The Harper's Letter, Cancel Culture, and Free Speech

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Dr. Medulla
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The Harper's Letter, Cancel Culture, and Free Speech

Post by Dr. Medulla »

Curious what people think about all this.

I confess my viewpoint of public speech has altered considerably in the last few years, from a boilerplate libertarian attitude to something … much less so. While recognizing the dangers of gatekeeping and marginalizing voices, I lean more to a communitarian attitude where some speech does deserve public censure right out of the gate. Too much of the libertarian position has come to mean speech meant to offend and without consequences, which has pushed me to consider whether we, as a society, are mature enough to be entrusted with genuine free speech. Related to that, I'm bothered by the decline in the sacred. By this, I don't mean in the religious sense, but rather a shared decency. Gleefully using slurs and seeking to diminish people based on their race or gender. Some things we should understand are not appropriate, not because of law but because of shared custom. A victim, I suppose, of our fragmented culture where everything is open as a target.

So I find the letter, however well intentioned (I choose to look on the motives as good, even if some of the signers are terrible people), represents an ideal divorced from social reality. Cancel culture is an overhyped nonsense term—very few people are truly cancelled, especially if they're already celebrities (F. Scott Fitzgerald and second acts no longer applies)—but the premise of public censure for speech that goes against community norms is something I've come around to approving of. Not happily, but as something distinctly better than unchecked odious discourse. We do have a responsibility to shape our society, to advocate for the values we want, and that's what that kind of censure does.

edit: One story about the Harper's letter: https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/w ... -1.5641645
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Re: The Harper's Letter, Cancel Culture, and Free Speech

Post by Flex »

Great question, and a good place to discuss (versus Twitter or something horrible).

(I think) if you read that Harper's letter in a vacuum, there's no specific line or sentiment that's per se objectionable, but I think the mention of bad actors is key to understanding some of the letter. I'm not familiar with every name attached to the letter, but of the ones I am I'd group them into three buckets:

1. TERFS - Singal, JK Rowling and the like. These are people that shield their hatreds in free speech but, functionally, are deeply opposed to the sharing of ideas freely. As the Jesse Singal/Emily VanDerWorf fallout over the open letter suggests, this cohort is significantly more interested in bullying the marginalized into silence. For them, "free speech" is obviously a red herring to inoculate from criticism for their bigotry.

2. War Hawks - These are (generally) the neo-cons who helped cheerlead us into war and conflict. I'd also include types like Bari Weiss in this - folks who try to ban insufficiently violent positions from the public discourse or arenas like colleges and such. Again, just pure hypocrisy and these folks spend their lives trying to stamp out opposing sentiment from the public sphere.

3. Old school leftists - Chomsky, Teachout, etc. Chomsky, particularly, is basically a century old and I promise he has no idea what the fuck people like JK Rowling are up to. These are folks whose language around free speech is rooted in fears of McCarthysim and the like and I'm sympathetic to this position even if I think the shouldn't have signed this particular letter. You already have a few in this crowd state they felt misled about what this letter was and who else was signing, so that should be a warning about this whole "open letter" business in the first place.

So, where does that leave us? Obviously the language of "free speech" has largely been hijacked by reactionary forces in an attempt to inoculate themselves from even the most minor of consequences (such as people being mean to them on Twitter). To your point, it's a very rare bird to find someone actually drummed out of public life or deprived of their livelihood for being, say, anti-trans or for supporting endless war.

That said, it sort of saddens me that the right seems to have largely appropriated free speech language and made it synonymous with absurd notions of "cancel culture" which mostly boil down to "I don't like that twitter feels like a high school cafeteria clique". I think there are, or should be, strong left wing commitments to genuine free speech and expression, not the least of which is that we need to end at will employment so that someone's personal opinions doesn't effect their livelihood. This is a position I see made in Twitter replies when things like this come up, but I see no concerted effort to recapture the notion of free speech for the left right now.

I even see poo poo'ing of the orgs like the ACLU, who have gotten significantly woker and broader thinking in their activities over the last decade than their only modus operandi of narrower defenses of free speech challenges. Like, I dunno what opposing an organization like that does to expand the power of the Left. Just one man's opinion, but that seems like ground we should be trying to take back. I think Abi Wilkinson has been pretty good on the idea of reclaiming this terrain, and the most steady drumbeat of the "free speech is a labor issue" I've seen comes from Alex Press.

All that said, I also remember in college going to a lecture by Michael Parenti who fielded some question about a concern of whether we're really convincing people to behave less xenophobically (or however it was put) or if they're just being publicly dissuaded from speaking their mind. His response was who cares? If people are too ashamed to speak their bigotry (or what have you) and go along to get along, that's a victory. Now, part of his lecture also entailed how he thinks that bad-thought includes support for Tibet, which he views as an anti-communist position, so that should tell you something about what we can count on from this sort of social censure if not counter-balanced with something else.
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Re: The Harper's Letter, Cancel Culture, and Free Speech

Post by BostonBeaneater »

I agree with both of you for the most part. I'm too lazy to articulate anything lengthy. I'll just say that there is a huge difference between shouting your shitty ideas on a street corner or dinner table as an individual and rapting people with multimedia pulses of indoctrination.

Civilization is fragile and seems to have a process of ebb and flow. We might just be seeing the beginning of a serious decline. We've bagged the big fish but are too immature to share it collectively and both the hungry and the full get to smell the rot.
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Re: The Harper's Letter, Cancel Culture, and Free Speech

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No serious disagreement here with the viewpoints discussed so far. I do think that those on the cultural left should now start to think very carefully about how easily their language can be co-opted or misrepresented by bad faith interlocutors. They shouldn't have to and it is bullshit that the content generated by young people kids expressing their thoughts and feelings among themselves ends being sucked up vampirically into the big chunk of the chattering class' discourse, but a word like CANCELLED is open to willful misinterpretation.

But I suppose any fucking attempt to hold anyone to account for their bullshit will be turned into our foes pretending to fear the coming gulags.
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Re: The Harper's Letter, Cancel Culture, and Free Speech

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Unless I'm missing a key distinction, I fail to understand the difference between "cancel culture" and the marketplace that especially those on the right claim best determines value and viability in our society. You throw shit out there, a product or a person or an idea, and you are judged by the vast ocean of consumers whether that it merits continuation. If you go out of business, so to speak, tough nuts—the market knows best. So are they actually arguing for some kind intervention into the marketplace of ideas where value is protected, no matter how much the market decides it's crap?

Weirdly, if I'm not confused (and it is 5 am for me, after a bout of heat wave-related insomnia, so maybe I am), the libertarian side wants some kind of intervention to protect speech from the market (i.e., no consequences from consumer rejection), and the more communitarian side is suggesting let the market decide what will go forward and what will die on the vine, and norms will develop from there. That is, once you find out that, say, blackface doesn't sell, people stop trying to sell it. Isn't that how the market is supposed to work?
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Re: The Harper's Letter, Cancel Culture, and Free Speech

Post by Dr. Medulla »

Billy Bragg in a Guardian piece today saying much the same thing, but more clearly and succinctly than me. The final three paragraphs:
Although free speech remains the fundamental bedrock of a free society, for everyone to enjoy the benefits of freedom, liberty needs to be tempered by two further dimensions: equality and accountability. Without equality, those in power will use their freedom of expression to abuse and marginalise others. Without accountability, liberty can mutate into the most dangerous of all freedoms – impunity.

We look down on authoritarian societies because their leaders act without restraint, yet in Trump, we see a president who has never been held to account in his personal life or professional career, and his voters love him for it. Boris Johnson’s supporters, when faced with examples of his lack of responsibility, shrug and say it’s just “Boris being Boris”. Impunity has become a sign of strength. You could see it in the face of the former police officer Derek Chauvin as he kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

In response to this trend, a new generation has risen that prioritises accountability over free speech. To those whose liberal ideals are proving no defence against the rising tide of duplicitous authoritarianism, this has come as a shock. But when reason, respect and responsibility are all under threat, accountability offers us a better foundation on which to build a cohesive society, one where everyone feels that their voice is heard.
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfr ... ung-people
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Re: The Harper's Letter, Cancel Culture, and Free Speech

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I would like to attribute this to a rank, knowing flatulent hypocrisy on the side of those who seek to promote their own free-from-consequences speech while seeking to quiet the speech of those who disagree, but I think they genuinely see any increase in the freedoms of the marginalised as a malignant threat to the world. That is, the world as they know it that has done so much to fluff them up with power at the expense of another.
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Re: The Harper's Letter, Cancel Culture, and Free Speech

Post by Dr. Medulla »

Silent Majority wrote:
10 Jul 2020, 5:55am
I would like to attribute this to a rank, knowing flatulent hypocrisy on the side of those who seek to promote their own free-from-consequences speech while seeking to quiet the speech of those who disagree, but I think they genuinely see any increase in the freedoms of the marginalised as a malignant threat to the world. That is, the world as they know it that has done so much to fluff them up with power at the expense of another.
Some, definitely. But not, say, Chomsky or Greil Marcus. To those more sincere advocates of free speech, my guess is that they are operating in a zone of abstraction and principle without real consideration of social reality. And/or they are overly informed by their own past, of dealing with real free speech restrictions in the 1950s and why it had to be resisted (as Flex suggested above). We have a habit of misapplying historical experience as if it were transhistorical.
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Re: The Harper's Letter, Cancel Culture, and Free Speech

Post by Silent Majority »

Dr. Medulla wrote:
10 Jul 2020, 6:36am
Silent Majority wrote:
10 Jul 2020, 5:55am
I would like to attribute this to a rank, knowing flatulent hypocrisy on the side of those who seek to promote their own free-from-consequences speech while seeking to quiet the speech of those who disagree, but I think they genuinely see any increase in the freedoms of the marginalised as a malignant threat to the world. That is, the world as they know it that has done so much to fluff them up with power at the expense of another.
Some, definitely. But not, say, Chomsky or Greil Marcus. To those more sincere advocates of free speech, my guess is that they are operating in a zone of abstraction and principle without real consideration of social reality. And/or they are overly informed by their own past, of dealing with real free speech restrictions in the 1950s and why it had to be resisted (as Flex suggested above). We have a habit of misapplying historical experience as if it were transhistorical.
I definitely wouldn't put Chomsky in Marcus in the separate category of wanting free-from-consequences-speech. I know Chomsky signed a petition in favour of not allowing a 1979 holocaust denier to be prosecuted - it's more a position that has lit all of Chomsky's work, a faith in humanity to eventually make the right choice once properly educated.

I think one of our issues is that for so long we had the one-to-many communication model which filled those who spoke to us with status, so if we heard something it had credence. If it was on the TV or in a book, it was probably true, was and remains the default. That's why it's important, I think, to curtail harmful speech, whatever bollocks people want to say about slippery slopes*. People are too damn busy with working full time to filter things properly.

*the slippery slope argument is there to ignore that fact that marginalised voices have no recourse to being heard, as if we live in some current utopia of communication all round.
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Re: The Harper's Letter, Cancel Culture, and Free Speech

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Silent Majority wrote:
10 Jul 2020, 7:17am
I think one of our issues is that for so long we had the one-to-many communication model which filled those who spoke to us with status, so if we heard something it had credence. If it was on the TV or in a book, it was probably true, was and remains the default. That's why it's important, I think, to curtail harmful speech, whatever bollocks people want to say about slippery slopes. People are too damn busy with working full time to filter things properly.
Once upon a time, there was a faith that the person with the microphone had earned it because he (it was almost always a he) had the public's best interest in mind. Walter Cronkite or Ed Murrow.Then a more critical appreciation of how the media operates painted them as speaking for interests other than the common good. And to more the radical on both sides of the spectrum, anything they said could always be rejected as false (the inverse of the old faith that they always had the public's interest in mind).

Then the internet was hyped as everyone getting a microphone. where speech, freed of sinister gatekeepers, would finally be free and truth would reign. Sunshine is the best disinfectant and all that. And now we're back to that same place where people grew skeptical of the media figure—realizing that internet discourse represents interests not a liberator for silenced truths, with plenty of outright lies amidst the narratives. Which encourages people to fuklly accept or fully deny internet discourse as per their interests. Gatekeeper model or infinite soapboxes, we end up in the same spot of extreme doubt and prejudicial interest. The principle of free speech is vital, sure, but our experience with over two decades of internet discourse suggests the problem wasn"t exclusively gatekeepers and infinite microphones isn't the solution.
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Re: The Harper's Letter, Cancel Culture, and Free Speech

Post by Flex »

Plot twist, Chomsky agrees "cancel culture" is being used to delegitimize BLM and such:
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Re: The Harper's Letter, Cancel Culture, and Free Speech

Post by Dr. Medulla »

Flex wrote:
12 Jul 2020, 5:04pm
Plot twist, Chomsky agrees "cancel culture" is being used to delegitimize BLM and such
Makes one wonder how the letter was pitched to people.
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Re: The Harper's Letter, Cancel Culture, and Free Speech

Post by Flex »

Dr. Medulla wrote:
12 Jul 2020, 5:30pm
Makes one wonder how the letter was pitched to people.
yeah, the whole endeavor gets more and more suspicious as the days go on
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Re: The Harper's Letter, Cancel Culture, and Free Speech

Post by Wolter »

Flex wrote:
12 Jul 2020, 5:36pm
Dr. Medulla wrote:
12 Jul 2020, 5:30pm
Makes one wonder how the letter was pitched to people.
yeah, the whole endeavor gets more and more suspicious as the days go on
I have nothing to add to this other than to say I think everyone here is really on point with analysis and to say yeah, this seems really fishy.
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Re: The Harper's Letter, Cancel Culture, and Free Speech

Post by Dr. Medulla »

Another column saying much the same thing as in this thread. Heartened that the Harper's Letter seems to be having the opposite effect, of giving an opportunity to focus on the nonsense of "cancel culture."
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfr ... nline-mobs
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