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Column: Boeing executive steps down over a 33-year-old essay. ‘Cancel culture’ has gone off the rails

Grounded Boeing 737 Max planes are stored on employee parking lots near Boeing Field on June 27, 2019, in Seattle.
Boeing has been reeling from a series of devastating setbacks, including the grounding of its Boeing Max 737 fleet after two deadly crashes. The company may not have wanted to deal with another controversy.

(Stephen Brashear / Getty Images)

I used to argue with my very progressive mother about whether women belonged in combat.

Women create life, she told me. They should not be in the business of snuffing it out.

I think her rationale probably sprang from her pacifist tendencies, but hers was not an unusual point of view.

Indeed, American women were not officially allowed to serve in all combat roles until 2016.

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When I read this week that Boeing’s new communications chief is out of a job for penning an essay almost 33 years ago opposing women in combat, which he had long since renounced, I have to admit, I was surprised. I probably should not have been.

After all, we are in the midst of this decade’s great reckoning, which was unleashed by women who were sick and tired of being sexually harassed and violated by powerful men. The #MeToo movement, among other things, caused a great culling of abusive male bosses that continues to this day. The current iteration of the reckoning is more complicated. At its roots are a rage against racism and sexism and longstanding social inequities that have manifested themselves in every aspect of American life. There is, in addition, something relatively new afoot. It has to do with the nebulous concept of safety.

This idea, as Jonathan Chait recently wrote in New York magazine, “frequently collapses the distinction between words and action … by describing opposing beliefs as a safety threat.” I first encountered the concept during free-speech debates on college campuses, where, for instance, students were virulently opposed to inviting, say, a right-wing provocateur like Milo Yiannopoulos onto campus, because he made them feel unsafe.

So, for example, when Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton wrote an overheated essay urging the president to call out the military to quell violent protests, he was accused of endangering the safety of Black reporters at the New York Times, where his essay appeared. The opinion editor was forced out for his poor judgment, both because the piece was shoddily edited and also because he hadn’t read it before publication.

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Around the same time, a young political data analyst who worked on the reelection campaign of President Obama tweeted out a Princeton study that found — to greatly simplify the work — that violent protests after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. reduced the Democratic vote, and peaceful protests increased it. The analyst, David Shor, was attacked for, among other things, “anti-Blackness” and soon lost his job.

As Chait put it, “Since criticism of violent protests is racist, and racism obviously endangers Black people, an act as seemingly innocuous as sharing credible research poses a threat to safety.”

Of course, Shor was not criticizing anything.

He was highlighting a research paper produced by Omar Wasow, a Black political scientist who co-founded the social networking site BlackPlanet. Wasow has spent 15 years studying civil rights protests of the 1960s, and has, as he tweeted, “paid particular attention to how nonviolent and violent actions by activists & police influence media, elites, public opinion & voters.”

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Seems pretty innocuous, but the very act of studying violent protests is perceived in some quarters as inappropriate, or “not helpful,” as one history professor told the Chronicle of Higher Education. Even raising the question, University of Michigan Professor Heather Ann Thompson told the Chronicle, puts an undeserved onus on people protesting injustice.

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In 1987, Niel Golightly was a young Navy pilot when he wrote a long piece called “No Right to Fight” in Proceedings, the magazine of the U.S. Naval Institute. Although he was trying to make a serious argument, the piece reads like parody straight out of the He-Man Woman’s Haters Club.

“Women do not naturally band together for ritual comradeship,” he wrote, in a passage characteristic of the entire ridiculous piece. “Their enormous personal courage usually reflects their loyalties to family and home rather than to each other and ‘the group.’ But while feminine loyalties are arguably more civilized, productive, and intellectually defensible than the male compulsion to be part of a group, it nevertheless remains that the bonding imperative is crucial to the collective mettle of men in combat.”

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The essay was recently brought forward, according to Boeing, by an employee who used it as the basis of an internal anonymous ethics complaint against Golightly.

Apparently, Boeing officials, already reeling from a series of devastating setbacks, did not want to face another controversy at a moment when the company says it has made an “unrelenting commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

Apologies and renunciation were not enough.

In a statement released by Boeing, Golightly explained that the article was “a 29-year-old Cold War Navy pilot’s misguided contribution to a debate that was live at the time.”

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He said that his argument “was embarrassingly wrong and offensive,” and that the criticism that followed “quickly opened my eyes, indelibly changed my mind, and shaped the principles of fairness, inclusion, respect and diversity that have guided my professional life since.”

This is a fraught moment for discussions about race and gender. Emotions are raw and, as we see in the current discussion about “cancel culture,” free speech and responsibility, there is little room for error.

I just don’t see how firing someone for something they wrote — and disavowed — decades ago, helps advance the cause of justice. And yes, to my surprise as well as yours, I am defending a middle-aged white man I’ve never met.

I guess we could all use a little compassion and empathy right about now.

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@AbcarianLAT


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