Joe Waters and Viewpoint Editor, Laura Beveridge, debate whether "cancel culture" is a threat to free speech.
On 7 July 2020, 150 prominent academics, writers, and journalists signed an open letter published in Harper’s Magazine titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”, the contents of which many commentators have since deemed as a condemnation of “cancel culture” with the letter stating:
“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.”
Among the signatories was JK Rowling, who a mere few days prior to the letter’s publication had herself faced backlash on Twitter – indeed, with some declaring her “cancelled” – for a series of tweets interpreted by many as transphobic.
Both of these incidents have brought the term “cancel culture” back into the forefront of public debate. The term, which has made its way into the cultural agenda over the past few years, is largely understood to refer to the practice of encouraging a community (usually, the Twitter community) to reject, shun, and remove support from a public figure in response to objectionable behaviour or opinions. In light of the letter’s publication, it seems only necessary to examine the claims that the letter implies: does cancel culture inhibit free speech and restrict debate?
No – Laura Beveridge
Cancel culture cannot threaten free speech as cancel culture, as it is imagined in the minds of the signatories of Harper’s Magazine’s open letter, does not exist. Their imagining, that once the judge and jury of the Twitter mob has deemed you cancelled, you will be sentenced to a life of being de-platformed, stripped of fame and wealth, silenced for eternity, and outcast from society, is simply that – an imagining.
For example, in the days since JK Rowling was announced “cancelled” by some users on Twitter, she has yet to have been booted off her social media accounts, dropped from her publisher, or have had the demolition teams rolled in to dispose of the studios where Harry Potter was filmed or the amusement park themed after it. In fact, apart from the storm of tweets directed at her, for all intents and purposes, she is in exactly the same position that she was in prior to deciding to share her opinion. And she’s not alone: there has been a veritable smorgasbord of “cancelled” Twitter users just like Rowling, from Taylor Swift to Joe Biden, who, once the hashtag had stopped trending, might as well have never been cancelled in the first place for all the difference it made to their material and working lives. Even public figures who were cancelled for sharing the utmost abhorrent of opinions don’t ever seem to face the full consequential silencing that was imagined in the minds of the signatories. Take, for example, comedian Shane Gillis who was “cancelled” after videos of him making racist “jokes” surfaced online. While this rightly resulted in him losing his spot on Saturday Night Live, he is still a touring comedian – barely the exiled pariah.
Knowing such, the open letter reads less as a plea from the protectors of free speech and more like a letter plagued with such irony that Alanis Morissette might as well have written it herself and titled it “let’s cancel cancel culture”.
The letter reads: “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.”
As already demonstrated, the debate is in no way restricted: no one’s voice is removed after they’re declared cancelled and largely their access to platforms for speech remains unaffected. In regard to the claim that “cancel culture” is a threat to democratic participation, when applied to the context of signatory Rowling, the irony drips thick. “Cancel culture” is less an attack on democratic participation and more democracy in action, with Twitter providing a platform for participation that many users would not otherwise have – even if that participation is in the form of stating their withdrawal of support for said signatory. Conversely, by demanding that Twitter users stop cancelling her, it is Rowling herself, a rich, powerful individual with access not only to social media platforms with millions of followers but to publishing in international news outlets, who is attempting to silence people – many of whom happen to belong to one of the most marginalised groups in society. In attempting to frame herself not only as being victimized by people whose only platform consists of 280 characters, but also as a saviour of democracy, there is simply nothing else left to say to her but: get off the cross because we need the wood.
The letter digs itself deeper into the hole of hypocrisy, stating: “We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters”.
If this is the case, I must then question, what is the point of this letter if not to complain about the counter-speech of the cancelers? Perhaps the letter’s sentiment could be better expressed by rephrasing the statement to read: we uphold the value of robust even caustic counter-speech as long as you promise not to use your free speech to Tweet that I’m cancelled.
Conceivably, cancellation is more familiar to people when referred to by its previous nome de plume: consequences. If the letter wants to claim that it defends consequential counter-speech, it must then be prepared to defend all instances of reactionary opinion – including the cancellation which it condemns. When framed in this light, it seems like the letter’s attempt to cancel cancel culture is a round-about way of silencing, deflecting, and dismissing critics who choose to voice their criticism through a movement of collective disapproval.
Consequently, the argument that cancel culture is a threat to free speech appears to be an overreaction – and a hypocritical one at that.
Yes – Joe Waters
Before I begin, you should know on which stand my coat hangs. I’m no free speech absolutist. There are some harms that speech can do which shouldn’t be accepted. While you should have the right to say what people don’t want to hear, you shouldn’t be entitled to say what people shouldn’t have to hear. This strikes the right balance between believing the Orwellian notion of liberty and not logically being forced to accept the existence of, for example, a racial eugenicist.
With this in mind, the metric with which we can answer the titular question is this: is ability of an individual once ‘cancelled’ to tell someone what they don’t want to hear lost?
Like many things, cancelling comes in degrees. Those celebrities who complain after finding themselves facing boycotts because consumers disliked their behaviours, I find similar to a whiny, petulant child in the playground complaining that nobody wants to be their friend. Nothing is stopping them from having the ability to whine, but there’s no reason to feel so entitled to said friends. However, that’s not to say that there isn’t a form of “cancelling” that we should be concerned about, because there absolutely is.
There is a certain form of cancel culture that is recognisably unfair, unwarranted, and goes beyond merely “facing consequences of your actions”. Unlike the “cancellation” Rowling experienced, this manifestation of the culture both actually exists and poses the very real threat of removing one’s rightful ability to add their tuppence-worth to the discourse. It’s the sort of cancellation that results in the resignation of a New York Times section editor – James Bennet to be exact – over the publication of a controversial op-ed. A Robespierreian approach to those with whom we disagree does, unsurprisingly, result in a règne de la Terreur. It is when disagreement becomes the denial of individuals to exist within the discourse that the culture becomes harmful – you wouldn’t run an annoying though lawful driver off the road, after all. Feel free to flash your lights, beep your horn, and shout obscenities at them as you overtake but, infuriating as they may be, they have as much right to be on that road as you do.
It is this element of cancel culture, and this element alone, which I find undoubtedly a serious threat to free speech. While I’m no fan of Senator Tom Cotton (who wrote aforementioned op-ed) and in my opinion, his article titled “Send in the Troops” was wrong, nasty, and, as the anti-cancel open letter puts it, “caustic”, I simply cannot agree that the firing of the opinions editor who allowed its publication would ever have been the correct response. The removal of James Bennet sets a dangerous precedent for all journalists, or for that fact, anyone with both a boss and a vaguely public profile: any funny business, any at all, and you’re out, warranted or not.
It is this Vernon Dundley-esque element that makes cancellations especially worrying. Ultimately, there is nothing stopping cancellation campaigns from targeting the wholly undeserving. Bennet didn’t even write the article, yet he faced the harshest of consequences. This was an individual who faced consequences for allowing someone else’s free speech. It is this overreach that I find harmful. I shan’t engage with fateful slippery-slope arguments because there is harm in the present: it can be found in the genuinely unreasonable (and what ought to be unnecessary) eggshell-treading required within the discourse by anyone not seeking the same fate as Bennet. Cancel culture has forced institutions like the New York Times into a corner, dictating that they must sanitise their public relations by removing anyone who has been told by enough people that they are wrong. This limits the ability to participate in discourse to including a mere two groups: those who are found to hold the “correct” opinions, and those such as Rowling who enjoy special privilege as a member of the societal elite and are thus immune to actual cancellation.
Moreover, proponents of cancelling the likes of Cotton and Bennet must acknowledge that such cancellations are, in actuality, counterproductive. The fear of cancellation will only lead to opponents of the “correct” narrative to self-suppress their views. Rather than their opponents being out in the open, they’ll go silent, inevitably leading to a false idea that the progressives, like myself, are winning the discourse. Shocks such as Trump’s 2016 victory would become all the more shocking (and perhaps worryingly, all the more likely). Proponents of harmful cancel culture would do well not to throw away Sun Tzu’s valuable piece of advice – know your enemy.
So, is JK Rowling justified in saying that her freedom of speech is restricted because people now find her distasteful? No. Ultimately, she remains a billionaire with a pedestal to tell decent people “what they don’t want to hear”. She remains that annoying driver on the road despite the unsavoury hand gestures in her rear-view mirror. However, did the James Bennet saga threaten free speech? Yes. Ultimately, Bennet can no longer tell people what they don’t want to hear – not because he caused unreasonable harm with a horrific or indefensible view, but because he published someone else’s controversial op-ed which threatened the New York Times’ PR. He may have been an annoying driver, but he didn’t deserve to be ran into a ditch. What I’m trying to say, to paraphrase Johnathan Freedland of The Guardian, is that when George Bush’s spin-doctor and Noam Chomsky sign the same letter, you know something is worryingly wrong.