Some thoughts on free speech and cancel culture

One of the many ironies of the interminable debates over cancel culture and free speech is that cancel culture is not a phenomenon of censorship so much as one of unrestricted free speech. The fear is not that one will be censored, so much as one will be denounced publicly. How can you control these denunciations? Well, I’m not sure you can. Social media allows anybody a platform for accusation and calumny and allows anyone to join with them to form associations. I think most people agree open criticism of others and freedom of association is just part of having a free society. But who, then, decides when criticism is unfair or even calumnious? Or when associations are mobs and seditious conspiracies rather than public-spirited groups?

I’m not going to say something like cancel culture does not exist: it’s clear that mobs form quickly these days and put incredible pressure on individuals and institutions. But there is also the fact that the idea of cancellation can lead to its own sort of chilling effect on speech. Suppose you wish to criticize someone in public and you feel you have a case, but you are also afraid that if you do it will result in their “cancellation.” This would be an act of self-censorship, wouldn’t it? It might even be a justified and selfless act of self-censorship, because you don’t wish to do inordinate harm to an individual. But we have a long tradition in this country of free, even raucous, criticism and attacks on public figures, so wouldn’t the creation of an atmosphere that strongly disapproves of certain types of criticism in advance be one of censorship or at least of intellectual restriction? Conceivably someone might not want to be branded as a part of “cancel culture”—in other words, to be given a social stigma—and thus avoid making a public criticism, even a deserved or necessary one. We’ve now seen very ordinary attacks on politicians branded as “cancel culture,” which is an attempt to make alien and new a very old tradition in our democratic society. It’s attempting to “cancel” criticism in advance, if you will. It’s not very successful angle of attack thus far. I think this is because such criticism is really a very old part of democratic culture, but nonetheless it seems the inevitable result of this idea were it to catch on would be a narrowing of acceptable speech.

Let’s suppose we raise the standards, and say, “Well, we need to have a high bar of criticism for what actually that could cause someone to lose public standing.” In an atmosphere of unrestricted free speech, where libel is not easy to prove, this only will encourage more calumny: people will be encouraged to inflate their accusations to monstrous degrees in order to be taken seriously. Outrageous rhetoric and histrionics will explode: People will have to make a greater and greater noise to be heard. This could poison the atmosphere of public debate, because we will always suspect every statement. Just imagine a situation where there was universal cynicism about motive and intent. Again, this leads to a narrowing of intellectual culture: We think there is an evil motive behind every statement so why deal with the argument, it’s just propaganda meant to poison the well. Someone tries to bring an issue to attention, they are immediately branded as the secret agent of some cause, if even just their own. At the same time, we can’t in principle rule out criticism that speaks to motive or intent or brands people as conspirators in some intrigue, because those are all possibly true and fair statements from time to time. There is also genuine propaganda out there, stuff that is not meant to persuade or consider but to frighten or intimidate people to joining one camp or another. I don’t think we can resolve these problems by adopting the parliamentary norms of a polite debating society, either.

We have entered a kind of state of universal hypocrisy on these subjects. Everyone is glad to see their enemies skewered: no one really comes to the defense of principle. Or maybe they feel that principle is best defended through a faction, to which allowances must be made for the sake of political expediency. “Sure this guy might ‘take it too far,‘ but he’s on my side.” The anti-cancel culture brigade cannot contain its glee when some long-hated enemy comes under fire from a crowd or becomes tangled in some irony of their own position; the most sentimental and earnest defenders of human rights laugh at abject humiliations and indignities as just deserts. When you are doing it it’s “free speech” and “criticism,”, but when your enemies are doing it, it’s “cancellation” or “harassment” or “bullying.” Only the other guy starts a mob and your enemies always have it coming. There’s a section of one of my favorite essays, “The Present Age” by Søren Kierkegaard that seems to describe the current situation:

I once witnessed a fight in which three men shamefully mistreated a fourth. The crowd watched with indignation; their hostile muttering began to spur them to action: some of the crowd converged on one of the assailants and threw him own, etc. The avengers thereby exemplified the same law as the assailants. If I may be permitted to interject my own incidental person, I will finish the story. I approached one of the avengers and attempted to explain dialectically the inconsistency of their behavior, but apparently it was quite impossible for him to engage in anything like that, and he merely repeated: "He had it coming. Such a scoundrel deserves three against one." This borders on the comic, especially for the person who did not witness the beginning and then heard one man say of the other that he (the lone man) was three against one, and heard it the very moment when the opposite was the case--when there were three against him.

I can’t except myself from this situation. There are people whom I believe deserve ostracism and I won’t pretend otherwise. There are certain people we all would like to see hounded out of public life for good and certain views that we would like to exclude from polite society. In a certain way, we all must hold this view because there are always others who would have us hounded out of society and much worse if they came to public prominence or power. So we can also hold those opinions for good, honest reasons, and not just merely out of the spirit of hostility and malice towards others. I think there are things we really should not tolerate. But if we can’t agree on rules in advance more than “anything goes short of libel and incitement” (both hard to determine) then we will just have to fight it out. I don’t think reasoned persuasion will determine these conflicts; there will always be ridicule and name-calling and ad hominems. Again, to rule those things out of order would be to restrict free speech.

I earlier said that we were entering into universal state of hypocrisy. On reflection, this is a bit much. It is not a rule of hypocrisy so much as cant, an old word that has unfortunately fallen out of use. Another one of my favorite essays is “On Hypocrisy and Cant” by William Hazlitt:

I think there is very little downright hypocrisy in the world, I do think there is a great deal of cant -- "cant religious, cant political, cant literary," etc., as Lord Byron said. Though few people have the face to set up for the very thing they in their hearts despise, we almost all want to be thought better than we are, and affect a greater admiration or abhorrence for certain things than we really feel. Indeed, some degree of affectation is as necessary to the mind as dress is to the body; we must overact our part in some measure in order to procure any effect at all…As our interest in anything wears out with time and habit we exaggerate the outward symptoms of zeal as mechanical helps to devotion, dwell the longer on our words as they are less felt, and hence the very origin of the term, cant. The cant of sentimentality has succeeded to that of religion. There is a cant of humanity, of patriotism and loyalty -- not that people do not feel these motions but they make too great a fuss about them, and draw out the expression of them till they tire themselves and others. There is a cant about Shakespear. There is a cant about Political Economy just now. In short, there is and must be a cant about everything that excites a considerable degree of attention and interest, and that people would be thought to know and care rather more about them than they actually do. Cant is the voluntary overcharging or prolongation of a real sentiment; hypocrisy is the setting up a pretension to a feeling you never had and have no wish for. There are people who are made up of cant, that is of mawkish affectation and sensibility; but who have not sincerity enough to be hypocrites, that is, have not hearty dislike or contempt enough for anything, to give the lie to their puling professions of admiration and esteem for it.

Hazlitt is not excusing the human condition by saying we are more often canters than real, hardcore hypocrites. That would require a degree of self-knowledge few of us actually have. Instead, we have a situation instead where no one is quite lying, but everyone is pretending a little. The problem is not so much that we are all hypocrites but that in order to be heard or taken seriously we have to engage in very overinflated forms of rhetoric and self-presentation. This leads to a great deal of buffoonery. This is somewhat normal as Hazlitt points out: “some degree of affectation is as necessary to the mind as dress is to the body; we must overact our part in some measure in order to procure any effect at all.” We all make a fuss sometimes, it’s just part of normal self-expression. But it’s probably helpful to recognize when we ourselves or others are making too much of a fuss over something or engaging in cant. It might not solve the problems of the world, but it might make us better writers and readers.