Justice, open debate and cancel culture

edited August 2020 in Speakeasy

Making the rounds online: A Letter on Justice and Open Debate signed by such luminaries as Anne Applebaum, Margaret Atwood, David Brooks, Ian Buruma, Noam Chomsky, Richard T. Ford, David Frum, Francis Fukuyama, Jonathan Haidt, Michael Ignatieff, Garry Kasparov, Mark Lilla, Yascha Mounk, Jonathan Rauch, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Gloria Steinem, Matthew Yglesias and Fareed Zakaria.

These are people who don't agree on much (Noam Chomsky and Jonathan Haidt!), but they agree on one thing: "woke" cancel culture is getting out of hand and stifling free debate.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.

You wouldn't think this was hugely controversial, and even if you did the fact that it's written by leading intellectuals of the center-left and the center-right ought to give you pause and think about it.

But the reaction from the people this is meant to persuade hasn't been encouraging.

The criticism has largely fallen into three categories:

  1. Some of the writers of the letter hold the wrong opinion on X, therefore the whole letter, and everybody who signed it, is wrong. Emily VanDerWerff, a trans woman, wrote to her employer, Vox, to complain about her colleague Yglesias' support for the letter because she believes some of the other signatories are transphobic. Not Yglesias, but apparently he is guilty by association. Another person who signed the letter, Jennifer Finney Boylan, even retracted her support when she found out conservatives had signed it too.
  2. The authors didn't speak out against X in the past, so they have no credibility to speak out against cancel culture now.
  3. There are bigger problems in the world. There is a pandemic. People are losing their jobs for lesser reasons.

These are all fallacies.

  1. You don't need to agree with someone on everything in order to agree with them on anything. This is the very mentality the letter cautions against. As Pamela Paresky puts it, "Someone signed a letter that advocated for allowing people to disagree without retribution. She [Boylan] is being attacked for it, and now apologizes for signing the letter because people she disagrees with signed it too. It's beyond parody."
  2. You don't have to speak out against every injustice in the world in order to speak out against an injustice.
  3. You don't need to try to solve every problem in order to try to solve one problem.

I think Fredrik deBoer puts it well:

There is literally no specific instance discussed in that open letter, no real-world incident about which there might be specific and tangible controversy. So how can someone object to an endorsement of free speech and open debate without being opposed to those things in and of themselves? You can’t. And people are objecting to it because social justice politics are plainly opposed to free speech.


  • Another interesting contribution to this debate, from Lili Loofbourow:

    Anyone weighing in on the state of political discussion should know, and factor into their analysis, that social media has made an internet public square where good-faith debate happens a thing of the past, if it ever existed at all. (I came closest to experiencing such a thing back when there were blogs.) The fact is that on Twitter, where much political news gets generated and disseminated and discussed, disagreement is usually expressed through trolling, sea-lioning, ratios, and dunks. Bad faith is the condition of the modern internet, and shitposting is its lingua franca. On—yes—both sides. Look: A professional Twitter troll is president. Trolling won. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that despite their centrality, online platforms aren’t suited to the earnest exchange of big ideas.

    I understand that’s frustrating, especially to those who wish to freely debate difficult questions with smart adversaries and can’t find any takers. You could call that refusal to debate “illiberalism,” I suppose, or you could recognize that there’s a history here. And if you want to know why people aren’t bothering to engage seriously or at length (or shout at you when you try), that history is worth trying to understand. For one thing, social media platforms got flooded by devil’s advocates who wasted the time and sapped the energy of people who were actually invested—sometimes cruelly, and for sport. That tends to weed out good-faith engagement. Add to this that most arguments worth having have been had and witnessed thousands of times already on these platforms, in multiple permutations. Those of us who’ve been here for a while know their tired choreographies, the moves and countermoves. If I see someone bring up “black-on-black crime” in response to an article about racist policing, I know how almost every step of the interaction will go should I choose to engage. Rather than learn from these exchanges, people of all persuasions on Twitter mostly enjoy the style of whichever “dunk” we happen to agree with. This isn’t universal, of course. One can try to engage in good faith, and some people do. But given that the reward for all that effort is likely to be mockery or contempt, one learns not to bother. “Black-on-black crime” becomes a cue to sign off. (Or lob an insult. Or quote-tweet with a mocking meme. There are lots of things Twitter is good for, and building solidarity among people who agree—sometimes by starting movements, sometimes by ruthlessly dunking on a minority opinion—is one of them.)

  • I need to look into this more before I form more of an opinion, but so far I agee with Pamela Paresky.

  • If you need a primer on what cancel culture is, and why it's bad, read this by Jonathan Rauch in Persuasion.

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