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July 15, 2020

An open debate?

Opinion

July 15, 2020

The 'cancel culture' has been all the rage in US media over the last week. Depicting colleges as hotbeds of intolerance, Donald Trump threatened to remove their tax-exempt status if they don’t stop engaging in “radical left indoctrination.”

Trump’s lament calls upon notions of bias and unfairness that have commonly been used to suggest that US academia is a hotbed of radicals, who have little concern with freedom of inquiry or expression. Additionally, although it didn’t mention it by name, the recent Harper’s “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” has been widely discussed in the media within the framework of the “cancel culture.”

But my interest here, first and foremost, is not with the Harper’s letter. Rather, I want to engage in a larger discussion about what has become known as the “cancel culture” – a catch-all term referring to attempts to shame those engaged in controversial or bigoted views. Elements of the 'cancel culture' are said to include the deplatforming of individuals engaged in controversial speech via removing their opportunities to communicate with large audiences in college settings and in the media, individual and group shaming of public intellectuals and other public figures who indulge in bigoted or otherwise questionable statements, and the firing of people who engage in embarrassing public acts such as displays of racism, belligerent refusals to wear masks, and other incendiary behavior.

This 'cancel culture' is condemned by many on the right as an assault on civility norms, and as representing a threat to open debate among competing voices and contrary opinions.

With regard to political discourse in America, the Harper’s letter puts forward many worthy goals, related to ideals of free speech, exploration of competing viewpoints, civility, the elevation of reasoned debate, and the need to engage with empirical evidence.

But one challenge that arises is that free speech seems to mean different things to different people. On the one hand, virtually every American I know agrees that we should embrace free speech in principle. But different individuals have different ideas of what precisely that means in the real world. What J K Rowling appears to mean by free speech may be very different from what Noam Chomsky means.

In the latter case, it is the idea of exploring diverse and competing views openly and in good faith. Worthy goals to be sure. In the former case, however, free speech seems to be closer to feeling liberated to maintain the privilege of a mass media platform of followers and to say whatever you want, even prejudiced claims against trans persons, without fear of criticism or repercussions. These two views of free speech seem pretty incompatible.

Excerpted from: 'Canceling the Cancel Culture: Enriching Discourse or Dumbing it Down?'

Counterpunch.org