“The Chair,” a new, six-episode Netflix series about a fictional liberal arts university, touches on all the main hot-button issues of the day.
- Campus Cancel Culture
Overall there is much to appreciate about the show. My main criticism, however, is that in addressing everything it tries to cover too much within six, 30-minute episodes.
As the author of a brand-new novel satirically targeting campus “cancel culture” myself, called “Nevergreen,” I was particularly interested to see how the show treated that issue.
The “Chair” in question is Prof. Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), the first woman chair of the English Department at Pembroke University, also in fact an Asian-American.
She inherits a mess: the department is dominated by several old fogies (two old white men and one old white woman) who are also old school pedagogues, and therefore failing to draw students to their classes. The Dean (David Morse) is pressuring the Chair to pressure the fogies into retirement, partly for budget reasons and partly to make room for the up and coming young Black woman professor, Prof. Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah).
The rising star is not only the polar opposite of the fogies in every identity category but he is also an academic star—being courted by Ivy League institutions, perhaps as much for her identity as for her scholarship.
Then there is Prof. Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), a middle-aged white man who is pretty hip and popular with students himself but whose wife died a year earlier and is a hot mess as a result.
Dealing with substance abuse, arriving late and unprepared for class, he begins an impressive lecture about how literary absurdism is connected to fascism, which, either because he’s a hot mess or because he’s a charismatic teacher, or both, he enhances with a quick, ironic, “Heil Hitler!” salute.
Of course some students capture this clip on video, in turn enhance it with some photoshopping to put him in a Nazi uniform, and by the next day campus protests erupt demanding that Dobson be cancelled, accompanied by the angry shouts, “No Nazis on Campus!”
The newly crowned Chair, Prof. Kim, has to steer the department through the simultaneous crises: the underperforming fogies, sexism against the female old fogie, racism against Prof. McKay, and the cancel campaign being run against the otherwise popular Prof. Dobson.
To complicate it all—unnecessarily—there is some annoying romantic tension between Kim and the cancelled Dobson.
That is the main critique: in the show’s effort to address every trendy topic, there’s too much going on at once. To this I’ll add another critique: in its effort to remain fair and balanced (I surmise), the show declines to take a clear position on any of these trending topics.
There is perhaps something to commend here: the show probably can and will be a topic of debate, for precisely that reason. My criticism is that it makes, perhaps, for slightly less compelling television.
First, it is clear (to me, at least!) that the cancel campaign is ridiculous. In context Prof. Dobson’s Hitler salute was clearly ironic, the professor is not a Nazi, was not endorsing Nazis in making the salute but ironically mocking them, and indeed during a “Town Hall” where he confronts the students he makes clear his lifelong commitment to fighting Nazism and its ilk.
In addition, taking the snippet of video out of the surrounding context of the lecture (against Nazism!), and then doctoring it, make it clear that the cancellation is outrageously unjustified.
Or is it?
The students argue that intent doesn’t matter, only impact. And witnessing a Nazi salute is painful for many, not least for the Jewish students (who seem to be interestingly absent on this campus). And the professor’s refusal to apologize only infuriates them more. I may not do it justice here, but the show clearly is trying to portray the students’ position in the strongest possible light.
So, the cancel campaign is both clearly unjustified—ridiculous, even—yet the strongest possible case is made for it.
Discuss amongst yourselves!
My guess is that most viewers will project their own views into it. If you think his making that ironic salute is not a problem then the cancel campaign will strike you as an offensive absurdity, as yet one more case of students out of control (as I portray them in the central events of my own novel, “Nevergreen”).
But if you think the salute is a problem, then you’ll probably think he deserves everything he gets—even the firing from his position despite an impressive career of being a much beloved professor. (One of the frightening aspects of cancel culture, indeed, is that one perceived mistake (or allegation thereof) can erase a lifetime of work fighting the good fight.)
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It’s quite interesting that the producers selected this kind of incident to be the focus. They could have chosen others: for example, someone critiquing some aspect of the Black Lives Matter movement, or rejecting the demand to “Defund the police!,” or just defending the United States on some matter.
In this case pretty much everyone agrees that Nazism itself is terrible, so instead the debate is on merely whether it’s acceptable to perform the ironic salute. The corresponding “real-life” case here, of which there have been more than a few in the past several years, would be where a professor mentions the “N-word” in classroom conversations.
Obviously anyone who used that word as an actual slur would rightly be driven from today’s classroom with little or no controversy whatever. But is it unacceptable merely to utter the word explicitly, even in the context of condemning it? Or in the context of discussing its earlier uses as a slur, for example in important works of literature?
Does it matter if the professor isn’t using the word with the intent to harm? Or does only its impact on the audience matter, regardless of intent? (And is the audience overreacting to be impacted by that way?)
Again—discuss amongst yourselves!
Overall, then, “The Chair” is an enjoyable show, even where it doesn’t take explicit positions perhaps where some viewers might think it should.