Right at the start, I should point out that he doesn’t find the term “cancel culture” to be very useful, as it’s often used in bad faith and means different things to different people. But for my purposes, I use it to refer to the trend of publicly seeking reprisals against those whose statements offend ideological or other sensibilities.
Our virtual paths crossed for the first time earlier this year, when I was invited to sign an open letter “On Justice and Open Debate", published in Harper’s Magazine, a letter that Williams had co-authored. At the time, it seemed like an easy choice to sign. Who wouldn’t want to speak out against the chilling effect on free speech that can arise when people are afraid for their jobs and their reputations for speaking about certain topics? When ideological groups form online mobs to condemn the impure for their opinions?
This isn’t merely a matter of disagreement, or refuting incorrect assertions or censoring offensive statements. It’s about the nature of the response, and the intended effect of the response. The distinction was made quite well by Jonathan Rauch at the Persuasion website last month. He summarized it thusly: “Criticism marshals evidence and arguments in a rational effort to persuade. Canceling, by contrast, seeks to organize and manipulate the social or media environment in order to isolate, deplatform or intimidate ideological opponents.”
Now, after months of incendiary controversy over the letter, and even more over the signatories themselves, I’m even more sure that I was correct to sign, and that the problem the letter described is not only very real, but even worse than the authors assessed. The primary mode of response was just what the letter warned about: attacking the signatories, not the ideas described in the letter—which, again, seemed fairly innocuous and obvious.
Famous scholars and authors who signed were bashed online, with calls made for their institutions and publishers to castigate them. Strangely, many accused the letter writers and signatories of trying to defend themselves from criticism, to secure their positions against the new wave of social justice and equality that would push out old voices for new. But most of the signatories, myself included, are exactly the sort of people who don’t have much to worry about! We’re already well-known, with large platforms and security, and so don’t have to worry much about losing our jobs or risking our status as contributors or job-seekers.
Quite the opposite, I thought one of the main points of signing the letter was to use my secure status to help others without that security by speaking out in defense of everyone’s ability to share ideas without fear of reprisal. Free speech is more than just saying what you want, it’s what happens afterward. As I said in the Lockdown video, the old USSR joke went that both the USA and the USSR had free speech. But only the USA also had freedom after speech!
That’s another important distinction: This isn’t the crushing of free speech I grew up with in the Soviet Union, or the dictatorship methods of disinformation and state control in modern authoritarian regimes today. It’s driven by the people, empowered by righteous anger and technology in an environment of hyper-partisanship and ideological extremism. It’s not censorship, a term and practice I’m all too familiar with personally, but it is very bad for the free flow of ideas and for democracy and prosperity, which depend on that flow.
Williams talked about “the onlooker effect,” when people see that someone who made a contrary statement is attacked and self-censor out of fear. How can bad ideas be refuted in such an environment? How can we achieve a more just society via intolerance? As Williams said, we need “the maximal freedom to offend,” not keeping a lid on it until it boils over or explodes in our faces.
Mr. Williams was quick to point out the role technology has had on this trend, one that I’ve often discussed here in my Avast blog column. The ability to tie many small social media megaphones together into a massive and influential broadcast is still new. That everyone can reply instantly, monitor everyone’s every word and deed with camera phones, it’s a surveillance state without the state.
“We’re in an unprecedented mass experiment,” is how Williams memorably put it. We’re making up the rules on the fly, with tech companies in the middle between government regulation and the Wild West of social media mobs. We don’t want Google and Facebook and Twitter to decide who gets to say what, so we need to push back on our own.
This was an important final takeaway from my guest, who emphasized that it’s vital for people to speak out in defense of those who targeted for unjust retaliation, not merely stay silent. A CEO or university president being bombarded with calls to fire someone for saying something offensive or unfashionable might be dissuaded if there is also a public current defending the target’s right to speak their mind.
This doesn’t necessarily mean defending the views themselves, which may be against your own, or even be genuinely offensive. It’s the principle, one that loses all meaning if it’s not applied equally. As George Orwell wrote in the unpublished preface to Animal Farm, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”