It's hard to hate up close
Bias has no perfect balance.
I’ve learned that it’s harder to hate up close.
– Michelle Obama, Becoming
When I first read this line, I saw it as advice to walk in other people’s shoes. Our divisions, Obama is telling us, come from our distance from one another. If we get to know those we disagree with, we’ll realize we aren’t all so different. As is typical of the Obamas’ rhetoric, it was a line about hope and optimism for a more understanding and compassionate world.
But it has a dangerous corollary, highlighted by a tweet from Paul Graham:
Martínez is a former Facebook product manager turned author turned tech Twitter talking head. He was recently hired by Apple, only to be quickly let go after number of Apple employees petitioned against the hire because of comments he made about women in his autobiography Chaos Monkeys. The Verge has the full story.
The incident sent everyone barreling toward another fight about cancel culture. For now, though, I want to focus on Graham's defense of Martínez.
Graham’s argument is pretty typical of those defending the "cancelled:"1 Yes, he’s done some things I disagree with, but I know him, and he's actually good guy. You can’t judge him from so far away. Up close, you’d wouldn’t hate him.
This is the dark inverse of Obama's quote. If we get to know someone—either personally or by running in the same professional clubs—we don’t just come to understand them as Obama suggests; we also start to like them. The same congeniality that sands down our biases against starts to paper over their real faults. Closeness to someone doesn't make us know them better—it makes us take their side, for better and for worse.
We’re all susceptible to it. Consider, for example, how you feel about your coworkers. We’ve all worked with people that frustrate us, or that we think are bad at what they do. Now ask yourself, are any of your friends bad at their jobs? Are they the people who would irritate you at work? Odds are, some of them are—but our friendships compel us to instinctively take their side, covering up faults we so easily see in others.
This example underscores another gap in Graham's reasoning, which is also common in arguments against cancel culture. Contrast Graham’s judgement of Martínez with that of the Apple employees who signed the petition about him. Graham understands Martínez because he knows him; his personal relationship helps him see past his public persona. But Graham also understands the people at Apple, not because he knows them, but because he doesn’t. He can assess them objectively, based on their one perceived sin, because his judgement is clouded by personal feelings. For Martínez, an entire autobiography isn’t enough to know who he really is. For the Apple employees, a single signature is. That isn’t logic; it’s just defending a friend.
That’s fine—we’re all humans, and our personal relationships should matter. But this instinct highlights why accountability to public opinion—or if you prefer, the “woke mob”—matters, regardless of how you feel about this particular incident. The powerful are often friends, or at least congenial members of the same fraternity.2 If they’re left to judge one another, they’ll judge themselves as Graham did Martínez, or as Dianne Feinstein did Lindsay Graham, or as Sarah Silverman did Louis C.K. And when that happens, we already know the verdict: I know them too well to hate.
Of course, it must be pointed out that being turned down for a job by Apple is a long way from “depriving someone of their livelihood.” Millions of people have suffered the same fate, and we don’t grieve their cancellation.
Notably, powerful people include not just those in legislatures and board rooms. Rich people, white people, men—these are also powerful groups that give each other a benefit of the doubt that they don’t afford to others.