It used to be that heretics, witches, and others who dissented from the orthodoxy of public opinion were executed. Later, they were ‘merely’ imprisoned. Today, they are ‘cancelled’. This progression from death, to coercion, to ostracism, is commendable, although it does not mean that ‘cancel culture’ should be embraced uncritically – or unreservedly.
‘Cancel culture’ has become a phenomenon since the 2010s. It has taken various forms, some more nefarious than others. This has ranged from relatively benign phenomena like an audience leaving a venue en masse, ending subscriptions to unpopular platforms, and boycotting the purchase of products from ‘problematic’ writers and artists, to somewhat more regrettable manifestations like shouting down speakers at events (the ‘heckler’s veto’), revealing the private (or old) political views of employees to their employers in the hope that they are fired, and universities disciplining students and faculty for saying things or asking questions that two decades ago would have been uncontentious.
A threat to free expression?
Others have described cancel culture as a greater threat to freedom of expression than government regulation. There is a kernel of truth to this sentiment. For my part, I have described cancel culture as a threat to ‘social freedom’ – that ‘freeness’ that people endow each other with as a result of a spirit of openness, as distinct from the imperative individual liberty from coercion that political authorities necessarily owe legal subjects.
Indeed, cancel culture is not a threat to freedom of expression. I would say it is a feature of free expression. And as with any freedom, it is incumbent on us to tolerate exercises thereof without being required to respect or celebrate it. Calls to eliminate cancel culture through policy or law are in fact in themselves a threat to freedom of expression.
In its more excessive forms, cancel culture is certainly not socially beneficial. A culture that encourages people to have an excessively thin skin as a sign of virtue is not a culture that fosters social development, nor is it a culture that will survive for long. It is necessarily unsustainable because it stifles avenues for legitimate dissent and disagreement. In my view cancel culture will work itself out over the next few decades.
I have recklessly described myself as a ‘fan’ of cancel culture before, but this was ill-considered terminology on my part. I am certainly no fan of the cultural aspects of cancelling, but I am a proponent of the progress society has made away from physical coercion as a means of enforcing social norms, instead relying on social pressure and persuasion.
Of course, it can be argued that causing someone to lose their job (‘doxing’) is a form of coercion, but that rabbit hole leads us to completely eliminating the distinction between actual violence and other means of exercising pressure. We must be able to tell apart being jailed or beaten (having one’s freedom denied) from having to find other work, even though the latter might be very difficult.
Cancel culture is a manifestation of what liberals and the advocates of freedom have been demanding for centuries: preferring non-violent methods of social and economic pressure over coercive methods of legal and political interference.
Resist cancelling cancel culture
We can and should fight the excesses of cancel culture, not by calling for it to be legally or politically restricted, but by making a positive and persuasive case for an open society that embraces the expression of (wildly) divergent views and behaviours within a peaceful framework. By this I mean, for example, that private schools must be allowed to teach backward notions like Critical Race Theory if they want. Instead of calling upon government to ban them from doing so, we must instead convince parents – if we cannot convince the schools – that their children are better educated elsewhere.
By continuously seeking legal and political means to undermine one’s opponents, a never-ending cycle of pendula swinging from the left to the right, from the right to the left, and back again, is set in motion. Our agenda should be to arrest the pendulum in a place where the right and the left, and all the various shades in between, are allowed the maximum freedom to pursue their own affairs, destinies, disagreements, and desires, without fearing encroachment from the other.
[Illustration by Antonio Rodriguez/Adobe Stock]