How expansile is a culture of cancel?
November 17, 2020
What would you do if you discovered that one of your good friends has been physically abusing his wife for as long as you’d known them? Or that he secretly hangs out with neo-Nazis? Or that someone with those proclivities was a famous actor, whose movies you’ve devoured for decades? Or that a famous writer whose books you adore has been unmasked as a white supremacist?
Or suppose you had some say in a professional journal that published an article by a reputable professor wondering why, if it is principled for a person to contemplate changing gender, since gender is a human “construct,” it is not equally permissible for a person to change races, to pose as other than his birth race, since there is no such thing as “race.” If you believed fervently in the first as a human right and the second as an affront to human dignity, how would you respond?
Reading the daily news you know what a lot of people would do: they’d join a parade of angry critics pressing upon these miscreants the status of permanent pariahhood: boot the friend from polite society, toss the actor from the set and lock the studio doors behind him, deny the famous writer shelf space in bookstores and threaten to boycott his editors. As for the professor, they might even demand the journal retract the article and perhaps by misquoting and falsifying facts about the article, seek to destroy the author’s reputation.
Those who join in exiling wrongdoers from their usual haunts (or some range of places) share in at least some part of what’s being called “Cancel Culture.” (For readers unfamiliar with the term, it is used here in an active rather than passive sense: it’s a culture that cancels, not a demand for culture to be canceled.) In the bland words of Wikipedia, Cancel Culture “describes a form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles — either online on social media, in the real world, or both.” It usually implies boycotting a target’s work, erasing the disfavored from cultural prominence, and depriving them of their livelihoods because of socially or morally dubious behavior, offensive public statements, or repugnant opinions. The label has also been applied to many lesser forms of reprobation, such as severe criticism on Twitter and other social media platforms, often for single instances of a pronouncement held to be offensive by one group or another.
The term has gained prominence in the past couple of years, though its notoriety has not necessarily been accompanied by clarity over its meaning, scope, or effectiveness. Still, various attempts to erase people’s standing in particular communities has a lot of people worried though the practice has outspoken defenders as well.
To find our way through this culturally humid haze, let’s first look at an old case, that of Isaac Newton. Probably not whom you were expecting. Perhaps because at the last moment he escaped the consequences of his transgression. Fortunately for us, he was spared lifelong disgrace and became a monument to mankind. Yes, I’m talking about that Isaac Newton, inventor of calculus, discoverer of the laws of motion and universal gravity, expositor of planetary movements, explorer of light and optics, a founding father of the scientific revolution — and a keeper of a dark and dangerous secret.
In 1668, Newton became a Fellow of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. Fellowship rules obliged him to take holy orders in the Church of England within seven years of his appointment, else resign or be expelled. But by 1675 he had only further confirmed his privately-held belief that the orthodox version of Christianity, indeed, its quintessential feature, the trinity, is a fraud, and worse, that adhering to it would be idolatrous. After years of closely studying biblical texts Newton had proved to his satisfaction that God is unitary, not triune; Jesus is not God’s co-equal. To the Protestant orthodoxy of the day, commanding the country as well as the university, Newton’s belief was anathema. It was a form of an ancient heresy known as Arianism, after Arius, an Alexandrian priest who lost his battle when the Council of Nicaea in 325 adopted the Nicene Creed. Arianism lingered in the shadows but never entirely faded away and flared up again following the Reformation.
Ordination would have required Newton to publicly affirm the doctrine of trinitarianism. Though he had earlier avowed his belief in the thirty-nine articles of the Anglican faith, his evolving understanding forced him to conclude this final time that he would be swearing a false oath, a sin against God. If he resigned from his fellowship, which seemed his only course, his scandalous Arianism would likely have come to light, and in the words of a biographer he would have been “branded a moral leper.” (Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: The Life of Isaac Newton, 1983, p. 332.) Newton was then 32. With more than half a century of life left, his future in science would most likely have been forfeit: He would have been shunned by his fellow mathematicians and “natural philosophers.” Luckily for Newton and for us, someone interceded with King Charles II, who carved out a narrow exception, formally releasing holders of the Lucasian professorship, to which Newton had been appointed in 1669, from the ordination requirement. His escape from oblivion was a close call. (Ever after, he remained mum about his personal religious beliefs; they stayed hidden until centuries later.)
If Newton were teaching at a Christian college today, he might still be subject to dismissal, but the consequence of the same moral scruples would be far more limited. He could continue his teaching and researches unabated elsewhere. No one in the world beyond theocracies pays attention to the niceties of private religious convictions. The issue simply doesn’t resonate in modern culture. But other issues, like racism and sexism, do.
Stories of dismissal and removal have frequently appeared in these posts. Increasingly over the past several years, monuments to historical heroes (still revered by portions of the population) have come tumbling down: statues, plaques, paintings, glass windows, other images. The examples are too fresh to require much prompting: statues of Civil War soldiers and generals, Confederate and U.S. politicians, missionary priests, former presidents, a chief justice of the United States, and many others have all been toppled. The names of many of these same figures and others have been covered over, filled in, scrubbed or otherwise removed from their mantels, lintels, friezes, exhibit cases, columns, statues, corridors, walls, doors, fountains, portals, pedestals, maybe even chairs, and wherever else the monikers of Americans never to be forgotten have faced passersby.
Though some commentators have pointed to these erasings as instances of Cancel Culture, the label seems inapt. These are more sensibly understood as decisions about whom to honor in a particular place and for a particular reason, though mistakes are always possible, like the recent decision to rename a dormitory at a Catholic school that had originally been named to honor Flannery O’Connor. But to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a courtyard square is not to toss another one from inside a museum. No one suggests eradicating Lee’s name from the history books or removing any mention of him from school textbooks (though what authors say about him will no doubt be changing as new books and revisions of old ones arrive on students’ classroom desks). And historical figures are of course not themselves disturbed. They are not canceled; they are repositioned.
Likewise, well-known actors have been dropped from starring roles because their off-screen misbehavior, sometimes for serious infractions of contemporary mores through speech (Roseanne Barr’s tweet, Dom Imus’s on-camera racist jape, Mel Gibson’s meltdown rant), and sometimes for much more serious misconduct, like the multiple and uncontroverted accusations of sexual misconduct that have led in recent years to the dismissal of many public personalities, such as Charlie Rose. These revelations and moments have irritated or outraged their fans, upset their sponsors, embarrassed their producers, and shrunk profits as audiences fled (or were presumed to be ready to flee). These are cancellations in a sense, but almost always they rest at bottom on undisputed findings of unprofessional or even criminal behavior. But even here generalizations are treacherous. You can quickly find websites claiming cancellations in 2019 and 2020 that seem, at least at first inspection, as nothing more than once supportive fans calling their heroes out for inflammatory behavior disturbing only to some and with no discernible long-term effects.
And there’s an obvious difference between performers who lose commercial traction because enough people individually decide to stay away and those who are barred from work by collective boycotts, especially if the distaste is strong enough to enforce secondary boycotts against others who do not comply with the initial call to deny the errant artist their patronage.
But suppose movie producers become so fearful of moviegoers’ reactions to the taint and so alarmed by official investigations prompted by whispers of malign influence in their films that they refuse to work with writers, directors, and actors who haven’t quickly denied or recanted youthful (and legal) affiliations years before or who have refused to name names to official inquiries. That was a form of Cancel Culture — we’ve known it ever since as McCarthyism — that swept across the nation nearly three-quarters of a century ago.
Cancel Culture is a real phenomenon; it recurs in American history and in even worse versions elsewhere. In the United States, the ultimate outcome of cancelling, by no means guaranteed, is the collapse of public reputation (with a concomitant loss of position, income, career, associations, and even friendships). Elsewhere, the ending has been much more brutal. Political assassinations prompted by mere speech are available in any standard history: the eighteenth-century French revolutionary Terror, Mao Tse-Tung’s twentieth-century Great Cultural Revolution, right up to the present day — in mid-October a teacher was beheaded by a disgruntled student in France for showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a class on free speech.
Still, we need to be clear that Cancel Culture is not defined by outcomes but by motive. Despite the metaphoric consistency of the words, brutality against another human being is not evidence of a desire to cancel in the contemporary sense of the term. A victim shot in a bank robbery has not been canceled, except figuratively. Likewise, soldiers shot in combat. Cancel Culture deals with reputation and is animated by the desire to reduce the power of a person who is thought to have committed a wrong or harm by what he says or how he presents himself (for example, the current backlash against TV star Ellen DeGeneres for, so it is alleged, masking a cold and uncaring interior that ignored or even led to toxic behavior behind the scenes of her popular program, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, though, the consequence to her seems far short of any sort of cancellation).
The problem with Cancel Culture is that, unlike in a court of law, tactics and methods need not (and usually do not) rely on procedural safeguards. Its prosecutors may rely on faulty evidence and ill-defined and unproven wrongs, ignore nuance, and press for punishments that don’t fit the crime, to be rendered without consistency or direction by anyone in the community. Even worse, the accusation and verdict may rest on speech or behavior that is entirely innocent. Historically, nation-states and communities have sometimes been overcome by horrific cancellation frenzies. We know some of these outcomes and events as the Inquisition, lethal witch hunts, and genocides. These, I think it possible to argue, are the ultimate nightmare of cancel-culture thinking, but it is not what’s at stake here at home.
A bellwether of the current debate is the brouhaha surrounding the publication of the so-called Harper’s Letter, “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published on the magazine’s website last July 7. Originally signed by 153 writers, journalists, professors, lawyers, activists, and others, including Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem, David Brooks, Martin Amis, and J. K. Rowling, the Letter noted the growing strength around the world of “the forces of illiberalism” and warned of an “intolerant climate that has set in on all sides,” including on the part of self-styled resisters of right-wing intolerance. The signers pointed to a spreading censoriousness and daily encroachments on the free exchange of ideas,
an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.
The Letter concluded in a short call for moderation and taking deep breaths:
The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.
Though not in express terms, the Harper’s letter was a response to a number of well publicized incidents, including a protracted fuss involving the writer J. K. Rowling. She put herself in hot water earlier this year when she tweeted sardonically about the phrase “people who menstruate.” Labels aside, Rowling’s point was that such people ought to be called women because there is a biological basis to gender. She was severely criticized by many in the transgender community, who insist that a transgender woman (that is, a person born without the body type and chemistry to menstruate) is nevertheless a woman, and a transgender man (a person born with female characteristics) is in fact a man even though he does menstruate.
Rowling’s taunting tweet caused a furor in the relevant twitterverse and was, as many of our off-the-cuff reactions to incitements on social media are, a mistake. But the reaction to it prompted her to write a lengthy and measured response to the controversy, including revealing to a wide audience her untold personal story of domestic abuse. Among many other things, she said:
I believe the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve outlined. Trans people need and deserve protection. Like women, they’re most likely to be killed by sexual partners. Trans women who work in the sex industry, particularly trans women of colour, are at particular risk. Like every other domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor I know, I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men. So I want trans women to be safe.
Her objection, without the necessary qualifications that she expounds at some length, is that many in the trans community have reacted in knee-jerk fashion to anyone who points out that not everything they wish for is either safe or sound public policy, like the current British policy governing who can be considered transgendered (read her entire piece for a sense of the argument and the abuse that poured in to her earlier tweet). You may disagree with the conclusions she draws from the facts she recites, but her long post is not the work of a monster or fanatic out to make the lives of a particular community “infinitely more difficult,” as she was charged.
Rowling was quickly vilified anew. Months later she was labeled “transphobic” and attacked for making the villain in her new book, Troubled Blood, a man in a dress. So far as I’ve found, the book’s villain is neither identified as nor turns out to be transgendered. Rather, say her critics, the very trope is evidence of an ugly bigotry.
One might conclude that the Rowling’s detractors are reasoning like this: If I can imagine someone extracting a dangerous, onerous, or demeaning intention, no matter the dispassionate tone or the reasoned argument, no matter the mental gymnastics, and no matter that only us sophisticates play the game, then not only does my interpretation prove you intended to but shows that your comments harm all those in the relevant community, perhaps “infinitely,” by their very utterance.
Thus the Harper’s letter.
A few of the original Harper’s signers recanted. Jennifer Boylan, professor of English at Barnard College and a New York Times contributing writer, said she “did not know who else had signed the letter.” (Those asked to sign were not told who else had been solicited.) Boylan’s recantation seems odd. It might mean that for Boylan the issue of attaching your name is not agreement with the point but avoidance of guilt by association. Perhaps it’s standard in her discipline to determine meaning or propriety on the basis of who agrees or disagrees with the text (although didn’t English professors once teach that meaning is not for anyone other than the reader?). Or put it another way, it’s a little like saying, “ordinarily, I support driving my car carefully, but since I found out that my evil enemy agrees, I’m reconsidering my view, because who knows what lurks in that word ‘carefully’?”
The lob from the Harper’s signers was quickly returned, with loud grunts. The debate has been furious, full of charges and countercharges, claims and counterclaims, that veer in many directions. I don’t have space or, I admit, patience just now to consider each of the variations of each position. So I’ll have to content myself and ask your understanding with what follows.
Sarah Jeong is representative of many who argue, first, that it’s unclear what Cancel Culture means, and second, that its denouncers are hiding behind the term.
Unclear what it means: Are you canceled because you are criticized, or must you lose your job to be its victim, or even more stringently, receive death threats? Jeong calls it all a “general incoherence.” I don’t doubt that the term is used in many different ways, with fine degrees of shading, to embrace many sorts of behavior, but the Harper’s signatories are not talking about all the barnacles that have attached to the term. They have one specific evil in mind.
Cancel culture doesn’t mean cancel: Never mind, says Jeong. It’s clear what the Letter writers are in such a snit about:
the real fear that motivates The Letter becomes obvious in the text itself, right around where its writers are spinning in circles about the obvious contradiction that a pro-speech coalition has come together to ask its critics to shut the fuck up: “It is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.” The opinionators are not actually afraid of being silenced. They wish to take up column inches without a pack of nobodies telling them how wrong they are.
Jeong is being glib; it’s not what the letter calls for. None of the signatories has asked any of those who are implicitly criticized to shut up. And Jeong gets glibber, pointing out that the French Reign of Terror wasn’t as bad as the old society that French revolutionaries were rebelling against, since the old aristocracy killed more than did the later revolutionaries. This is an argument (or non-sequitur) with old roots. Are we still really hearing it? “I’m against the murderous old regime. I accuse you of not being fully with me in eradicating it. You must die.” Or “your family killed many of my ancestors. I’m going to kill just you, who I recognize had nothing to do with the previous fuss, for various good reasons I need not make clear to you. Seems more than fair.” There used to be a course called Philosophy 101 that dealt with such fatuousness.
Please, Jeong seems to be begging the Letter’s signatories, reconsider your facts and your opinions: “To my fellow uneasy olds, I ask you to remember that chaos is not evil, change is not wrong, conflict is not violence, and relevance is not a human right.” Really? Chaos is not evil? Whose chaos? When and for how long? Change is not wrong — sure, except for the change that is. Conflict not violent? True, except for violent conflict. Relevance is not a human right? Only if you believe that rational argument is a sin to be extirpated, especially against the strongest faith. Many people believe that.
Jeong’s bold pronunciamento sounds like the notorious line from Barry Goldwater’s speech at the 1964 Republican Convention: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!” Goldwater went on: “And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” And what’s wrong with that? Plenty. The problem with extremism is that it has no inherent limits — indeed, it connotes precisely its limitlessness. Do whatever it takes to preserve whatever value you suppose you are protecting. As Robespierre said in one of his most celebrated lines about his form of extremism: “Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.” (Quoted in David Andress, The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France, 2005, p. 271.)
A related claim, voiced by writer Jessica Valenti (and many others, here and here) is that the Harper’s signatories fundamentally misunderstand or misstate the nature of the objection that the Cancelers are making to the opinion that they inveigh against. Theirs is not an attempt to cancel anyone. Quite to the contrary: The critics of Rowling and her cohort are simply doing what the characterization of her adversaries suggests: they’re criticizing. Robustly. Says Valenti:
The truth is that we are in a political moment when free speech is in danger just not in the way this letter outlines. Americans have watched as thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to demonstrate against racist police violence — only to be tear-gassed and beaten. Video after video shows journalists, clearly identifying themselves as such, being hit and dragged, knocked over and arrested. The most challenged book in American libraries last year? A children’s book about a trans child.
Where is the free speech outrage, the letter signed by powerful thinkers, over these injustices?
The only speech these powerful people seem to care about is their own: They want to be able to say whatever they want without consequence and to paint themselves as the victims even as they wield more institutional and systemic power than anyone criticizing them. As the Washington Post’s Karen Attiah put it, “This is about whose ideas, opinions and expressions are worth protecting.”
You need not look too closely to see that Valenti’s arrows, aimed at the heart of the Harper’s argument, are actually classic non-sequiturs. Quite obviously the signatories do not support violence aimed at protestors or journalists. They also do not support threats aimed at minority groups. Why should they have to say so? That’s not their beef nor their beat. Nor, separately, do the signatories argue that they should be permitted to speak without risking even forceful disagreement. To deny the force of the signatories’ argument by pointing to their critics’ right to speak is like denying the existence of McCarthyism because Senator Joe McCarthy had the legal right to criticize and denounce communists.
Yes, McCarthy had such a right, but so what? The problem with McCarthyism was two-fold: it destroyed reputations of Americans who did no wrong and it paralyzed a significant portion of the public. The law may excuse your saying “I have my eye on you” when you’re standing in front of someone’s home with a gun in your holster, but that doesn’t negate the reasons the person behind the door has to fear should he open it.
That Cancel Culture has the power to burden, if not lay waste to, innocent lives is one of the subjects of Helen Lewis’s astute analysis of the phenomenon last July in The Atlantic. She agrees that some “targets have been properly “taken out,” but in each case because their wrongdoings have been palpable and beyond question. Forcing his company to oust Harvey Weinstein and Weinstein’s subsequent rape conviction are “good outcome[s].” But the “mechanism” by which it was reached is “more morally ambiguous.”
Lewis points to the large incentive of companies in the public eye to eliminate “low-cost, high-noise signals as a substitute for genuine reform, to ensure their survival.” Rather than engage in meaningful reform, employers tout their bravado and moral bona fides by firing employees of no particular value to the company to avert even whispers of harboring those at whom customers will take umbrage, even though often the claim about what the employee did is confused, distorted, or false. Borrowing the term from Ross Douthat, Lewis calls it “woke capitalism.” She cites examples of employees discharged for “minor infractions” of an ill-defined code of cultural etiquette and of those discharged wholly without cause. And in many cases, Cancel Culture is unforgiving: one wrong move — for example, circulating an ill-considered opinion 33 years earlier and since repented in word and deed — has proven sufficient to destroy a person’s job, if not career.
As an aside, activists in the Cancel Culture playbill are generally supposed to be left-wingers, but there’s nothing inherent in the phenomenon that fixes it at one end of the political spectrum. McCarthyism was a right-wing phenomenon; so was the attempt, largely successful in the view of many, to “cancel” Colin Kaepernick for the sin of “taking a knee” during the playing of the national anthem at professional football games. The singers once known as the Dixie Chicks were blacklisted, to use the earlier term, for daring to call out President George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraqi invasion in 2003. I can well imagine that the reluctance this past week of most of the Republican establishment to tell President Trump to back off, accept the inevitable, and get ready for life outside Washington is in part the fear of being politically canceled, no matter how sober, analytical, and patriotic their honest advocacy might be.
At the heart of the Letter is the lament that, wittingly or not, we have re-entered an age when opponents seek to hobble an unpopular speaker’s capacity to speak or associate with others. Not merely the “obvious” malefactor, the one worthy of being stifled (we know who you are!), but all the others on whom the tastemakers decree an equal silencing. To be sure, the chilling effect will not always be sufficient to deter bold souls from speaking out and the people to whom they appeal may be fewer than supposed. But to rest on these reeds is to close your eyes when a grenade is tossed near your feet: Maybe it’s a dud, but should we be taking that chance?
In a concise primer on Cancel Culture today, Ross Douthat, also writing last July, called on those who oppose “left-wing cancel culture” to provide reasons for their view that go beyond appeals to liberalism and free speech:
to defend a liberal position in these arguments you need more than just a defense of free speech in the abstract; you need to defend free speech for the sake of some important, true idea. General principles are well and good, but if you can’t champion controversial ideas on their own merits, no merely procedural argument for granting them a platform will sustain itself against a passionate, morally confident attack. So 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.
Douthat seems to be saying that no merely abstract counterargument (for example, the fairness of letting everyone have a say) can withstand the morally intense notion that a decent society will die if it permits public avowal of anything that can be construed as a racist, sexist, ethnic or a comparable divisive attack on any of its members. I’m not sure why he thinks so. It’s like saying we need a non-procedural reason to defend the notion of due process against a rowdy mob that insists on busting the varmint from jail and lynching him on the spot. The value of due process — an approach to decisionmaking — is obvious. Without due process — that set of procedures that establishes the rule of law — there can be no stability or long-term development. If your own neck or the time and capital you invest in a business or calling are at risk over random, mistaken, or lawless attacks, a cooperative society simply cannot cohere. The argument for due process — that is, for a procedural practice — is not itself procedural but as substantive and concrete as the argument for slaking the thirst of the lynch mob: you can have your man, but only if you’ve proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he’s guilty as charged.
So too the argument for freedom of speech. It depends for its force on the insight that unbridled censoriousness is not a path to purity but a busy road leading away from moral and other improvements. The concern is not merely, as in Mill’s argument, that there may be something wrong in what almost everyone holds to be right and that without freedom of speech we won’t ever learn what’s better. (In 1836, in the old pre-Civil War south, so certain was the establishment about the necessity (and virtue) of slavery that the postmaster general refused to circulate literature discussing its evils.) The much larger concern is that censoriousness will strike at the necessary security required for a community to talk to one another.
Sooner or later, as in the French Revolution, the forces of change will become the forces of reaction; the movement will eat its own. Without real assurance that we can forge ahead and not be saddled with the consequences of cancellation when we’re found to have overstated, understudied, and failed to consider the myriad human circumstances that make up the lives we are defending and promoting, we will experience not some irenic purity (there are many true beliefs, and the odds are the corrupt one will win out) but, rather, a vast silence. If you are not brave enough to risk ruining your associations, your calling, and perhaps even your life for daring to confront the party line, you will not necessarily conform to the orthodoxy of the moment. You will likely cease to speak.
Soviet obduracy shut down Russian agricultural research for nearly 30 years when Stalin swallowed false theories of biology advanced by the pseudoscience of Russian biologist Trofim Lysenko; thousands of Russian agronomists and biologists were fired, imprisoned, and even executed. The others kept quiet. The result: Soviet agriculture suffered egregiously; crop yields declined precipitously.) The reductio ad terrorem was the harsh road to the Soviet gulag, where cells abounded with citizens who failed to applaud their leaders long enough or criticized the soup for being too hot or too cold. And the officials in charge of rounding up the unwary were subject to the same implacable logic: Think too hard about nuance and they’d be subject to the professional attention of their colleagues in the next office.
The problem with Cancel Culture is thus that in time it will impose a dread sense of caution not only on the imprudent but on the most level-headed among us. Who can be canceled will be chilled. The silence will spread into a vast middle ground, where it is anything but clear what a speaker or writer believes, knows, or intends from a single line, a single act, or even a single essay — or what the audience will take from it. The answer to Ross Douthat is just here. The reason to fear Cancel Culture is not only that it may destroy the reputations of those who do not deserve that fate. The larger fear is that most such people lack both the courage and the stamina to take the risk. Any remark could send someone into a rage. Few possess the mental energy necessary to parse every word they might be tempted to utter.
What results is the central problem of restrictions on speech: They slow and limit our voices, not just the voices of those who spew obnoxious nonsense but, probably much more often, those who would have something useful to say but are afraid to risk a censorious mob descending on them for an incautious claim, an injudicious remark, an ill-considered wisecrack, a too hastily expressed view, or an insufficiently researched proposition or argument. Social opprobrium by the orthodox keeps people from striving, one thought at a time, from working their way to a reasoned conclusion or from inviting others to move on from their own perhaps mistaken premises and think things anew.
It’s difficult to believe that at this moment an important subset of Cancelers would need reminding about safe spaces. A free society cannot live on a bottom of existential insecurity. Resisting a pandemic is one thing — there are always moves and defenses one can learn to lessen risk. But a speakers’ perch shrivels to a point or vanishes when the mere act of speaking can threaten, if not all, still much that sustains a speaker’s life and values.
This, then, is not a mere “procedural” argument (though I continue to doubt that proceduralism is a self-defeating argument). Freedom of speech is an argument from social behavior — that robust freedom of speech permits people not only the right to be wrong but the leeway to work their way to useful and enobling ideas (and that its absence would seriously impede that possibility). Respect for free speech also provides others the freedom and security to demonstrate that they are correct (and even confess error in what they once believed and said). Suppressing opinion, even detestable claims, is like hoping to extinguish a fire by containing it in a cardboard box. In some due time, the fire will consume the box and leap its way out. Better to have firefighters, knowing that it’s there, standing by. Otherwise, what gets torched is not just a flat statement but also a continuing stream of modification, refinement, and correction. To ignore the chilling effect, worse, to prompt it, is to beckon a stillborn future.
No less important and very possibly far more important, easily accepting Cancel Culture as the path to decency would convey a tyrannical authority over those who exercise it, unconstrained by our long constitutional tradition of separating basic powers. The new impetus to ostracism would crown those who inhabit the role with two distinct but concurrent powers, one legislative, the other judicial. Team Cancel would have central legislative authority, namely, the power to define harm itself, to declare for everyone what lies beyond the bounds of normal, conventional, or at least acceptable behavior, and also the unconstrained judicial power to determine guilt and at whim the nature of the punishment and the manner of its execution. These are awesome powers, denied under the First Amendment and separation of powers principles to any current official — reason alone to doubt the propriety of consigning their unbridled exercise, even their shadowy counterparts, to unelected and unappointed private parties.
To this larger problem, the problem of assessing and acting on harm, mostly unexplored in these posts, I hope to return in the new year.
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