intelligence. When starved for targets, it even invents offences where none exist:

But at least one can say the security guard actually used the n-word and the teacher actually did have a religious objection to recognizing transgender identities. But as people, especially in educational settings, have grown more intimidated, it has been harder for the cancel culture warriors to find such people. So instead of finding someone who actually used the n-word, they expand the definition of cancel-worthy language. A professor at the University of Southern California was placed on leave for using a Chinese word that some people think sounds like the n-word even though it is simply the Chinese word for “that.” The professor is a member of USC US-China Institute, and was teaching a communications course and was using the word to illustrate how different languages use different words to fill in pauses.

Evan Gerstmann, “Cancel Culture Is Only Getting Worse” at Forbes

So who can best fight back and how? One AI giant, Pedro Domingos, got his chance:

An issue in AI today is the question of whether algorithms to determine loan or parole eligibility, etc., are biased. It’s an important question but a difficult one because algorithms are not self-evidently easy to understand, even among professionals. Domingos, at the University of Washington computer science faculty, came under fire when he questioned “ideological litmus tests” for publications discussing this area of the discipline.

The Cancel mob, led by a well-known industry bully (“a California Institute of Technology academic who is also research director at a major tech company”), besieged his university and targeted anyone who appeared to support him. But, surprisingly in these times, Domingos handled the problem adroitly and ended up getting much of the industry to side with him—and with free and fair discussion of the problem.

He also published a list of fifteen strategic principles, of which we will excerpt three. Anyone at risk of Cancelation should read the rest at the source and bookmark the page for future reference:

Know what to expect. The cancel crowd has its own bullet-point playbook. And they’ll respond aggressively to any symbolic act that threatens their status, or erodes the impression that they are the ones calling the shots. Remember that behind the social-justice veneer lies the brutal logic of power and ego. To maximize the pain you feel, they’ll tag activist groups on social media to inflate their numbers and reach. They’ll bombard every organization you’re part of with demands to censure, discipline, disown, fire, or expel you—often phrasing their appeals in the passive aggressive guise of “concern” and “disappointment.” At other times, they will insult, taunt, and, threaten you in a manner resembling middle-school children having a recess meltdown. In my case, the ringleader called me “a full on misogynist and racist,” “shameful bigot,” “hypocrite,” “clueless,” “tone-deaf,” “snowflake,” and “soulless troll.” She assailed my “privilege and patriarchy,” “lack of basic empathy and ethics,” and “zero self-awareness.” She also questioned whether I’m really a human, and called on NeurIPS to ban me, and for my department to expunge me. Her goal, in short, was to ruin my life. The cancelers will dig up anything they can from your past. And if they can’t find any, they’ll make it up. This will all seem terrifying, but much less so if you realize that you’re just the latest victim in what is basically a mechanical and dehumanizing process. Insofar as you don’t actually get fired from your job or suffer some other equivalent setback, these are all just words, and they don’t define who you are.

Pedro Domingos, “Beating Back Cancel Culture: A Case Study from the Field of Artificial Intelligence” at Quillette (January 21, 2021)

Don’t back down. Don’t apologize. Don’t make clarifications, and don’t try to appease the mob. All of these will only be taken as concessions, and embolden the mob to demand more. The real Achilles’s Heel of the cancel crowd is its short attention span. Once they bully someone into submission, they move on to the next victim. It’s a system designed for quick wins. If you don’t back down, they’ll raise the pitch as far as they can—but eventually they’ll be at a loss for what to do next, and all but the most fanatical will lose interest. The few that remain, now bereft of their backup, are just what you need to teach all of them a lesson, as we did in my case.

Pedro Domingos, “Beating Back Cancel Culture: A Case Study from the Field of Artificial Intelligence” at Quillette (January 21, 2021)


Hold the moral high ground. Never descend to the level of insults, taunts, and ad hominem attacks, no matter how strong the temptation. Let the cancelers do it to their heart’s content, and the onlookers will judge accordingly. In my confrontation with the AI cancel crowd, I was particularly helped by the fact that several of the ringleaders are (or call themselves) professional AI ethicists. Some of them are even well-known within their field. When they serially engaged in childish and unethical behavior in full view of their colleagues, they did my job for me.

Pedro Domingos, “Beating Back Cancel Culture: A Case Study from the Field of Artificial Intelligence” at Quillette (January 21, 2021)

In the end, the bully had to apologize when — it is a reasonable conjecture — her firm told her to call off her private Reign of Terror and go back to doing something useful.

Why has Cancel culture become so big a player? Two possibilities are worth exploring: insecurity and envy. As for insecurity, the legacy mainstream media, which helps sponsor Cancel culture today, is losing power and significance. Recently, Elon Musk created a stir when he scrapped Tesla’s media relations department: “Tesla has plenty of ways to get its story out without relying on the media, and that makes the media much less important — and much less powerful. And it’s the power part that hurts the most.” (Glenn Reynolds, New York Post, February 18, 2021).

And envy? “The grudge that mediocrity bears against genius is the purest form of evil.” (David P. Goldman, PJ Media, February 16, 2021). Those who can’t be what Pedro Domingos and J.K. Rowlings are can at least put another notch in their daggers for persecuting them. But their true victims are far more often the little people.

So the good news is that, with the right strategy, free and responsible adults in our society — including the little people —can start fighting back successfully against these new social media-enabled bullies and their mobs.

You may also wish to read: In Big Tech world: The journalist as censor, hit man, and snitch. Glenn Greenwald looks at a disturbing trend in media toward misrepresentation as well as censorship. When an institution is no longer needed, its sense of its mission usually changes. The type of people attracted to it change too.

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How an AI Giant Beat Cancel Culture (You Can Too!)