Can Progressives Clear Their Conscience of Emmanuel Cafferty?

Luke Cuddy
Muddled Profundity
Published in
5 min readSep 2, 2020


Not too long ago Neil deGrasse Tyson appeared on Coleman Hughes’ podcast to discuss policing and racism. When Hughes, a philosopher with a penchant for data, began to present statistics, Tyson was unimpressed. Referencing George Floyd, Tyson argued that such brutality should never happen at all and the fact that it does is a sign of a serious problem with our justice system. Underlying Tyson’s point is the idea that all people have an inherent dignity that should be protected, rather than compromised, by the system in place.

Tyson’s argument is a fair one. Obviously murder that is sanctioned by the state is as serious as it gets, but one could still apply the point to other realms of human experience where dignity matters — like, say, education. Even if a school is otherwise well performing, if one case arises of vicious emotional abuse from a teacher towards a student — statistics be damned — that is something that shouldn’t happen at all and is, therefore, a serious problem to address.

Or, the argument could apply to one’s livelihood. Enter Emmanuel Cafferty, recently unemployed father of three. I’m not sure if I’m drawn to Cafferty’s case because we’re both from San Diego or because the reasons for his life being ruined are so ridiculously, obviously wrong. A working-class person his entire life who struggled to make ends meet, Cafferty had landed a steady job at San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) company of which he was very proud.

One day as he was driving home in a company truck, his hand was dangling out the window in what was vaguely reminiscent of the “okay” symbol. Unbeknownst to most people, including Cafferty, that symbol has recently been appropriated by the alt-right to symbolize white power. When another driver from a nearby Black Lives Matter rally saw Cafferty’s hand, the driver assumed the worst, eventually took a picture, and posted it to Twitter with an equally vicious headline about Cafferty’s supposed white supremacy.

After enough people called SDG&E to demand Cafferty be fired, by the end of the day he was out of a job. Although the all-white team who decided to fire him could not offer any additional examples of Cafferty’s problematic behavior, they claimed his firing was based on a thorough investigation. The facts that Cafferty is Mexican-American, hates politics, and hasn’t voted since he can remember were lost on deaf ears. Not to mention the fact that Cafferty’s antagonist has since deleted the Tweet that led to the firing and admitted that he misinterpreted the situation. Needless to say, Cafferty is still out of a job and has started a petition to get it back.

This isn’t an argument about cancel culture per se, by the way. I am not making any generalizations about the existence of such a culture or its harm, nor trying to define the terms of the debate (important as tasks like that may be). I am pointing to one egregious case, as Tyson does, and suggesting that its presence is a mar on the American system. It shouldn’t happen. Again, the Floyd case represents a more serious, yet related, problem. But losing one’s livelihood is no small matter. Cafferty is not some Intellectual Dark Web member complaining about being canceled while racking up YouTube views. He’s a working class, Mexican-American guy who was supporting his family, and now he’s been cast out and publicly tarred as a racist.

Defending the Powerless

You might think there are bigger fish to fry than worrying about one firing. But I’m not making an either/or argument. There are bigger fish to fry. Yet Cafferty’s case still matters to the world progressives like me want to build.

My father — a card-carrying lefty since his peace corps days in Africa — impressed upon me the notion of defending the powerless. Not some fake, patronizing public moral display but the cultivation of real, genuine empathy for others, a desire for as many as possible to have a seat at the table. And my father applied his belief consistently. He once organized an anti-Patriot Act group during the Iraq War and when an angry critic (a veteran) tried to crash one of their meetings, my father let him speak and thanked him for his service while disagreeing respectfully. As an editorial page editor for most of his career, he sometimes published pieces on lesser known candidates from smaller parties to elevate their voices, for its own sake.

Do progressives still care about defending the powerless, full stop? Or does such a defense only apply to the powerless who fit a certain (shrinking) criteria? Ross Douthat challenged critics of cancellations to strengthen their arguments beyond abstract defenses of free speech:

… liberals or centrists who fear the left-wing zeal for cancellation need a counterargument that doesn’t rest on right-to-be-wrong principles alone. They need to identify the places where they think the new left-wing norms aren’t merely too censorious but simply wrong, and fight the battle there, on substance as well as liberal principle.

Cafferty represents a case where the new left-wing norms are simply wrong, or at the very least are going off the rails. It’s one thing to argue that cancel culture is overblown or exaggerated, or even that it doesn’t exist. But when people like Cafferty get buried in a debate between elites, it’s not hard to come away with the impression that the important values of dignity and defense of the powerless have been lost in favor of winning the argument.

As of today, the only major left-leaning publication that has spilled any ink defending Cafferty is The Atlantic (linked above). I don’t deny the difficulty of choosing which articles to run as a major news organization. But then again, to take just one example, if a story like Cafferty’s doesn’t make the cut at the Washington Post while a woman who wore black face at a party two years ago does, then it would seem that at least some members of that editorial board have misplaced priorities.



Luke Cuddy
Muddled Profundity

Professor of Philosophy at Southwestern College, CA | Contributor to @andphilosophy | Blues Guitar Finger-Picker