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“Free speech” and “cancel culture”


The editorial board of the New York Times decided that today was good day to Officially Announce that America has a free speech problem. Things don’t get off to a great start:

For all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.

This is a pretty bizarre framing of the issue.

It’s not just that, as the editorial gets around to acknowledging eventually, there’s no legal right of any kind, let alone a “fundamental right,” to voice opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned, but also that, even if “fundamental right” is being used here in an extremely loose way to mean something like “something that people should be free to do as a matter of social etiquette,” who actually believes that this would be a good thing?

Indeed the very idea is inherently contradictory: isn’t the NYT Ed Board here trying to shame people into feeling terrible about their censorious impulses? Isn’t it arguing at least implicitly that people who oppose the Board’s — it turns out impossibly vague — concept of free speech should be shunned for holding this view, assuming “shunned” isn’t being taken in the most literal Amish or Klingon sense?

Moving right along:

Many Americans are understandably confused, then, about what they can say and where they can say it. People should be able to put forward viewpoints, ask questions and make mistakes and take unpopular but good-faith positions on issues that society is still working through — all without fearing cancellation.

Uh, what does “cancellation” mean exactly? This seems like a really key question under the circumstances. THE VERY NEXT SENTENCE IN THE EDITORIAL:

However you define cancel culture, Americans know it exists and feel its burden.

If you think something resembling an actual definition will be forthcoming, you will be wrong. Instead, the idea seems to be that voicing unpopular ideas makes people unpopular, which seems more like one of them tautology thingees, rather than A Major Crisis of Our Time.

There follows a bunch of polling, that yields data of this sort:

Consider this finding from our poll: Fifty-five percent of respondents said that they had held their tongue over the past year because they were concerned about retaliation or harsh criticism.

Depending on the precise definition of the wonderfully vague word “retaliation,” why exactly is this a problem? I mean isn’t it definitely a good thing in all sorts of circumstances? It’s also unavoidable (see Fun With Tautologies above).

I mean the whole idea that “harsh criticism” of what people say is a problem for the exercise of free speech rights is so obviously contradictory on its face that it really makes me wonder how much actual thought went into this encomium to Free Speech But Not That Kind.

OK let’s get a little legal:

While the level of national anxiety around free speech is apparent, the solutions are much less clear. In the poll, 66 percent of respondents agreed with the following: “Our democracy is built upon the free, open and safe exchange of ideas, no matter how different they are. We should encourage all speech so long as it is done in a way that doesn’t threaten others.”

Again, everything turns on what “threaten others” means, concretely, not in the abstract ether at 30,000 conceptual feet, which is where all these brave free speech warriors are always floating, which in turn is why they never define any of their key terms.

Yet a full 30 percent agreed that “while I support free speech, sometimes you have shut down speech that is antidemocratic, bigoted or simply untrue.” Those who identified themselves as Democrats and liberals showed a higher level of support for sometimes shutting down such speech.

I’m glad to hear that Democrats and liberals are less likely to support the elimination of all libel laws.

There’s also a bunch of stuff in there about how of course the New York Times itself engages in all sorts of vigorous censorship of views, but only when it’s warranted:

The Times does not allow hate speech in our pages, even though it is broadly protected by the Constitution, and we support that principle. But there is a difference between hate speech and speech that challenges us in ways that we might find difficult or even offensive.

There sure is!

Here are my thoughts on the application of this principle to colleges and universities, which I’m not going to repeat.

As an intellectual exercise, this editorial is something worse than worthless, but as a sociological document it’s a veritable goldmine of upper class bloviating complacency in the face of revenant fascism. (A word you’re probably not supposed to use to describe people, because doing so is a form of cancel culture I suppose, even if those people are, you know, fascists).

There’s also a bunch of both siding throat clearing about how the government making it illegal to say “gay” in a Florida classroom is also a problem, just like liberals and leftists being mean to right wingers on Twitter, but I’m too tired to unpack this further.

. . . thanks to commenter Eric Scharf for pointing to this perfectly cromulent observation:

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