On Free Speech and Cancel Culture, Letter Two
This week I’m writing in conversation with Parker Molloy, who’s also a Substacker, on the broad topic of cancel culture and “woke” and “anti-woke” politics. Please read her post first. There will be other posts this week too, don’t worry.
First of all, thanks for participating in this. This sort of meta-discursive work isn’t really in anyone’s wheelhouse, and trying to muddle through to some greater understanding across the culture war divide is typically thankless. I do think there are some points of commonality that we can worth with. I also hope that there’s some cross-pollination between my readership and yours; I frequently try to remind people that you can’t be open-minded or independent unless you’re frequently consuming writing that drives you crazy. If you’re one of my regular readers I hope you’ll take in some of Parker’s work in good faith. I apologize in advance for my inability to write about this topic with concision.
So, let me start with a concession: I have probably written less about right-wing assaults on free speech than I should. I will 100% concede that the right-wing writ large does not have a leg to stand on when it comes to censorship efforts, especially given their book bannings and attempts to muzzle teachers. I have tended to concern myself with some of the free speech issues that you mentioned, such as issues of free expression and academic freedom on college campuses, and not on the insidious and flatly anti-liberty attempts by conservatives to ban books and censor teachers in public schools. (The public does have some right to decide how teachers express themselves in school - a stance which, to be clear, includes our prohibition against them using racist or anti-gay slurs - but we should almost always err on the side of more freedom for teachers.) Let me say straight out that I know for damn sure that American conservatism and the Republican party are no friends of civil liberties, and the tendency of right-wing culture warriors to invoke them is usually opportunistic and hypocritical. I did consider the potential chilling effects of the Amber Heard verdict on free speech, to pick one recentish example, and I’m planning to write about the terrible abuses of the British government against critics of the monarchy. But yes - I should be doing this more often, to be consistent with my own values.
The people who are most obsessed over cancel culture and claim to be proponents of free speech obsess about minor left-wing transgressions, particularly online, and seem unbothered by actual, real-world laws set to be put on the books.
To which I can only say, yes, this is often the case, and it’s too bad. Later in this dialogue I plan to talk about the incentives of professional politics and culture writing and how they incentivize both thoughtlessly woke and witlessly anti-woke careers. For now I would simply add this counterpoint: too many left-of-center people who themselves have a strong underlying attachment to civil liberties are dismissive of challenges to those liberties, as culture war pushes them to see complaints about free speech as the product of “the other side.” Culture war is like being locked in a closet with your dark mirror image. For every bit of overreaction to cancel culture, there’s an attendant dismissal of the lurking problem of our technological and governmental overlords gradually eroding our basic ability to say what we want to say. Yes, platforms like Twitter have the right to establish the rules that they want. But I think society flourishes best under a norm of free speech, not just the limited legal rights as dictated by the First Amendment but from a broader cultural commitment to the belief that we best determine the truth through the constant adversarial trading of ideas.
And, look, I think Libs of Tik Tok sucks. I think people using clips posted by that account to get people silenced or fired are hypocrites who have no attachment to principles beyond that which is momentarily convenient. And right-wing school book bans are indeed worse than college trigger warning policies, as little as I think of those. The question is, what do we do in the case of an account like Libs of Tik Tok? I have no choice but to support its right to exist even as I recognize it for the dishonest right-wing agitprop it represents. I especially oppose shutting down that account on the grounds that it mostly just reposts things other people have knowingly posted on their own. I say that fully aware that they frequently remove context in a destructive way. The question of what’s a platform and what’s a publication, what constitutes the public square online and what constitutes an intentional community that has the right to exclude, whether services like Cloudflare should restrict their service to anyone for political reasons…. These are not easy questions, and I understand that in trying to muddle through them, we won’t always come to consensus.
Recently I had to establish a basic set of requirements regarding the discussion of trans issues in this space. I found that too often my commenting section became hyperfixated on trans issues, with some wedging that discussion into every other debate that happened here. It got to the point where that fixation, in and of itself, became discouraging to other potential commenters and left some of my readers feeling unwelcome. So I had to say that we would be avoiding that topic, in general, and that I would have to discourage bringing trans issues up in comments on posts that had little to do with that set of concerns. I had heard from too many readers that the comments section had become an unwelcoming place because of the constant comments about “the trans question.” It remains the case that, if I bring up trans issues in this space, my readers are free to argue legitimate political positions that I disagree with, such as concerning social and medical transition for children or transwomen’s participation in women’s sports. But everyone is required to be courteous to others in my space, and courtesy requires respecting other people’s gender identities, and I have insisted on my rule about not invoking these debates in an off-topic manner. I lost some subscribers over this but in fact my commenting community has overall accepted my rules without complaint. Have I handled it all well, in a way that respects freedom of expression? I hope so. This stuff is hard.
I have, at least, a partial defense for not writing more about right-wing assaults on free speech: I continue to ask the left-of-center specifically to defend free speech and civil liberties because I believe the left-of-center can be reached. I believe the left-of-center still broadly cares about principle and can be reasoned with, argued with. I believe in the left-of-center’s potential for change. And I just don’t believe any such thing about the right-of-center. Early in my writing career, which is now about 15 years old, I would spend a good deal of time trying to work things out with conservatives. But today I don’t try to appeal to conservatives because I honestly don’t know where I would begin. There was never a “good old days” of American conservatism; we can look at George Bush and the pre-Trump conservatism that surveilled and tortured and launched ruinous wars of choice and fiddled while a major American city was swallowed by the sea, if we’re ever inclined to mourn some fake noble conservatism of the past. But it was at least true that, at one point, there was a conservative intelligentsia, that it made some minimal effort to defend its positions with reason and evidence, and that it could be trusted to have at least an ostensible deference to basic norms of process and democracy. (That intelligentsia also used to have some influence on right-wing politicians.) Now, the line between the conservative street and malicious trolls seems to have collapsed. All today’s conservative mainstream seems to want is a party that will promise to destroy its enemies.
I have liberal readers who complain to me that I don’t go after the right frequently enough, and I always intend to do it more often. Then I look around and think… who am I going to debate? The crew at Breitbart? Someone tweeting anti-Semitic Pepe cartoons? Yes, there are Never Trump conservatives and thoughtful right-wing writers like Ross Douthat, and I occasionally engage with their work. The problem is that they aren’t reflective of any real major movement within conservatism. The Republican party is still Trump’s party. So I can write in reaction to something written by, say, Brett Stephens, where there are arguments (that I almost always disagree with) and good faith. But to do so is to fixate on the small percentage of conservatives who oppose Trumpism and the ideology’s devolution into pure conspiratorial and hateful power-mongering. Meanwhile, actually-existing conservatism rages on and on. You can see my dilemma, I hope: I can either preach to conservatives who are marginalized within the movement, and thus can’t change anything, or I can preach to the right-wing mainstream who will never listen to a word I say. Neither is appealing.
Beyond that, though, there likely are some basic clashes of principle between you and me when it comes to the free exchange of ideas. Though I’m often called a dissident leftist or a contrarian or (shudder) “post-left,” I still consider myself an average socialist. I just am aware that civil liberties have been a core commitment of socialist practice for hundreds of years. I have this great old document, a copy of a speech that was given in honor of my paternal grandmother receiving the Illinois ACLU’s lifetime achievement award. What strikes me reading it, some 50 years after the speech was given, is that her work in both civil rights and civil liberties are represented as one and the same - that her fighting against segregation and racism was not seen as in tension with her defense of free speech and association, but that they were the same fight, that they were permanently entwined. Academic freedom was particularly dear to her because her husband, my grandfather, had been targeted by McCarthyite attacks in the Illinois state legislature. In the speech her efforts against restaurants that would not serve Black diners are not represented as a contradiction with her free speech efforts but as a natural match with them. Now, I fear most people would counterpose anti-racism and civil liberties against each other.
I’m not post-left or post-anything. I’m just a leftist in my family’s tradition.
Still, the question of proportion and attention is a very fair one. Is a campus revolt against cultural appropriation in the dining hall worth making national news? Probably not. But I think there are campus controversies that speak to deeper problems, ones worth paying attention to. To pick some examples, Oberlin students trying to get particular staff members fired for their political beliefs, Amherst students trying to get their peers formally punished by the university for criticizing their protests, Northwestern launching a literal federal investigation against a professor for publishing an essay students didn’t like…. These things don’t strike me as “oh college kids are all crazy” stuff, but as canaries in the coal mine that speak to a deeper rejection of basic elements of functioning democratic society. Now, it’s definitely relevant that in each of these cases, the students failed in their efforts to censor. But I’m interested in this for their sake too. That is, when I fret about such incidents, I’m not just doing it because I oppose the students, but because I worry for them. I’m a former college educator who taught dozens of college classes and hundreds of students, and when I see students trying to silence ideas they don’t like, I worry for them and their future lives. They have to learn how to live in a world with ideas they don’t like.
One little aphorism I try to always keep in mind in my writing is this: every life is someone’s “my life.” In this context, what I mean is that while it may always be tempting to see any given campus controversy as a minor scuffle, blown out of proportion, we should take care to remember that real people are really living in these communities and have to deal with the fallout, which always lingers longer than the specific controversies. I have written in the past about the incident with the Wesleyan Argus. In 2015 the campus paper at the small elite liberal arts college published an editorial by a conservative student, who said that he agreed with some of BlackLivesMatter’s goals but objected to their tactics. For that, campus protestors raged for months and demanded that the paper be defunded - literally, that the campus newspaper cease to exist because it published something that offended them. You are free to see this as another little tempest in a teapot, but it happens to be that I used to live in that teapot; I grew up at Wesleyan, I’m still plugged in with people who work there, and it’s a community that means a great deal to me. And while I understand that the students were unsuccessful in killing the paper and that life goes on, I also know that there was a chilling effect on campus and a real wound was done to the college’s culture. To the common question, “who cares what college kids do?,” the answer for me is that I care. I care about Wesleyan specifically and college kids in general, and I don’t think all of these issues can just be dismissed.
And of course, today’s elite college students go on to be tomorrow’s writers, journalists, professors, analysts, think tankers, and politicians. What’s more, for all of the talk of the death of the humanities, ideas from humanities departments have moved from the academic fringes to the mainstream of American intellectual life with remarkable speed, and so the ideas that are debated in our colleges should be given serious consideration. (In part thanks to Tumblr, which I think has a remarkable influence on the contemporary American life of the mind, one dramatically out of proportion with its relatively small user base.)
Finally… all of this is made more frustrating, of course, because we live in a culture war that has less to do with abstract notions of free speech and more to do with the absurdity of issues like people melting down about a Black lead in The Little Mermaid. I pick this example not because I think it has particularly important free-speech consequences but because it’s a perfect example of the culture war hell we all find ourselves in. It is of course ridiculous to be so emotionally invested in the race of a half-woman, half-fish, in a story about trying to get a man to love you without speaking. Racism no doubt powers this response. But then, Disney also knows exactly what it’s doing, using the conservative backlash to prompt a progressive defense in turn that will help to generate good press. This is now a near-daily experience in Hollywood, a particular bit of consumer product being pushed out by a huge conglomerate, one that has diverse casting or a #GIRLBOSS protagonist, causing conservatives to lose their shit in absurd ways, progressives taking to the ramparts to defend the consumer product in the most powerful terms, and meanwhile we’re all just pawns in a game played with great finesse by the marketing departments of entertainment giants….
The point is: culture war is stupid and makes us stupid. You and I are debating these ideas as ideas, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. But we are doing our debating trapped in a culture war that seems almost intentionally designed to make real insight and communication impossible. We do have our situations where the moral stakes are real and obvious, like the disgusting evil of deceiving asylum-seeking immigrants in order to use them as political props. But I feel like we’ll be spending the rest of our lives debating the racial dynamics of Hollywood dreck, or whether it’s racist to catch people shoplifting. It’s tempting to see all of this as a battle of good versus evil, until you look at the actual issues we’re forced to debate, and then you just end up feeling ridiculous.
I do, anyway. Still I hope we can carve out a little sense in this space.