A letter in Harper’s Magazine, supporting the principle of free speech and bemoaning ‘cancel culture,’ has caused something of a stir. At least, on Twitter.
In itself, the letter is unobjectionable. However, many people think it is an ill-timed, coded rebuke to the social justice campaigns of the moment:
I think the uproar is more about the timing and the context in which this letter engages (BLM, TERF wars etc), which feels very dog whistle-y.@sysh
Others have ridiculed its premise and the signatories. They say that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences, and that if an audience reacts negatively to something they find offensive, that is merely a manifestation of free speech.
Whenever the topic of ‘cancel culture’ arises, I like to begin by reminding myself that, if it is a problem, it is certainly not the biggest threat to free speech. That always comes from people who wield the power of the state. Nedim Türfent has been incarcerated for over 1500 days. Maria Ressa faces six years in prison.
The use of violence by non-state actors is also a grave problem. Here in the UK, journalist Amy Fenton received so many death threats she was temporarily forced to leave her home. In October 2017, investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered in Malta. In the past twenty years, over a hundred journalists have been killed in Mexico.
So if we want to talk about ‘cancel culture’ we should remember that there are greater threats to freedom of expression, and dial down our panic accordingly.
However, just because something is not the biggest threat to free speech, that does not mean it presents no threat to free speech.
Critics of the Harper’s letter point out that the signatories all have broad platforms from which to spread their thoughts. It’s laughable to claim that they are genuinely censored.
While this may be true, the effect of online outrage extends beyond its impact on the person who who said the offensive thing. It can chill free speech elsewhere.
When we consider ideas such as structural racism, bias and privilege, or when we consider campaigns for transgender rights or #BlackLivesMatter, I have come to realise that it is never the celebrity novelist or the mainstream media pundit who writes the most important stuff. Instead, the nuanced and persuasive pieces come from far more knowledgable yet far less visible individuals. The celebrities pump us with summaries and sound bites, but the valuable work is being done elsewhere.
The problem is: when a Twitter mob picks up its digital pitchforks and marches on J.K. Rowling or whoever, those other writers notice. The end result is that those with less power, but better ideas, will be far less likely to publish them.
This is a legitimate free speech concern. It’s a problem for the person who chooses to self-censor; it’s a problem for the rest of us, who miss out on new ideas; and it’s even a problem for those advocating the opposite position, because they are denied an opportunity to refine or evolve their own arguments, in response.
Bolshy writers with bombastic opinions will never be scared to publishing their simplistic opinions, whatever they may be. Rich celebrities with money in the bank can survive anger and the boycotts (Rowling herself claims to be on her “fourth or fifth cancellation”).
It is those with the more complex and equivocal opinions who will self-censor first. The doubters thus abandon the terrain to those who are certain that they are right, and the result is nasty polarisation.
So I think we should be worried about the ‘blue ticks’ being subjected to cancel culture. Not because of how it affects their free speech, but about how it affects the freedom of expression of those who are looking on.