Liberalism and the Question of “Cancel Culture”

by Kevin Currie-Knight

Cancel culture – the idea that it is increasingly hard to voice unpopular ideas without risking serious consequence – is illiberal. At least that seems to be an increasingly (and maybe ironically) prevalent view. But, in important way, it is arguably quite liberal. Maybe cancel culture is both liberal and illiberal depending on what idea we have of liberalism and its conditions.

A recent article I wrote on The Electric Agora about the NXIVM cult brought up an interesting discussion in the comments about whether and when social norms and their enforcement can be said to stifle freedom. While I don’t think anyone did, or needed to, frame the discussion as being about cancel culture, it was easy to read it that way. It amounted to a discussion about whether free speech and action is stifled if the community norms are such that saying or doing the wrong thing meant risking the potential of being de-platformed, being subject to hostile social media pile-ons, or maybe even losing income. In our current news cycle, that is a reference to cancel culture.

Are social norms that are vigorously policed by those who hold them consistent with liberal freedoms? My answer is yes… and no; that it just comes down to what we have in mind by liberalism and what freedoms you are talking about. Simply put, I think there are tensions in liberal thought – between, say, free speech and the necessity of civil discourse where speech is restrained – that cancel culture simply brings to the surface. This tension is arguably a variation of the paradox of tolerance Karl Popper noticed. Do we tolerate the intolerant? Since tolerating the intolerant threatens to dissolve liberalism, Popper thought this paradox was easy to resolve: We do not.

In some sense, I think of cancel culture as what happens when the very liberal values of free speech and free association are used at the scale made possible by the internet and social media. Before the internet, my speech generally couldn’t travel far. I could shout on a busy street or go through the lengthy process of trying to get my speech published in a venue with wide circulation, but generally, there was a definite limit to the scope most of my speech had. And that meant that while my saying noxious things could lead others to decide not to associate with me (or speak back, maybe even in equally noxious tones), it would be hard for any sizable mass of people to coordinate in order to ‘cancel’ me on any large scale.

Now and add the internet to that. Sure, in the pre-internet days, I could lose my job or incur the ire of those in my local community, but nothing like today. Today, any given social media post or tweet could be seen by more people than even the most well-read news outlets before. And it is very easy for people to use their free association rights in coordinated ways to enforce norms by doxing, engaging in “death by 1,000 cuts” internet pile-ons, and more.

But those internet pile-ons and nasty comments are speech, and losing one’s platforms, clients, and jobs are the work of people associating freely. The only way I can see to counteract these sorts of canceling – this free speech and association being used at internet scale – is to entertain some illiberal curtailing of free speech and free association rights. We could disallow employers from firing employees whose stated views are bad for their business. We could disallow social media platforms from de-platforming. We could persuade people to curtail their speech, limiting it to civil norms of discourse. But all of those – disallow, disallow, and curtail – seem, in some sense, to be illiberal.

OR maybe liberalism is less about that type of freedom – the freedom to use liberal rights to arguably illiberal effect – and more about the necessity of civility and tolerance. This is a style of liberalism favored by John Stuart Mill (who I’ll say more about later), a liberalism whose value is derived less from having liberal rights and more from those rights as a means to ensuring a society where diversity and heterogeneity can flourish and where differences are ironed out using civil methods of discourse. This is the type of liberalism that points out that we can’t live lives of freedom if there is too much social pressure not to step out of line, the type of liberalism which tends to see speech whose purpose is (nothing more than) to shout down other speech as itself a threat to the spirit of free speech.

And is the right to use economic and social pressures (boycotts and ostracism) a liberal value or an illiberal tool for silencing? In some cases, I bet we are all okay with the 1955 bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, where economic pressure from black people was used to desegregate  seating in the city’s bus system. We were all taught – probably correctly – that this is a liberal thing to do, to use peaceful and voluntary means – even if those means are economic – to bring about justice. This is especially liberal in a system where the state is barred from legal regulation; so, cultural and economic free association is the preferable regulator.

On the other hand, economic and societal free association – boycotts, firings, ostracism, de-platforming – can be as or heavier handed than the state. It is easy to argue that free speech demands more than preventing government censorship, but actually making sure that the cost of utterances doesn’t exceed what it is realistic to expect someone to pay. It may also be that the idea of depriving a bus company of income owing to their segregationist policies seems less intuitively problematic than depriving a journalist or twitter enthusiast of income owing to her skepticism of Ibram Kendi’s anti-racism argument (or, conversely, voicing support for Black Lives Matter in a conservative town).

In the end, I think whether we should deem cancel culture liberal or illiberal depends on what conception of liberalism you have. Do we value liberalism for its freedom for individuals, even if that means that individuals are free to be nasty, even brutally nasty as long as the brutality is not violent? Or do we value liberalism because it is the system most safe for diversity and toleration of different ways of living and thinking, even if that means we must all either legally or culturally limit what we can say or do to things that perpetuate a civil society? If the only way to limit the pernicious effects of cancel culture was to limit free speech and free association rights – and I do think this would be the only way – is that a good deal?

As for my own answer, I dislike the effects of cancel culture, but I grudgingly prefer its existence to what we would have to do by way of curtailing liberal right in order to prevent or mitigate it. This preference is partly because – and here I follow the thought of someone like Chantal Mouffe – I suspect that politeness is overrated and agonism, underrated. I also think that in a free society, we have to accept that speech that goes against the grain will always be costly, and I worry that the only ways to make it not so will themselves be illiberal by curtailing dissent. Lastly, I can’t help but notice that if I want to find un-PC or dissenting voices online, it isn’t at all hard, so as long as those who are cancelled are not thereby prohibited (in an absolute sense) from speaking, I think the cures to cancel culture will be worse than, well, the disease.

In this (somewhat reluctant) preference, I am disagreed with by no less a figure than John Stuart Mill. Mill’s On Liberty argued that free speech just isn’t free in the relevant sense when any viewpoint gains the legal or cultural power to silence dissenting views. Essentially, Mill works to convince us that in the long (and sometimes the short) run, everyone benefits by permitting and tolerating dissenting speech. The dissenters obviously benefit in several ways, but so do those dissented against (as it allows them to sharpen and enliven their views) and onlookers (who have the fullest marketplace of ideas from which to ponder and select).

As rousing and convincing as I find On Liberty, I think there are problems with its arguments being applied to cancel culture. First, I am not sure it is accurate to suggest that the things we call cancelling amount to suppressions of free speech. It is ironic, in fact, that concerns about cancel culture as suppression of free speech is made in the booming internet age, where it is easier than ever to find (or create) platforms and even, if need be, publish anonymously. Secondly, free speech cuts both ways: as a protection both for dissenters and those who wish to shout the dissenter down. Neither seems to me the more obviously liberal protection. Third, free speech is an important liberal value, but so is freedom of association. When universities dis-invite or refuse to invite speakers, or when twitter bans certain voices from using their platform, the intention or effect might be a chilling effect of speech, but it is hard to argue that any speaker or user has a right to be given certain platforms, or that platforms aren’t defensibly choosing who (not) to associate with.

In fact, I think what is really going on with cancel culture is less a chilling effect on free speech and more a regrettable siloing of voices. If you want to find anti-racist, racist, or anti-anti-racist voices in the media, you can. Ironically, there has been no shortage of podcasters, writers, and bloggers who have taken stands against cancel culture itself! The problem is not that Mill’s “despotism of custom” is monopolistically depriving certain voices from being heard, but that the cancelling has resulted in silos, where some platforms cater to these voices and other platforms cater to those voices. All can reach audiences, but few discussions between ideologically different voices happen. It is easier to cancel than to discuss.

That may be regrettable, but it is not obviously illiberal. It is not, of course, liberal in the Millian sense where the goal is civil discourse where everyone either engages with or tolerates dissent. It is, however, liberal in the sense that people are free to find (or create) platforms where they can espouse their views and audiences willing to receive those views.

My preference for the second type of liberalism is admittedly reluctant. I, too, worry about the power of groupthink and making dissent increasingly costly, even if government is not the entity raising the cost. I also worry about the power of increasing factionalism and conflict to bleed over into a more obviously illiberal use of violence (and this concern is no longer only in theory). I just suspect that the cure to cancel culture will ultimately be more illiberal – because stifling of liberal free speech and association rights – than the disease.

Yet, we treat the present dilemma of cancel culture un-seriously if we just quickly condemn it as illiberal and its opposite as liberal. If the elements that make up cancel culture are in fact liberal rights like free speech and association, as I think they are, is it more liberal to allow or curtail those rights? Either way entails purchasing some set of liberal values but comes with the sacrifice of other liberal values. And maybe the answer to the question of cancel culture’s liberality is a good old philosophical “it depends.”

Kevin Currie-Knight is a Teaching Associate Professor in East Carolina University’s College of Education. His research is in the philosophy and history of education as well as the role of agency and self-direction in education. He is the author of the book Education in the Marketplace (Springer 2019).

26 comments

  1. I’m not sure cancel culture and related issues can be addressed by focusing only on individuals and free assemblies of individuals. Are powerful institutions such as large corporations, universities & etc. simply assemblies of individuals? My intuition is that they are more than that.

    Cancel culture wouldn’t be what it is without the participation of HR offices, employers who can fire employees, editors that can cancel publication contracts, and so forth. And I don’t think it’s just a matter of these institutions and their representatives responding to market pressure as expressed through boycotts. Very few twitter mobs rise even close to the level of a real boycott, and yet employers, editors & etc. have been unnaturally eager to punish whoever the mob wants punished, even when relatively little real pressure has been applied. Active collusion of institutions seems to me to be an essential ingredient in what is going on here.

    I’m not a philosopher and am not familiar with all the various theories of liberalism. But I do think that an idealized picture of society as composed of individual monads who are free to cooperate or not* is not quite adequate to address the phenomenon of cancel culture.

    *I don’t claim that you’re proposing such a picture, but it is the image that comes across to me from this post.

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  2. I’ll likely have more to say about this later, but a few things now:

    1. Certainly, “cancellation” has always existed. In the middle of the last century, you faced job termination and social ostracization for uttering pro-Communist views. Also certainly, the internet and social media make it much easier to do this sort of thing. And yet, both are fundamentally illiberal.

    2. Businesses already operate under significant regulation, including anti-discrimination laws. There is nothing illiberal about not permitting businesses to discriminate. Indeed, it is *liberal* not to permit them to do so.

    3. The liberalism I tend to promote is what I’ve been calling “procedural” or “formal” liberalism. Essentially, it is the idea that because one can never know that one’s own side will remain attain and retain power in perpetuity, it is best to allow one’s opponents to live and speak largely as they like, within a number of highly limited, mostly prudential constraints. I doubt this conception falls prey to the criticisms you voice in the essay.

    https://theelectricagora.com/2019/12/06/the-good-old-liberal-consensus%e2%80%a0/
    https://theelectricagora.com/2018/03/10/the-liberal-consensus-and-the-orthodox-mind/

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    1. ” Also certainly, the internet and social media make it much easier to do this sort of thing. And yet, both are fundamentally illiberal.”

      I think, as in the piece, that this assumes there is one version of liberalism. If we are going by a Miliean standard where the goal is to create the safest world for tolerance and integrated diversity, yes, cancel culture is illiberal. But there is also a sort of liberalism that puts more emphasis on free association and is less about integrated diversity and protects the widest scope for liberal freedoms, a modus vivendi liberalism maybe.

      But I’d also have to question you on why (it seems) you think those things above are obviously illiberal. Do I have to let everyone into my house in order to be a liberal? If I’m a business owner, do I have to employ people (or have customers) who I deeply dislike and find abhorrent? As long as those people I refuse to associate with are left with other exercisable options, that seems to be a very liberal expression of free association (and maybe speech). Social ostracism itself tends to come through both free association and free speech, and I am wondering which of those is an illiberal value.

      “Businesses already operate under significant regulation, including anti-discrimination laws. There is nothing illiberal about not permitting businesses to discriminate. Indeed, it is *liberal* not to permit them to do so.”

      In no way does “is law in a liberal society” equate to “is liberal.” (It is currently against the law in our liberal society to give citizenship to citizens of certain “problem” countries. But I’d not use that toward an argument that immigration restrictions are thereby liberal.) At any rate, that has been HIGHLY contested, as several cases about how much government may regulate at potential violation of free association have made it to the Supreme Court.

      But again, my case is a bit weaker than saying such regulation is simply illiberal. My case is that whether it is or isn’t liberal depends on what type of liberalism you are talking about. And I don’t see that such regulation (and by effect, violation of free association and maybe conscience) is OBVIOUSLY the liberal course.

      “The liberalism I tend to promote is what I’ve been calling “procedural” or “formal” liberalism. Essentially, it is the idea that because one can never know that one’s own side will remain attain and retain power in perpetuity, it is best to allow one’s opponents to live and speak largely as they like, within a number of highly limited, mostly prudential constraints. I doubt this conception falls prey to the criticisms you voice in the essay.”

      Maybe. It is certainly a good policy to live by. But I wonder, does “it is best to allow one’s opponents to live and speak largely as they like” include the ability not to associate with those they find noxious? Does it square with telling a Jewish business owner who found out that one of their employees yelled “Jews will not replace us!” while pretending to be a warrior that firing that person – refusing to associate with or give them money – is unacceptable because it ‘cancels’ them? At very best, I think the procedural liberalism you are talking about is internally conflicting on matters like this. (To his credit, Mill knew that and said so, but he sort of dismissed this tension with a brief “Well, I guess it is tricky” before moving on to his next argument in favor.)

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      1. I don’t see the internal conflict you keep pointing to. I’ve been asked the Jewish question before and my answer is always the same. A business is not my living room, and there is nothing inconsistent with liberalism about businesses being bound by anti-discrimination and other liberalism-inspired regulations.

        I also don’t know that I think you are describing different liberalisms, but rather different aspects of a single liberalism.

        In the essay I did on the liberal consensus for The Philosopher’s Magazine, I defined it in the following way:

        “(1) That the main purpose of the state is to make it possible for people to pursue their respective conceptions of the good; (2) that people should be able to think, speak, and act as they like, without interference either from the government or their fellow citizens, constrained only by a narrowly and concretely defined harm principle; (3) that we should err on the side of unconstrained speech and association, especially for those with whom we most strongly disagree or disapprove; and (4) that our engagement with those with whom we most strongly disagree or disapprove should remain in the realm of discourse and should never involve attacks on their reputations or livelihoods.”

        The *rationale* I then give is the prudential/formal one that I have been speaking of under the umbrella of “procedural liberalism.”

        “(a) In a large, modern, heterogeneous country, we must accept that people are never going to agree upon a single conception of the good (an understanding that led John Rawls, in the 1970’s, to seek a conception of justice that does not presuppose any such common conception); and (b) in a large, modern, heterogeneous country, one can never count on one’s political allies – those who share one’s conception of the good – to gain political power or if in power, to retain it in perpetuity. ”

        After which I concluded:

        “the liberal consensus is an expression of maturity in politics, in that it recognizes and is respectful of the limitations of the political enterprise, which are a function of the limitations of human generosity.”

        I don’t really see anything in your critique that poses a serious challenge to any of this.

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        1. Ideally in our society we should be able to do and say what we want as long as we don’t harm anyone else. But it is not always clear when that is or isn’t the case.
          Post-Holocaust, we’ve become aware that publicly denigrating ethnic and religious groups can lead to genocide. Since WWII, since Rwanda, since Kosovo, we realize that hate speech can end up being like yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre. But it’s hard to know what limits or constraints need to be in place. In the last few years we have seen the internet and social media weaponized by white supremacists and the far right. Many of these people want to start a race war. Some have already carried out lone-wolf style massacres in churches, mosques, and synagogues. They are radicalized on the internet, and they obtain and share material that fuels their hatred on the internet. Hence the pressing need for rules and constraints and the halting and insufficient attempts by social media companies to dampen down the extremism and misinformation. The American President spreading disinformation about his political opponents and lying about the Covid epidemic are two outstanding examples. I hope that we can all see just how dangerous this is for the health of our democracy. This is the “illiberalism” we need to worry about, because as demagogues can motivate through deception, they have the power to destroy what used to look like solid democratic institutions, first undermining public trust, next targeting the evidence-based media in order to further deceive the public, and finally hollowing out the institutions from within by requiring blind loyalty, and abandoning rule of law. This soon-to-be-ex President entered politics by actively propagating a racist conspiracy theory about former President Obama, which he used to capture a sizable portion of the Republican party. Democracy in America is on life-support because of the viral spread of misinformation and hatred on Fox News, right-wing radio, and social media. This is an emergency, because if the misinformation is not contained in time there will be nothing left to protect.

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        2. “I don’t see the internal conflict you keep pointing to. I’ve been asked the Jewish question before and my answer is always the same. A business is not my living room, and there is nothing inconsistent with liberalism about businesses being bound by anti-discrimination and other liberalism-inspired regulations.”

          Dan, I think the internal conflict comes precisely when we ask at what point does either your living room become more like a business than not (or a business more like a living room than not), OR when does regulating businesses regarding whom they can and can’t serve become an illiberal violation of free speech or association. The most obvious controversial example I can think of was that of the cake baker who did not want to serve the lesbian couple. I suppose what I see is that either way you come down on that, you can do so cloaked in some liberal principle by violating another liberal principle. There doesn’t seem any ONE uniquely liberal way to answer that question. That’s the tension.

          “I also don’t know that I think you are describing different liberalisms, but rather different aspects of a single liberalism.”

          Maybe. The liberalism I’d point you to that most exemplifies where I am coming down is that of Chandran Kukathas (Liberal Archipelago) or John Gray (Two Faces of Liberalism), Enlightenment’s Wake). They put more value on free association and exit rights than on Millian liberal norms for a civil society. For them, liberalism allows for seemingly illiberal (in Mill’s sense) groups to exist as long as people have viable exit rights.

          But yes, it may be the tension I’m seeing is just one WITHIN liberalism. I’d only say that when that tension occurs, some theorists side in the Millian direction and others in, say, the Kukathasian direction. i side with the latter.

          As for your quoted definition of liberalism, (a) I find it quite compelling and (b) do not see much of what I am saying conflicting with it. Then again, you write that in your ideal liberal society “people should be able to think, speak, and act as they like, without interference either from the government or their fellow citizens, constrained only by a narrowly and concretely defined harm principle,” and that ” we should err on the side of unconstrained speech and association.”

          I struggle to see how cancel culture doesn’t fit into that. It seems to me that allowing businesses to refuse employ to those the employer finds to be noxious, or allowing large-scale internet pile-ons when someone makes controversial points on Twitter, etc, (should) fit quite easily into your depiction of liberalism. Conversely, curbing these seem like they’d involve curtailing (either by law or social pressure) freedoms of speech and association in ways that DON’T fit easily with the liberalism you depicted.

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      2. Kevin:

        Don’t different relationships warrant different responses? In your example, a marcher in a demonstration chants “Jews will not replace us.” The individual’s Jewish employer terminates him, which you characterize as “cancellation.” But the employer’s action may be distinguished from those of members of the general public on the internet who seek to get the marcher fired. Those so situated are seeking a form of cancellation, since internet commenters are not affected by the marcher’s utterance apart from being offended, since offensive speech may be answered with speech. Seeking the marcher’s termination, however, is suppressive of his speech, which is the aim of cancellation.

        The Jewish employer who terminates the marcher stands in a different relation to the marcher than members of the twitter cancel caucus. In regard to the Jewish employer, the employee’s utterance, beyond being offensive, has the further effect of impairing the employer-employee relationship. In light of the employee’s speech, the employer could hardly rely upon the employee’s continued loyalty or good will, and would even have a genuine basis for fearing material or personal harm.

        In a liberal, pluralistic society, associational freedoms are not those of the state of nature. Rights and responsibilities may differ on the basis of differences in relationships, statuses, etc. It seems to me that associational interests may counterbalance free expression interests, but perhaps only in relation to the extent and nature of the associational relationship. In that context, the members of the cancel caucus have little or no associational relationship to the marcher. The marcher’s Jewish employer, however, has something more than a generic associational relationship, which arguably provides him an independent and sufficient basis for terminating the employee, no?

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  3. Cancel culture is great when you get someone fired for having the wrong opinion; it’s less great when *you* are fired because you dissent with the prevailing opinion. A core idea of liberalism, at least for me, is the idea that perhaps you’re on the winning side now, but you might be on the losing side tomorrow.

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    1. That standard also offers the benefit of sustaining the status of the interlocutors as citizens participating in a common endeavor. A dangerous contrary trend in the current public discourse is the apparent view that there is no risk in antagonizing an opponent without limit, a view apparently based on the delusional expectation of some triumphalist defeat of the opponents—that if sufficiently bloodied, they will be silenced or somehow disappear. Instead, however, wanton attacks inspire wanton retaliation, leading to the Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars result in which both sides are mortally wounded. Qv.: the presidential campaigns now festering into overtime.

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    2. Yes, I think that sort of neutrality is wise in assessing what the laws and social norms should be. But there is far more to liberalism than that, and some of what’s missing are, I think, countervailing to your point. Free association is a right that I think we are right to respect as a liberal right; well, it is hard to see what an employer seeking to sever employment to someone whose views they think are inhospitable to the environment is if not free association. It is also hard to see how disallowing something like that is an obvious win for liberalism.

      But I should reiterate that the piece I offer here is not meant as a full spirited defense of cancel culture. At most, it is an entirely measured defense, where I think cancel culture’s existence is preferable to the illiberal steps I think we’d have to enact to remove it. At worst, it is a simple pointing out that as bad as cancel culture is, it isn’t obviously illiberal except if we’re using ONE CONCEPTION of liberalism as the entirety of liberalism.

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      1. I certaintly recognize the explorative and evaluative character of your essay. I’m unclear how I may have suggested anything inconsistent with the associational rights you describe. I addressed their importance at another point in this thread.

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    3. “Cancel culture is great when you get someone fired for having the wrong opinion; it’s less great when *you* are fired because you dissent with the prevailing opinion.”

      First, I am not saying – or not trying to say – that cancel culture is great. I’m making a more modest claim that whatever it’s greatness or flaws, it is not obviously illiberal. It is an outgrowth of free speech and association at the scale of the internet.

      Second, what you say above can also be said about criminal law. Criminal law that punishes people who violate me is great. But that same law really sucks when I am the one being punished for violating others. I don’t see that as a compelling argument that the criminal law is therefore bad.

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  4. Thanks for bringing the issue squarely to the fore. Some initial observations (acknowledging that there are few bright lines in this area):

    As free expression is essential to democratic self-government, the point should be to sustain free expression. Pursuant to that standard, objections to speech would themselves become objectionable when they pass from substantive speech in rebuttal, to efforts to suppress the other’s speech—de-platforming, actions regarding employment or publication, doxing, and similar economic harm, etc.

    Those who engage in cancelling according to the foregoing standard sometimes seek to conceal their suppression of speech by denominating the speaker a “racist,” “white supremacist,” “misogynist,” “fascist,” etc. The speech in question is thus not only presumptively worthless, but, it is claimed, it creates harm, whether physical or psychological, to others. The speech thereby constitutes “violence,” which supposedly justifies harm to the speaker. Except perhaps in extreme cases, this “disqualification-of-the-speaker” tactic would violate the “no suppression” standard. As an initial matter, any disqualification will depend on which side has the loudest voices, and, as the disqualification arguments multiply and devolve, speech would be suppressed all around.

    Incivility however, is a different matter. Although civility is desirable for maintaining an efficient focus on substantive issues rather than personalities, it’s hard to regard incivility, pile-ons etc., as suppressive of speech absent efforts to disqualify or bring about extrinsic harm to the speaker. It doesn’t seem unfair to expect those who enter the public forum to maintain a certain resiliency in the face of opposition, even fierce opposition.

    I think you are correct that “it is hard to argue that any speaker or user has a right to be given certain platforms,” but doesn’t that ignore listeners’ rights, the rights of those who are denied access to the speech in question?

    Pursuant to the foregoing, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was not directed toward suppressing speech. It was an action directed at the bus company’s practice of segregating busses. Each side could still advocate for its position.

    Thanks again for the essay.

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    1. You’re entirely welcome. Thanks for reading and commenting. (Wasn’t that civil in an ironic way considering the nature of the piece?!).

      “As free expression is essential to democratic self-government, the point should be to sustain free expression. Pursuant to that standard, objections to speech would themselves become objectionable when they pass from substantive speech in rebuttal, to efforts to suppress the other’s speech—de-platforming, actions regarding employment or publication, doxing, and similar economic harm, etc.”

      And my my my that is a tricky line to draw, and probably not a terribly objective one. I saw a wonderful documentary recently following some alt-right figures (White Noise) and they showed a scene where Richard Spencer was giving a talk at a university only to be met by entirely loud “Spencer Go Home!” chants. Was this an attempt to drown him out? Surely. Was it also expressive speech? Surely. Or those “death by 1,000 responses” twitter pile-ons where we all call each other nasty names for having opinions. Are those meant to shut the original poster (read: transgressor, enemy) up? Surely. Are they also expressive speech? Surely. Did either those comments or “Spencer Go Home!” have any chance at shutting up their interlocutors? Probably not.

      Either way, I think I’d rather live in a world where universities are free to disinvite and cave to pressure, employers are free to fire employees if they express inhospitable political views, and we can all yell “Spencer Go Home!” than one where we cannot. I think the latter would be too illiberal for me.

      “It doesn’t seem unfair to expect those who enter the public forum to maintain a certain resiliency in the face of opposition, even fierce opposition. ”

      Certainly agree with you here, and that was actually one of the points someone (Charles Justice, if memory serves) brought up: civility is a good thing, but at some point, if you say controversial stuff, you also sort of have to not be surprised when folks react strongly. Free speech (especially in the US context) is not – and cannot be – about protecting people from consequences of speech, just protecting them from state interference in speech.

      “I think you are correct that “it is hard to argue that any speaker or user has a right to be given certain platforms,” but doesn’t that ignore listeners’ rights, the rights of those who are denied access to the speech in question? ”

      This is a really hard argument to make in 2020, isn’t it? The avenues we have to get whatever speech we want out there is larger than it has ever been. One bit I didn’t put in the piece uses Alex Jones as an example. He’s arguably the most cancelled person at present, but it took me a basic web-search and two clicks through in order to get to his website. I also hear a lot of of folks suggest – strangely – that university disinvitations deprive the disinvited speaker of voice and listeners of listening rights. But that would be to ignore that universities are not – and have not been for a long time – a terribly significant vehicle for getting ideas into the world. It’d be the equivalent of saying that my disinvitation from appearing on AM radio one morning effectively muzzles me and assures that no one has the right to receive my ideas.

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      1. Kivn: Thanks for your reply. As I said, no bright lines. But isn’t a less-than-absolute standard better than no standard?

        Further, I don’t think the example involving Richard Spencer is hard at all. Even “expressive speech” loses protection if it is suppressive—i.e., it deprives speakers and listeners of the opportunity to speak and be heard. The Spencer opponents were disrupting an event hosted, if not sponsored, by a university. They should have been removed and perhaps even arrested. The many recent instances in which the de-platformers were allowed to prevail has nothing to do with free expression, but all to do with the contemptible cowardice of universities regarding protection of free expression in public forums.

        The twitter pile-ons, on the other hand, seem examples of mere incivility, and not so suppressive as to violate the standard I described (even if there was something that could be done about them).

        “Either way, I think I’d rather live in a world where universities are free to disinvite and cave to pressure, employers are free to fire employees if they express inhospitable political views.”

        I don’t see universities and employers as subject to the same standards, because of the difference in the fundamental raison d’etre of each. It is the purpose and role of universities to be venues in which the pursuit of veritas, right, and principle is the highest goal. Universities have no business taking sides in regard to political disputes. Denying a portion of the university community the opportunity to hear a speaker because the university has caved to pressure from some opposing group is taking a side, and a betrayal of the university’s responsibilities as a neutral setting for ideas to succeed or fail on their own merits.

        You say it has been a long time since universities were a “terribly significant vehicle for getting ideas into the world,” and you have a point. It seems to me, however, that in view of the cacophony of the media and the internet, the universities’ responsibility for protecting and maintaining that which has been shown to be valid and beneficial over millenia makes its responsibility for conscientious protection of free expression even greater. Yet, certainly, it’s not a responsibility the discharge of which will provide an opportunity for a splashy photo-spread article in the alumni magazine,

        Businesses, in contrast, exist to make money, and, in that regard, are under no obligation to associate themselves with speakers with whom they disagree. Of course, in practice, many businesses are “caving” out of the same sort of cowardice the universities exhibit, but we are long past the time in which businesses may be expected to act on principle. One is reminded of the solipsistic Colonel Cathcart in “Catch-22,” for whom every matter, regardless of moral or practical effect, was either a “feather in my cap,” or a “black eye.”

        With regard to listeners’ rights, I refer you to the previous point regarding universities’ historic responsibility. In many areas of the country (and the world), universities provide the only opportunities for face-to-face exchanges with controversial or otherwise substantial figures. Such presentations are often open to the public. The continued significance of such presentations for development and propagation of ideas may be reflected in the efforts of the soi disant social justice movements to cancel, suppress, and disrupt them. In any event, maintaining that tradition of protection of free expression may be one of the last means by which universities are able to distinguish themselves from secretarial schools.

        Regards.

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  5. I quite like this essay because rather than trying to say that cancelling is inherently or essentially liberal or illiberal you are simply saying that it has the potential to be both, and function both as an ally of liberalism, and an ally of anti-liberalism. This seems to be right. One of the reasons why I cannot give assent to, to name one example, Daniel Kaufman’s explicit anti-woke poison is that there is too much on the Woke side with which I would agree (leaving aside the pejorative caricature of calling it “woke”). Yet, in addition there is much there with which I also disagree.

    I do like Mill a lot, I think your critique of Mill is a critique of its applicability in the Internet Age. Of course one can say that if Mill fails to help or serve us in the Internet Age then so much the worse for Mill. But the value of Mill is surely more than whether he can applied strictly to the 2020s. There is, frankly, so much that is weird about our current moment that it might very well be the case that there are good things we simply cannot have. If that is the case we need to be honest both in saying that the things we cannot have were good and that we simply cannot have them and why. You never see THAT discussion and the reason is that everybody is so busy being partisan, in once camp or the other. But that assertion on my part is a rabbit hole others might not want to go down.
    The view with which I don’t agree was expressed in a progressive intent meme that railed against people being called sensitive. It said that the new mores are literally progress and the healing and cleansing of generational evils accumulated over time. I do agree that bad habits are socialized in societies. But I am not willing to say that the cure is not as bad as the disease (and I think this is what the anti-woke commentators are fixated upon). In short, I am in part a cultural relativist.

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    1. “I quite like this essay because rather than trying to say that cancelling is inherently or essentially liberal or illiberal you are simply saying that it has the potential to be both, and function both as an ally of liberalism, and an ally of anti-liberalism.”

      Thank you for this entirely astute summary, and I mean it. It is sort of a tricky distinction to make, so I was worried it wouldn’t come through. I am NOT in favor of cancel culture or its effects, and often find myself agreeing with Millians like Kauffman. (I will say that I have also seen what I think are overreactions to cancel culture, especially when folks depict x as canceling where I just think it is vigorous and spirited speech that while not intended as an invite to dialogue, is informative nonetheless.) Really, my concern is the idea that there is the liberal side – open debate – and the illiberal side – cancelling. Nah, too simple. And liberalism itself may not be internally consistent. Free speech is a liberal value, and so is open debate, but free speech can be used to stifle open debate. (Free press and fair trail are both liberal values, but that doesn’t mean they can’t clash with each other.)

      I think your critique of Mill is a critique of its applicability in the Internet Age.

      Spot on again, and I love this way of putting it. I’d also say, though, that I like to joke that Mill’s liberalism imagines liberal life as everyone being in a philosophy seminar talking civilly about everything and thereby taking care never to believe anything with any strength. (It is fun to be a skeptic…. in philosophy class.) One problem with that is that, well, it unduly restricts how we can live… in the name of liberalism, which seems odd. Another problem is that what it gives – free speech – with one hand it takes away with the other – … as long as you don’t believe what you are saying with any strength and are willing to endure criticism of any beliefs you do cherish.

      “There is, frankly, so much that is weird about our current moment that it might very well be the case that there are good things we simply cannot have.”

      I’ve given up on even the idea of a utopia where we can have all the good things. My view at the moment is that the political landscape is a bunch of positions (who often sell themselves as once-and-for-all solutions) jockeying for power. And when one gets it, problems emerge, people learn how to ‘game’ that system’s rules and use them in ways no one foresaw, etc. That creates reactions until a new system wins the day. Repeat.

      And frankly, this internet thingy is too new. No existing system is adequately designed to incorporate it very well. So, understandably, one thing it is doing is showing us how unprepared our existing rules were for its emergence and effects on society. Maybe we’ll figure it out by adopting the system to the internet or (less plausibly) the internet to the system. Maybe we won’t.

      ” But I am not willing to say that the cure is not as bad as the disease (and I think this is what the anti-woke commentators are fixated upon). In short, I am in part a cultural relativist.”

      I may not have made clear what I meant here. The cure I am talking about is not the progressive cure of aggressive memes and speech, but the cure of curtailing latitude for free speech that we’d need to undergo to “correct” cancel culture. So, what I’m saying is that the illiberalism I think we’d need to invoke to “cure” cancel culture may be worse than just allowing cancel culture to stand and maybe play itself out.

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  6. I don’t like this cancel culture. But I’m not all that troubled by it.

    Things have been more-or-less in balance for some time. Maybe call that “social homeostasis”. That homeostasis has now been broken. I’m inclined to mainly blame the right for that breakage. I see the current cancel culture as an attempt to find a new equilibrium point so that we can establish a new social homeostasis.

    I am more inclined to blame the left for transgender activism. Again, I see this as an attempt to break the long standing social homeostasis. However, my expectation is that the center will hold. They may shift the balance point a tiny amount, but not nearly as far as they want.

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  7. I too am more inclined to see cancel culture as mixture of a transient overreach and existing trends that are generally worthwhile. For example, this analysis of data from the US General Social Survey
    https://jmrphy.net/blog/2018/02/16/who-is-afraid-of-free-speech/
    seems to suggest middle-of-the-roaders are more likely to be in favour of preventing racist speech than those at
    either extreme of the liberal-conservative or left-right continuum. I have pulled out the 2018 GSS data, and it looks very similar. The author suggests the motivation at left and right might be slightly different…

    Another pattern is that 17-20 year olds were more likely to report they would prevent racist speech since 2010 (males [females] 2000, 35% [40%], 2010-2018 50% [60%]). The question is “consider a person who believes that Blacks are genetically inferior…If such a person wanted to make a speech in your community claiming that Blacks are inferior, should he be allowed to speak, or not?”. I find it hard to consider this an unreservedly bad trend.

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  8. Kevin,
    I must downright disagree with you. The suppression of dissenting voices breaks the five cardinal tenets of liberal life:

    1) Dare to think or as it is sometimes known ‘Sapere aude’ – loosely translated, dare to think for yourself. This is our most treasured liberal right and the cancel culture tramples rough shod over this right.

    2) Dare to discuss. This is the inescapable corollary of dare to think. Since if we can think without discussing our thoughts we effectively become zombies. Our thoughts are given value by sharing them and we are all enriched thereby. Our thoughts demand to be given expression.

    3) <Multiple perspective taking A liberal society recognises that multiple perspectives exist. It allows their expression and examines their merit. A liberal society is essentially an open minded society.

    4) The rule of law The rule of law is what guarantees our rights and frees us from oppression. The rule of law circumscribes my rights to impose my will on you. Now as it happens, no speech is completely free. The law recognises certain restrictions on this right. For example, if I defame you you have the right to pursue me in a court of law but you don’t have the right to beat me over the head. Similarly, if I copy your ideas you have the right to sue me for patent or copyright infringement. We have made the leap from barbarism to civilised life precisely because we have relinquished the rights to retribution to the state who will enact this in a court of law. The great value of this is that the issue is properly aired in a way that thoughtfully considers the matter from all points of view.

    5) Democratic change We all desire change to improve our lot. Democracy has allowed us to achieve change in an orderly way that benefits society as a whole and this is also a fundamental tenet of liberal life.. Change that tries to circumvent the mechanisms of democracy is an attempt of a group to impose their will on the majority and this is decidely illiberal. It strikes at the heart of liberal society.

    Cancel culture suppresses the right to discuss and therefore negates the right to think for oneself. It does not recognise or examine multiple perspectives, making it singularly narrow minded and close minded. It acts outside the rule of law which in turn weakens the rule of law and we all suffer. It tries to impose change on a democratic society without using democratic mechanisms and therefore weakens democracy. And we all suffer.

    Finally I want to emphasise again the huge advantages of vigorous debate and multiple perspective taking. It is in the furnace of contesting ideas that we forge new directions, learn from each other and learn to adapt. It is the most important stimulus and source for innovative change. If we douse the furnace of contesting ideas we shrivel the spirit of man.

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    1. Peter,

      Well, I think there is just a big old tension in liberalism then. Liberalism either affords the widest possible latitude (consistent with safety and peace) to ways of life (and thus allows in it those who wish NOT to “dare to discuss” and have lives akin to living philosophy seminars, OR it limits possible ways of life to lives lived in accord with norms of civility (not safety or peace). If the former, advocates of the latter will argue that liberalism essentially allows the seeds of its own destruction. If the latter, advocates of the former will argue that it is too restrictive.

      One essay on this point that I find really interesting is Stanley Fish’s brief article (Trouble with Principle) “Vicki Frost Objects.” There, he examines a case where a religious parent/family objected to their public-school-going child being forced to learn about critical thinking. The school said “Okay, we’ll make sure to throw some nice stuff about religion in it.” The Frost’s case was essentially an argument not against the curriculum itself discriminating against them, but of the demand to learn critical thinking discriminating against them. Fish, I think correctly, takes this case as a springboard for really talking about that tension: is it illiberal to stop a family who wishes to believe without “daring to discuss” from doing so? I understand the “yes” answer, but cannot shake the obvious retort out of my head: then you are really narrowly defining the ways of lives people can have, somehow in the name of liberalism, and that doesn’t seem to square.

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      1. A note on the Vickie Frost matter: To the extent that, for present purposes, it compounds the issue of free exercise of religion with that of access to public services, doesn’t it cloud rather than clarify the issue? The parents challenging the board of education’s adoption of school books that reflected a secular, liberal, pluralistic perspective claimed that, as they objected on religious grounds to their children’s exposure to that perspective, their free exercise of religion was impaired.

        The claim was rejected at the appellate level on the basis of the absence of any state compulsion upon the plaintiffs to abandon or adopt any religious principles. Although the school books to which the parents objected were required reading, there was no requirement that such material be adopted or embraced by the families. The parents remained free to provide their children with their own religious perspective on the material. Moreover, the perspective offered by the school books was one the school board had a reasonable basis for adopting in that it was consistent with the liberal pluralistic values of U.S. society, and provided students with a foundation for living in that society.

        Accordingly, it may be that the tension Kevin identified does not exist. Free exercise of religion, like free expression, is a principle of restraint against the state. It does not generally imply a state obligation to facilitate religious practice. Public schools could not reasonably be expected to tailor public education to the preferences of individual families, and the parents were free to make alternate arrangements for the education of their children, as many parents have always done.

        The tradition of free expression outside the context of the first amendment, as it exists (or existed) simply among and between citizens, is similarly one of non-restraint, although largely hortatory: We are free, within peripheral limits, to say what we want without undue interference from others. Until recently, freedom from private suppression was a matter of civility, responsible citizenship, and personal respect. I don’t think that amounts to “really narrowly defining the ways of lives people can have,” but to the extent it does, I would reply, in the words of George Costanza,”You know, we’re living in a society here!”

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  9. Great essay!

    I find myself in your position too, Kevin. As a young libertarian, I believed that in the free marketplace of ideas, the truth would out. That’s because the arguments in favor of what’s true are more convincing than the arguments in favor of what’s not true, so, if given enough time, we would converge on the truth through vigorous free discussion.

    I now seriously doubt this. I now no longer understand why I thought that the truth would have better arguments in its favor than non-truth. Moreover, even if the arguments for true positions are better than the arguments for false positions, it’s not clear to me why we should think that the arguments for true positions would be more persuasive than the arguments for false ones. Finally, even if the arguments for correct conclusions are more persuasive to those able to properly assess them, it doesn’t follow that they’ll be able to convince those who can’t properly assess them.

    And I think this is the key point: I’m moved by Hirshman’s The Passions and the Interests, in which he argues that in order for the market economy to work, people had to change — for example, they had to become significantly less impulsive (if I recall correctly). The point is that for a liberal order to work, enough people in it have to have the right values. Otherwise, they will rebel, and it won’t last.

    I think when it comes to discourse, a very diverse society, including people of massively different income levels, ethnicities, educations and, perhaps most important, cultural backgrounds is going to be a culture where you can’t expect most people to enjoy justifying themselves — there’s too little common ground, making the prospect of vigorous discussion quite unattractive.

    This is why I see a tension where no one has mentioned it, namely between liberalism and mass migration. The more people you have in a nation who have so little in common, the more people you’re going to have who want strong protections for freedom of association. But in that direction lies siloing, fracturing, and, ultimately, secessionary movements. On the other hand, if you want to avoid this but you also want to have a highly pluralistic country, then you’re going to have more heavy-handed assimilationist movements, e.g., cancel culture.

    But I’m skeptical that cancel culture can work in the long term. Yes, most of the elites in our country are behind it, but if the election results are to be believed (i.e., more blacks and Hispanics voting for Trump this time around with fewer white males voting for him this time around), it’s not taking.

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