Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Cancel Culture: As the Culture Goes Eventually the Law Will Follow

An open letter in Harper's Magazine signed by over 150 liberal academics, journalists, writers, leaders and intellectuals warns their allies on the left of the chilling effect that cancel culture is having on the free and independent press, the robust exchange of ideas in the public square, and the real and present danger it poses to our culture of rights. The majority of what was written could provide an important platform of agreement between the left and right.

Conservatives completely agree that an intolerant stifling atmosphere antithetical to the free exchange of information and ideas is brought on by extreme tactics of public shaming, ostracism, and calls for swift and severe retribution. This "cancel culture" will, and already has, resulted in a steady narrowing of what can be said and what will be said. I hope that the letter will strike a cord in the liberal media that has been freezing out a robust debate, diversity of viewpoints, and the free exchange of information for years but I am doubtful that the words of reason will reach the cancel culture mobs that graduated in the disintegrationalist ideologies of leftist campuses for generations.

Though there is much agreement between ideas in this letter and ideas regularly expressed on the right, the letter starts out with the oddly disparate contention that the forces of illiberalism are allied with Donald Trump and gaining strength on the right, something they say the left has "come to expect" from the radical right, the letter seems shocked to discover a sudden rise of intolerance on the left. The authors seem to believe that the rising dogma of ideological coercion to leftist orthodoxy is a novel byproduct of recent protests for racial and social justice.

As a conservative my entire adult life I can attest to the fact that the intolerance from leftist is not a new cultural phenomenon, however, I think that what is new about what we are seeing is the woke mob is striking mercilessly at their own and liberal institutions in academia and the press. For the left who created the intemperate and illiberal leftist mob over decades of shifting the culture and political power through tactics of freezing out a diversity of thought in academia and the media, it's a pretty extraordinary to throw the blame on Donald Trump and "right-wing demagogues" they say are "exploiting the ideological conformity of the leftist orthodoxy."

Donald Trump's election was in large part a backlash on the right from years of being labeled as bigoted haters by liberal media and politicians, diversity of thought being squashed in American academia, and a cancel culture growing up from the illiberal left. People on the right see the Trump phenomenon like the kid who is continually bullied, who keeps taking the hits day in and day out, until one day the kid simply snaps and starts punching back. Trump was the counter-punch protest of the Republican electorate. Yet, the liberal signers of the Harper's letter seem to think that resistance to Trump on the left has created a new brand of leftist coercion and intolerance that had no place on the left before the Trump phenomenon. Beyond the obvious obfuscation of responsibility for illiberal followers of liberalism, the letter was a true reflection of the threats our culture faces and much of the letter are things being widely discussed in Conservative circles.

Hits on the right aside, those of us on the right would absolutely agree that it is essential that we "uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters." Those on the right support a strong culture of rights as the foundation of any free society and the reason the right has been speaking out against cancel culture is because it seriously undermines our Constitutional republic. Cultural institutions, businesses, leadership, and the general populous throughout our society and across the political spectrum are threatened by "intensified attitudes that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity." The Harper's letter is a glimmer of hope that there may be some basic agreement on the left and right that could bring some stabilization to our political discourse in time to provide much needed support to the peaceful transfer of power in the coming election. The combined statement warns:

"Censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our [leftist] 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... it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought... the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal."

"The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted... 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. "

My hope at reading the letter may have been tamped down some by the social media debate it prompted on a friends Facebook profile. The framing of the debate by a liberal friend of a friend revealed a seeming inability to understand the clear dangers of cancel culture on free speech and our American culture of natural rights that is essential to the support of our 1st Amendment rights. He starts out by asking, "What is new about "canceling" that is bad or illegitimate?" He called the strong stand taken in the open letter "weird centrist public intellectual backlash against what they have termed "cancel culture," "illiberalism," "censorship" etc." 

Despite his dismissiveness of the point of view he described as "weird centrist backlash" and the supposition of his question there is no real problem with cancel culture, he was motivated to consider the arguments in the open letter seriously because he said he "holds respect for several of the signatories." While my friend's friend said that he isn't an apologist for cancel culture, he believes there are definitely people like JK Rowling that deserve to be "canceled" or deplatformed to the degree that leftist twitter can do so. His attitudes demonstrate perfectly the concerns the signers of the letter have about the illiberal attitudes of people on the left.

The letter is clearly written and the conditions they describe are easy to identify within the culture yet this young liberal can't understand what the Harper's letter is actually complaining about. He doesn't perceive a legitimate speech argument in the Harper letter and says that there is "clearly not a 1st Amendment concern" in cancel culture because it's not specifically a "state action." He even asked, "What is new about "cancel culture?" The only change he can identify to our "speech culture" is that the "left is more organized" and has more power because of "twitter than they have had in the past, and thus their (the left) free speech is having more of an impact in the national conversation." Speaking of publishers specifically, he doesn't acknowledge any disparate impact of cancel culture on publishers in the press. To criticize the pressures put upon publishers by the "woke" is to presuppose that the press has no moral obligations to respond to the moral conscious of the culture.

From what I can gather from the general discussion of the topics covered in the Harper's letter, the attitudes of my friend's friend is not an unusual point of view on the left, especially among the young. It doesn't surprise me that there are so many Americans today who don't understand the foundations of our free republic and the reality that the culture shapes the government. The preservation of freedom of speech, and free society, requires not only a “system” of rights — rooted in law — but also a culture of rights. The destruction of a culture of rights will proceed the destruction of a system of rights. It isn’t unconstitutional for a business to discriminate against a person’s natural rights but it is certainly unwise in a society for the culture to approve of such actions and even more dangerous to encourage it. This is not a statement about government force, it's a statement about culture, which is the same statement the Harper's letter was primarily addressing. If America still had a strong culture of rights, public opinion would censure companies or institutions who are intolerant of speech rather than press them to discriminate against it.

Culture is dependent on the individual choices of free people acting based on commonly held beliefs. We have coexisted as peacefully as possible on a belief that free speech in the public square would be mutually protected by the culture, by individuals choosing tolerance, not by force but by goodwill. The liberal idea of a culture of free speech is the popular idea that even speech we find personally offensive must be tolerated for the sake of upholding the free speech and natural rights of all. Our culture of rights, our culture of free speech, has weakened. Perhaps to the extent that instead of general tolerance and mutual defense of a person's right to express their ideas in the public square, we have public pressure being used to send the message that speech will not be socially tolerated and people allowed to live free of cultural censure and collective social punishment. The result is less speech, less use of the rights of free speech by individuals, and as the culture goes eventually the law will follow.

No comments:

Post a Comment