Well, well, well, if it isn’t the consequences of my own actions.—Musician lil du bois on Twitter, Sept. 29, 2018
Back when I started at the paper almost 26 years ago (good Lord, do I feel old), I was a big fan of Dilbert. It was consistently funny then, and even sometimes a little too true to life on how women were treated in the workforce (which was why Alice was always having to control that fist of death).
But times change, and Scott Adams, as I said in a column last September, has been phoning it in for a while. Sometimes comic strips reach a natural stopping point (like Calvin and Hobbes, sorely missed; in my office at work, I actually have two cat candy bowls on my desk, one named Calvin and the other Hobbes) or just engage so few readers that they’ll be the first canceled when a newspaper needs to review its comics contracts. Other times, a strip might be pulled because of, perhaps, a scatological or otherwise offensive joke that violates the newspaper’s standards (for example, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette canceled Lola in 2000 over a fart joke, and we’ve replaced some with a “flashback” in some cases).
And sometimes, the cartoonist makes such a big stink that it becomes a moral argument.
Last year, Lee Enterprises newspapers and others pulled Dilbert. Lee’s decision was actually based on comics restructuring among the papers it owns (Dilbert wasn’t the only comic cut), but it just happened to coincide with the introduction of a new Black character who identified as white (apparently to gig woke culture and the LGBTQ community), so Adams claimed he was a victim of cancel culture (he tends to do that; he’s also claimed that the UPN canceled the Dilbert series because he was white). Now Andrews McMeel Universal, the distributor of Dilbert, has cut ties with its creator, and even more newspapers, including my employer, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, are pulling the strip after comments Adams made on his online video podcast last week. Adams says his book publisher and agent have dropped him as well.
I won’t get into the substance of those comments here (suffice it to say that he essentially encouraged segregation, among other things, like calling Blacks a hate group), but for those who are now crying “Censorship!” “First Amendment!” … well, I’ll just remind you (again, as it seems I have to do this every few years) that that applies to government, not to businesses. Businesses have the right to contract with whomever they wish, and to cancel contracts when they wish, especially with those who might reflect badly on them as a whole.
That’s just the situation Adams’ words have gotten him into, no matter how he tries to spin it on Twitter (he does seem to love playing the victim). And now he’s borrowing from TFG and calling the press a hate group. Sigh. (A note here: I’m not going to post screenshots from his Twitter account or links to it because I don’t want to add to his clicks.)
Philip Bump of The Washington Post noted that it was just a matter of time: “For months it has seemed inevitable that the Dilbert comic strip’s run as a popular American newspaper cartoon would end precisely as it did: a victim of controversy triggered by its creator, Scott Adams. …
“Adams himself has at times predicted his own ‘cancellation,’ his ostracization for making controversial or repugnant claims. This is itself a common tactic on the right, people amplifying their supposed anti-left credentials by suggesting their views are unacceptably politically incorrect. Often, the controversy fails to materialize or, at least, to reach the scale that Adams achieved over the past week. But it’s the thought that counts.”
Michael Cavna, also of The Post, wrote in a story published Monday, “In covering the controversy, Mike Peterson, columnist for the industry blog the Daily Cartoonist, wrote Monday that what ‘doomed’ Adams was that he ‘let his increasingly antisocial personal views appear in the strip.’ Peterson added that in Dilbert, ‘the focus on management foibles had long since gone stale and the new material was off-topic and not just conservative — a lot of strips are conservative — but openly offensive.’
“Peterson, a retired editor, told The Post that he wished individual newspaper editors would ‘take responsibility’ for what is in their newspapers. But ‘the bottom line,’ he said, ‘is that Adams put his client papers in a position where cancellations were inevitable.’
Just learning that he misused the data in the Rasmussen survey he mentioned, combining the 26 percent of Black survey respondents who disagreed with the statement “It’s OK to be white” with the 21 percent who weren’t sure, is enough to tick me off, even without the attendant remarks. Statistical trickery like that chaps my hide. Plus, it was a loaded question (a research survey no-no) as the phrase originated as a troll on 4Chan and has been picked up by white supremacists like David Duke.
The Oregonian was one of many newspapers over the weekend that decided to pull Dilbert. Therese Bottomly of The Oregonian, in a letter from the editor Saturday, wrote: “Some readers no doubt will deride my decision as an example of overly ‘woke’ culture or as a knee-jerk ‘politically correct’ response. What about free speech, they might ask? Isn’t this censorship?
“No one is taking Adams’ free speech rights away. He is free to share his abhorrent comments on YouTube and Twitter so long as those companies allow them. This also isn’t censorship; it’s editing. Editors make decisions every day about what to publish, balancing the need to inform against the possibility of offending reader sensibilities.”
MLive Media Group’s vice president of content John Hiner was even more succinct: “MLive has zero tolerance for racism. And we certainly will not spend our money supporting purveyors of it.”
Which any company, or individual, is free to do.
But is it fair to those whose contracts get canceled? If you support the idea of a free market, it certainly is. While someone like Adams is free to say just about anything he wants, those who carry his cartoon are just as free to express their displeasure by canceling his contract. No one is obligated to give him a platform.
We faced much the same issue when now-former President Donald Trump was suspended from Twitter and Facebook after Jan. 6, 2021’s events. If those services were part of the government, they couldn’t have kicked TFG off because the First Amendment wouldn’t allow it unless the government could definitively prove his part. As non-governmental entities, whether privately or publicly held, the companies have the right to kick off people who violate their terms of service. Of course, he’s allowed back on both now, but that’s not the point.
Juliana Kim of NPR talked to other cartoonists about Adams’ situation, and many of them told her he has a history of “problematic” views, especially in recent years, such as on covid vaccinations, the Holocaust toll, being fired for “being white,” etc.
“After receiving widespread pushback for his offensive rant,” Kim wrote, Adams described himself as getting canceled. But cartoonists argue that he is simply being held accountable for his remarks.
“‘By Adams saying he’s been canceled, it’s him not owning up to his own responsibility for the things he said and the effect they have on other people,’ said Ward Sutton, who has contributed illustrations to The New York Times, The New Yorker and Rolling Stone. ‘He’s trying to turn himself into a victim when he himself has been a perpetrator of hate,’ Sutton added. …
“Similarly, Hector Cantú, best known for his Latino-American comic Baldo, said he believes in freedom of speech, but not freedom from repercussions. ‘Don’t gloss this over by saying it’s politics or it’s cancel culture,’ he said. ‘If you’re going to offend people, you risk paying the price.'”
Adams, like others have before him, is discovering that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. If I said the things he said on social media or on a podcast, I wouldn’t be surprised to be fired because my actions would reflect poorly on my employer. Call it cancel/woke culture all you want, but it really was the product of Adams’ actions, and he has only himself to blame for that, though some might want to pull TFG in on this too, as having given Adams permission by his own behavior to, as my grandma might say, show his ass.
Tom Jones of Poynter asked, “Was Adams a victim of cancel culture? Actually, I would suggest this is consequence culture. That is, if you say or do something stupid or, in this case, incredibly racist and harmful and divisive, you suffer the consequences. The consequence here is newspapers dropping the comic strip. …
“The Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times also was among the news outlets dropping the strip. In a column announcing the move to readers, Times executive editor Mark Katches wrote, ‘Long ago, I was a fan of his satirical take on office life. And I’ll bet some of you still enjoy it and may miss it. But there’s no place in the pages of the Tampa Bay Times for people who behave or think as he does. And we have no desire to financially support anyone who holds these views.’
“Who’s left? Who’s still carrying the strip? When reached over the weekend by The Washington Post, Adams responded, ‘By Monday, around zero.’”
I can neither confirm nor deny that; all I can tell you is hundreds of papers dropped it, so we’ll have to wait for all the smoke to clear (many papers pre-print comics sections, so it’s not as easy as dropping a new cartoon in for the next day’s edition; there are contracts to be sorted out too) for a final count.
For me, Dilbert long ago grew stale, and in the past several years, its creator’s forays to the far right have overshadowed the comic that once made me laugh and adore Catbert and Alice’s fist of death. Those who still love Dilbert can always find it online, even if it’s not published in newspapers at all.
Me, I’ll stick with Pearls Before Swine. Stephan Pastis is most assuredly not an ass. A shameless punster, yes, but not an ass, from the reports I’ve gotten.