Cancel Culture Is Still looking for a Reasoned Defense

I’ve been seeking to tease out the greatest argument on behalf of cancel culture– because why champion one sort of speech to the exclusion of another?

For weeks now, I have actually been seeking a reasoned defense of cancel culture, the concept that people, brand names, shows, motion pictures should be basically disappeared because of views that some (or even numerous) consider to be offending. This has been terrifying the hell out of me.

What is the argument, I wondered, that would seek to champion one kind of speech– the “correct” kind of speech– and cancel another?

So I read with great interest the group letter published last week in Harper’s magazine led by author Thomas Chatterton Williams, reaffirming the principle of free speech and cautioning versus “an intolerance of opposing views, a style for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to liquify complicated policy issues in a blinding ethical certainty.”

Thomas Chatterton Williams

Editor Thomas Chatterton Williams (left)/ Wikicommons/Harper’s

Likewise Read: JK Rowling, Fareed Zakaria, Wynton Marsalis Decry Rising ‘Intolerance of Opposing Views’ In Public Letter

It was signed by 150 leading intellectuals, writers, academics and reporters, consisting of fatwa survivor/author Salman Rushdie, far-left theorist Noam Chomsky, former Soviet dissident Garry Kasparov, feminist trailblazer Gloria Steinem and “Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Atwood.

And I have actually paid close attention to the reaction versus the letter, everything from 2 signers removing their names post-publication, to 160 journalists and authors signing onto a response released on The Goal that observed: “The paradox of the (Harper’s) piece is that nowhere in it do the signatories discuss how marginalized voices have actually been silenced for generations in journalism, academia, and publishing.”

There is free speech.

I’ve been looking for to tease out the strongest argument on behalf of cancel culture– and even if Charles Blow states there’s no such thing that doesn’t suggest that the phenomenon does not exist.

I have a bunch of issues with the response letter, because its arguments appear so weak:

– They grumble about what the Harper’s letter does not do– “The content of the letter also does not handle the problem of power,” the counter-letter states– instead of resolve its central argument against weakening “our standards of open argument and toleration of distinctions in favor of ideological conformity.”

– They aim to weaken the letter by making judgments about the signers (calling many of them “white, wealthy, and endowed with massive platforms”) instead of resolving what the signers say. In addition, that characterization is a distortion of the signers’ identities, that includes Williams himself, an African-American, and other people of color and people like Rushdie who have suffered for their dedication to truth-telling.

– While slightly acknowledging that constricting information and ideas is “genuine and worrying,” the action argues that the examples of “so-called cancel culture” are “not patterns.” So in the writers’ judgment, their view of what is or isn’t a trend prevails? Of note: many signers of the response letter decreased to openly determine themselves by name, in some cases pointing out NDAs or other rules of their companies, an implied recognition of this tense environment.

– The majority of unconvincingly, the letter introduces broad and unproven accusations that result in sentences like this: “There are only many outlets”– actually false offered the proliferation of material on Medium, Twitter and Facebook– “and while these people have the capability to write in them, they have no intention of sharing that space”– says who?– “or acknowledging their function in perpetuating a culture of worry and silence amongst authors who, for the most part, do not look like most of the signatories”– another spectacular, unfounded slam. The letter continues, without supporting evidence: “When they demand debates, it is on their terms, on their grass.”

Also Read: 160 Reporters, Academics Rebuke Harper’s Letter on Cancel Culture: ‘They Miss the Point’

The letter did not persuade me. The Goal signatories rather resolved several other matters, a lot of them personal in nature, rather than the compound of the Harper’s letter’s warning. They essentially said of cancel culture: “It’s a thing, sure, but it’s not a pattern we need to truly fret about.”

There is a more powerful argument from those who say worries about cancel culture is simply a reason to prevent the repercussions of totally free expression. The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb, whose intellect I revere, tweeted this comment: “Amazing how typically I hear people say they are safeguarding ‘free speech’ when what they are really defending is impunity.”

Incredible how often I hear people say they are defending “totally free speech” when what they are really defending is impunity.

— jelani cobb (@jelani9) July 11, 2020

Especially when we discover that someone like Blake Neff, who for years has been sharing nakedly racist and sexist views online anonymously, has actually been serving as the leading writer for Tucker Carlson’s primetime Fox News show.

Ugh. We can fix that, if we try.

Why can’t we agree that as a society we must make a concerted effort to find and magnify the voices of those who have been marginalized– from Black or Latinx or Native American or transgender or handicapped or part of some other group that has been outside the mainstream conversation? And that doing so need not need suppressing the voices of others?

And why reduce the reality that “repercussions” are being doled out by the loudest and most insistent voices on Twitter? How is that an advantage?

As Andrew Sullivan just recently wrote in New York publication: “There is a progressively ferocious project to quell dissent, to chill dispute, to purge those who ask questions, and to destroy individuals for their refusal to swallow this reductionist ideology whole. Liberalism … It is a spirit that deals with an argument– and not a person– which counters that argument with logic, not abuse … Twitter, obviously, is the reverse of all this– and its mercy-free, moblike qualities when combined with an ethical panic are, quite frankly, terrifying.”

Fear over stating the incorrect thing and being targeted as racist or transphobic is real. The force of social media targeted at a perceived perpetrator is leading to mob justice, social ostracism and knee-jerk actions across business, academic community, culture and the news media.

I unabashedly revere the concept of totally free expression and, of all principles I love, have actually presumed this to be one that is shared broadly throughout those people blessed to live in a totally free society, and those who I have actually satisfied in my years of reporting abroad who yearn to do so.

It appears clear that social norms are changing, and rapidly. For those who intend to see America live up to the guarantee of its founding principles, that is an advantage. Let’s continue to argue, with reason, not insult. Let us change our society for the much better by offering the better argument and encouraging, instead of canceling the other.

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