This post was edited to incorporate relevant information which I was not aware of when I first wrote it. This information adds perspective to the issue, but it does not undermine my original argument.
Recently, a number of prominent media pundits and academics published a letter in Harper’s Magazine and elsewhere calling for both Justice and Open Debate. The letter came on the heels of several recent incidents such as the firing of James Bennett from the New York Times after staff protests of his editorial decisions, as well as an attempted cancellation of Steven Pinker, who is also among the signers of the letter. While multiple media outlets on the right and center have voiced enthusiastic approval of the letter, the reaction in left, or left liberal publications has ranged from enthusiastic endorsement to outright condemnation. Yet the decision over who was allowed to sign the letter itself involved an act of cancellation and some of the signatories have themselves engaged in their own versions of cancel culture. That the message of a potentially important letter has been undermined by hypocrisy is unfortunate. But this does not alter the validity of the text of the letter.
That concern over the limits of free speech should arise at this point in U.S. history is ironic. We live in an era where the legal limit of the State’s ability to officially punish speech is more sharply circumscribed than at any previous point in American history. That does not mean however that threats to free speech arising from government action are a thing of the past. To the contrary, there are still multiple ways in which official government action suppresses the speech primarily, though not exclusively, of those who advocate for greater equality in our democracy. The latest example is the use of anonymous Federal agents, in unmarked cars, arresting people on the street without any apparent justification.
And in spite of the expansive definition of free speech with respect to government action, there is a large and complex gap in the protections provided by the First Amendment. Since the free speech clause of the First Amendment applies only to official efforts by the government to sanction speech, there is no provision in the Constitution to protect people from societal sanctions for speech. It is this gap in First Amendment Law that makes the argument over “cancel culture” difficult. In principle, there is a distinction to be made between “censure” and “censor”. The absence of official legal punishments for speech does not mean that there can, or should, never be any social sanctions at all for speech. Where and how we draw the line is a difficult issue and a full analysis of that would require a separate and rather lengthy post. But the kinds of speech for which people have faced social sanctions to which the letter refers, are not about hate speech or advocacy of violence.
Nor is the issue of “cancellation” (a term that was actually not used in the letter) about simply expressing vehement disagreement and criticism of ideas people deem to be offensive. Cancellation, in the stronger sense, includes efforts to inflict economic harm on people by pressuring their employer to terminate their employment, deny other employment benefits, blacklist people or deny people access to professional associations or professional honors for their speech. This is accomplished by what are often organized, concerted campaigns, sometimes accompanied by doxing to bring this about. A second form is the effort to socially ostracize people through the use of smears and to create what Matt Taibbi has termed the “ick” factor around people. Cancellation in these instances functions as a way of disciplining discourse outside of the mechanisms of formal State power. The power to cancel depends on the specific context as both the “left” and the “right” vie for the power to cancel each other.
In this context, the argument that people should be free to speak, but not free from the consequences of speech, in actual practice translates into a defense of the right to attempt to do economic or social harm to people for expressing views that others find objectionable. Whether or not it is appropriate to cancel people for advocacy of overt racist or misogynist views, for advocating violence as a means of enacting social change, or for championing right or left totalitarian philosophies is a complex issue. But the issues that gave rise to the letter were not related to these concerns. The specific incidents that prompted the letter were related to cancellations, or attempted cancellations, of people who expressed viewpoints related to public policy debates that are well within the normal boundaries of political expression in the U.S.
Conservatives who believe that this is only, or even predominantly a practice of “the left” should consider the cases addressed in this interview (approximately 30 minutes) with journalist Max Blumenthal and also consider similar points made in this video by Krystal Ball (approximately 12 minutes). It is clear that there are often organized campaigns by the right to “cancel” people “the left” for views that are unacceptable. Critics of Israel are particularly favorite targets as are those who are critical of U.S. history. Two cases in particular illustrate this point: Steven Salaita and Ward Churchill. There is indeed a “right” cancel culture”, though its existence and actions often escape critical scrutiny.
A point that critics of the letter have missed however is that “the letter” began with an acknowledgement of the need for justice as well as an acknowledgement of the historical efforts of the right to shut down speech. The point of the letter was that some tendencies on the left were adopting the tactics of the right. It is certainly fair game to call out some of the signatories of the letter for having a double standard, but that does not necessarily invalidate the point of the letter. To the contrary, if anything it points to the need to combat such practices regardless of which side engages in those practices.
Yet some signatories (not all) of the letter have engaged in their own cancellations. The complaint by Bari Weiss that she was bullied by her colleagues at the New York Times does indeed raise concerns. Yet her words ring hollow as she herself has a long history of engaging in bullying tactics against pro-Palestinian activists. But if any issue has undermined the effectiveness of the letter, it is the decision to prevent Glenn Greenwald from signing the letter. It is fairly easy to surmise what his “sin” is. The center right and the center left have determined that even if he is not quite Stalin reincarnate, Vladimir Putin presents a grave threat to the world’s democracies and to suggest otherwise is to beyond the pale of respectable opinion. Though being in favor of better U.S. -Russia relations and being skeptical of claims of ill intentions by Russia was at one time a staple principle of the center left, taking the “wrong” position on Russiagate, or on Julian Asange, or on Edward Snowden is now sufficient, if not necessarily to be banned from polite company, at least from MSNBC, or as it turns out, from signing a letter on free speech. On this issue at least, for the most part, those to the left of the center left have been more consistent.
But the presence of double standards and the need to put matters into context does not mean that there is no such thing as left cancel culture. Though those who support the tactics of de-platforming and cancellation often assert that their targets are the hard right and/or powerful groups with entrenched interests, the actual record suggests otherwise. The hard right, for the most part, is immune from the cancel culture of the Left. At times the targets are those with vaguely centrist, or center left views such as Steven Pinker, whose case is referenced above. But some cases, the left attacks its own. Here are a few examples. In one recent incident involving Adolph Reed and Democratic Socialists of America (an organization to which I once briefly belonged and with which I share many policy positions) a scheduled talk by Adolph Reed was canceled (video approximately 25 minutes long) at the last minute due to accusations that he is a “class reductionist“. The damage in this case is to DSA but also more generally to the credibility of the Left, and it is damage that is self inflicted. Then there is the case of a data analyst fired from his job for tweeting in support of the data analysis by Omar Wasow , whose research argues that non-violent protests achieve more good than violent protests. And in another case, this one involving The Intercept where Glenn Greenwald writes, where a journalist, Lee Fant was nearly fired for posting an interview that was perceived as racist for discussing black on black crime.
In sum, though some of the criticisms of the letter raise important points, the concerns raised by the letter are also valid. We are better served by open debate rather than by dueling cancel cultures.