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There are Real Threats to Free Speech Everywhere. Cancel Culture is Far Down the List

Rejected submission by upstart at 2022-09-27 18:28:52
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There Are Real Threats To Free Speech Everywhere. Cancel Culture Is Far Down The List [techdirt.com]:

There Are Real Threats To Free Speech Everywhere. Cancel Culture Is Far Down The List

Culture [techdirt.com]

from the cancel-me-already dept

I’ve written a few times lately about the overreaction [techdirt.com] many people seem to have to claims that “cancel culture” is a “threat to free speech.” Obviously, there are some examples of people overreacting to speech they dislike, but more often than not, the claims of “cancel culture” are really assholes upset that they’re being held accountable [techdirt.com] for being assholes. Even in the few cases that do appear to be unjust overreactions to speech, it feels like the people who make the biggest deal about it are actually those who are hiding behind those rare legitimate cases to hide their own fear of facing consequences for their own speech. A friend has referred to this as “cancelled man syndrome,” in which people who know they’re spewing questionable nonsense are scared to death of finally being called on it. It’s perhaps a close relation to “imposter syndrome,” but rather than having to just deal with your internal insecurities, you deal with it by insisting it’s unfair for people to criticize you too vocally.

Adam Serwer, over at the Atlantic, has a good article on all of this, and comes up with his own term for it: “the tyranny of the ratio” (“the ratio” being what happens when you tweet something so monumentally stupid, that you have way more responses calling you out than either likes or retweets). Of course, “the ratio” is just a form of counter speech. It can sometimes be wrong, certainly, but it’s not an attack on free speech. But, as some fear facing such a maelstrom, they seem to associate pointed criticism with at least “attempts” at cancelling.

Serwer’s piece is entitled The Right to Free Speech Is Not the Right to Monologue [theatlantic.com], and it’s worth reading. It talks about lots of the usual crew, who bemoan cancel culture, trying to turn the stabbing of Salman Rushdie into some sort of commentary on cancel culture (it seems that lots of pundits [techdirt.com] want to co-opt Rushdie’s situation with their own pet causes). As Serwer notes, though, the supposed “culture of free speech” is always under threat in some form or another, and on the grand scale of things, arguing that people are screaming at you on social media, seems rather benign compared to the past:

Free speech requires a robust exchange of views without the coercion of threats and violence, and self-censorship in response to social pressure is a genuine risk. Yet by definition, there is no free speech if one person is allowed to make an argument and another is not allowed to object to it. Nor has there ever been a time in American history when freedom of speech was not threatened with proscription by the state, or when one could express a controversial opinion and not risk social sanction. In short, the culture of free speech is always under threat.

In almost every era of U.S. history, the bounds of free expression have been contested. In the founding era, patriots tarred and feathered royalists. Before the Civil War, southern states passed laws that could be used to prosecute the dissemination of abolitionist literature and sought to prevent the Postal Service from delivering antislavery pamphlets, saying they would foment insurrection by the enslaved. Mobs followed the abolitionist Frederick Douglass across the North, throwing rotten eggs, stones, and menacing slurs at the orator at speaking events. After Reconstruction, white supremacists destroyed the office of Ida B. Wells’s newspaper, The Free Speech and Headlight, following the publication of an editorial arguing that lynchings of Black men accused of raping white women were in fact punishment for consensual relationships. The Red Scares of the 20th century saw Americans forced from their jobs and prosecuted for leftist beliefs or sympathies on the grounds that those were tantamount to a commitment to overthrowing the government. Out of that crucible emerged a civil libertarian concept of free speech that many have mistaken for timeless rather than a product of a certain history and a particular arrangement of political power. The idea that certain forms of speech or expression justify or provoke violence, let alone that blasphemy does so, is not an invention of modern social-justice discourse.

From there, he highlights how there are many actual threats to free speech that are happening right now, every day, and which don’t seem to be mentioned by the pearl-clutching crowd of “oh no cancel culture” worriers. Perhaps it’s because these threats are a lot more structural than they are ideological, and also, if anything, both the state-level threats and the mobbing threats can be seen perhaps more often from the right than the left (contrary to the popular narrative).

Yet, as Aaron R. Hanlon recently wrote in The New Republic [archive.ph], this wave of censorship laws in Republican-controlled states bears scant mention among many of the most prominent self-styled defenders of free speech, or at least, far less than the tyranny of the ratio [archive.ph]. But we do not become little Rushdies when our inboxes and mentions are inundated with deranged filth from disturbed strangers, as a result of the public-facing profession we chose and the technological advancements that make us more accessible to such people.

It is not minimizing the power of digital mobs to say that spending decades with the state-backed threat of an assassin’s blade at your throat is coercion of a different magnitude. The wrath of an online mob can be harrowing: harassment, outrageous falsehoods, and threats are not pleasant to bear, and can threaten not just your mental health but your livelihood, and in extreme cases your safety. To pretend that seeking to avoid such an experience does not condition what people say and how they act would be foolish. But to pretend that this is a left-wing ideological phenomenon rather than a structural one, when educators [archive.ph], medical providers [archive.ph], election officials [archive.ph], and others from all walks of life [archive.ph] are being driven underground by right-wing influencers who can conduct a mob like an orchestra [archive.ph], would be equally foolish.

As Serwer notes, some of this is a spectrum, and it may be more difficult to identify what is and what is not appropriate, but I’d argue that’s also what is allowing the claims of “cancel culture” to be adopted as a shield by those who don’t want to face even the slightest bit of actual accountability.

State censorship and violent compulsion are relatively easy to identify and oppose, if not always easy to prevent. When does accountability become harassment? When does protest become coercion? What views should be acceptable to state in polite society, and which should be appropriately shunned by decent people? When does a voice of criticism become the howl of a mob? When does corporate speech become corporate censorship? No society in human history has ever had simple answers to these questions. In a free society, sometimes people will choose to be horrible, and there is little to do other than make a different choice and counsel people to do the same.

Presenting these dilemmas as similar to an attempt to silence someone with a theocratic death mark is trivializing, and ahistorical. There has never been a golden age when anyone could say what they wanted without consequence, only eras in which one shared perspective was dominant.

There’s much more in the full piece that is worth reading, so make sure you go read the whole thing. However, it also calls to mind a few other recent pieces on this general topic. Ken “Popehat” White, last month, wrote an excellent piece in which the subhead (to me) tells the story more than the the headline: “Cancel Culture” Has Victims, But You’re Probably Not One Of Them [substack.com].

In it, he discusses yet another case of two Harvard professors whining that one of them has been “cancelled, in a sense” because people… walked out on his speech.

Mr. Silverglate is a Harvard graduate and professor, crusading attorney and defender of rights, repeatedly published author of important books, founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights In Education, and a sought-after gripping speaker. He has not been fired, expelled from any organization, depublished, or even (so far as I know) shunned on Martha’s Vineyard. Here’s what happened: he was invited to speak to private high-school students on the subject of free expression, he used the racial epithet commonly known as the n-word in the course of accurately quoting the title of Prof. Kennedy’s book, he did so several times, some of the students walked out, he continued to speak with the rest of the students, later the school sent its community an apology for the epithet being used in the classroom and said it was inappropriate, and the school wouldn’t print Mr. Silverglate’s response. In other words, some people (rightly or wrongly, rationally or irrationally) didn’t like some of his free expression and responded with their own free expression. If there have been other consequences, he hasn’t mentioned them.

The two professors (Harvey Silverglate and Randall Kennedy) then took to the internet to bemoan this sordid state of affairs, pulling a “woe is me, the cancelled academic” because students walked out on Silverglate. As White notes, they don’t even seem to acknowledge the student’s expressive rights, but rather focus solely on their own fragile egos.

One of those things is not like the other. Walking out isn’t shouting down or blocking. Moreover, Mr. Silverglate and Prof. Kennedy apparently believe that dropping the n-word is acceptable but walking out on Mr. Silverglate for dropping it is not “acceptable.” They seem to posit a known and absolute standard of decorum under which one is proper and the other just isn’t. They do not seem to acknowledge that some people may be as passionate about the n-word being inappropriate at school as they are passionate that it’s proper, or that people who feel that way have a legitimate interest in expressing their dissent. They don’t seem to recognize the irony of decrying incivility in the context of a fundamental dispute over what’s civil. Nor do they consider that even if we agree that the n-word can be appropriate at school, that people might disagree about whether a particular use is pedagogy or mere provocation, education or edgelordism. One senses that the authors believe their role is to dispense wisdom and the role of the students of Milton Academy is to sit there and take it.

In turn, this reminds me of a whining screed in the NY Times that highlights the other side of this. NYT opinion columnist Pamela Paul has been writing a bunch of slightly weird columns, including one back in July that was, ostensibly, about how some publishers are getting scared away from publishing books, because they fear social media backlash. The piece does make some half-hearted “both sides” arguments in highlighting Republicans actually looking to ban books, but mostly focuses on “the left” speaking up (i.e., presenting their own speech) to try to explain why some books shouldn’t be published at all.

You can understand why the publishing world gets nervous. Consider what has happened to books that have gotten on the wrong side of illiberal scolds. On Goodreads, for example, vicious campaigns [nytimes.com] have circulated against authors [nytimes.com] for inadvertent offenses in novels that haven’t even been published yet. Sometimes the outcry doesn’t take place until after a book is in stores. Last year, a bunny [greystonebooks.com] in a children’s picture book got soot on his face by sticking his head into an oven to clean it — and the book was deemed racially insensitive by a single blogger [blogspot.com]. It was reprinted with the illustration redrawn. All this after the book received rave reviews and a New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children’s Book Award.

And again, yes, you can find examples that feel unfair, but are they truly up there as “censorship,” as Paul’s article claims?

Yet, as Julian Sanchez rightly notes, there’s a somewhat throwaway line in Paul’s piece that inadvertently tosses out her entire thesis.


Original Submission