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Cancel Culture and Free Speech

Can we get one thing out of the way first? Just because a rightwinger said something does not make it wrong. Just because a leftwinger says something does not make it right. AND THE OTHER WAY AROUND. (I wonder if I’ll ever be able to write a post these days without shouting at some point.)

It has to be the truth we’re aiming for, no matter who says it, because, as covid-19 has made clear if it wasn’t obvious before, reality matters. You can ignore it, and then it will kill you. Reality does not care.

And another thing to get out of the way: the philosophers may (or may not) be right that The Truth is unknowable. All we actually need is enough truth, just the facts, if you will, to live in reality with the fewest possible problems.

We do have a way of discerning facts. It’s called the scientific method. I’m not saying it’s always easy. That’s why it took a lot of people a lot of time to figure out how to pay attention to the actual facts and to stop themselves from jumping to conclusions. But at this point we do actually know how to do this. That’s why airplanes fly and light switches exist and vaccines work. If you like the benefits of your smartphone and aircon, you don’t get to sneer at science.

Okay. So where was I? Cancel culture.

There are two separate issues involved.

One is that people are tired of fighting the same battles over and over and over again. They’d like arguments that have been settled to stay settled and for people who refuse to accept that to just shut up and go away.

Which means we need a way to settle arguments. For most of human history it was decided by who had the most power. Might makes right. Except that it doesn’t and never did, which is why that method is completely shit at preventing reality from killing us.

The other way to settle arguments is evidence-based logic, of which the scientific method is a subset. That has an excellent track record. It sometimes heads down mistaken paths, but it can self-correct, which, considering human nature, is a near-miracle that needs much more appreciation than it gets.

Might-makes-right has no way to self-correct at all which is why it’s so lethal. But it does have one huge advantage: it lets you insist on whatever you want and if anyone objects, it lets you smash them.

The second issue in cancel culture is that there’s a difference between criticism and mobbing. Criticism attacks the argument with contrary evidence. Mobbing attacks the person, evidence is irrelevant. Criticism is in the tradition of logical argument that presumes a shared framework of acknowledging what constitutes evidence. Mobbing is in the tradition of might makes right.

One underappreciated point about might making right is that nothing can ever be settled. Once you’ve destroyed the opposition, some slight shade of dissension will be discovered in the ranks. Then you have to start over and destroy that. After succeeding, an even slighter shade becomes important, and you have to destroy that. And so on. A good new term for it is purity spirals.

So even if you decided, screw it, evidence-based logic is too boring, “Lizzie, smash!” is way more fun, you’ll never actually reach your goal. You’ll be fighting the heretics forever, until you die. It’s not a solution even when you win.

Let’s look at examples of cancelling versus criticism, just to make the distinction more clear.

If I say all the money in the world should go exclusively to Bill Gates, criticism points out why and how it would lead to social collapse. Criticism might also laugh, even mercilessly, at my inability to see the obvious disasters and point those out. A mob attack calls me names, or threatens violent crimes, or gets me fired. None of those address the argument. They try to frighten me into shutting up.

When JKRowling objects to mob attacks, she’s not talking about criticism of her views on biological sex. She’s talking about rape and death threats. About porn sent to threads where the senders want her child readers (and their parents) to be grossed out by it. Those aren’t arguments or criticisms or evidence showing where she’s wrong. They’re attacks on her. They’re supposed to put her off so much she shuts up. That’s mobbing.

It’s not uncommon for people with no real argument to claim mobbing when they’re merely being criticized. In the following case, Kaus doesn’t want anyone to mention that a politician he supports is corrupt. But, if there’s evidence, it’s criticism, not slander, to point out corruption.

Max Kennerly
A perfect example of the phrase “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression” is Kaus’s use of “punish” here. It is not “punishment” to advocate against a candidate to the U.S. Senate by pointing out the candidate’s craven and corrupt conduct.

Mickey Kaus:
The Lincoln Project becomes part of cancel culture — idea isn’t to get rid of Trump but punish anyone who agrees with Trump (and disagrees with Weaver!) on the issues–Hawley, Cotton, etc.?

The champion of insisting words mean the opposite of what the dictionary says is the Current Occupant of the White House. That’s funny when Calvin does it, but you’re supposed to grow out of it in grade school.

Watching Trump do it is a real out-of-mind experience.

Catherine Rampell.
Trump last night denounced totalitarianism (toe-tallie-terrio-tism), accusing left of “shaming dissenters & demanding submission from anyone who disagrees.”

Which is rich coming from the guy who does this:

The president of the United States may not use the laws of the United States to harass the media based on his personal, petty displeasure with what he views as unwarranted criticism.

That, obviously, is an attack against a person. It’s silencing. It’s not any kind of evidence-based argument. It’s more than obviously based on might making right.

The next cases are not criticism. Ioffe’s and Ali’s ideas weren’t addressed, the people were targeted. That’s abuse of power, called mobbing when a mob does it, and silencing when CNN does it.

Julia Ioffe
In my experience, this is how cancel culture works. It’s not the “woke mob” doing the canceling, but powerful institutions who are bowing to pressure from the people in power: the very conservatives who whine about cancel culture and deride liberals as “snowflakes.”

How Cancel Culture really works: During my year at CNN, which was a great experience, I was “warned” a total of 3.5 times. Each warning was because some Republicans, who defended Trump’s cruelty & abuses, complained about the most innocuous statements. Here’s the official list…

The only mistake they both make is implying the politics of the perps are relevant. A woke mob or a Brooks Brothers riot will both attack the person to cause enough terror to achieve silence. The essence is the mobbing, not the platform.

Most people try to pretend that their mobbing, unlike the nasty other side, is not a power play. Most people buy into the value of looking reasonable. But cancelling, attacking the person and not the idea, is a power play. When they have to admit to their tactics, the next line of defense is to say it’s not so bad. The targets are snowflakes for not being able to stand it, or they should put their big boy pants on, or whatever. Even if it was true that the attacks are minor, they’re still attacks. They’re still not criticism or argument or evidence-based. They’re still stupid at best.

Most of the time they’re a lot worse than that. They’re threats of ostracism, job loss, ruin, and physical harm, especially to women. People, especially women, have had to go into hiding, and/or hire security, sometimes for years. Most people don’t have that kind of money. That ruins lives. And that shuts people up. Not necessarily the people already targeted, but it definitely has a huge effect on the people who are still safe and would like to stay that way. Look at how many people write privately to support Rowling but are too terrified to speak up with their names attached. That’s not because they’re afraid their spelling will be criticized.

Marina Strinkovsky, @marstrina

David Baddiel
On the Right, this myth of democracy involves ignoring the largely vested-interest right-wing press, and state-sponsored internet interference. On the left, it involves ignoring how terrified people actually are of Twitter mobs, and state-sponsored internet interference.

+ pretending that in *this one single context* things like cultural capital don’t matter, & the fact that academia & the arts overwhelmingly lean left is a phenomenon entirely innocent of any possible dynamics of power.

I hope I’ve made clear enough that mobbing/silencing are categorically different from criticism, and that the former is real harm. Which leaves the problem of how to decide when issues are settled if it’s done by logic, not force. How would we agree?

I think there is a solution, and it does not involve a Google-controlled Ministry of Truth.

(And before you start, let me say I’m perfectly aware the following is utopian. People are having way too much fun feeling righteous and they won’t want to stop merely because it could actually resolve the argument. If resolving arguments was the real goal, a lot more of them would be resolved in a lot less time.)

We could use the methods that have worked to give us our whole modern world. Use scientific evidence. When 95% of peer-reviewed papers agree, or 99% if you want ludicrous-mode stringency, then the issue is settled. Rehashes of settled issues are not published anywhere. Not in social media, or blogs, or news media, or TV. For small sources the offending content is simply removed. But in my world, for repeat offenders with large audiences there’d be steeper punishments the more they persisted. In my world, Sean Hannity would be banned from addressing more than three people at a time.

By the measure of near-unanimous agreement among scientists, there are many settled issues. The law of gravity, the roundness of the earth, evolution, the existence of anthropogenic climate change, the levels of effectiveness of different vaccines, and the existence of two biological sexes in mammals.

So what am I saying that adds to all the many pieces on “The Harper’s Letter“?

That the letter is quite right and that cancel culture has a point. And the point means we do need a way to cancel useless drivel. And that we have a choice of accomplishing it by shouting at each other, or worse. Or by shutting down the drivel (and only the drivel!).

And that means starting to recognize that free speech protects speech, it protects communication, even attempts at communication (like this one, for instance). (And some of my earlier writing on this topic.) It does not protect speech which is simply sound in the service of cheating, bullshitting, manipulating, humiliating, threatening, or destroying someone. Speech is communication, not a weapon. And the kind of “speech” Steve Bannon was talking about when he said, “I have my weapons back” should never have been misconstrued as protected.

Our mission, and we have no choice but to accept it, is to take on the monumental task of defining free, protected speech as that which communicates and excludes that which does not.

We have to accept it because our only way of finding what reality has in store for us is to communicate. (Or to relearn everything all alone, and human life isn’t long enough for that.) That’s why it’s existentially important to solve this problem. Communication is our only route to understanding enough of reality to survive.

Reality always wins. You can work with it to find the most agreeable path, or you can be destroyed by it. Those are the choices, There are no others. And all the mobbing and cancelling and silencing in the world doesn’t change that. It would be smarter to pay enough attention to the facts to be able to use them to have an easier life.


Update, because I write too slowly to keep up with the firehose of intelligent commentary out there. Another couple of good articles on cancel culture. Helen Lewis, How Capitalism Drives Cancel Culture. Nicholas Grossman, Free Speech Defenders Don’t Understand the Critique Against Them.