Let’s begin with a news trend. Ugh. I’m sure everyone here knows how much I dislike those. But, I promise, I’m not reneging on my criticism of “hot takes”; rather, I’d like to think a couple steps ahead of an issue that came to a head this week, with respect to different information silos fiercely dissenting over the nature of acceptable dissent.
This is a curious incident, by and large, because Harper’s Magazine published an open letter on July 7, with some 153 signatories (two of whom then distanced themselves from the letter), and although many responses to it emerged online, one of the strongest responses had actually been published the day before, in The New Republic. That should give you some indication as to the fact that this letter isn’t so much a flash-in-a-pan as a concretization of a longstanding disagreement between a range of public thinkers.
Put simply, the open letter argued that academics, journalists, and writers increasingly find themselves living in a world of such extreme intolerance to different points of view that the entire liberal enterprise predicated on freedom of speech is in peril. The site of this extreme intolerance, for them, lies with the vox populi, the voice of average people who collectively react online in ways that sometimes lead to such professionals losing their jobs, or small businesses losing their income.
As Osita Nwanevu “counters” in his earlier rebuttal, the issue here is one of competing prioritizations when defining a healthy liberal state. In his framing of the opposing point of view, the idea of “freedom of speech” is being treated as of such singular importance that criticism of it, when expressed by people leaning on another form of freedom — freedom of association — is regarded as oppression. To Nwanevu, choosing to shift one’s association away from support of a given speaker’s public platform or private service/product is itself an integral part of healthy liberalist debate.
This week, I found myself in the fascinating position of debating this letter with a very close friend whom I had not realized held so strenuously to the former point of view. I had certainly seen inklings of difference in their sharing of the occasional anecdote of an academic fired or censored, but only around this letter had I really started to hear my friend use certain especially heated terms from this other info-silo, which gave me quite a bit of philosophical whiplash — because again, we’ve been talking three or four times a week for years, yet it had never occurred to me until quite recently how deep ran my friend’s concern about a leftist take-over of debate and utter suppression of dissent.
This essay isn’t about litigating that debate between us, though. Nor am I going to deconstruct the letter and its counterpoints as ever so many online have been doing.
Rather, I want to take the opposing point of view as credulously as possible — to assume for a second that there is a “cancel culture” driven by leftists and the rise of things like Critical Race Theory “dogma” to the exclusion of all democratic debate.
And I want to explore what the most effective course of action would be, if this were true.
What would a “Post-Cancel-Culture” look like?
Establishing Terms, and Complications Therein
The immediate challenge for me, in this exercise, is accepting the premise of “cancel culture,” a term I find every bit as ineffectively selective as “rape culture.” Just as the latter term is both exceptionally vague in scope but also too narrow to tackle the underlying problem of life in a culture of entitlement to use and do harm to other’s bodies in general, so too does “cancel culture” gesture at a whole range of different incidents while nonetheless drawing its borders around only those incidents that support the belief that rampant “leftism” is to blame for the “rise” in public intolerance of different points of view.
What I don’t see in this circle of care, for instance, are things like GamerGate, or the well-known phenomenon of angry men tanking movies (via ratings bombing pre-release) for having women or persons of colour taking positions in “their” beloved franchises — and then harassing the actors involved until they leave the spotlight. Or the immense precarity of non-tenured teaching staff within universities, and grad students in particular speaking and writing at the whims of nebulous advisory relationships with a huge impact on their careers. Harper’s itself is not at all above reproach, either, as the target of an allegation that it fired an editor for disagreeing with an anti-MeToo article in 2018, while other major news conglomerates have long histories of trying to keep journalists from speaking openly about, say, pay rates.
And that’s just within the circle of prominent public figures. For a side so interested in “freedom of speech,” there is ever so little attention being paid by them to the immense number of economic sectors where people are 100% at the mercy of “I want to speak to your manager” culture; whose “freedom of speech” is all but expected to end when they put on the uniform, and who often risk being fired even for talk of unionizing or concerns about working conditions.
Going even further down this rabbit hole, we then get to the crux of the “freedom of speech” matter that has prompted widespread and ongoing protests — most of which are not even being reported on anymore, because mainstream news outlets backed by monopolies are historically much quicker to foreground stories where property is jeopardized by “unruly” activism. Even more fundamental than “freedom of speech,” though, should be “freedom to breathe”… and yet we live in a culture where many people feel emboldened to use the police to intimidate others; and where the police live up to that threat of intimidation by being responsible for an horrific number of unnecessary deaths; and where, in the US especially, average citizens under the most infuriatingly misinterpreted 2nd Amendment also feel entitled to use firearms to police others to death.
So, no, I think “cancel culture” is a wilfully selective and dishonest term, one which draws an extremely narrow line around what speech deserves protection, and ignores all incidents that counter its implicit thesis about leftism gone wild.
But — for the purposes of this thought experiment, the givens I have to accept are as follows:
- That the free expression of certain viewpoints from certain platforms are the litmus test for free society.
- That those who espouse such viewpoints from certain platforms are under such an extreme attack from the forces of intolerance that free society stands on the verge of collapse.
- That these forces of intolerance arise from leftist discourse, the new and dominant dogma of our day and age.
Okay. So, accepting the premise that Something Needs to Be Done to protect academics, writers, journalists, and business-owners from job-loss and other such economic recriminations at the hands of outraged left-leaning online critics, for the “crime” of advancing dissenting (i.e. more conservative-leaning) points of view…
How does one go about creating this better, more liberal society?
Well, Who’s Actually Doing the “Cancelling”?
The key to this question lies, of course, with that notion of “economic recriminations.” No one should lose their job or livelihood, the argument goes, for what they say or believe.
The thing is, though… it’s not the “outrage mob” actually firing people. It’s the university, or the media organization, or the business, which chooses to respond to public outcry by cutting its losses with the simplest / most cost-effective solution. A truly progressive solution to consumer/public concern would be to use the situation to reflect upon its practices in general, and to provide growth and healing opportunities for the campus/community on whole. Nevertheless, who has the time or resources for restoring good-faith relations with one’s fellow citizens? Firing a scapegoat is and always has been a much easier tool for businesses to employ.
And yet, arguments like the Harper’s open letter aren’t directed toward the actual site of socioeconomic oppression: the labour system, that is, which gives companies so much power over who gets to live safely, with access to good healthcare and the financial stability necessary to manage both one’s present and one’s future.
Instead, they target this vast, nebulous network of “people on the internet,” whose “intolerance” is what needs to end. No more criticism! No more being outraged when someone says something hateful or advances a position you feel will cause social harm! No more calling for someone’s job — because if you do, the employer might follow through, and then it will be your fault for them doing so!
It’s a little like two children in an abusive household, each forever angry at the other for doing anything that might call their abusive parent over to do serious harm.
And it entirely misses the mark with respect to what we would need to bring about a society wherein “cancel culture” is no longer a threat to anyone.
A World Without Socioeconomic Precarity
Because the real issue is the leverage that any “outrage mob” might be able to use against a given dissenter. (I mean, not all dissenters: most of that letter’s signatories, for instance, are so well off that they’re thoroughly protected from economic ruin, and in many cases can just go about publishing whatever they want irrespective of internet ire towards them — but we’re keeping to the premise here.)
As such, if one truly wants to live in a world where “cancel culture” no longer has power over public discourse… one should be seeking out a world where one’s employer does not have such an outsize power over one’s ability to maintain basic financial stability: a world with a baseline of protected income, perhaps, matched to government regulations against exploitative price-hiking for basic living necessities.
Y’know, the kind of world a lot of folks on the “left” are advocating for in the first place.
So, if the “cancel culture” issue is simply a matter of wanting “freedom of speech” protected from socioeconomic consequences, such that anyone can say what they believe in an open forum for debate without fear of violence against person or livelihood…
Why isn’t the advocacy of those most worried about being “cancelled” focussed on eliminating the threat to freedom of speech at its most critical juncture? Why is the focus, instead, on broadly decrying masses of people for… speaking?
I take very seriously the fact that many people take very seriously the belief that society is becoming so intolerant that their very jobs and livelihoods are at stake. I might not think they’re correct in that belief, mind you, but fear is a terrible thing for human beings to live with, and we need to think, as humanists, about how to reduce its prominence.
In a recent essay, I discussed how I got over my own fear of dissent leading to terrible consequences, but I understand that for those who aren’t more directly exposed to the nuance with which call-outs and call-ins take place in online discourse, it might not seem as easy to shake off the fear of being met with economically devastating backlash for something as “simple” as the contents of one’s speech.
What I hope we can rally behind, though, is the fact that even if one takes this selective notion of “cancel culture” seriously, pointing at masses of people speaking their mind and telling them to be less intolerant of your own freedom of speech, lest their criticism awaken the sleeping giant of your employer… is never going to achieve a better world. We need far more concrete reforms to enhance the spread of more liberal society.
And for that? We need to take a highly humanistic leap of… uh… courage.
We need to lean in, in other words, to the idea that there are more of “us” who want to do better day by day, than there are people who simply wish to see others laid lower than we are. And then we need to popularize that perspective by demonstrating its value in the field of public policy reforms — because none of us is ever truly free so long as one person’s freedom leaves the rest crushed further under an unjust socioeconomic yoke.