In our public discourse, those who say things that are polemical, simplistic or polarizing tend to receive the most attention. But the world is complex, life is messy, moral intuitions often conflict with each other and most genuine social and personal problems are hard to solve—and even the solutions that seem easy often have unintended consequences.
There are good and bad arguments on all sides: among those who decry cancel culture as well as those who question that group’s motives; among those who fear that we are facing a tide of rising illiberalism as well as among those who point out that the liberal public square has historically privileged some voices over others; among those who think the right to free speech is not really under threat as well as those who are terrified that they can’t speak freely.
So, rather than contribute to the tribal calcification that seems to harden with each new day, I want instead to make a plea for nuance. By this, I don’t mean centrism or moderation or some golden ideological mean. Nor do I mean that we should just agree to disagree. Rather, we should grapple with arguments on their own terms, in relation to their contexts, and in their most charitable forms.
Cancel Culture is Not a Threat to the Right to Free Expression
When we talk about threats to free expression, we are generally talking about speech that is legally prohibited. However, free speech is not actually under threat from the government in the US. Indeed, speech is freer in America than in my native Canada, where we have hate speech laws, yet it would be absurd to suggest that speech in Canada is under threat. If you want to experience a threat to your right to free expression, go to China, Russia or Myanmar: places where speaking your mind could get you imprisoned or killed.
And yet, we have begun to see very real attempts to use the power of the US state to quell free expression. However, these attempts have not been spearheaded by those who are often charged with promulgating cancel culture—the woke left—but by those on the right who see themselves as crusaders against cancel culture.
But what about all those who have been disciplined by their workplaces for making politically incorrect statements online (often many years earlier)? What about the journalists dismissed for publishing controversial articles and the academics disinvited from giving talks? Surely these are violations of the right to free expression?
Not necessarily. Private firms are entitled to ask their employees to abide by a professional code of conduct, which is almost always going to entail certain standards of speech. If you call a colleague a dickhead, it is not a violation of your right to free expression if your boss sanctions you. Similarly, newspapers are not required to publish all views, and inevitably engage in editorial filtering, deciding what is and is not worth publishing. Universities, too, must engage in this kind of filtering: it would be absurd to think that everyone is entitled to give a public lecture on campus.
What Is Cancel Culture, Then?
Does this mean that cancel culture is inconsequential? Not at all. Those who deny that cancel culture exists either misunderstand the problem, or are being disingenuous. In response to last year’s Harper’s letter in defence of free speech, a “More Specific Letter” was published, which points out that the signatories to the original are mainly “white, wealthy and endowed with massive platforms.” This, the authors contend, is proof that cries of cancel culture are nothing more than ideological weapons, used by the powerful to help them retain their cultural privilege. There is some truth in this, but it is also stunningly myopic. The fact that only powerful people felt economically and socially secure enough to sign the Harper’s letter does not mean that the concerns raised in it are only shared by the powerful. On the contrary, it is just as likely to demonstrate the pervasiveness of these concerns, and the extent to which cancel culture really has created a silencing effect among those with little power.
Many people make a distinction between free speech as a legal right and free speech as a cultural norm, claiming that cancel culture entails a threat to the latter. I prefer to think of cancel culture as signalling a pervasive sense that the speech norms and cultural mores are shifting beneath our feet, leaving many of us disoriented and unsure of where the bounds of acceptable public discourse are currently drawn. In other words, cancel culture is not really about threats to free expression by the state, but about threats to social standing and moral reputation, owing to a change in the rules of the dominant language game.
Many people feel that what was once acceptable speech at work is now considered beyond the pale. Similarly, many fear that less ideological diversity is permitted on the editorial pages of the New York Times, which has shifted further to the left than most Americans. And conservatives on campuses increasingly feel like pariahs. So, while cancel culture is unlikely to lead someone to be locked up or killed, it is not a mere inconvenience either. Given our innate sociality, to be threatened with social exclusion or labelled a moral degenerate is no small thing. We evolved to avoid these kinds of experiences at all costs. Plus, in the internet age, in which our livelihoods increasingly depend upon our remaining in good public standing, these kinds of attacks can be not only emotionally, but economically, devastating. To be called a racist or misogynist is not only hurtful and insulting, but could get you fired.
This politicization of the workplace is a double-edged sword. People love it when companies take a side in the culture wars—but only when it’s their side. In any case, companies are simply responding to wider cultural pressures. That private corporations have suddenly become committed to social justice is deeply implausible: they’re probably only worried about how their own moral reputations will affect their bottom line.
If it were simply a matter of protecting a constitutional right, then the solution to cancel culture would be obvious—but since the issue is cultural, it’s less clear.
Speech norms and cultural mores are constantly evolving and this is rarely the result of legislation, but of social pressures and cultural conflicts. Moreover, the views of many of those who decry cancel culture have, for some time now, defined the bounds of acceptable speech. In other words, they have long been the arbiters of public discourse and they take it for granted that they will continue to be so. To this extent, apologists for cancel culture have a point.
Cancel Culture is Institution Specific
What people call cancel culture is concentrated in academia, news media, the arts and the corporate world. It is no coincidence that concerns about cancel culture are greatest among academics and artists, not soldiers and sports stars. Visit a construction site, military base, hockey rink, sports bar, nightclub or MMA arena and you will not find anyone talking about microaggressions, toxic masculinity or systemic racism—although perhaps they should be. The politically incorrect speech norms in these spaces are pretty entrenched, and there has unsurprisingly been little attempt to challenge them from within: academics and artists have zero clout when it comes to changing the cultural mores that pervade such spaces, but have considerable power within their own institutional spheres.
Ironically, the very institutional spheres that probably least need to be systemically reformed receive the most criticism from progressives.
But debates about cancel culture are not just located within specific institutional spaces—they are also about specific institutional spaces. What is the purpose of a university—to seek truth or to raise political consciousness? What is the purpose of the news media—to represent the diversity of views within the polis or to instruct people what to think about current events? And what about the telos of art—is it to tap into the universal human condition via our emotions or is it to legitimize particular ideological scripts? These questions are of critical importance because speech norms are ultimately determined by overarching institutional mandates.
For instance, if you believe that the purpose of the news is to tell people what to think, you will have no problem not publishing views that you think pose a threat to progress—even if those views are widely held. Similarly, if you think the main purpose of art is propagandistic, you will see good reason to ensure that films that communicate the “wrong” political message are discredited. It is institutional mandates that determine acceptable speech.
But acceptable speech is not the same as legal speech. Conservative ideas are not outlawed on campuses. You won’t go to jail for being pro-life. But the fact that certain views are not legally prohibited does not mean one will not experience severe social shaming or be deprived of economic opportunities as a result of publicly espousing them.
So, we need to distinguish between what can be said and what should be said, and between what is legally permitted and what is culturally sanctioned. And we also need to make clear which institutional sphere we are speaking about. Academia, journalism, the arts and the corporate world should authorize different speech norms and cultural mores, given that each of them has a distinct institutional mandate. A cancellation might be appropriate in one such institutional milieu and inappropriate in another.
The Battle for the University
Until recently, the dominant language game on campuses has been shaped largely by a liberal conception of the university, which holds that academic institutions should seek truth and knowledge for their own sakes. In this view, individuals compete in a marketplace of ideas, vying to persuade their opponents through logic, empirical evidence and rhetorical skill. Moreover, all ideas should be given free rein, on the assumption that truth always conquers falsity when the latter is exposed to the light of day. This is the vision that some defenders of free speech have in mind when they lament the decline of open and civil debate on campuses, or the erosion of the boundaries delimiting acceptable topics of inquiry.
But the marketplace of ideas has never been as free as such people claim. Certain types of speakers have long held more authority than others, largely owing to their affiliation with the dominant group. And certain forms of speech that were once considered normal were disrespectful or degrading to those who didn’t fit that norm, as some members of minority groups have testified. They rightly contend that it is high time cultural mores and speech norms on campus took into account the minority voices and identities that have long been excluded.
Moreover, the idea that knowledge and truth have always been sought for their own sakes, while appealing, doesn’t accurately characterise most scholarship. Even research in the hard sciences is guided by societal trends, national priorities and economic incentives. This doesn’t necessarily make it biased. But the university does not exist in a social vacuum.
Precisely what to call the ideology that fuels cancel culture is a point of contention. While acknowledging that reality is always messier than the concepts we use to describe it, I am going to adopt Wesley Yang’s felicitous phrase: the successor ideology.
Those who subscribe to the successor ideology tend to see the university primarily as a means of raising political consciousness and promoting social justice. This is why young academics increasingly identify as activist-scholars, a concept that presupposes that these two roles are complementary. Moreover, the successor ideology tends not to treat individuals as individuals, but rather as members of particular identity groups, which are themselves defined primarily by their positions in one or more social hierarchies. In this view, knowledge is always political insofar as it reflects the assumptions of a particular group. It also follows that speech—the medium of knowledge—is also always political, since speech norms reinforce the dominant language game, and the group interests it serves.
Progress, Fast and Slow
As I have detailed elsewhere in this magazine, I find a lot to dislike about the successor ideology. While it contains important, if partial, truths about social life, it is one-dimensional and overly simplistic. Moreover, what was originally meant as a lens through which to perform social analysis has become a comprehensive worldview—one that is unlikely to help individuals to flourish.
At the same time, the liberal model has trouble accounting for power differentials within the university—the way in which some speakers are given authority over others by virtue of arbitrary characteristics. What’s more, liberalism is unlikely to bring about swift progressive social change. For, by prioritizing freedom of conscience, liberalism—both in the university and outside of it—is forced to respect the views of both the socialist and the white supremacist, without exceptions. In a democracy, this can mean that progressive change takes time—the time it takes for an older generation to die off.
The successor ideology has gained traction owing to a growing impatience with liberalism’s inability to bring about rapid, substantive change. This is understandable. Who wants to wait a lifetime to see progress materialize? So activists within academia, news media and the arts have sought to change institutional mandates to align with the successor ideology, on the assumption that if all forms of speech that even implicitly reinforce existing social hierarchies are made taboo, once dominant groups will lose their authority, while less powerful groups gain in social standing.
This is jarring and disorienting to most ordinary people, since almost all language reinforces some form of social hierarchy. But it cannot be denied that this tactic has been extremely effective within the particular institutional spaces in which these activists spend their time (their efficacy outside these spaces is much less clear). They have reshaped the speech environment in these institutional spheres, providing some members of once silenced groups with a voice and with greater cultural authority. In the process, they have drawn widespread attention to systemic injustice and oppression that had long gone undetected. In these particular respects, the successor ideology has done real good.
But its rise has also come with costs. Inauthenticity reigns. Self-censorship is rampant. And we are reaching the point at which few mainstream opinions are not seen as “problematic.” Of course, some will deny this. But this is odd, especially given that the left has long stressed the importance of lived experience. If people keep telling you that they feel they can’t speak their minds, you should believe them. The logic here is no different than that which fuelled the #MeToo movement. Also, many on the left seem blithely unaware of the fact that speech codes have become a means of signalling class status, and therefore perpetuate their own forms of hierarchy.
So is this how we want to achieve an equal society? Perhaps. It is conceivable that, if the younger generation imbibes the successor ideology indiscriminately, in ten or maybe twenty years, they won’t feel the discomfort that many of us feel about the new speech regime, which will seem to them like cultural common sense. Meanwhile, those of us born before the year 2000 will be looked on much as many of us today look on our 1950s forebears—as irreparably prejudiced, owing to the cultural mores and speech norms we were raised with.
But the logic of the successor ideology is such that, as soon as particular speech norms are normalized, those in the cultural vanguard will seek to purge these new speech norms of their problematic elements—and so, there will be no end to the cycle of language purification until silence is the only morally acceptable mode of communication.
The Way Forward
The rules about what types of speech are considered acceptable are never static, but we are living through a moment in which the boundaries are exceptionally contested. There are good reasons to be nostalgic for a time when speech wasn’t so policed—but there are also good reasons to try to equalize the discursive playing field, creating rules that are amenable to more diverse voices and sensitive to a broader set of moral issues.
Of course, the right balance is going to depend on the institution in question. At the university, the goal should be to reform the liberal model in order to rectify the power asymmetries that the successor ideology has brought to light. Whether this type of reform can be achieved is anyone’s guess. But it will only be even remotely possible if those on both sides of the cancel culture and free speech debates learn to cultivate the virtues they—we—are respectively lacking.
The non-woke must cultivate empathy. Too many critics of cancel culture take their privileged positions for granted, and fail to acknowledge that their identities have endowed them with unearned cultural authority. They would do well to consider what those who were not born into such fortunate circumstances experience every day.
The woke must cultivate mercy. It can be admirable to seek to purify oneself morally, but we all make mistakes—and often know not what we do. People deserve forgiveness for past sins and present foibles. We are always more than our shortcomings.