NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE ‘C ancel culture isn’t an assault on freedom of speech,” the dishonest argument of the moment goes, “It is free speech.”
That isn’t really true, inasmuch as the entire point of “cancel culture” is to limit and suppress speech, which is nonetheless limitation and suppression when the tool used to accomplish it is speech, of a sort, if we are liberal enough to define “speech” as including the beef-witted grunts on Twitter. Cancel culture is not discourse but antidiscourse, a genre of speech intended not to facilitate the exchange of views and ideas but to prevent such an exchange. It is free speech in the sense that shouting down a speaker is free speech.
One obvious response to the defenders of cancel culture as simply more speech is that criticism of cancel culture is speech, too, as is criticism of criticism of cancel culture, as is criticism of criticism of criticism of cancel culture — you can follow that recursive loop as far out as you like, traveling a great distance without going anywhere.
But the more important thing to understand is that critics of cancel culture oppose the sanctions that are being advocated and imposed for political and social nonconformism, not the ability of rage-addled morons to engage in such advocacy as a matter of formal rights.
Consider the parallel case of freedom of association: Intelligent and liberal-minded people generally favor freedom of association but also understand that it can be used in vicious ways — Harvard was perfectly within its legal rights to discriminate against Jews for all those years, but that does not make it any better for it to have done so. To criticize Harvard’s historic anti-Semitism is not to abandon the principle of freedom of association, but only to assert that this liberty, like any other liberty, can be used to evil ends. It isn’t the freedom of association we object to, but the anti-Semitism.
Similarly, to assert that the executives of the San Diego Gas & Electric company who fired an employee for making an “okay” gesture are imbeciles and cowards — and they are imbeciles and cowards who allowed themselves to be buffaloed into ruining an innocent man by anonymous weasels on social media — is not to argue that companies should not be allowed to make their own hiring decisions or that people should not be allowed to criticize others. It is simply to note that these faculties were, in the case of Emmanuel Cafferty, put to an evil end.
You can read about that case and others like it in (this is awkward) The Atlantic.
When it comes to using employment as an instrument of enforcing political conformity, our friends on the left are suddenly partisans of the free market set to outdo Milton Friedman. “If having a busboy who once liked a Trump tweet working at Bob’s Café is bad for business, then too bad for the busboy. He doesn’t have a right to be free of consequences!” To continue the comparison above, Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell anticipated that line of argument back in the 1920s, when he wrote: “The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate, not because the Jews it admits are of bad character, but because they drive away the Gentiles.” It’s just business, you see — nothing personal. You don’t have a right to a place at Harvard or to a job at Bob’s Café. It does not take a great deal of intellectual sophistication to simultaneously understand that 1. Harvard and other private institutions should enjoy the right to admit whom they like according to their own criteria and that 2. such discretion can be used in evil ways.
What we have here is what is sometimes known as the “motte and bailey” stratagem. A motte-and-bailey castle consists of a relatively open courtyard (the bailey) and a fortified tower (the motte). The bailey is the desirable land, where life is lived and economic activity undertaken; the motte is a narrow and uncomfortable fortification that exists only because the bailey is difficult to defend from attack. The motte-and-bailey strategy of argument consists of intentionally conflating an unobjectionable position (the easily defended motte) with the indefensible one the speaker actually seeks to maintain (the bailey). The partisans of cancel culture desire to use the threat of job loss and other sanctions to bully Washington Post columnists and Starbucks baristas into social and political conformism and thereby effectively win arguments by preventing their ever taking place to begin with, but that is a difficult position to defend, and so they insist that they are merely advocates of speech — that they, indeed, are the true friends of free speech, and that those who criticize them as suffocating the culture of open communication are the real enemies of free speech.
People charged with criminal conspiracy have at times attempted to defend themselves on First Amendment grounds, as though it were impossible to draw a distinction between speech per se and entering into a contract to commit a murder. The people who insist that cancel culture is just more free speech (when they are not advocating the actual legal abolition of free speech, which some of them seek to do under the guise of “hate speech” laws and the like) are like burglars who encounter an armed homeowner and then plead self-defense after killing him.
And so the question is not whether the cancel-cretins on Twitter or writing at Vox or the New York Times have a right to advocate thus and such, which of course they do, but whether they are moral illiterates, which of course they are.