On Wednesday, Will Wilkinson, a New York Times contributor and vice president at the center-right think tank the Niskanen Center made a joke on Twitter. “If Biden really wanted unity,” he tweeted, “he’d lynch Mike Pence.”
The joke has been called “bad” and “offensive” an innumerable number of times since. Wilkinson’s jape may have been in poor taste, but it did, in fact, work as a joke. You see, on January 6, people loyal to the president stormed the Capitol while chanting “Hang Mike Pence.” Less than two weeks later, a number of Republican lawmakers—many of whom pushed lies about election fraud that inspired that very insurrection—were lamenting Joe Biden and his party’s failure to unify the country. By their logic, the fastest path to Biden coming together with Trump’s base would be to fulfill one of the stated goals of the very mob that Trump and these GOP lawmakers incited: the lynching of Mike Pence.
Wilkinson’s joke, which some comedy experts might refer to as “a thinker,” highlighted that dissonance. Naturally, there are lighter and less fraught ways to make the same point—who knows, maybe, “If Biden really wanted unity, folks, he should resign and give the presidency to Donald Trump,” might have been another laugh riot of a line. But while the invocation of lynching is politically incorrect, there can be no doubt that Wilkinson was joking. There is no honest way of concluding that he was advocating violence on Twitter. (Parsing a joke’s funniness is guaranteed to ensure the joke will never be funny again, but because of the bad-faith nature of these particular accusations, this dreadful task must be undertaken.)
In what’s become a sad but recurring coda to these kinds of bad-faith outrage campaigns, Wilkinson was fired from his job at Niskanen. In a since-deleted statement, Jerry Taylor, the think tank’s president, wrote, “As an organization, the Niskanen Center appreciates and encourages interesting and provocative online discourse. However, we draw the line at statements that are, or can in any way be interpreted as condoning or promoting violence. As such, the Niskanen Center has, with a heavy heart, parted ways with Will Wilkinson.” The New York Times, meanwhile, issued a statement to Fox News that it was reviewing Wilkinson’s contract. (The Niskanen Center did not respond to a request for comment.)
Those familiar with Wilkinson’s work should have been armed with the knowledge to shrug off the complaints. Instead, Wilkinson fell victim to a smear campaign on both social media and right-wing media. Fox News, The Washington Examiner, and The Federalist ran stories with headlines suggesting that Wilkinson literally called for Pence to be lynched, a willfully obtuse reading. The Niskanen Center, in response, only managed to distinguish itself as the latest chickenshit company to bow to the demands of bad-faith actors, instead of standing up to them. Its demonstration of spinelessness ensures that Niskanen will continue to be a target of bad-faith actors who have no interest in civil discourse.
Critics of “cancel culture” have used Wilkinson’s firing to take a victory lap, citing his scoffing at claims that free speech was under attack. But to the extent that those critics have defined cancel culture—and they are very vague and slippery, conveniently contorting the term to suit momentary purposes—they portray it as an online mob getting caught up in its own sense of righteousness, tearing down apostates who dare deviate from an accepted tone. Niskanen’s cowardice hardly settles the debate over the existence of cancel culture—indeed, using the term itself obscures more than it illuminates in this case.
But no matter what you think of Wilkinson, Niskanen, Twitter, or cancel culture, that’s not what happened here. Wilkinson may have lost his position, but one can hardly argue he was “canceled” when so many high-profile people from across the ideological spectrum have swung to his defense. Bad-faith publicity campaigns to get people fired have gone on for decades—what seemed zingy and new about the entire arc of this incident was that it was amplified for maximum attention by social media, the world’s premier medium for cocking things up. In any event, this isn’t “cancel culture,” this is “quivering fraidy-cat boss culture.”
The fact remains that Wilkinson was fired for something he quite clearly didn’t do: condone violence. Niskanen’s since-deleted statement is weasely in this regard: The “can in any way be interpreted as condoning or promoting violence” covers for the fact that Wilkinson wasn’t doing anything of the sort; the word “interpreted” simply makes room for either the most idiotic or insincere observers. Wilkinson’s critics, tired of discourse about a right-wing mob that stormed the Capitol with the goal of killing the vice president and kidnapping or killing members of Congress, simply inverted it: “Here is a guy from the other side who is also calling for Pence’s head.” The motivations of these critics are what demand further inspection.
This isn’t complicated. Firing people for dumb tweets is silly, wrong, and counterproductive. The idea that Wilkinson literally believes that Joe Biden should order the extrajudicial murder of former Vice President Mike Pence wobbles and collapses under the briefest of scrutiny. Punishing Wilkinson is not a victory for civility or decency. It simply rewards the right-wing trolls who saw an opportunity for a scalp and took it. These are people with no interest in free speech or productive discourse. They want attention, and Niskanen, fearing a short-term public relations problem, gave it to them. The lack of due process is also galling, a consequence of at-will employment.
Fortunately, what’s been done can be just as easily undone. Niskanen made a mistake in firing Wilkinson and should reinstate him immediately. Doing so now would be a blow against those who use social media to feign outrage for ideological ends and a victory for productive discourse. But it should not have come to this: Had Niskanen shown a little backbone, it would have conveyed that it was impervious to such bad-faith claims, and those who promulgate such attacks would have been shown straightaway that further pursuing their dishonest claim against Wilkinson would be a waste of their time. The smear merchants would have simply moved on to target some other cowardly organization; one day, perhaps none shall remain to give them harbor.