Can and Should

This is going to happen like a million more times in the near future, and it is something I’d like to talk about; but I noticed a problem with talking about it we should probably cover before we even try.

Some months ago the drummer from the band Good English expressed sympathy for her childhood friend, douchebag rapist Brock Turner; recently New York magazine outed her, and now the band is getting the boot from various gigs it had booked, as well as being dropped, somewhat hilariously, from its PR firm.

The fallout is so cookie cutter that you could write the timeline with your eyes closed, complete with self-righteous quotes from venues (“When people choose to defend something, then I think they should be held accountable for it”) and accounts of people emailing demands for the band’s removal. It’s a splendid intersection of the opportunities to hurt others and also signal our demographic. Who could resist?

This all makes me uncomfortable, of course, doubly so because I of course don’t even agree with Good English’s drummer, or at least with what I assume is the gist of what she said — like most people, I didn’t read it. But the situation is hardly the biggest tragedy to come out of the Stanford case — losing gigs is a comparatively small penalty to pay to the internet, and while Ms English couldn’t have known that Brock would be the latest most hated man in America when she wrote the letter months ago, I have to assume she knew enough about the case to have in some sense “known better” –and I’m not here to make a big deal out of it.

But I want everyone to imagine what would happen if I did want to talk about this situation, and about the dangers of persecuting (or “persecuting” if you prefer; but you know what I mean) people who disagree with us. Imagine what would happen. I guarantee you, the first thing you (whoever you are) would say to me would be: Don’t you think venues have the right to choose what acts they book?

I noticed this problem some months ago, when having a discussion about kicking people out of school for making (semi-private) racist comments: My friends and I kept going around in circles about the question of whether a university had the right to expel these students, and I realized part of my ambivalence on the topic was actually an ambivalence of language.

There were two issues at stake here: whether a university should expel the students and whether the university should be allowed to expel the students. In essence, we were talking about both what they should do and what they can do.

(I understand that is a somewhat loose meaning of can, in the sense that the university could be forbidden by law to do something, and then just do it anyway and accept the consequences, but you get what I mean.)

This should be a clear distinction, but it so rarely is. A quick example: I believe that some jerk should be allowed to write and, say, self-publish a hateful book (Why Hal Sucks or Mein Kampf II or The Art of the Deal; choose your hateful title); obviously I think that jerk should not write the book. I would not be disputing what can happen, merely what should.

I remember reading an interview with Trina Robbins (I think it was in the Comics Journal) , a writer I am not usually in sympathy with, in which her hapless interviewer was completely unable to come to grips with this fact. The interview went something like this.

TRobbins: R. Crumb should not draw racist and sexist cartoons.
Interviewer: So you think he should be censored.
TR: No, I support freedom of speech.
I: So you’re saying he should draw whatever he wants.
TR: No, I’m saying he should not draw anything racist or sexist.
I: So you think he should not be allowed to draw whatever he wants?
TR: No, I think he should be allowed to, but he shouldn’t do it!

This went on and on, with the interviewer failing to comprehend, however Robbins phrased it, that she thought Crumb’s cartoons were harmful and bad, but should still be permitted to be published.

I think most of us can grasp this particular concept better than that one interviewer; we probably own a coffee mug that has the “…defend to the death your right to say…” quotation on it. (The beginning and ending are obscured by the curve of the mug.) But once we step outside of the very specific category of freedom of speech, our ability to distinguish between can and should breaks down.

I think most of us agree that Good English can write opinion letters to the court, and that this is in fact good — she should have this can! — and we probably further agree that in this case she should not have exercised this can.

We also agree that music festivals can disinvite unpopular bands. I’m not really sure they should, but I just want us to be clear: If I were to say they shouldn’t, that doesn’t mean I think they can’t, or that I think they shouldn’t can (forgive this horrible grammar).

In other words, we have to match modals. We cannot hold a racist fratboy to the standard of what he should do while holding the big U. to the standard of what it can do.

Whether the venues should have canceled is an open question (at least one bar owner rather pusillanimously claims they did it for safety reasons); but at least we can talk about what they should do even as we talk about what Good English should have done.

[I had finished writing but had not yet posted this when I started seeing this article getting passed around (with in one case the suggestion that we should “read, like, and share” to spread the word, so important it is), Think Progress’s lament that a university allowed controversial speaker and well-known jackass Milo Yiannopoulos to appear. “Yiannopoulos ultimately only got to speak for 15 minutes before student protesters burst into the room and occupied the stage,” gloats Think Progress, somewhat blurring the whole can/should dichotomy. Once again I find myself 1. disagreeing with Milo Y., and yet also 2. uncomfortable.]


  1. Porter · · Reply


    Since there’s been this big issue when people talk about games and who writes games – and whether it’s important to consider what their morals are before you buy said games. This of course applies to all art and all creative endeavors. The R. Crumb example you gave reminded me of it.

    It’s a hard question to answer. I mean some time ago – the Dixie Chicks (iirc) said some things critical of George W. Bush. People lost their minds over it, cancelling gigs, etc. This happens on the liberal and conservative side of the divide – so it is by no means unique.

    One piece of the puzzle is that speech isn’t without consequence. You say something out loud – you can expect that someone, somewhere will take issue with it. The Internet now means that the audience hearing it is much larger – and thus the probability that someone of someones will take offense is much higher.

    The other piece of the puzzle is projection. I like artist X – thus artist X is probably like me in some way, or shares similar values to me in some way. Not true. And people can be unpleasantly surprised to find that out. Typically the response is: the artist should shut up and just make art – we didn’t need to hear their opinion on certain matters.

    My favorite analog to the issue you mention were the rash of (then) MySpace accounts kids would create – of a fake profile of a school teacher they didn’t like… Posting some horrific things. And then acting aggrieved that they were issued a detention for something that occurred off school grounds. The Can/Should divide applies to both parties here.

    Sure – it was done off campus (maybe, maybe not), and First Amendment rights apply. But would libel apply? If so, I’d say issuing a detention might be letting a kid off early. Then you have the whole other side of the coin – can the school actually issue that punishment? Say what you will about schools – clearly there is a lesson to be learned.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A few comments, with the caveat that I don’t know any actual details of the cases you discuss.

    I’m not sure one should say that people shouldn’t write pre-sentencing letters to judges asking for leniency. It isn’t clear to me that these letters make much of a difference during sentencing, but they are an accepted practice during sentencing and I’m not sure why this should be filed under “people have the right to do this, but it would be better if they didn’t” for certain crimes. Presumably you don’t fault the guy’s lawyer for trying to get the guy as light a sentence as possible. If you support having an adversarial criminal court system, part of that means there will be a group of people (the defendant, his counsel, his loved ones) trying to see to it the person isn’t convicted or gets a light sentence. That is entirely how the system is designed to work. You can’t then be outraged at those people for doing this. Would your ideal sentencing hearing be the defense lawyer getting up and saying “Well I guess my client is guilty, you should throw the book at him” followed by all the defendant’s family and friends getting up and disowning him?

    Regarding the expulsion for making private racist remarks, I’m not even sure if the school can legally do this. Private universities can have terms and conditions stating that students can be expelled for whatever they want, but often they don’t and they can’t really accept a student’s tuition, then change the policy and expel them. Public universities are much more limited in what they can do. It is my understanding that as government entities, the 14th amendment makes the 1st amendment apply to them (I believe this is the entire basis for all of Freedom and Individual Rights in Education’s legal activities). They cannot have rules punishing certain types of speech, even unpopular speech (aka hate speech).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As for the legality of expelling the students; there is apparently a pending lawsuit alleging it was illegally done (it was a public university). The fact that they cannot, I should point out, does not affect whether they should or should not, of course. I hope to be clear that the point of the post is that these two facts are unrelated. We could easily imagine an expulsion the U can do that would still be controversial as to whether it should.

      Judging from the memes I’ve seen criticizing Hillary for getting her clients off, I’d guess your defense lawyer scenario is correct. We believe that lawyers and everyone involved in the criminal justice system should proactively rubberstamp the internet’s opinions of cases.


  3. Wait, I’m with you in saying that just because one can do something, it does not follow that they should do it, but surely being able to do it is a prerequisite to having an imperative to do it. If the only long term outcome of an act is that a court will reverse it and punish you for breaking the law, I feel pretty comfortable saying you should not be scorned for not doing it. The alternative is people being forced to virtue signal at great cost to themselves with acts that will ultimately have no positive outcome.


    1. I think I’m saying that there are some things people can and should do, some things people can do, but should not, some they should do but cannot, etc.; that these two concepts are independent.

      Somethings you can and should do even though the government will punish you.

      I assume we agree on all of this, just making sure I was clear.


      1. I do agree with all this, just with the following caveat, while there are many times where doing the right thing will get punished, I may feel somewhat hesitant to criticize someone for failing to do the right thing. Particularly if doing the right thing will also immediately be reversed by the state (or some other group of people with power), such that the only effects of doing the right thing are a symbolic but ultimately futile gesture was made and the person was immediately punished for it. In that case, it may still be the case that the person should have done it, but if they failed to, I think it is excusable and people are probably not correct in criticizing them.

        I guess I shouldn’t say that can is a prerequisite for should, but that couldn’t is a pretty good defense for didn’t.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think part of the problem is linguistic: “should” is a vague word.

        What should a neonazi do? Well, a neonazi should recant, of course.

        But if a neonazi were to operate within the system peacefully to attempt to affect change, I would say, “Yes, that’s what he should do,” because we hsould all work peacefully to bend the world closer to our lights.

        From a hypothetical, and not categorical, imperative (thank you, Kant, for these arky terms), a neonazi should invent a deathray and put it in a giant robot Hitler.

        Similarly, I might say that you “should” take a bullet to save an orphan and that you “should” not go out and shoot orphans for no reason, but these shoulds have different levels of force.


      3. I realize now after posting this that today is not the best day to use examples of shooting random people, but I was getting confused by abstraction and very few people read the comments.


  4. Notington Tinfoilhatter · · Reply

    If I can add more jargon, I think ‘supererogation’ would be helpful here. (this is a mish-mash of ethical concepts, some legos, some lincoln logs, some k’nex — so don’t try to fit them all into a simple tower of moral righteousness)

    So, there are some things that one ought do — and one is a bad person for not doing these things. Kant calls them perfect duties, I think, but most people would just say duties, or responsibilities, or something like that. Saving the life of a drowning child immediately in front of you at little risk and little cost to yourself, for example.

    Then we have imperfect duties (I think Kant places continual self-improvement here?) These are all things that it is good to do. But, it’s understandable when we don’t do these things. The duties bind us imperfectly. Maybe giving 10% of your net income to oxfam every year is here?

    These imperfect duties are supererogatory. We’re not ‘bad’ if we don’t do them. We are actually good people if we do them. Likewise, if you just fulfill the perfect duties, you’re a ‘decent’ person, but you’re not a ‘good’ person, if we follow Gygax and give three valence on the good-evil axis and not just two then we have room for supererogation.

    So, it sounds like Rick is just trying to argue that supererogation is a meaningful thing, and we don’t have to all be saints to avoid being considered ‘bad’ people.


    I’ve been thinking about this post a lot since you wrote it. I wonder if the confusion that you identify so clearly in the post is a side-effect of classical liberalism combined with some features of the passing of the age of ideology.

    One of the nice feelings we get from classical liberalism in a very childish sort of way is, “hey, I can do whatever I want. As long as I’m not hurting anyone else, then I don’t have to listen to anyone criticize me — they’re being jerks for doing this.”

    Of course, this isn’t what CL was intended to foster at all. We were all supposed to be able to yell at one another constantly and shame one another and all that jazz — we just weren’t supposed to be able to make laws that prevented those of us who are on the spectrum enough not to be so influenced by social emotions from being legislated out of society. We’re all supposed to have these lovely firm convictions, argue about them, and the better among them are supposed to emerge — or something like that.

    If what we’re actually getting is just “hey, man, no one gets to yell at me for liking cartoons — I’m an adult and that means i get to choose what rot to fill my brain with, even if it’s childish rot,” then distinguishing between “can do” and “should do” becomes extremely difficult. Not only have we lost some of the concepts that would let us do this (and I think we are losing them, and this loss is reflected in changes in our language) — but we would also have to carry around a higher load of cognitive dissonance if we started criticizing people for doing what they shouldn’t even if it is something they can do, and ought to be allowed to do. This would mean that there might be things we should be doing but aren’t because we’re watching the simpsons, the tick, futurama, rick and morty, bojack horseman, archer, etc. etc. This lovely new world in which we don’t have any but the barest of responsibilities to others and to our own enjoyment is a lot harder to live in if we also yell at others for not doing what they should while still doing what they can.

    Liked by 1 person

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