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).