The Confused Myth of “Cancellation”
For the third time this month, I’ve heard free speech defenders warning us that doom has come to our world courtesy of “the mob”.
This politically-correct witch-hunt is killing free speech, and we have to fight it
It’s only in a totalitarian state where everyone appears to agree on hard topics.
Sarah Downey’s article above is definitely the most coherent and comprehensive version of the case I’ve heard, so I’m going to respond to that piece and to her specifically. It might help to pause here and go read it if you haven’t already…
Alright. Before we jump in, in case it needs saying, I’m obviously not writing this to have a row with Sarah personally, but rather because I think the points she’s making warrant response.
I find it very concerning to hear people describe a culture of criticism as a danger to society. After all without pushback, without responses and dissent, cultures stand still. If ideas and norms remain unchallenged the status quo cannot give way to change. I consider society to be an ever-evolving experiment toward creating a context in which all humans can co-exist equally, and broadly enjoy their brief time alive. That evolution comes through the rethinking of what is, spurred on by loud criticism. A more vocally critical population is not the harbinger of doom to society, it’s frankly the opposite.
Response is also “Speech”
The premise of the argument Sarah and her cohort are making seems to be that the “Speech” in Free Speech only comprises the initial statement or action of the first speaker: your Elons, JK Rowlingses and Sarah Downeys. What comes after — the responding twitter comments etc, apparently falls outside the definition. Without this fallacy, the entire argument falls apart. To call for a society wherein people can express their perspectives, up to the point of causing direct or indirect violence, and then rail against the expression of counterpoints and counterarguments is to contradict oneself entirely.
Even in the most generous, laissez-faire conception of freedom of speech and expression, people might be entitled to say what they wish, but are not entitled to agreement, amplification, endorsement or validation. If anything, the entire basis for this “marketplace of ideas” Libertarians are so very keen on, is critical response. Ain’t no back and forth without back.
RuPaul is very much entitled to put out content, and purposely invite engagement with that content, but his viewers on the other side of this dialogue are equally entitled to express views about that content, including what it ought to be. He doesn’t have to agree with them, but it’s quite peculiar to act like the very act of expressing those views is unacceptable or represents some sort of threat to society.
I suppose we could shift the goalposts and take the argument as meaning that while some sorts of speech and expression are sacred in a free society, others are dangerous because of the tone, language or indeed the perspective being expressed.
Should our yardstick for distinguishing the categories be how removed from “normalcy” or “reality” the critique appears to be? How does that work? Whose perception of reality should we use? Sarah Downey’s, in which sharing the shaved Britney photo is a “lighthearted reference to a legendary celebrity freakout” and of little consequence? Or someone else who considers it a mockery of a person suffering significant mental illness and both cruel in and of itself and contributive to the broader societal stigma around mental health? For better or worse Sarah’s vantage point is not universal and not everyone experiences “reality” the same way she does or shares her definition of “normalcy”.
In any case, one wonders at how an argument for separate classes of speech or expression could be made in practically the same breath as this solemn declaration:
I’m fighting for truly free speech, which means that everyone can say anything, so long as A), it’s not an immediate, direct call to violence, or B), it has the effect of inciting violence
The issue with the idea goes beyond apparent hypocrisy though. If the quote was edited to continue: “or C) it has the effect of making some people afraid to voice their own views” that still wouldn’t do, because that is an impossible and therefore useless standard.
There’s no such thing as speech that is guaranteed to make no one afraid to express their perspectives because people are capable of being afraid of just about anything. It’s a pretty poor basis to build norms on. Far better instead to interrogate those fears as a society, and see if we think they are rooted in a reality that people really ought to be protected from.
We should certainly protect people from the fear of direct or indirect violence, but should we have to protect people from the fear of people criticising their TV shows or potentially deciding to no longer watch it? Should we have to protect people from the fear that other people on the internet will loudly disagree with them, or say that they hate their perspectives? Should we have to protect people from the fear that their friends or family or coworkers might disagree with their perspectives and decide to alter the way they engage with them going forward?
I think we would be better served normalising the idea that the freedom to express whatever does not entitle anyone to agreement, amplification, endorsement or validation. Actions breed reactions and speech breeds response. We should not enshrine the right to the former without equally affording freedom for the latter.
Welcome to the Game
It’s hilariously and heartbreakingly clear to me that to people like Sarah, speech has been quite free until recently. It is equally clear that they think the power in society is currently held by progressives and others on the left. These misconceptions are so divorced from actual reality that it’s difficult to know where to start. How do you explain to someone that for a whole bunch of us speech has always come laced with consequences and the calculus on whether the cost is worth it has practically become reflexive over time?
Speaking out on racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism and all other ways society is falling short of its promise and potential, has not been easy speech — and for most people, it’s still far from it. I would have thought that in an era of Kapernick, Munroe Bergdorf, Anita Sarkeesian, Christine Blasey Ford, Jemele Hill and countless more this would go without saying.
When humans are evaluating whether to speak up we generally do so based on our perception of the relative power asymmetry between us and our “audience”, and to put it lightly, few people railing against the status quo have been the ones holding the power relative to those they rail against.
Discourse needs improvement in general: there are distinct issues with how we take in information, the mediums we use to communicate, and indeed the spectrum of responses that can follow speaking up. But let’s have that conversation, not this weird strawman argument of the left uniquely “punishing” dissent because there’s something fundamentally wrong with left-wing or progressive views.
Take your own Medicine
Sarah advocates beautifully for how she thinks people in society should engage in discourse: critically, and with an open mind.
You have the mental fortitude to sit across from an opposing idea, or a person who disagrees with you, and hear it. It will not infect you without your consent. You can choose what to believe.
I happen to largely agree. It’s a shame then that she seems to direct this advice only to one side of the forum — those she’s deemed the witch-hunters. If she thinks it’s a good idea for people to put aside their offence or hurt and critically engage with the ideas being put forward and respond patiently etc etc, then this is advice she should give to everyone including herself.
Those who disagree that racism is systemic and perpetuated by ordinary folks quietly carrying on with business as usual rather than some mythical minority of “real racist” bogeymen, should be able to sit with the ideas of #BLM and hear them. I don’t get the impression that this has happened here though.
I don’t see a reasoned rebuttal of why racism is not systemic, or is not upheld by a complex interplay of applied unconscious and conscious bias, microaggressions and long-standing norms of ‘how things are done’. I don’t see an articulation of how to achieve the equality of opportunity she’s so very keen on, if not through an overhaul of our legal, educational, economic etc systems.
Instead, I heard a fundamental misunderstanding of what the #BLM protests were all about, baseless labelling of speech and expression as “bullying”, and conspiracy theories. For the avoidance of confusion:
- the protests were about the systemic issues that led to Floyd’s death and other similar deaths and racial injustices rather than just that one specific event;
- people expressing a perspective you disagree with (e.g. that organisations and individuals hashtagging BLM despite a notably poor track record on actions that promote diversity, inclusion or racial justice, are hypocrites) is not bullying, and their points are not invalidated because they didn’t say it nicely; and
- #BLM activists aren’t pretending to link leftist economic ideas with racial justice as a “smart marketing” ploy, there is genuine conviction and sound supporting arguments that it will be impossible to achieve racial equality with growth capitalism as we know it running rampant. You don’t have to agree but to dismiss rather than engage those arguments critically because you’ve labelled the proponents negatively is such a blatant and hypocritical contradiction that I wonder how Sarah and others have missed it.
Eyes on the Prize, Kids
I wholly agree that this is not a simple or easy time. The world is complicated, and the situation, the systems underlying are layered, shifting and composed of myriad different elements. No one has the bloody map for the entire thing let alone the manual for how to fix any of the parts that are visiting terrible, inequitable outcomes on certain demographics.
So there will be many, sometimes contradictory, perspectives on the problem at hand and the solutions that may fix it. There will rarely be easy consensus. When people are in pain or see loved ones in pain, and they’re trying to make a case for society to stop inflicting that pain or standing idly by while it happens, they are going to come up with all sorts of arguments and ideas. Some will be good, some bad, some brilliant. By all means, critique the ideas, but do so with empathy for where they are coming from and an eye on where we should all be trying to get to — equal opportunity to live free, be safe and enjoy our time on this plane of existence.
It will be difficult and painful to speak up in the forum with best intentions and then end up countered harshly. But you know what? Suck it up. The work we have in front of us and the real suffering we have to eradicate from our society is so much more important than our discomfort with a more conscious, vocal and critical population. It is this discourse, flickering as it is, that is our best available tool for illuminating the unknown unknowns all around.
Separate to the issues around speech and expression, there are two other points in Sarah’s article that I think deserve scrutiny and response while I’m at it.
Intersectionality isn’t the Victimhood Olympics
No, intersectionality isn’t about finding the most systemically oppressed individual in society and giving them treats (like more speaking rights on twitter?) to compensate for their victimhood. It’s a framework to help us recognise how society functions, where there are flaws in the design and how we might address those.
Society is a system of norms, rules, laws and resource distribution and thanks to conscious and unconscious design choices of those who came before us, this system treats and impacts people differently on the basis of their identities. Intersectionality then, is a way for us to see and recognise the flawed (or downright unconscionable) aspects of that system by tracing backwards from what happens to people in correlation with these different identities (e.g. gender, class, race, sexual preference, gender identity, religion, ethnicity etc); particularly when these identities overlap or intersect.
Intersectional justice is the pursuit of a world in which this system has been dismantled and improved as needed to see equal enjoyment of rights, fair treatment, opportunities, wealth and political power, for all types of people. Intersectional justice also recognises that the perpetuation of the system (the status quo one that unfairly screws some over and privileges others) doesn’t require conscious hate or any desire for the inequitable outcomes that result from the system operating as it stands. Correspondingly, undoing it will take an understanding of how the system engages with different identities and permutations of identities, and it will also take a commitment to ongoing action.
This action, once again for those at the back =
- believing people when they flag an inequitable outcome happening in the world/happening to them and others like them,
- tracing the lines back from there to a systematic application of some norms/rules/laws/process of resource distribution that is flawed/unjust by design, and then
- seeking a way to change/dismantle/counteract it.
I can’t quite understand Sarah’s confusion at the idea that those holding the identities that are most relevant to a given issue are likely to have more insight into that issue and so should be prioritised over the voices of those more removed. I imagine there are many questions on which Sarah would find herself more proximal and more impacted than the men on her boards and so would consider it only right that her voice and vantage point is respected.
Now, is the framework perfect? Obviously not, but to dismiss it because it reveals the complex issues to be solved in our society hints at selfishness to me. Of course, things would be simpler for a lot of people if we all just quietly accepted the status quo, but since that status quo is nightmarish for some, I propose we’re better off evolving to parse the complexity while staying sane, than to long for simpler, quieter times.
The Oatmeal Rebrand is at the top of Nobody’s list
A lot of people and organisations have been doing a lot of things in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the #BLM protests. Including things like rebranding Quaker Oats, kneeling in Kente cloths, renaming streets, taking down a mud-mask episode of Golden Girls, apologising for voicing a Chinese-American cartoon character on a show that stars a talking horse — and not as a warm-up, but seemingly as their actual contribution to fighting the good fight.
To my mind, these stem from one of three possible root causes:
- people intentionally doing ridiculous things no one asked them to do in order to paint the movement for racial justice as ridiculous,
- people looking to earn their ‘good ally’ sash via the minimum viable effort; or,
- people overwhelmed with ‘guilt’ and genuinely struggling to understand exactly how they put the ‘I’ in systemic and the difference between racist injury and racist insult.
What the #BLM movement and anti-racism folks want is an undoing of the systems that result in black people being injured — as in, denied the fundamental things all human beings are out here seeking. Sure insults suck, but they mostly suck when they are insults-on-top-of-injury or when they encourage the context that allows for the injury.
No one was hoping the revolution would start with the oatmeal box cover. That said, it’s bizarre to me that this sort of limp pacifying action that hardly meaningfully improves the lived experience of black people is enough to outrage people like Sarah. What on earth does it matter to you the mascot your porridge container bears, or the name of an ice lolly, or the decor of a water slide? Like what has any of this taken from you?
Anyway, I’ll leave it there.
Society is just an experiment toward creating the necessary context for ALL human beings to enjoy our brief time here. Everything that is was made up by some folks that came before, and it is both the right and responsibility of each generation to rewrite whatever we realize to not be working. Pay attention when people sound alarms, listen even if they are yelling, investigate, and be willing to sacrifice comfort for improving on the experiment. Until we are all free and equal the work must continue.