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

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

Post by Mark^Bastard »

Dr. Medulla wrote:
09 Jul 2020, 7:45pm
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.
Firstly it's very refreshing to see someone self-aware that their attitude has changed. I'm one of the few people that hasn't changed with the world, I still believe in left-libertarian values as much as ever, and it's been frustrating seeing so many other people change and then pretend they haven't.

A couple of other points:
- It's often better to let people say what they think and get it out in the open, even if it's uncomfortable. They will receive feedback and they'll take it on board and likely be less extreme.
- The extremist views of the last decade or so are in part due to censorship. It allows these people to believe that they are truth bearers that are being censored. It keeps them going.
- Well intentioned policy with bad outcomes is disastrous and people need to think critically when this happens and change accordingly.
- Cancel culture absolutely does exist. It isn't the same thing as censorship but it can lead to censorship. For example, if someone says something and a lot of people disagree with it and call them out on it, that is free speech both ways. If the mob 'cancel' a regular blue collar worker and their employer fires them and they can't get work any more because their name is mud and a simple google search will show how bad they are, that is censorship. To say this doesn't exist is a big cope, there are numerous examples, including where people have been 'wrongly convicted' due to fraudsters that make videos on youtube claiming racism (etc).
- Overall, the point of left-libertarian values is to take away the power from both government and corporations. It's sort of paradoxical then that cancel culture is often neither of those, but a more democratic style of backlash. But people are also not showing the kind of restraint they should, looking at both sides, being fair with people, understanding that redemption exists and people can grow etc. Without that it's horrible. Particularly bad in this post-modern culture we have now.

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

Post by Dr. Medulla »

A few comments about the above.

I'd need to see examples of what is being called censorship here because I think there's a misapplication of the term. Censorship is done by the state, legally punishing citizens who violate laws regulating speech. A "mob" or Google search can't censor anyone. That's not picking nits, I don't think, because censorship is about being going up against the power of the state, not interacting with fellow citizens.

What I think you're claiming as censorship is what should be understood as consequence. Speech, if it has value, has consequences. We want to influence others with our speech, opponents wants to counter the influence of our speech, government censors want to ensure our speech does not have consequences it doesn't like (like promoting a revolution), etc. If speech simply evaporated the moment it appears, no one would care. It wouldn't be worth censoring, it wouldn't be worth responding to, it wouldn't be worth the burning of calories to produce. So, speech must be consequential if it's worth a damn. That's central to all this.

But because life (or history, if your prefer) is fluid, what produces good consequences and bad consequences is always changing. Always. Life is only static in nostalgia. In some social groups, using racial slurs, say, produces bad consequences. in others, good consequences (even if it's just to affirm solidarity with the group). How we dress for certain contexts produce different consequences. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt with "Fuck You" on it will likely produce a different response from others than a three-piece suit, whether it's at a concert or a job interview. Those are consequences of speech. Different time frames reflecting different social norms will produce different consequences, too. A hundred years ago, or twenty years ago, saying certain words or how one dressed in public would generate bad consequences, now they generate good consequences or only mildly bad ones.

The point is that it's fluid … and it's always been fluid. Those who think the changing norms and values are some huge violation of an objective good standard are complaining that those good and bad consequences that used to favour them are less likely to do so. They claim they're being canceled. No, they're experiencing the bad consequences of being out of the norm. It happens. That's politics. Some groups and values rise, others fall. It may suck for those who wish it was like the old days when they could, say, openly mock people of colour, queer people, or women, but it's better than speech having no consequences, having no value. If you only want your speech to have good consequences, that's being entitled and immature. That's a toddler's or a billionaire's perspective.

It sounds nice to suggest super duper open conversation and all, and in the abstract I agree, but if there are no consequences from that openness—if it's all just air—we'd quickly feel it's a pretty hollow exercise. We can argue about the quality of the consequences, good and bad, and whether they're justified, but just calling for openness ends up devaluing what it is we want.

Cancel culture is the complaint of those whose values, which once produced good consequences when expressed, now produce bad ones, even if it's just being mocked on twitter (the bad consequence in this case is a realization that one's status is shakier than you think it should be). That's politics and that's history, and denying each isn't going to get you very far.
"And so the sailor goes, 'I don’t know, but it’s driving me nuts!'” - Woodrow Wilson to David Lloyd George, Paris Peace Conference, 1 February 1919

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