On Free Speech and Cancel Culture: Letter Six
This is part 6 in a 6-part correspondence series between writers Freddie deBoer and Parker Molloy. Parker will be writing parts 1, 3, and 5 at The Present Age; I will be writing parts 2, 4, and 6 here.
Perhaps I should finish with a couple instances of recent infringements on free speech that we would probably agree with.
First, the independent journalist (and, full disclosure, my personal friend and daughter of my psychiatrist) Katie Halper was recently censored and fired by The Hill for writing a segment for their show Rising which called Israel an apartheid state, in defense of US Representative Rashida Tlaib saying something similar. This controversy echoes many in the past, such as the censorship and firing of Nathan Robinson by The Guardian, for making an innocuous joke about US funding of the Israeli military. I find the Halper controversy worth noting for a couple reasons. First, The Hill has deliberately cultivated a reputation for Rising as a free-thinking, controversy-welcoming broadcast, and yet they preemptively shrunk when faced with appearing to insult Israel. Second, this is a good example of where an entity has the right to censor - The Hill is not obligated to air any given segment they don’t want to - but where the norms of free speech should militate for more openness and more freedom. And since we’ve talked about campus speech norms, it’s worth saying that no group has had their rights to free speech on campus more consistently trampled on than Palestinian rights groups.
(For the record, when the awful Steven Salaita situation happened, I dedicated several blog posts to his defense, wrote about it for The Chronicle of Higher Education, and traveled to Urbana-Champaign to protest.)
More disturbingly, you have the enforcement of decorum and respect about the death of Queen Elizabeth in the United Kingdom. Here we have a state government using its legal power to force its citizens to show proper deference to the country’s absurd and anachronistic hereditary monarchy. There’s no controversy here - these incidents have been a clear violation of the fundamental right to self-expression, and they make me glad to live in a country where the First Amendment guarantees speech rights. And I think people with a looser grasp on the value of those rights generally are people who have lived under the blanket of their protections their entire lives and don’t really understand what they would be losing if those rights went away. I don’t have any particular interest in disrespecting the Queen, here in like week three of her endless funeral, but I am very invested in the right to do so. It could be worse, is my point.
George Will is, indeed, a dumb jerk.
There is no doubt that, on trans issues specifically and broader issues of culture war, there are scary threats out there, against educators and others. And of course I think those people whipping up those threats are despicable. I also agree that we need to maintain proportionality and recognize that many of the complaints about the gradual erosion of our norms of free speech are not of the same immediate, flesh-and-blood consequence as threats to teachers, trans students, or similar. Where I would disagree with many is in saying, first, that one doesn't negate the other - yes, threatening teachers for using a student’s chosen pronouns is of course worse than overzealous moderation on a private social media network, but we can walk and chew gum at the same time; both are bad, even if one is worse. Second, I would disagree with some who want to censor as a means to reverse these trends. I would argue that such efforts never work. After all, it’s already illegal to threaten, or to commit acts of violence, against teachers or anyone else. And as I have argued at length, the history we have of attempts to shut down right-wing extremism through censorship are not inspiring, with countries like France and Germany having watched for 75 years as harsh anti-extremism laws have failed to meaningly prevent the spread of those ideologies.
All we can do - as frustratingly slow, uncertain, and imperfect as these efforts are - is to create a more equitable, just, and accepting country, by demonstrating a better way forward for everyone, by making the alternative more attractive. This is not sexy work. But I think it’s the only thing that has ever really been shown to be a guarantor of social progress. And there is progress! Trans rights have gone from being unspeakable to being a matter of live political debate in a decade. I can understand why that’s an uncomfortable position to be in, with your right to exist as you are still debated, but the arc of history seems clear to me. When I was in high school in the late 1990s, a gay teacher I knew told me that my demands for gay marriage were useless, as that effort could not possibly win in the United States. By my mid-30s that right was enshrined across the country. Did it take far too long? Yes. Are we in danger of a retrenchment? Yes. But in the long run I believe that the only reliable path forward for progressive people is to make their best case for the kind of society they want to build, and to build it. Like you said - at a large enough scale, moderation is impossible. Even a country as repressive as China has been unable to completely squash various internal resistance groups. As difficult as it can be to believe in the face of right-wing insanity, convincing has a far better track record than repression.
If people are worried about “mobs” shutting down speech, maybe it’s worth taking a look at the way the right does exactly that instead of pretending like a college freshman worrying about what people will think of her if she expresses her “controversial” views in class is some major threat to speech. That’s really what I’m asking the people who obsess over “cancel culture” to do: put things in perspective, and be honest about the tactics being used on the right to silence the voices of people on the left. This isn’t a matter of “cancel culture” not existing, but about the public perception being so warped that the continued obsession over it as a “left” problem only further twists reality. It’s dishonest.
I hear you. I’d like to think that I have that perspective. I don’t think that students at a $70k-a-year private college complaining about some sensitive text on their syllabus are “as bad” as the right-wing threats you’ve listed. But as I said above, we can worry about two things at one time. And I would like for those college students to some day become my allies, while I know the right-wingers who threaten teachers will forever be my enemies. Those college students will eventually have to learn that the world is full of insults, that problems don’t go away just because you want them to, and that they’re not just gonna stop making Republicans. Every complaint of mine about censorious lefty young people is in part a desire to enlist them to my cause, while those on the right who attempt to ban books or fire teachers are those I know I can never convince.
As I have written these letters, I’ve been aware that there’s something fundamentally unsatisfying about what we’re doing here. Despite the assertions of some of my more voluble emailers, I haven’t backed off of my basic free-speech absolutism at all. And you have maintained a dedication to the basic concerns of free speech too, a more qualified and complicated stance than mine but still a commitment to the core concepts. What we’ve been dealing with is the scrum of the edge cases, the confusion of shared principles but different perspectives, and the thorny application of questions of free expression through the lens of private entities who have no legal obligation to host any particular opinions and financial influences tugging them in all manner of directions. All of that is intuitively unsatisfying in a discursive culture where these issues are pushed relentlessly into woke vs. antiwoke frames. Trust me, I’m reminded every day based on what I could post and choose not to: in the economy of attention, picking one culture war side and grinding our grievances against its enemies is very profitable. As difficult as these questions may be, and as little fun as it might be to pick through these questions like this, I think it’s worthwhile, if thankless. We have to work these things out.