On Free Speech and Cancel Culture, Letter Four
This is part 4 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.
Links will be added as the letters get published: letter 1, letter 2, letter 3, letter 4, letter 5, and letter 6.
Because, Freddie, while I don’t expect you or any other individual writer to single-handedly work to actively seek to put instances of attacks on speech in proportion, I do feel like places like The New York Times and The Atlantic do have an ethical responsibility to illustrate what’s happening in the world in an accurate and proportionate way.
Yes, certainly, I agree. This is far from merely an issue of cancel culture and free expression: large news entities have a big and tricky responsibility in what they choose to cover. If they report on minor issues they risk creating an inaccurate impression of the proportion of the issue; if they don’t report on issues then some in their audience will claim bias. And providing the right context is not easy - there’s hundreds of thousands of college students out there, some of them are bound to do and say stupid things, and while it’s appropriate for news organizations to report news, it can be difficult for people to maintain appropriate context. “No Campus Free Speech Controversies at the Vast Majority of Colleges This Week” isn’t a headline that can exist. I do think, though, that there have been enough college speech issues that point reliably in the same direction that coverage is appropriate, especially given that elite colleges train future leaders. (Including in media.) Additionally, I think that for every college speech issue we hear about, there’s probably several more that we don’t because they don’t have the sexiness to attract national media. I particularly worry about students and professors self-censoring to preempt these issues.
I hear you about the inconsistency in enforcing rules. I think this is what bothers me most about a lot of contemporary progressive morality policing is that it’s inconsistent. I understand that you’re frustrated here about the failure of platforms to enforce their rules more rigorously, while I’m more inclined to worry about over-zealous enforcement, but there is some overlap in the sense that rules that seem fickle and arbitrarily enforced undermine everyone’s faith in the system. This happens a lot outside of the formal rules of platforms - I can never quite figure out why, for example, someone like Dr. Dre has avoided cancellation - but happens every day on Twitter and Facebook. Here’s what I would argue about the failure to enforce rules on big social networks, though: the practical impediments to enforcement are harder than you might think. 500 million tweets a day are sent. 2 billion people use Facebook a day. Moderating all of that requires immense resources and effort.
This might again point back to my longstanding argument that, in the internet era, censorship of extremism is essentially technologically impossible, if the extremists are persistent and adaptable enough. None of this means that you shouldn’t be frustrated and disillusioned by these companies when they fail to enforce the rules that are on the books. But I think that the difficulty in top-down moderation means that platforms have a great responsibility to provide users with tools to block, mute, go private, and avoid certain terms and topics. As for how strict the rules should actually be, we probably will just have to agree to disagree.
My best guess is that it’s largely to “virtue signal” (a term I don't particularly like and feel like it’s pretty wildly misused, though would be appropriate here) to advertisers and users, to make people feel comfortable joining a service and companies feel comfortable spending their money on it.
This is key. I’m glad that you’ve suggested that the biggest influence on the enforcement of platform rules is, in practice, what advertisers will allow. I suspect that one place where you and I would agree entirely is on the fact that the companies that make internet communication possible (platforms like Twitter and Tik Tok, search engines like Google, the “reverse proxy”1 service Cloudflare, the companies that provide the server space and infrastructure like Amazon Web Services) are motivated by what all corporations are motivated by, money. Individuals within these organizations may certainly be motivated by their own moral codes, but as organizations they will do what’s best for their profits and their stock price. Which means, among other things, that they’re fickle. They’re untrustworthy. They will enforce these platforming decisions not according to any consistent moral reasoning but through the vagaries of public relations.
For now, this tends to favor progressives. I understand that you feel that they too often don’t enforce their own rules against conservative accounts that violate the rules, and I hear you. This gets back to the point above, though - the right-leaning accounts that get away with rules violations are those that stay under the radar; they’re allowed less because the corporations approve of their actions and more because their actions never become newsworthy enough to attract condemnation. But in general, as social justice discourse has become the language of institutions, the language norms on large platforms has bent more towards people who lean left. But things can change! Politics is cyclical, particularly when it comes to the cultural issues that do so much to influence language norms. So it’s not at all unthinkable to me that, purely as a matter of optics and public relations and shareholder value, Twitter and Facebook et al. will cut more against progressive rhetoric and ideals. Everybody is laboring under the dictates of money.
And that brings me to what I think is the bigger issue: the financial incentives for writers and pundits, the professional conditions that push people into woke or anti-woke bubbles and prompt so much mutual misunderstanding when it comes to cancel culture and free speech.
Like most any Substack bro, I’ve been accused in the past of “grift,” a word I would consider profoundly tired and overused even if I was never the target of it. The idea, commonly promulgated on Twitter, is that people who walk the anti-cancel culture beat do so only or primarily because that’s what’s financially rewarded. I find this personally aggravating because I’ve been writing about the same themes for 15 years, and for most of those years of blogging I was doing so for $0. But I also think this complaint is inconsistently applied in general.
Let me start with a concession before my complaint. First: yes, there is a niche within the broad world of writing about politics for money, and we might call this niche “anti-woke.” (My preference, for years, has been to use the term “social justice politics” to refer to what is often called “woke,” “identity politics,” or “political correctness,” but that effort has failed and I’m trying to make fetch happen.) Yes, some people, including me, make a substantial portion of our incomes thanks to the support of readers who are fretful about the current state of social liberal norms and practices. Most of my own readers are disillusioned leftists and liberals, but certainly I host many conservatives here, and I’m fine with that. And, yes, it’s entirely possible for the anti-woke beat to become a shtick, and because there are financial incentives involved, for writers to dedicate more and more time to it. That in turn can provoke people to fixate on problems with language norms or minor culture war kerfuffles, to the detriment of bigger issues of greater intrinsic concern to the country. I fully acknowledge that these are real potential pitfalls, and I try hard to remain intentional, to never write anything just to gin up controversy and move subscriptions.
My frustration lies in the fact that all writers have beats, corners, lanes, and it’s not considered inherently a “grift” to walk those beats. Personally, my own newsletter is much less fixated on culture war than a lot of people think; I don’t think I can be accused of writing too much about any one thing because I write about everything. (I would estimate that something like a quarter to a third of what I publish here is culture war stuff, although what falls under that umbrella is certainly debatable.) More to the point, if being anti-woke is a grift, then surely being woke can be as well. Certainly there are a lot of people who are performatively strident about social justice and have financial incentive to be that way. (Teen Vogue exists.) It’s not at all clear to me that there is some bigger problem with the incentive to be anti-woke than with the incentives to be woke. Woke and anti-woke are not the same in a simplistic way, but it’s true that they’re caught in a mutually-reinforcing cycle. The sad fact is that the audience seems to have an inexhaustible appetite for culture war. I know I’m not alone in getting a fraction of the attention for deeply-researched pieces that I get for culture war argle-bargle I churn out in an hour, to my great frustration. I recognize that it’s my job to have integrity and write about stuff that I think matters and not to constantly play to my financial best interest regardless. But I do resent the implication that there are no similar bad incentives on the other side.
Maybe the more insidious problem is the potential for audience capture and the scant upsides of defying your reputation. My commenters are generally quite open-minded and, I think, understand my dedication to not being pigeonholed. And the commenters are a small self-selected part of my total readership. Still, I took heat in comments and emails when I criticized Joe Rogan for not being as open-minded as he seems, for twice writing in partial defense of Amber Heard, and at other times where I seemed to defy the expectation that I’m a dissident leftist. Honestly, I’ve never thought of myself as a contrarian leftist at all; I just think of myself as an old-school materialist and civil libertarian leftist who’s unhappy with the evolution of contemporary liberalism. It’s perfectly fair, though, to argue that my priorities are off and that I spend too much time worrying over liberal culture than about structural injustice.
I think all of this context is essential for understanding what we’re talking about. Everyone involved has financial skin in the game. For the platforms, and increasingly for Cloudflare and hosting companies, it’s a question of PR and staying in the good graces of the media (and thus shareholders). For the media personalities, it’s both the financial value of being outrageous - outrageous enough to get pub without getting deplatformed - and occupying one clear side in the culture war. And of course media careers are powered in large part by the opinion of your peers; it’s a simple fact that if you’re looking to get a staff writer job somewhere, it helps to have a lot of friends in the industry.
I don’t want to sit here and self-aggrandize, but I can tell you that I’m someone who just wants to remain genuinely independent and to tell my best version of the truth as well as I can. And I can run through a number of my own arguments that have been dismissed as anti-woke propaganda that seem to me to instead by common-sensical left positions. Take my concerns over the continued refusal to accept any name for social justice politics, the denial of any conventional term to refer to what’s obviously a large and influential political movement. That doesn’t seem anti-woke to me; it seems like I’m identifying a real communicative problem. When I complain that there’s a strain of liberal historiography that seems to deny that people of color have ever had agency, and in doing so makes white people the protagonists of history, that doesn’t seem anti-woke to me; it seems to be an argument for a more expansive vision of what respect for people of color entails. When I argue, as a very pro-Covid vaccine guy, that there are strange class dimensions to how affluent liberals talk about Covid, that doesn’t strike me as anti-woke. All of these felt to me at the time as observations about contemporary politics and culture that had value. And yet each such piece was caricatured and dismissed as anti-woke on publication, and once they were given that label, a lot of people stopped reading.
Of course, I could be wrong about all of them. And no one is obligated to read me, in particular. But I think the woke/anti-woke binary is a dead end. Everyone has already taken their places on the stage, and the back-and-forth that exists feels tired and rehearsed. I am 100% open to the idea that the discursive and language controversies I talk about so often are of less importance to deeper issues of structural politics. I might have lost the plot. But as social justice politics have become the language of institutions, albeit opportunistically on the part of those institutions, the need for a vibrant counternarrative has only grown. I think for all of its pitfalls and susceptibility to corruption, “anti-woke” discourse is profoundly necessary. Critical thinking about cancel culture is necessary. A world where Goldman Sachs flies Pride flags outside its offices is a world where left-wing skepticism of woke morals is needed.
I have no idea what this means and won’t pretend that I do.