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Professor Gordon Klein vs. UCLA: Where Do We Draw the Line in Cancel Culture?

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UCLA professor Gordon Klein filed a lawsuit against the university after facing suspension for refusing a non-Black student’s email request to grade their Black classmates’ final exams with more leniency earlier this month. The email exchange occurred in June 2020 following George Floyd’s murder. UCLA suspended Klein after a change.org petition, accumulating over 20,000 signatures, demanded Klein’s termination for his alleged racist and discriminatory refusal. Klein also allegedly received death threats related to his Jewish heritage.

UCLA suspended Klein out of fear that his comments would tarnish their reputation — and the university wasn’t the only institution to do the same. Klein’s primary source of income came from law firm consultation as well as other corporations. However, these firms and corporations also dropped him out of the same fear of a damaged reputation.

Although he was reinstated less than three weeks later, Klein explains in an op-ed that he suffered both emotionally and financially for “refusing to treat [his] black students as lesser than their non-black peers.” He adds that the reasoning for his lawsuit is “not only to correct the tortures he had endured but also to protect academic freedom.”

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to draw the line between productive and unproductive forms of “cancel culture.” While the intention of the email request and the petition may have come from a place of allyship and a desire to uplift the Black community, in reality, their actions alienate and demean them.

When encouraging values of diversity, equity and inclusion, the goal should always be to create an environment where we reflect those values and ultimately demonstrate empathy towards those who are marginalized and traditionally excluded. 

“I wholeheartedly support these principles [of diversity, equity and inclusion] as most of us understand them. I think all human beings should be treated the same. I welcome — I celebrate — a diversity of opinions and arguments. And, to say the least, I believe in making room for anyone with the grades and gumption to study at one of the nation’s most competitive universities,” Klein wrote

That said, the student’s email and UCLA’s choice to suspend Klein goes completely against those values of “diversity, equity and inclusion.” 

Many people in the Black community did suffer from trauma after Floyd’s murder, but trauma cannot be quantified. For any person, but specifically a non-Black one, to request a trauma-inspired policy that affects all and only Black people indirectly assumes that everyone in this group faces the same degree of trauma and all seek the same means of support. During a time when we should have been listening to the needs of the Black people directly, this non-Black student was speaking on the entire Black community’s behalf and essentially marginalizing them. Ideally, students experiencing trauma should be given the opportunity to individually request modifications to their exams.

Cancel culture in certain aspects can be a force of positive change against actual forms of discrimination and bigotry. It can encourage social and systemic change, cultivate a greater understanding of current issues that plague our society and amplify the voices of those who often go unheard.  

Yet in the case of Klein and UCLA, it’s incredibly harmful when people and institutions distance themselves from ideas of discrimination and bigotry purely for the intention of saving their reputation and not getting canceled, whether discrimination of bigotry exists or not. 

We want to move towards a society where the lives of marginalized victims are decided by the victims themselves, rather than people outside of that community deciding what’s in their best interest. Ultimately, we want a society where people are treated equally and given the same opportunities for success regardless of race. 

Erika Cao is an Opinion Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at caoea@uci.edu.