‘The Chair’ is a Thoughtful & Humorous Commentary on Contemporary Education & Politics

Netflix’s latest drama has been frequently described by pundits as their “best yet” or “best in a while”, and in my humble opinion this is an accurate assessment of what is essentially a groundbreaking, nuanced, and empathetic portrayal of modern society.

The lovechild of Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman, ‘The Chair’ confronts many controversial and sensitive issues being faced in the 21st Century. Its themes range from censorship and cancel culture, all the way to navigating parenting in unconventional families.

The six-part series primarily takes place at Pembroke University, a fictional lower-tier Ivy League college in the United States somewhat representative of colleges across the country. At the beginning of the series, Professor Ji Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) is made the head of Pembroke’s English department.

There’s little time, however, for Ji Yoon to celebrate being appointed Chair, as she’s undoubtedly been handed a poisoned chalice. With admissions for the arts and humanities slumped, and growing pressure from above to lay off the more senior staff in the department, Ji Yoon grapples with one issue after another. I suppose that’s what management inevitably is! Ultimately, the series of events ends catastrophically as she and her love interest, lecturer Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), make some very human mistakes.

Along with the limitations, admin, and politics of teaching, the series establishes the influence of social media, misogyny, and racism on the university experience. ‘The Chair’ is a witty, authentic, and sophisticated exploration of American (and in general, Western) academic life. It portrays the current struggle within academia to modernise the syllabus and appeal to 21st Century students – who are effectively customers. Students who are once again becoming increasingly politically-minded and active – albeit with even greater harshness and impulsivity!

The exposition of the series culminated in Bill Dobson becoming an internet sensation – for all the wrong reasons. A well-regarded and relatively famous author and academic, Dobson is Pembroke’s resident expert on modernist literature. He makes some rather interesting mistakes in every episode, but this is where it all begins.

Bill begins one of his lectures by asking who among the class had actually done the reading. None of them had. He then starts playing teacher and writes on the blackboard, ‘Fascism’ and ‘Absurdism’. Bill subsequently salutes a ‘Sieg Heil’ in a satirical fashion as a gesture to demonstrate fascism. This whole faux pas is also (rather unfortunately) filmed by some of his students and posted on social media. It quickly circulates and Dobson is branded as a Nazi.

It’s clear to us as the audience this man couldn’t be further from a Nazi. He’s a thoughtful and compassionate character, though slightly unhinged and suffering from a deep grief he cannot cure. He cares about his students and what they think, much like Ji Yoon and her younger colleague Yaz (Nana Mensah). This is a stark contrast to how the more senior members of staff feel, and indeed Joan (Holland Taylor) sets her student reviews ablaze with an air of liberation and glee! And I mean, how can you not love Holland Taylor?

‘The Chair’ pays particular attention to the notions of free speech and cancel culture. Cancel culture is a modern form of social ostracisation and admonition, and it generally takes place online. It comes from ‘call-out culture’, where marginalised people and victims of abuse publicly held powerful (mostly male) public figures to account and found support online. An example would be the MeToo movement on Twitter.

This evolved into something much more sinister, however, and when a person’s friends, family, and support networks also face online abuse because of their affiliation – it’s giving Cultural Revolution energy. As with everything online, holding powerful people to account is being taken to the extreme. Just to distinguish the difference here between cancel culture and valid criticism or accountability – online bullying, doxxing, and harassment do not constitute valid criticism. Cancel culture is not a form of justice.

When someone is cancelled they become ostracised from their own community, networks of support, and customer bases – often this is where cancel culture originates in the first place. I’m sure it’s incredibly isolating and anxiety provoking.

It could certainly be argued, this is simply a matter of people exercising their democratic consumer rights in a free society and market economy. If a public figure loses their support it’s their own fault as they are responsible for their words and actions. They should have thought harder about the potential consequences. They should have done more to rectify their wrongdoing.

Yet, even when public figures apologise for their perceived or actual misdeeds and mistakes, it’s received as disingenuous. It also seems to matter little whether an apology is given immediately, after a period of reflection, or not at all. The abuse continues regardless, and even rectified mistakes are continually brought up – especially if that person makes another mistake. We’re also very aware of the fact cancel culture makes little to no difference, and often doesn’t even dent the subject’s income if they’re a celebrity – it just perhaps bruises their ego. The real tragedy lies in the average person losing their job for expressing a differing opinion, even if the transgression occurred a decade ago.

It seems the moral panic and the ensuing cancelling which takes place online is more a matter of bad comprehension, abstraction, essentialism, and lack of context on the part of the students in this drama. This seems to correlate with what we’re experiencing in ‘the real world’, on social media and in wider society. It presents the very sinister issue of mob justice or vigilantism.

‘The Chair’ highlights this aspect of modern politics very clearly, as Bill had never intended to hurt anyone’s feelings and the ‘Sieg Heil’ salute was not challenged at the time in the classroom, or even afterwards. The students flinched in reaction, which I’m sure was the intended effect, but nobody questioned its relevance or Bill’s reasoning behind the gesture. That, for me anyway, was abundantly clear.

In the context of the classroom, discussion around fascism and dogmatism is a good thing. Promotion, on the other hand, is a bad thing. I think we can all (or certainly most of us can) agree on that at the very least. I’d have done away with the Nazi salute myself, but I suppose every teacher has a different style. I certainly wouldn’t have forgotten that lecture as a student!

The cancellation of this character reminded me of when parents protested outside Batley Grammar and harassed a teacher for showing students the Charlie Hebdo cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. Education shouldn’t shield students from uncomfortable or controversial topics, nor should it discourage discussion around them. That would be censorship – a proclivity of the Nazis.

Cancel culture has evolved from its original purpose and is now often grounded in reactionary, emotional, and faulty logic. Poor comprehension of real life events (which tends to be the norm on social media) leads to moral panic and abstraction. The focus changes from events and actions to beliefs and ideas.

Essentialism is a philosophical belief which poses things have intrinsic properties that are invariable and universal by nature. So, even if a person has never expressed any indication, inkling, or insinuation of having fascist tendencies – one slip up, one mistake or misjudgment apparently categorically proves they are a fascist. Ostracisation and bullying are therefore justified in the eyes of the cancellers because this is a person of privilege who was always an enemy fascist undercover, and the slip up affirms their true affiliation. This is problematic for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it’s illogical to make an essentialist jump from ‘a student filmed Bill Dobson doing a Nazi salute during a lecture’ to ‘Bill Dobson is a fascist, and therefore toxic and unsafe’. The context changes, thereby ascribing an entire identity to a complex person based off one 5 second video shared around on social media. Out of context.

Secondly, essentialism tends to result in some form of stereotyping or dehumanisation. Pejoratives are applied, lines are drawn. What Dobson did is wrong in the context of a classroom. And this is because of the history of fascism and its appetite for genocide. It’s fair to assume students will find Nazi-related history distressing and uncomfortable, but this doesn’t mean its historical, contemporary, political, and literary implications shouldn’t be taught or discussed.

Criticism is valid, and also an expression of free speech. I’m certain the rest of the lecture would’ve revealed what Dobson really thought. Not to mention the reading lists he collates for his students and his published works. Of course, students should question things, criticise things, and mobilise in protest against injustice. That’s what being a student is all about. But when valid criticism turns into a metaphysical lynch mob, it’s impossible for true justice to be served. We’re doing nothing to improve our society or fix our culture by bullying people into submission.

Cancel culture doesn’t actually allow any space for redemption, progress, or restorative justice. It’s simply a mass-hysteria designed to silence and suppress, and it helps real extremists justify their views. It’s not truly interested in morality or integrity, otherwise this bullying wouldn’t be viewed as righteous. How can we claim the moral high ground if we lower ourselves to such depths to create a just society? What kind of warped justice are we enforcing if we police words and actions out of context?

Photos: Netflix

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com