Today, we tackle yet another issue of the day. The scourge that has become known as cancel culture.
Like many seemingly macro issues of this era in which we are living (COVID? Trump? The end of the American Empire?), I have been peppered with this term for years. But I have never really taken the time to get a full grasp of the concept.
I used to be all over this stuff in the early days of this blog. In fact, I recall being annoyed by weeks wherein 4 or 5 issues (all of which required a fair amount of research and preparation) would come up. Since working full time and chores left only time for maybe 1 or 2 explorations.
At this point in life, however, I am not nearly as inclined to comment on what I view as topics of the sheep. This blog gave me a platform to pursue explorations away from that realm, and thus my focus has shifted away from many of these mainstream type collective issues, Cancel Culture being one of them (on account to many of its detractors, shall we say, fitting a very narrow description).
I decided to take a delve into Cancel Culture after all when I happened upon this open letter on justice and open debate, which as trending high in one of my twitter feeds. It was admittedly less about the letter than it was about who signed it. A list ranging from Salman Rushdie and Noam Chomsky to J.K Rowling, Barie Weiss and Margret Attwood.
I will start by openly admitting that I come at this from a point of bias. Having very recently commented on the repeated antics of J.K Rowling’s seemingly pro-terf stances and knowing the controversial article that Barie Weiss wrote for the New York Times, my interpretation of their reason for signing this letter is apparent. Knowing some of the backgrounds of Noam Chomsky, Salmon Rushdie and Margret Attwood, I suspect they signed for much more noble reasons.
Reason’s which made me decide to comb through this letter with a fine-tooth comb. All in an effort to see if I can finally come to a conclusion to a question that has been in the back of my mind for a few years now . . . Is absolute freedom of speech worth the consequences?
In my online life, I more or less behave as an absolutist on the platforms I oversee. I never deleted a non-spam comment from any of my posts. I reserve the right to do what I want, but I don’t.
I have heard the argument for absolute freedom of speech from many people and in many places. While you often run into confusion when freedom of speech runs into private servers and spaces, another angle I often see left out if the ramifications of truly free speech. For example, when divisive leaders are allowed to spout off all manner of dog whistles and flat out bigotry and bias, is the resulting uptick in things like hate crimes and emboldened bigots worth it?
Though the fascists of the 3ed Reich (and no doubt other examples, some even more recent) rode the liberal tenents of free speech into power, that didn’t stop them from revoking that right when their numbers were dominant enough. How does one deal with ideologies similar to this?
Should past examples of the worst of humanity (for example, the Weimar Republic) be taken into consideration in this analysis?
Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.
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. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.
If I am honest, this is starting to come across as yet another piece written by a provocateur touting biased or debunked ideas. The type of person that would mistake a well-earned critique for censorship or otherwise. But, such is my bias.
For the sake of honest critique, I’ll put those feelings aside and continue.
This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. 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. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.
I don’t know WHAT I was expecting . . . or what about this letter drove people into fits of controversy . . . but that was anti-climactic as hell. Despite the lengthy list of signatories, it’s apparent that few actually contributed to this letter (beyond their name, anyway).
To be fair, however, I should have known better. I came into this assuming I would find a reasoned argument of the merits of freedom of speech. In fact, I even expected a sort of discussion about the price of free speech (is it worth paying?). Since the whole point of this letter was defeating idiot bandwagon-jumping mobs, I should have known that all I would find was yet another pro-absolutist regurgitation with little else to offer to the conversation.
In all honesty, it is hard for me to focus on the topic of modern-day free speech since it has become so complex due to technological considerations. A big reason for this being that most of us have never paid attention to any of the backend functionality of most of the devices we use to interact with the internet (be it on a phone or a computer). One of these aspects being the transition of a good 95%+ of our internet traffic from open packets into encrypted packets (no matter what site we visit). This security measure (known as HTTPS) was implemented first to secure login credentials, and later to keep one’s entire interaction with a platform or website away from prying eyes.
Consider it this way. Back when I was in high school, it would likely have been entirely possible for any given ISP that you or I was utilizing to access the internet to log and store nearly every digital interaction we had (from MSN Chats to emails sent on Hotmail or Yahoo). With every one of these interactions happening through encrypted connections today, however, one’s home or mobile ISP no longer has any access to such data. They can see WHAT websites you use, but nothing further than that.
Which brings me to 2 modern-day fights for internet privacy and freedom that are woefully under-reported in the media, particularly in pro-freedom of speech spaces.
1.) EARN IT
Having seen this coming (after the topic was brought to my attention by a tech podcast last October), I tackled the problem in its own post HERE. Taking the stance that the US (and potentially other) governments around the world would eventually render blind end to end encryption illegal and stop it at the ISP level, I explored how one might achieve the access these governmental entities desire. Such is antithetical to most interpretations of privacy and free speech, but frankly . . . Welcome to reality! The world will not always conform to your ideology!
You can think ahead and do things the RIGHT way. Or you can fight until it’s too late, then settle for some sub-par solution.
Since currency is considered speech at least in the United States, I also predicted the future replacement and outlaw of today’s ubiquitous cryptocurrencies.
Another aspect of the modern-day freedom of speech argument that isn’t often overlooked is how our rights can conflict with those of the privately owned and funded platforms that we utilize. Accusations of censorship have now made their way all the way to the White House.
Which reminds me of yet another threat for the list above:
I have also delved into this aspect of the free speech conversation with some depth in the past.
a.) Free Speech
I have a whole smattering of articles on the subject, but I remember these 2 vividly because they encapsulate a common annoyance I have with many people involved in this conversation. The notion that sovereign social media entities under the laws of the US and most other jurisdictions, have to honour the same free speech principals as the US government does. Otherwise known as exactly what POTUS attempted to implement with his executive order.
As with the encryption problem described above, I decided to use my brain and consider what a solution to this problem might look like. To that end, I ended up envisioning social media platforms built and funded organically (via crowdfunding?), possibly based outside of the United States, England or otherwise the western world.
The only problem with this setup is that I was uncertain if the use of such a website (on account of being reliant on typical funding structures) could be free. Thus begs the question . . . how much is free speech worth to you?
To the limited audience of my argument, apparently nothing. People like to complain and make youtube videos demanding an end to censorship (particularly egregious when these people have the cash or the audience to make a difference if they choose to). But most seem content to do just that . . . keep complaining.
And thus, I said to hell with it.
I will now segway away from the often-overlooked technological aspects of the free speech discussion and into my critique of the absolutist speech position.
As stated before I got into the open letter, I am in my actions, a proponent of the absolutist free speech philosophy. Whilst I have the same control over my various platforms as anyone else (this blog included), I rarely exercise this control. Even on the entry that has generated the nastiest comments I’ve dealt with on this platform, I’ve never deleted a comment. If I am perfectly honest . . . for reasons akin to those outlined in the open letter above. Because having the comments of various segments of the same cohort (ranging from the deranged to the seemingly more level-headed) does far more to illustrate readers about that group than I ever could.
Which brings me to what I consider to be the uncritiqued side of the absolutist speech position. Does the risk outweigh the reward?
For a huge number of people (likely including many to all of the signatories to the open letter), I suspect that answer would be a simple “Yes!”, end of discussion.
As George Carlin once said:
“Here we fucking go again”
Alright. George Carlin was an absolutist free speech supporter. He also had what some (who am I kidding . .. many!) would view as unenlightened views on issues like eating disorders, street cyclists and many others (depending on who you ask). He was a human, nothing less and nothing more.
Maybe he got it right. Or, maybe you should consider what is the true definition of a free thinker.
Getting back to it, the first thing about the absolutist speech position that bugged me (when I started pondering it, anyway) was it’s place on the extreme end of that given dichotomy. Not that it matters I suppose, but I can think of only 1 other topic in which placing yourself on the extreme edge would be considered rational (vaccination). And even that is considered a hot potato in many circles both left and right. Come to think of it, it also plays into my argument.
Let’s start there.
The absolutist freedom of speech position towards anti-vaccination rhetoric is simple . . . let them speak, and let the light of reasoned argument disinfect the nonsense. Okay.
Like all the other starry-eyed proposals of the absolutist speech position, it all sounds good in practice and looks great on paper. But in the micro-targeted realities of our modern-day online existence, the disclaimer actual results may vary is required at an absolute minimum. If allowing pro-science and anti-vaccination proponents equal access to microphones is the answer, why is measles starting to make a comeback from it’s once mostly eradicated state?
To be fair to my opponents, I can’t go on without addressing the microtargeting elephant in the room. The fact that we are STILL assessing the total damage inflicted by silicon valleys Move fast And Break Things philosophy of the last decade is hardly the fault of free speech advocates.
In fact, remember when social media was a bastion of free speech?
Well, until a huge segment of the population that was used to uncritically absorbing information from the boob tube jumped onto social media. To be fair to the boomers and Xers, they are not the only cohorts spreading misinformation. The fast pace of platform evolution and lack of a system to educate users of the often hidden aspects of these platforms (such as microtargeting!) renders many people vulnerable to unintended manipulation. A scary thought when you consider that state actors are now using these technologies to incite all manner of craziness within the borders of their enemies.
Having said all of that, however, I can’t help but think that anti-vaccination and all of the side effects attributed to it (most of which end up being suffered by the unvaccinated children of often vaccinated adults) wouldn’t be as big a thing if such dangerous medicine weren’t allowed to be platformed to begin with. You can’t do much about gullibility or lack of media awareness in adults, but child protection agencies WILL take action in the case of other instances of child abuse.
Yes, I consider the refusal to innoculate children from dangerous or painful diseases to be a form of child abuse.
Moving on from the subject of medicine, I come back to something mentioned earlier in the piece. White nationalism and supremacy, and other ideologies that rely on the freedom of a leftist paradigm in order to establish one for the fascist right.
People like Richard Spencer are at least open and honest about their intentions.
Earlier in this piece, I falsely asserted (because to be frank, I assumed) that part of the reason for the failure of the Weimar Republic that governed Germany in the years following WW1 was a lack of laws keeping bigoted speech in check. Since I put a line through that sentence, you are likely already aware of the false nature of that sentence.
“Contrary to what most people think, Weimar Germany did have hate-speech laws, and they were applied quite frequently. The assertion that Nazi propaganda played a significant role in mobilising anti-Jewish sentiment is, of course, irrefutable. But to claim that the Holocaust could have been prevented if only anti-Semitic speech and Nazi propaganda had been banned has lit-tle basis in reality. Leading Nazis such as Joseph Goebbels, Theodor Fritsch and Julius Streicher were all prosecuted for anti-Semitic speech.
“Pre-Hitler Germany had laws very much like the anti-hate laws of today, and they were enforced with some vigour.”
As I was shown, the growth of the nazi Party obviously had much more to do with the great recession than it did with the speech limitations of the time. Something to be wary of today, in our era of ill-preparation for a pandemic resulting in an increasingly decimated economy.
Taking this into consideration, am I still in favour of hate speech laws?
At this point, I can honestly say that I am unsure.
I guess it all depends on whether or not we regard all speech as equal, or we break things down into categories. Since we live in civilized nations filled with adults (at least in theory . . . I’ve been doubting that assessment in recent years, however), I don’t see an issue in creating at least 2 categories that one can apply.
Category 1 being speech that is not at all harmful to human welfare or society in general. Then you have category 2, which would obviously contain ideas considered harmful to human welfare or society in general. Into the 2ed category, I would place such ideologies as anti-vaccine sentiment and the various forms of white fright (white supremacy, nationalism, etc).
Rather than charging people for making and sharing a bigoted video online (or otherwise having bigoted views), I would go more for stopping the seed in its tracks approach. Allow people to share this stuff on social media, even publicly if they so desire. Just stipulate by law that such material will NEVER be algorithmically spread to others.
This ensures more free speech and expression than is currently available on today’s platforms (just ask Alex Jones). And it also helps to address the issue that many readers may have by now figured that I had completely forgotten about . . . cancel culture.
I will admit that I am doing with my argument, something that annoyed me when others did it (making the assumption that social media platforms should bend to our whims). On one hand, noted.
Writing, editing and implementing the code necessary for enabling such algorithms is likely not going to be cheap. Nor will the necessity of employing human moderators to sift through all of the notices generated by both the algorithm and platform users. Having said that, however, they DID sign up for this.
Social media came in like a bull and broke democracy. Now we have to pick up the pieces. Pony up, or shut up.
Moving on, I acknowledge that my proposed system of 2 or more classes of speech isn’t without logistical problems. For example, various instances of the American right rising up against societal demons in the music and video game industries present a perfectly cogent cautionary tale (how do we avoid the changing tides of political interference?). Not to mention that political or not, it all boils down to subjectivity. What individual or group in a society can be trusted with such an important task?
The supreme court?
There is no doubt that I will think of things later that I forgot to include in this piece. In fact, one that occurs to me right now is the lack of evidence whether or not platformed bigotry makes a difference in overall societal hate crime rates. And then there is my question of where the line ends between personal speech and incitement.
However, I will end this here.
People might notice that I didn’t take a stance either for or against absolutist free speech. This is deliberate, as I didn’t write this explicitly to change minds (like that is going to happen!). This was more my attempt to both shed some light in some areas of the Free Speech conversation that really need more press (encryption laws, mainly) and otherwise to kick start a conversation outside of the usual pablum.
Any idiot can defend the right of a nazi to call for your or my demise. However, does the potential of this future becoming reality REALLY need to be a tenant of freedom of speech?