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Under Discussion: Free Speech, Cancel Culture, and Compassion

By Rachel Robison-Greene
28 Jul 2020
photograph of yellow push pin in the center of blue push pins with their spike turned to the yellow one

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: The Harper’s Letter.

In July, 2020, Harper’s Magazine published a letter signed by 153 prominent authors and thinkers. Signatories included figures such as Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem, and J.K. Rowling. Their main contention was that an “illiberal left” has emerged in recent political discourse — a left that allows no room for divergent points of view and that deals with “wrongdoers” swiftly and mercilessly.

Though the letter is about responses to speech, it does not express fear that first amendment violations are occurring; it does not suggest that the government is censoring speech on the basis of content. Instead, the signatories are concerned about the current cultural climate. They are concerned about cancel culture and the chilling effect it can have on the free exchange of ideas. Constitutions provide protections against tyrannical governments, and historically governments have been the primary coercive force looming over the lives of private citizens. In the new age in which we live, the internet — and the anonymous people on it — pose a comparable threat to personal well-being.

The main argument in support of cancel culture, at least when it comes to speech, is that some ideas are so wrong and so harmful that they should not be expressed. If they are expressed, the consequences should be so severe that the community as a whole learns that those views will not be tolerated. Racist, sexist, and homophobic (to name just a few) messages ought never to be advanced on any platform. It isn’t simply that these messages are inherently bad, they also cause real harm. The argument is that our response to speech should match in severity the potential harm caused by that speech.

The idea that the value of free speech can be outweighed by other important values is not new. The approach has been codified into law on multiple occasions. In one such case, the circumstances were morbidly similar in some respects to those in which we now find ourselves — Nero fiddled while Rome burned. In 1918, the Spanish Flu raged. Its existence and severity were undermined and covered up by governments, and the global travel initiated by World War I ensured rapid spread of the virus. Amidst this turmoil, Congress passed The Sedition Act which outlawed “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” against the United States government. Those that violated the act could spend up to twenty years in prison. The rationale for passing the legislation concerned the potential harms and unrest that anti-government sentiment could cause during wartime.

The highest courts in the country repeatedly upheld the act, making use of what is now referred to as the “Bad Tendency Test.” One noteworthy use of the Bad Tendency Test involved a man who wrote a book that contained arguments against war. In the book, the man argued, “that patriotism is identical with murder and the spirit of the devil, that war is a crime, and…that it was yet to be proved whether Germany had any intention or desire of attacking the United States.” At the time, this kind of argument was very unpopular — patriotism and loyalty to one’s country were viewed as important social virtues, and those who did not exhibit said virtues were viewed as pariahs. The courts agreed, and held that the issue at stake was “whether the natural and probable tendency and effect of the words quoted therefrom are such as are calculated to produce the result condemned by the statute.” In other words, the mere potential harms caused by certain kinds of speech were viewed as being so significant that it justified punishment for speech that might have a tendency to bring about those harms. The result was that the man was “cancelled” for being a pacifist. Of course, this example involves state action, whereas cancel culture involves the behavior of private actors. Nevertheless, our history can and should inform our strategies for private punishment of speech. We should never lose sight of the fact that beliefs that we now view as admirable were once viewed with disdain and even hatred by earlier generations. Hubris is dangerous; we are unlikely to have, at this precise moment, arrived at all the right answers regarding both facts and values. Freedom of expression allows us to explore what we have right and what we have wrong.

There are reasons for protecting freedom of expression that go beyond protecting ourselves from tyrannical governments. The ability to express oneself freely is important for living a meaningful, flourishing human life. We are nourished by the words of others and responding to others is part of how we create ourselves. When we nurture our children into the people they’ll become, we provide them with many outlets for expression but also with plenty of room to get things wrong. Building a worldview is a messy process and none of us get through it without making significant mistakes. Respect for the dignity and humanity of another person requires compassion in the face of mistakes that they will inevitably make. One of the most compassionate ways to rectify mistakes is through the patient exchange of ideas, which involves encouraging freedom of expression rather than stifling it. What’s more, antagonistic climates are likely to deter people from developing as thinkers. We want citizens to do more than simply take life as it comes, we want them to take an active interest in developing coherent, consistent worldviews, ideally strongly informed by evidence. The threat of being torn apart if something goes wrong may be enough to make plenty of people give up on the enterprise altogether.

At least some objections to cancel culture have to do with its underlying assumptions. “Canceling” someone for their speech is an act of retribution, which is motivated by the idea that individuals who express problematic views should “get what they deserve.” There are both broad and narrow reasons to be concerned about this. The broad concern is that there are compelling reasons to be skeptical of retributivism as a theory of punishment in the first place. The idea that retribution is the path to justice is a popular one — if you pluck out my eye, I get to pluck out yours. This view portrays justice as something to be exacted rather than as something to be achieved; it maintains that when a person exacts retribution, they somehow get back what the bad actor took. In her book Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity Justice, Martha Nussbaum refers to this sentiment as the “payback wish.” People frequently believe that when they are harmed, severe punishment for the wrongdoer will somehow right the wrong. This simply isn’t so. When someone expresses a view with which we disagree, causing that person significant harm in response will not make their speech disappear. If a person feels harmed by another person’s speech, “canceling” the person who spoke will not undo the harm.

The narrow concern has to do with the severity of some of the retributive actions that take place in the climate of cancel culture. Even if one is inclined to believe that proportional retribution is justice, often the consequences for unpopular speech are not proportional. For example, recently, UNC Wilmington professor Mark Adams made national news for making a series of reprehensible comments on social media. He was encouraged to retire from his position, and he was compensated handsomely for doing so. On July 24th, 2020, he was found in his home, dead from a bullet wound. The official cause of his death has not yet been released, but many suspect suicide — it is plausible to speculate that the backlash that resulted from his callous behavior created for him a world in which he no longer could stand to live. It’s one thing to say that there should be consequences for harmful speech — there should. If an author engages in problematic speech, it is reasonable to refrain from buying that author’s books. Making that decision isn’t an instance of “canceling” anyone. The person who did something wrong isn’t off the hook, they should reflect on their actions and take responsibility for them. That said, the set of reasonable consequences for harmful speech doesn’t include bullying someone until they commit suicide.

All of this is not to say that the careful and conscientious exchange of ideas is some kind of magic elixir that can solve all of the world’s problems. Realistically, in most cases, if a person is a racist, misogynist, or conspiracy theorist, trying to talk them out of any of those positions will be a significant waste of time. Belief in the value of free speech shouldn’t itself turn into a form of dogma. We need to look at our social problems straight in the face in order to find solutions. We need to be realistic, also, about when people are engaging in discourse in good faith and when they aren’t. We only make progress when all participants enter the discussion with some epistemic humility. That said, exhibiting epistemic humility need not, and in many cases should not, involve commitment to the idea that all ideas are equally reasonable, evidence-based, or likely to be correct.

What, then, do we do when civil discourse isn’t successful at changing minds and hearts? The cases that we care the most about are cases in which there is a lot on the line; they are cases in which people stand to suffer a great deal as a result of the speech of powerful others. Is cancelling people the only viable alternative? In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Martin Luther King Jr. explained why the demonstrations for which he was arrested were necessary. He directed his remarks at members of Alabama’s religious community who had advised him to wait or to express his demands in different ways. He pointed out that the political leaders “consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.” He concluded that those fighting injustice “had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community.” King’s critical insight was to turn to other peaceful and meaningful forms of persuasion when patient dialogue led nowhere. One of the most powerful moves in his playbook was to appeal to the common humanity and dignity of others — even racists.

Creative and productive responses to ugly speech are possible. Cancel culture, at least when it comes to speech, is often fueled by rage and mob mentality — hardly the most noble human motivators. What’s more, if the goal is to change the mind of the bad actor, insisting that they should nevermore be listened to or taken seriously as a rational expressive human being is unlikely to get the job done. If one authentically commits oneself to the task of elevating discussion regarding important social issues and of getting rid of antiquated and harmful attitudes, one will employ strategies that actually work. Anything else looks like an attempt to satisfy the payback wish.

Rachel is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. Her research interests include the nature of personhood and the self, animal minds and animal ethics, environmental ethics, and ethics and technology. She is the co-host of the pop culture and philosophy podcast I Think Therefore I Fan.
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