from the that's-not-how-any-of-this-works dept
Over the last few years we’ve seen this ongoing bizarre infatuation with “cancel culture” despite little evidence to suggest that it’s a serious issue. As we wrote nearly two years ago, in response to Harper’s trying to sound some sort of vague alarm about cancel culture, so much of the debate conflates a variety of different things. There certainly are some cases of a mob of voices misunderstanding or overreacting to something mostly innocuous said or done by someone, and sometimes that leads to consequences that lots of people feel are exaggerated or undeserved. But the issue is that a huge percentage of the people using the term “cancel culture” or arguing that there’s some great silencing happening are hiding behind those extraordinarily rare examples to really say that they don’t like being criticized for their opinions.
Indeed, most examples of “cancel culture” don’t actually seem to be “canceling” anything. They seem to be a combination of counter speech and consequences — two things that are staples of believing in free speech. It really feels like many of the people who scream about cancel culture are really trying to silence their own critics, because they feel their criticism is too harsh, and the consequences they face too severe. In other words, many of the people screaming about cancel culture seem mostly focused on suppressing others’ speech — and frankly, it’s often the speech of those who have traditionally been marginalized or oppressed, who have had a chance to finally have their voices heard.
Stepping into this breach last week was the NY Times, with the ridiculously lazy take on how America has a Free Speech Problem. The analysis breaks no new ground, has nothing particularly thoughtful to say, and presents ridiculous false equivalencies from the very start.
For all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.
Except, that’s nonsense. At no point has “the right to speak your mind and voice your opinions” been “without fear of being shamed or shunned.” The entire framing here is wrong. Shaming and shunning are, yet again, counterspeech and consequences. There is no “right” not to face criticism or social stigma for your bad views.
Are there nuanced arguments and debates to be had about how such stigmatizing can sometimes go too far? Sure. Are there historical examples that today most people consider shameful — such as the “shaming and shunning” of the voices of minorities, the marginalized, and oppressed? Absolutely. But the underlying concept here so totally misses the point. Any time anyone says anything they may be shamed or shunned. That’s society.
Furthermore, there are fundamental viewpoints that large groups of people agree should be shamed, and most people agree that people who support those viewpoints should, in fact, be shamed for expressing those viewpoints. I have no problem arguing that those displaying purposeful, deliberate bigotry deserve counterspeech and, depending on the details, social consequences. Indeed, social shaming and consequences, is one way in which people learn what society finds acceptable and what it does not.
Relatedly (though not identically), there are always circumstances in which any reasonable person knows it’s best to hold back their own thoughts. Or, as I’ve heard a few people note (though I cannot find who said it originally), part of biting your tongue on some of your own beliefs is called being an adult and recognizing when it is and when it is not appropriate to express your thoughts on certain things. I may have views on how best to, for example, respond to a crying child, but it’s not my place to tell another parent how to handle their own child. That’s not me being silenced, it’s me not being an asshole.
The NY Times piece, however, doesn’t seem to consider any of this. It seems to suggest that adults being adults is somehow bad.
This social silencing, this depluralizing of America, has been evident for years, but dealing with it stirs yet more fear. It feels like a third rail, dangerous. For a strong nation and open society, that is dangerous.
No, it’s not dangerous. Might there be some cases where it could create dangerous results? Sure. Absolutely. I can think of situations in which people being too scared to speak up could lead to negative results. For example, there were the attempts by China to suppress early news of the severity of COVID-19, and, obviously, you can see how problematic that was.
But this general idea that all social silencing is dangerous is nonsense. Most of it is what’s known as being in polite society. Everyone has some bad ideas, but most of us know better than to blurt them out at inappropriate times. And that’s not dangerous. That’s society.
And, if you want to say that there are specific issues that feel “like a third rail, dangerous” that shouldn’t be, then let’s discuss those specifics rather than working in loose generalities that allow people to hide behind these claims to try to avoid consequences for just being an asshole. But the Times refuses to do that, and with it, seemingly refuses to directly acknowledge that the context of each of these scenarios really, really matters.
Then there’s the “both sides” part of this nonsense.
How has this happened? In large part, it’s because the political left and the right are caught in a destructive loop of condemnation and recrimination around cancel culture. Many on the left refuse to acknowledge that cancel culture exists at all, believing that those who complain about it are offering cover for bigots to peddle hate speech. Many on the right, for all their braying about cancel culture, have embraced an even more extreme version of censoriousness as a bulwark against a rapidly changing society, with laws that would ban books, stifle teachers and discourage open discussion in classrooms.
Once again, the word you want is “censorial” not “censorious” but, hey, I think I’m losing that fight. But to the point of this paragraph, it creates a very weird false equivalency. One “side,” it says, doesn’t think censors exist, and the “other side,” while whining about censors on the first side, is censoring itself. Which… what? That’s not an equally balanced scale there. Team purple claims it’s seen no cheating, while team orange is cheating while claiming that team purple cheats… is… not “both sides” do it. It’s just saying one side is simply accusing the other side of doing what it does.
But then the piece gets even more ridiculous.
Many Americans are understandably confused, then, about what they can say and where they can say it. People should be able to put forward viewpoints, ask questions and make mistakes and take unpopular but good-faith positions on issues that society is still working through — all without fearing cancellation.
As my colleague Leigh points out the “issues that society is still working through” line implicitly admits that there are some topics that are, broadly speaking, culturally settled as bad. He notes things like “explicit legal segregation” and “women being denied the vote.” While there are still a few nutty extremists who might argue those positions, for most of modern society, we agree that these are bad. And most of us don’t think it’s a problem if people who believe in those things feel uncomfortable expressing support for those positions. Because they’re pretty clearly really horrific ideas that are about suppressing actual fundamental rights. And if people truly believe those ideas in their hearts, well, perhaps the “social shame” will help them think through the problems of their position.
Or, at the very least, if they still feel that these culturally settled issues were settled incorrectly, well, they should at least be able to acknowledge that fact, and then they can try to make the case for why that settling was incorrect. That’s a tough hill to climb, but that’s what you have to deal with if you’re pushing such ideas.
The Times is not wrong that there may be some cases where someone expresses an innocent or good faith position, without understanding the baggage that comes with it or the impact of the statements, and in those cases, it should be seen as an opportunity to educate rather than to condemn. But, again, most of the claims of cancel culture are not in response to someone naively stepping into a discussion they don’t understand, but someone being a contrarian for the sake of riling people up.
However you define cancel culture, Americans know it exists and feel its burden. In a new national poll commissioned by Times Opinion and Siena College, only 34 percent of Americans said they believed that all Americans enjoyed freedom of speech completely. The poll found that 84 percent of adults said it is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem that some Americans do not speak freely in everyday situations because of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism.
This poll is meaningless. Again, part of being adult is sometimes realizing it’s best to hold your tongue. Part of living in society is recognizing that not everyone agrees with you. And, most importantly, part of “freedom of speech” is recognizing that if you say something stupid, people may speak up about it and you may face wide-ranging consequences. That’s part of how freedom of speech works.
If anything, the results of this poll indicate to me that this stupidly pointless infatuation among thin-skinned elitists about “cancel culture” has tainted the narrative. But I defy anyone to argue against the notion that today is the moment in which we have the greatest ability to speak freely that has ever existed in history.
In the past, the risk of speaking out against societal norms was much, much higher in nearly every case and every scenario. Historically — as detailed in Jacob Mchangama’s excellent new book Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media — speaking out in socially unfavorable ways frequently led to banishment or death (and I’ll note that Jacob and I disagree over whether or not cancel culture is a real concern, and you can hear us debate this point in my recent podcast discussion with him). But I think it’s impossible to argue that the “risks” of speaking out today are significantly less than in the past.
But the narrative that speaking out is a risk has taken hold among a certain group, usually of very elite and powerful people, who claim that tons of people are facing too-drastic consequences for their speech. So when we see such things repeated over and over again on TV and in magazines and newspapers, of course a public opinion poll is going to reflect that narrative back. It becomes self-fulfilling.
The key thing in all of this, though is that every complaint about cancel culture focuses on generalized situations. Whenever you dig into specifics, things get a lot more murky. Again, here and there you can find a few examples of an overreaction, but they seem to be few and far between. My favorite example of this was not too long ago, when On the Media’s Brooke Gladstone had on professor Erec Smith of York College in Pennsylvania who had been held up as an example of someone who had been cancelled, but upon closer investigation, he had merely been upset about some criticism. What that story showed was… basically what people normally talk about regarding “the marketplace of ideas.”
Smith disagreed with some people and got into a Twitter fight about it, and apparently was upset that the conversation wasn’t “civil and intelligent.” So he decided he’d been cancelled. I’ll let the transcript tell the rest of the story:
EREC SMITH Well, here’s the thing. I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t think I was talking to mature academics. I was certain that we could have a civil and intelligent conversation. And I was wrong. I wasn’t talking to academics, I was talking to middle school mean girls.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So earlier in this hour, I spoke to somebody who’s very critical of this whole cancel culture idea. And he says cancelation is a word that never really contributes to the conversation. Instead, you could say someone was fired or someone was criticized. That to elevate this to a trend, creates a sense of moral panic when there is no cause for one.
EREC SMITH I guess if you’re somebody like me who studies language and persuasion, it presents differently. It’s a phenomenon to me. Something that is very telling about contemporary America. The idea that if you don’t like something, the best tactic is to degrade the person who said it. To not only silence them, to show others this is what happens when you cross us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, what happened to you? What professional consequences did you experience?
EREC SMITH At the time of my attempted cancelation, I was writing a book where it was about the teaching of writing the meaning behind standardized English. After this incident, however, I realized that I have to write about these trends in academia. About the idea that everything is about power dynamics, the idea that everyone is reduced to being a body and not an individual. And I decided to revamp the book, I added chapters, I revised substantially other chapters. I wouldn’t recommend doing that with three months left to the deadline – that took its toll on my psyche, but it was worth it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So, you didn’t lose tenure, you’re still able to publish and teach. You’ve said the experience has made you more outspoken.
EREC SMITH Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And created a book that is perhaps more relevant to this moment. You got slammed, but you’re functioning in the world. And in some ways you’re participating in the mainstream discussion now.
EREC SMITH Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How is that ultimately a bad thing? Especially since the number of teachers and professors and academics who are actually fired because of mobs on social platforms is vanishingly small?
EREC SMITH I speak up because I can. What I’m saying is something that many people agree with but aren’t able to talk about.
I love so much about this exchange, because it’s how so many of these debates end. After someone goes to some giant media property to talk about voices being silenced, when people point out that their voice is not being silenced, and they have a massive platform to say what they want, eventually they almost all fall back to “the narrative,” and claim that, sure, they can speak, but it’s to give voice to the vast silenced populace.
But the evidence of this actual silenced public is lacking. The NY Times piece again cites opinion polls, but there are reasonable explanations that have nothing to do with cancel culture:
The Times Opinion/Siena College poll found that 46 percent of respondents said they felt less free to talk about politics compared to a decade ago. Thirty percent said they felt the same. Only 21 percent of people reported feeling freer, even though in the past decade there was a vast expansion of voices in the public square through social media.
Is that because of “cancel culture” or because politics have gotten much more extreme and confrontational? Many of us are exhausted about talking about politics. I’m certainly less likely to talk about politics with people because it feels futile right now, not because I’m afraid of the consequences. It’s just not very interesting.
The next part of the NY Times piece is unintentionally hilarious:
“There’s a crisis around the freedom of speech now because many people don’t understand it, they weren’t taught what it means and why it matters,” said Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN America, a free speech organization. “Safeguards for free speech have been essential to almost all social progress in the country, from the civil rights movement to women’s suffrage to the current fights over racial justice and the police.”
Yeah, people aren’t taught what free speech means — including in this very article by the NY Times, which falsely says that free speech means being free from being shamed or shunned, and which contributes to the misleading narrative that free speech is being closed off.
The NY Times’ attempt to take the high road on this issue is also so bizarre:
We are under no illusion that this is easy. Our era, especially, is not made for this; social media is awash in speech of the point-scoring, picking-apart, piling-on, put-down variety. A deluge of misinformation and disinformation online has heightened this tension. Making the internet a more gracious place does not seem high on anyone’s agenda, and certainly not for most of the tech companies that control it.
I mean, this is also just wrong. Literally every major social media company (and many smaller ones) has a trust and safety group, and a large part of that role is very much about trying to make the internet a more gracious place. I mean, does the NY Times have a “trust and safety” team that reviews the NY Times’ product to see if it’s enabling more dissent and anger? No, they fired their public editor years ago, and insisted that social media could replace it.
You can’t consider yourself a supporter of free speech and be policing and punishing speech more than protecting it. Free speech demands a greater willingness to engage with ideas we dislike and greater self-restraint in the face of words that challenge and even unsettle us.
Again, the framing here is utter nonsense. First of all, you absolutely can (and often should) consider yourself “a supporter of free speech” if you go around criticizing others (i.e., “policing and punishing speech”). That’s free speech too! Basically, like so many of these debates, you can sum up the NY Times’ argument as “free speech means we get to say what we want, including criticizing others, but cancel culture is when we get criticized.
That last sentence is also bullshit. People are not getting mad about “words that challenge or unsettle us,” they’re mad about trolls, abuse, hatred, disingenuous bullshit and the like. And their way of responding — their way of using their own free speech to counter these ridiculous arguments — is to yell about it and to call attention to the people who present those ideas. That’s all speech.
Consider this finding from our poll: Fifty-five percent of respondents said that they had held their tongue over the past year because they were concerned about retaliation or harsh criticism. Women were more likely to report doing so — 61 percent, compared to 49 percent of men.
Again, that sounds like being an adult, and it also sounds like people are sick of asshole trolls online who will berate them. That’s not an attack on free speech. It’s recognizing that trolls exist, and acting accordingly.
At the same time, 22 percent of adults reported that they had retaliated against or were harshly critical of someone over something he or she said.
Read that one carefully. 22 percent had said they retaliated against OR were harshly critical. That tells me nothing useful whatsoever. First of all, the “or” there is a load-bearing bit of nonsense. Being harshly critical is, again, part of free speech. So, if most of that was just people being harshly critical, what’s the problem? This article is “harshly critical” of the NY Times because the NY Times deserves it. And what does “retaliated” mean in this context. Because if it’s just saying mean stuff, then, what’s the concern again?
Elijah Afere, a 25-year-old I.T. technician from Union, N.J., said that he worried about the larger implications of chilled speech for democracy. “You can’t give people the benefit of the doubt to just hold a conversation anymore. You’ve got to worry about feeling judged,” he said. “Political views can even affect your family ties, how you relate to your uncle or the other side. It’s really not good.”
I’m trying to think of a time when that’s not been true. I’ve always worried about feeling judged when I have a conversation with people, because that’s kind of natural. And political views have influenced family ties as far back as anyone can remember.
Roy Block, 76, from San Antonio, described himself as conservative and said he has been alarmed by scenes of parents being silenced at school board meetings over the past year. “I think it’s mostly conservatives that are being silenced,” he said. “But regardless, I think it should be a two-way street. Everybody should have an opportunity to speak and especially in open gathering and open forum.”
Roy thinks it’s “mostly conservatives”? But does he have any actual evidence of that? Why is the NY Times highlighting what some random dude thinks without presenting any actual evidence on whether or not its true? This isn’t reporting. This is pushing a narrative.
There’s more in the NY Times piece, but at this point it’s not worth going any deeper on this. This seems to be the latest in a long list of performative hand-wringing, which often talks about “the culture of free speech,” but which gets it wrong. The “culture of free speech” is that people disagree, often vehemently. And sometimes it goes overboard, but all too often the claims of an overreaction are really attempts by people to avoid admitting that they said something ridiculous that deserved condemnation and criticism, rather than “engagement” and “discourse.”
So much of these discussions are really about the elite, who have never really faced significant criticism from a wider public because they were insulated behind the protective walls of, say, the NY Times, rather than facing the general public via new innovations like the internet. Again, it’s possible that sometimes those reactions go too far, but it’s important to address such instances specifically, because as a whole, this façade that is put up about the culture of free speech being under attack doesn’t survive much serious scrutiny.
Furthermore, if there was an actual issue here (which again, the NY Times handwaves around, but never actually defines), this article does literally nothing towards trying to respond to it, other than tsk tsking in a way that is not useful to anyone. Indeed, it can basically be summed up as “elites are afraid to speak up because they might be criticized, but we’d really prefer that people who are criticizing the elites be afraid to speak up instead, so the elites can say stupid stuff without fear of consequences.” And when looked at that way, well, the NY Times deserves to be shamed and shunned.
Filed Under: cancel culture, consequences, counterspeech, criticism, culture, free speech
Companies: ny times