To be honest, I never really believed that cancel culture was a thing. Most of those complaining seemed to be privileged elites being denied insane salaries and prestigious positions for legitimate reasons. While I’m a firm believer in freedom of speech, I don’t believe in the right to be free from any and all consequences for your speech. As everything in life, whether a reaction is merited or not is a matter of proportion.
In other words, I will stand against people being denied their rights in any way based on their opinions—but I will most certainly reserve my right to judge them for what they say. If someone holds an opinion that is demonstrably unjust or could lead to people getting hurt, that person shouldn’t have access to lots of power and influence. Power and influence are not rights.
Having the right to say something is very different from having the right to be paid to shout something through a megaphone.
Then, I read Harper’s Magazine’s “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” In it, prominent intellectuals call out what they believe is a societal shift toward intolerance and ideological conformity. If the letter is to be believed, we are, as a society, sliding away from the ideal of a marketplace of ideas and toward what the letter refers to as “the consensus.” What that consensus is, I don’t know. I guess it was too obvious to warrant a definition.
This got me thinking. Have these great artists and thinkers, some of whom I deeply respect, touched upon a disease I failed to notice, insidiously spreading throughout our culture? Or is this just the dying gasp of an intellectual elite, disgruntled at the idea of having to contend with new sources of criticism to which it isn’t accustomed?
I’ve concluded that it is none of the above. We are simply moving into a new information consumption paradigm, with its advantages and disadvantages, and those comfortable with the old way of doing things are voicing their concern.
When you have more voices, it’s harder to get heard
We are living in fascinating times. The rise of social media has profoundly changed the dynamics of public debate and discourse. The gatekeepers are gone. The marketplace of ideas has been taken over by the masses.
Our new paradigm has led to some fabulous improvements. Accountability is on the rise. We can now see and react to injustice in real time. We get to talk with people from all around the world about issues of global importance. Information has become easier to find. Previously untold stories can be told. Previously unheard voices can be heard. Information is becoming democratized.
On the flip side, the absence of curators means that the marketplace is ripe for exploitation. Misinformation is a plague on society, actively causing harm and suffering. Moreover, in a saturated mediascape, who you are takes precedence over what you have to say, which can lead to the rise in prominence of some fairly ignorant loudmouths.
Social media in particular is an absolute mess of information. In order to sort the informative from the misleading, many people—myself included—spend far too much time asking ourselves, “Based on who you are, are you the best person to be saying what you said in the way you said it?” While doing so is necessary as a means to verify the quality of what we read, it also brings identity to the forefront of every discussion.
In America in particular, when talking about society or politics, the “who you are” element isn’t so much about education or individual lived experience. More often than not, it’s about your membership of a social group: usually race, gender identity, or some socio-economic indicator.
This, I believe, brings us to the crux of what the Harper’s letter is lamenting. When legitimacy is so often linked to identity, what you can legitimately talk about shrinks for pretty much everybody; especially for members of the social majority.
To a large extent, that’s just the way things are now. But that doesn’t mean that old-school writers, poets and media figures have no place in this brave new world. It just means that if you want to make money off your speech, you’d better know what you’re talking about.
No country for old-school writers
Those who have made it their profession to profit off of the marketplace of ideas find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, to be heard, you have to address consequential topics. On the other hand, those topics are the most likely to get you in trouble, since you’ll probably overlook some crucial element that wasn’t part of your individual lived experience.
Things are even worse for people who are used to writing often, quickly, and about many different topics. In order to come up with good ideas, you have to come up with lots of ideas, which will inevitably also mean not-so-good ideas. This is problematic, given that any displays of ignorance can and will be used against you by social media.
However, it isn’t all doom and gloom for the media and writing communities. Large rumblings throughout our society have created a pathway to new and talented voices that may not have made it past the gatekeepers of yore. Our new mediascape is more open to diversity and inclusion than ever before; precisely the opposite of the intolerance that the Harper’s letter calls out.
The letter also claims this new atmosphere “will harm the most vital causes of our time,” when in many cases, it has helped those very cases tremendously. As a society, we are learning more and more about the lives of the most marginalized among us. Social media is in many ways driving well-needed discussions about systemic racism, LGBTQ rights, sexual misconduct, and so on.
The concern expressed in the letter doesn’t stem from nothing. The “intolerance of opposing views” and “blinding moral certainty” it denounces do indeed flourish on social media. But they also flourish when people debate in every coffee house, water cooler and kitchen table around the world. Social media just allows people with similarly unnuanced views to get together and speak in a single, simplistic voice.
When that happens, there’s no point in getting upset at people for being mean or intolerant on social media. It is much more productive to focus on real world consequences. The letter lists a few of them, so let’s take a closer look.
Things haven’t gotten worse, just louder
This, I find, is where the Harper’s letter gets confusing. Supposedly it’s addressed to the “woke” movement—the so-called supporters of cancel culture. But I don’t think they’re to blame in any of the cases the letter puts forward:
An editor fired for a controversial piece. Since the article doesn’t list sources, I don’t know who this refers two, but there are two possibilities. If the piece was actively spreading hatred or misinformation—in other words, didn’t adhere to the standards of journalistic ethics—the editor deserved to be fired. If not, the ones to blame are those who did the firing, as they were clearly not as committed as they should be to the principles of journalistic integrity.
Books withdrawn for inauthenticity. Frankly, I don’t know what this means.
Journalists barred from writing on certain topics. Well, why were they barred? If they weren’t qualified to write about those topics, then that seems fine. Getting paid to write is a privilege that stems from competence, not an inalienable right. However, if they were qualified and someone above them censored their work, that censorship should be called out in the strongest terms. Those who did the censorship—not people complaining on Twitter.
Professors investigated for quoting works of literature. In this case, it sounds like the fault is either oversensitive students or administrators with too much free time. In either case, the professor is supposedly the expert; I’m sure they can give a convincing defense of their pedagogy. If not, then maybe they made a mistake and the investigation was warranted.
A researcher fired for circulating a peer-reviewed study. This seems to refer to a particular case that I’m not familiar with, but again, I’m almost certain the fault is with those that did the firing.
The heads of organizations ousted for what are sometimes clumsy mistakes. Well, when they are just clumsy mistakes, those doing the ousting deserve the blame. When they are more than clumsy mistakes, good riddance. In either case, Twitter mobs aren’t to blame.
The common thread here is that it’s never the fault of those calling for cancellation. Their right to free speech means they get to scream and lament and be unreasonable as much as they please. When they are wrong to do so, it is the organization’s responsibility to take the heat, defend their employee and respond in an educated and dignified manner.
In other words, the problem isn’t those calling for cancellation on social media. It’s the employers and administrators who are so terrified of social media that they take disproportionate measures to make even the smallest discomfort disappear immediately.
However, instead of going after powerful figures who are too chicken to stand up for their employees, this letter is vaguely addressed to everyone, telling us we should be nice to one another and respectful of diverse points of view.
As long as there is social media, there will be unreasonable people on it. This is our new reality. It isn’t government oppression, violent protests or mafia intimidation; it’s Twitter. Let’s deal with it in a mature and thoughtful way, rather than getting spooked by loud noises and writing strongly worded letters to nobody in particular.