The Crimson Letter
As most people who are Extremely Online, and maybe even a couple who aren’t, know there was a letter criticizing Cancel Culture, then another letter repudiating the first letter, and of course since this is 2020, a bunch of thinkpieces analyzing The Letter.
Most of the thinkpieces were profoundly wrong, albeit quite well written. So well written that I can imagine these thinkpieces convincing people who should, in my opinion, know way better. (If the 21st century has convinced me of anything it’s that apparently even very smart and good people are easily swayed by intellectually disingenuous arguments, particularly if they come from people on their “side”.) So even though I have not one jot of interest in writing about letters or the implications of letters or the flaws and foibles of those who write letters, here I sit at 4:24 in the morning, trying to unravel why it is the writers of the Harper’s letter were Right, Actually, and why the writers of the second letter and the thinkpieces are… well, let’s just say less right.
One of the main criticisms of The Letter is the easiest to dismiss so let’s just strike that one off the old to-do list first thing so we can get to the meaty stuff. Some have claimed that because a few of the signatories have come against others in the past, allegedly tried to deplatform them for using their right of free speech, to then turn around and write a letter defending the principles of free speech indicates that they are hypocrites who should be ignored. And that’s nonsense. Firstly, it’s nonsense because people have a downright knack for getting caught up in things and carried away, yet can at any point in time realize the error of their ways and change for the better.
So, what if some of these folks partook in Cancel Culture, recognized how toxic it was, changed their minds, and are now using their newfound wisdom to try to make a positive impact instead? That’s not a bad thing, not at all. Since none of us emerge from the womb with our opinions fully formed, we should all be granted the room to improve and grow as we are presented with new information, and forgiven for mistakes of the past if we’ve actually accomplished the hard task of changing. Even a tiny baby step in the right direction should be applauded. The people who signed The Letter, some of them anyway, may indeed have trafficked in Cancel Culture in the past, but perhaps they learned from their experience, and when you know better, you do better.
Or maybe that isn’t true at all. Maybe they are indeed hypocrites, but the funny thing about hypocrites is, just because they’re hypocritical doesn’t necessarily make them wrong. Yes, it’s hypocritical to tell kids they shouldn’t smoke while sucking on a stogie, but the truth is, smoking is bad no matter who delivers the message.
Another common, but erroneous criticism levied against people who support The Letter is that “all these people who purport to hate Cancel Culture are doing it themselves now! Isn’t this letter just a ploy to get people cancelled for THEIR beliefs instead?” A good example of this is people who decry Cancel Culture calling for Nick Cannon to get fired over some ugly sentiments he recently expressed. Surely all these free speech warriors ought to come to the guy’s defense, right? But very few people did.
The way I see it, this comes down to a prisoner’s dilemma. If one side plays by a certain set of rules – protecting free speech even when it’s harmful to their ingroup, for example – and the other side abandons those rules, well, we can hardly protest when the rule-followers eventually abandon them too. No one is going to continue stupidly playing by rules their opponent has crumpled up and thrown away, and claiming that anyone should before you’ll consider their opinion is the height of disingenuousness. You may as well start a barfight and demand that the guy you’re fighting ties both his arms behind his back after you hit him with a beer bottle. These people demanding civility in the face of their own incivility remind me of that irritating kid you have to sit next to on the school bus who pokes at you and pokes at you, but when you’ve finally had enough and respond in kind, proceeds to cry and scream and flail around wildly till you’re the one who gets into trouble.
But these complaints, while ubiquitous, are little things. Practically microscopic. Those issues are easily ignorable gnats hovering around the rotten banana that is Cancel Culture.
A far bigger problem I – and I assume many who signed The Letter – have with Cancel Culture is that it represents an abandonment of core liberal values. As I’ve said in the past, it’s enormously frightening to see an entire movement of which I used to be a proud part, a movement even in my conservatism I strive to stay true to what were once called “liberal” values like tolerance and understanding and questioning authority and free inquiry, abandoning what they stood for even just 15 years ago. Conservatives used to be “do as I say because this is always how it’s been done, and don’t ask questions why” because, well, that mindset is pretty much in the definition of the word conservative. Liberals, on the other hand, were all about challenging the status quo and asking the hard, even at times disturbing questions that polite people just wanted to ignore.
No longer. Now liberals are like “do as I say because this is how it should be and don’t ask questions why” – an attitude diametrically opposed to what liberalism used to be fundamentally about. This peculiar state of affairs even includes refusing to second-guess claims they themselves make and actions they themselves are taking that seem to be running contrary to core liberal beliefs.
To give an example, many “compassionate” libs now seem to feel it is ok to attack political opponents on the basis of appearance, sexual prowess, disability status, sexuality, gender, and amazingly, flabbergastingly, even race, if they are deemed Actually Bad People. Despite what liberals claimed to stand for over the course of my whole-entire-life, things I was actually stupid enough to believe in, self-described “feminists” who support body positivity and “her body, her choice” think its ok to call Michelle Duggar’s vagina a clown car and to post memes attacking Sarah Sanders and Kellyanne Conway not on the basis of their ideas, but on their appearance. “Liberals” who claim to support gay rights regularly mock their political opponents using homophobic slurs as if being gay is somehow an insult. “Liberals” who claim to support the ADA regularly mock a dude who had polio, people injured while fighting wars, children who happen to have Down Syndrome, and use the term “autism” as a slur. “Liberals” who claim to oppose age discrimination applaud the words of someone who joked about taking joy in being cruel to elderly men and delight in the term “boomer remover”. “Liberals” who claim to despise toxic masculinity regularly call people incels, neckbeards, tell them they need to get laid, and insult the sizes of men’s genitals. “Liberals” who claim to hate racism freely call minority people ponchos, coconuts, and Uncle Toms and don’t hesitate to attack African American police officers over the color of their skin.
I’m not even saying they are out of line per se because free speech – though of course it is possible to both believe in free speech and abhor the way some people use it. My complaint is simply that up until a few minutes ago, liberals themselves were saying it was wrong to do these things, but now they are doing these things with abandon and have developed a raging case of selective amnesia when anyone tries to point out that they’ve completely changed for the worse.
From here in my bench in the cheap seats, it appears to me that all those lofty principles liberals once claimed to believe in, sticking up for the underdog, the little guy, the downtrodden, the marginalized, they believed precisely as long as they were the underdogs, the little guy, the downtrodden, the marginalized. Ever since Wokism became the dominant culture, it was game on. Though it hurts me to admit this, I have been forced to conclude that liberals stand for nothing, and that maybe they never really did. All those noble values they purported to celebrate so highly were nothing more than smoke and mirrors to lure in the kindhearted and naive idiots like me. Now that I’ve realized this, you’re darn tootin’ I’m gonna call out Cancel Culture because Cancel Culture is ugly and toxic and its purpose is to force, if not compliance, then quiet complicity. Cancel Culture corrupts the finest instincts of humankind to be used as a political tactic.
And I’m gonna stand with ANYONE doing that, even if they are not perfect paragons of virtue themselves, and even if I don’t agree with them in many other ways and on many other subjects. Because Cancel Culture isn’t free speech. Cancel Culture co-opts and perverts the idea of free speech to silence dissent. It’s a bait and switch. Getting people fired from their jobs for expressing ideas that used to be mainstream only a few years ago is not “criticism.” Telling women they should be punched and raped and have their children taken away from them and given to other people to raise over political differences, is not “criticism”. And punishing researchers whose work leads them to draw unpopular conclusions is a mighty odd position for The Party of Science to take. Cancel Culture is oppression dressed up in talk of peace, love, harmony, and freedom, when all along it promises peace, love, harmony, and freedom only for those who agree.
Is it any wonder why some may decline to trust hateful people with their hands on every single solitary lever of power, including who can speak and when? Is it any wonder some of us may question speech restriction being used in the service of an utterly illiberal, borderline fascist lockstep wherein if you don’t agree completely with the far left’s wackiest dogma on every issue every time, you’re considered persona non grata? It is no wonder at all, and this “oh golly gee shucks” routine where some folks act so befuddled as to why anyone would have a problem with the way they’ve been operating is currently up for a Razzie award for worst performance ever. My dudes, you know exactly why people have a problem with what you’re doing, you just plan to keep on doing it, and playing dumb is a means to that end.
But. BUT. Hypocrisy may have been enough to convince me about the toxic and anti-free-speech nature of Cancel Culture. But maybe that isn’t enough to convince YOU. After all, the right to free speech includes the right to speak freely (gasp!) and that includes expressing unpopular, even inflammatory ideas. Free speech, even that which you do not like, as I do not like Cancel Culture, is protected under the law, right?
If a person wants to speak in the open marketplace of ideas, surely they better be able to put up with the stuff people are going to say in return. Surely they better be able to put up with people saying they should be fired from their jobs and forbidden to ever work in their industry again, even when that industry is meant to be about the free exchange of ideas, like journalism, science, and the arts. Surely they better be able to put up with people saying that they should die, their families should die, and that they should be “correctively raped” – all of which has, of course, happened to some of the signatories of The Letter.
All’s fair in the marketplace of ideas!
The people making this argument would tell you criticism is free speech, and it’s simply that the signatories of The Letter are simply defending ugly and immoral ideas that deserve criticism. The people making this argument would say something along the lines of “well, golly, I don’t always get to write everything I want either! I mean, it’s to be expected that people push back on gross ideas! Like for instance defending pedophiles!!!” (Yes, because simply stating an opinion that up until a couple years ago was completely mainstream is absolutely the same thing as defending pedophilia – which by the way up till a couple years ago, liberals actually did with some regularity – but I digress).
This is a tricky argument to refute, because under normal circumstances I would tend to agree. If you want to make an argument in favor of drowning puppies, you should expect that there will be some consequences for that, probably including getting fired from your position at PETA. The trouble is, that the definition of what being a “moral person” entails has gone from pretty wide open to very, very narrow in only a short time. The definition of “acceptable public discourse” has also narrowed dramatically, and in a way that caters to a relatively small group of people who are essentially religious fanatics at the expense of the rest of us. This transition has occurred in myriad ways that leave basically one path of being a “moral person” open to us all – the very furthest left one. Anyone who doesn’t agree with the far left even on the smallest of details is openly demonized.
If the only people who are “moral people” are the most extreme and vitriolic members of a particular political group, and everyone else is to be considered not only mistaken, but actually evil, immoral, disgusting, to be threatened, shunned, and have organized movements call for their firing if they don’t put down their heads and stay silent, this seems a lot less like exercising free speech and a lot more like oppression.
Under normal circumstances, I might agree that criticism is not an assault on free speech, but circumstances are far from normal. Using a particular definition of morality to stifle not only disgusting and wildly unpopular opinions, but legitimate political dissent and even scientific research, is a chilling development we all should fear. After all, people used “morality” and “science” to justify slavery. People used “morality” and “science” to justify denying women’s rights. People used “morality” and “science” to deny physical observations like the Earth orbiting the Sun. Whenever one group seeks to silence another – or even just deter them from speaking freely – while invoking claims of “morality” and “science”, our collective Spidey Sense should start tingling. Yes, even you. Because even if you’re the obedient type, even if you’ll never cross any lines personally, you can’t control what your friends and family and coworkers say and do.
You may be found guilty by association anyway.
And even if you’re obedient now, you may not have been so careful in the past, back when circumstances were different. There is no grandfather clause where Cancel Culture is concerned; people are being blacklisted (oopsie, I said a no-no word) not only for things they said TODAY but things they said 20 or 30 or 40 years ago – as CHILDREN. People are being blacklisted (there I go again) not only for things they said but for things their family or acquaintances or coworkers have said. Not even big things, but harmless-if-clumsy attempts at humor, not to mention again small and petty things like pancake syrup and even having the wrong books on one’s bookshelf. A Puritanical morality is being not only imposed, but retrofitted and then expanded till we are all guilty of Badthink.
And to paraphrase The Incredibles, when everyone’s guilty, no one will be; if we expand the definition of Thoughtcrime to include literally all of us then it’s only a half-step from there to a culture where morality is used not to make the world a better place, but to make it a worse one. People who are a part of the dominant culture will be able to say and do anything and get away with it, for they are wrapped up in the guise of morality (and let’s be honest, we’re already well down this path), and people who aren’t could have the purest of motives and the cleanest of consciences, say eminently reasonable and logically consistent things, but still be sent to the proverbial gulag, if not the literal one.
When we have subjects upon which two reasonable and ethical people can honestly agree (and we do, many of them) and one of them is stifled in the name of “morality” and “science” and the other is not stifled because they have a lot of political/cultural power, that is something that anyone who values a free – and indeed, a liberal – society should be concerned over. When this stifling does not entail shaking your head at the water cooler and avoiding a person at Christmas parties, but getting not only that person but their third cousin twice removed fired from their job, then that IS a suppression of speech that we all should fear. Even if it’s not imposed by government.
This is a CULTURE problem, not a government problem. That’s why we call it Cancel CULTURE and not fascism.
Some would say “welp, sucks to be you, dummy, guess you should have won the Culture War.” But hey, this does not just ‘suck’. Saying “gee, it sucks, but that’s how the ol’ cookie crumbles” comes off to me like Marie Antoinette telling peasants to eat cake – a person in an enormous position of privilege using that privilege to condescend to others, telling them to resort to options they don’t really even have available to them. To say “sucks to be you, now follow the rules” is no different than telling people “if you don’t break the law, you have nothing to fear from the police” or blaming short skirts for sexual assault. Telling people who are legitimately concerned about cultural oppression by the dominant majority that they should simply behave in the way the dominant majority wants them to, runs contrary to one of the most fundamental tenets of the American Way – majority rule, but minority rights.
(And may I just remind everyone that when the revolution came, Marie lost her head. Privilege is an ephemeral thing that goes with the wind, so that’s why it’s best to never assume you’re always going to have it.)
This is especially true for Cancel Culture, where the rules appear to change daily for seemingly no better reason than out of sheer meanness. The average person on the streets does not have time or money to stay up to speed on a language and culture that is changing at a rapid pace. Even the average intellectual doesn’t have the time to track all the no-no words and naughty bean cans. Personally, I suspect the Byzantine and ever-changing rules of Cancel Culture are entirely by design, meant to create a permanent subclass of gurus and shamans whose job it is to read the tea leaves and analyze the portents, not to mention enforcers and thugs whose job it is to punish transgressors; a make-work program for a panorama of busybody sociopaths who get off on controlling people’s behavior.
What we’re doing with Cancel Culture is exacerbating human foibles, encouraging the worst qualities of people, and enabling controlling abusers who love nothing better than inflicting their slightest whim onto others. We cannot allow the most hypersensitive among us to define what is offensive while simultaneously allowing the most overbearing among us to enforce that moral code. Well, we can, obviously, but it’s fucking stupid and incredibly self-destructive. And the end result is not going to hurt a rich and powerful woman like JK Rowling, not really. It’s going to hurt the people very far downstream from her.
And you’re claiming this is liberal? Nah, not even close. I served with liberalism, I knew liberalism, liberalism was a friend of mine. Dan Quayle was closer to JFK than the Woke Fascists are to liberalism.
We are moving away, at light speed, from a set of liberal values in which dissent was seen –- even though admittedly not always fairly implemented –- as a positive value in and of itself. Folks may have thought it was tacky or un-American to say certain things, folks may have thought the shock jocks of the world were rude or vulgar for pushing the envelope, but on some level, the kids at the back of the class were tolerated, even celebrated (if you doubt, it, you can check out any number of movies in which the smart-mouthed cynic pushing back on the authoritarian rule-followers was the hero.)
For a brief shining moment, we Americans had a kind of marvelous unspoken agreement between ourselves that we’d all of us try to have thick skins and tolerance for others in the name of free expression. For a brief shining moment, we achieved the liberal dream -– a diverse nation full of people of a variety of belief systems who didn’t always agree but were living together mostly peacefully. It was a dream never before achieved in all of human history –- a truly pluralistic society; imperfect perhaps, but remarkable, nonetheless. This wasn’t long ago. It’s not off in a galaxy far, far away. We can get back to that place if we try.
How, you ask?
As with everything in a pluralistic society, there is a continuum between the extreme of allowing all speech and no speech; a point at which we all agree that we’ll go this far and no farther, we’ll hold the line here between freedom of expression and the bounds of civility. Philosophers deem this stopping place along any slippery slope a Schelling fence. But we – at least most of us – have to mostly agree on what that point is, and the catch is that I don’t get to decide for everyone, and you don’t either.
Some entirely hypothetical person who completely does not exist might say, “well, I don’t agree with a travesty like a scientist getting fired for citing an unpopular study, but at the same time we must eliminate such terribly offensive words as ‘cosmopolitan’ from the English language.” But my dear hypothetical person, surely you understand that YOU personally don’t get to choose where this fence is constructed. You don’t get to choose, and I don’t get to choose, and that guy over there doesn’t get to choose either, and good thing too cause he’s a complete a-hole. We all have to choose together, en masse, and that means some people have to give up saying things that they like, but at the same time, other people will have to tolerate some shit that they’d prefer not to. The Schelling fence cannot be set at a place where no one ever hears anything they don’t want to hear because this is the world and that’s freaking impossible.
A society has to set their mutual Schelling fence at a place that makes the most sensitive people uncomfortable and the most demanding people uncomfortable and the least reasonable people uncomfortable or you will end up with something that makes everyone else uncomfortable. This notion that 99.85% of all modern liberals seem to have where they will magically end up benign dictator of the world and every one of their power grabs and overreaches will somehow miraculously work out to affect only what they personally hate and never negatively impact the things that they happen to like is nonsensical.
And by the way, it’s not about “discomfort” anyway. Contrary to popular belief the battle over free speech is not about hurt feelings. The people who pretend the pushback on Cancel Culture is a battle for the right to say the n-word are liars. Protecting free speech is about allowing the march of human progress itself to continue unabated and that will never happen when the witch doctors are going around telling us what ideas are taboo and what aren’t.
If we’re seeing politics controlled and diminished by Cancel Culture, and we are,
If we’re seeing journalism controlled and diminished by Cancel Culture, and we are,
If we’re seeing literature and art controlled and diminished by Cancel Culture, and we are,
If we’re seeing the justice system controlled and diminished by Cancel Culture, and we are,
If we’re seeing medicine controlled and diminished by Cancel Culture, and we are,
If we’re seeing the marketplace controlled and diminished by Cancel Culture, and we are,
If we’re seeing education controlled and diminished by Cancel Culture, and we are,
If we’re seeing science controlled and diminished by Cancel Culture, and we are,
If we’re seeing truth itself controlled and diminished by Cancel Culture, and we are,
If we’re seeing every facet of life controlled and diminished by Cancel Culture, and WE ARE,
Then regardless of whether or not the government is personally, like with their own many greedy and grabby hands, impacting anyone’s right to free speech through force of law, a lack of REASONABLE free speech (not the n-word, not pedophiles, but reasonable differences of opinion between human beings on important subjects that should be freely discussed in an open society) in every arena of our culture means that where the rubber hits the road, a real whole lot of us –- including the people who need it most, like journalists, artists, and scientists –- don’t have anything approximating free speech at all.
Or to put it another way, what if I told you “you have the right to say whatever you want as long as you’re wearing a straightjacket in a rubber-padded isolation room and no one can hear you scream?” What if, when you protested this state of affairs, I rolled my eyes and said, “well, heck, it sure does suck to be in a straightjacket in a rubber room, but since no one is literally covering your mouth with duct tape, you can’t say that anyone is doing anything to silence you.”
The right to speak whilst straightjacketed in an isolation room isn’t really free speech, now is it? And this is true even if it isn’t the government who put you in there. It’s true even if it’s just your “friends” and neighbors and coworkers conspiring to have you committed. In fact, were your “friends” and neighbors and coworkers to put you in an isolation room to prevent you from speaking freely, you might even expect agents of the government to come and save you to PROTECT YOUR RIGHTS. Because really, only the government is supposed to have the power to take away people’s liberty and they’re supposed to only do that via proper channels – slowly, deliberately, based on precedent, overseen by the best legal minds we have at our disposal – and not through a Twitter campaign in which a mob comprised of…who, exactly?…descends on an institution to demand a person be deplatformed for saying something that the most sensitive, most demanding, and least reasonable people have claimed makes them slightly uncomfortable, when it truthfully just pissed them off.
And this is why, despite all the folks trying their best to deny it, Cancel Culture IS a Constitutional issue. Regardless of what the Constitution says, you know and I know that the federal government is all tied up making rules and regulations governing human behavior in all those various fields and arenas I mentioned above, many of which would be unconstitutional in the strict, just-the-facts-ma’am interpretation that many liberals are now trying to impose upon the First Amendment. But people have twisted the Constitution around to justify government intervention so much so that it’s barely unrecognizable anyway. So much so that the government can, by controlling the purse strings and the rulebook, control free speech in all those arenas without overtly limiting it through lawmaking, and by funding these organizations, it already is.
This isn’t a stretch and it doesn’t take imagination to see it. For example, giving massive sums of money to college campuses and scientific research facilities where free speech is under direct assault is, in fact, government supporting speech restrictions because government money is funding organizations that embrace Cancel Culture. It may not be a direct, overt law against free speech, but it definitely is government involvement in the ability of its citizens to speak freely.
Many claim the government should have the right to control the actions of churches when churches have taken government money (and indeed, many religious leaders will tell you how dangerous a game this is, eroding the separation of church and state by taking government funding). So don’t tell me that the government should hand colleges a steady influx of cash in the form of Pell Grants and yet simultaneously claim that colleges are totally private enterprises who should be free to fire anyone they want for saying no-no words, God Bless the free market. It is inarguable that government money enables the worst excesses of campus liberalism run amok. It is inarguable that government money props up ridiculous schools teaching stupid and politically unpopular, even outrageously distasteful things at the expense of taxpayers. Over half the people attending Evergreen State College, for example, a font of liberal indoctrination…er, I mean, thought…receive between $6000-10k in Federal loans every year to attend struggle sessions and get an education in communist philosophy and community “activism” like how to throw frozen water bottles at policemen and where’s the best place to steal pallets of bricks.
Well hey, maybe if we’re saying that “colleges can fire people on the basis of saying no-no words” then ALL speech distasteful to anyone on campuses needs to stop. Or maybe, if that’s not possible, then, maybe the kids that attend Evergreen and take Federal funding need to spend an equal amount of time studying Ayn Rand and Roger Scruton as they do Che and Malcolm. Maybe they even need to go to church or temple or the mosque while they’re at school. Now, I can hear you screeching as you read this: “But the government shouldn’t be able to control what is being taught at colleges! Colleges are meant to be bastions of free thought and inquiry and forcing kids to become indoctrinated with political philosophy and religion is a violation of what colleges are meant to be about!”
Yes, yes, colleges are meant to be bastions of free thought, aren’t they. Finally, something upon which we can agree.
Please note, I am not making an argument for the Federal government, or any government, to impose my notion of “free speech” onto the world. Not at all. I am simply pointing out how deceptive it is for people to criticize The Letter on the grounds that “the Constitution only protects impositions on speech when it’s done by the government, thus this isn’t a free speech issue at all, hurr de durr” considering that the government has a lot of indirect ways to control speech in other ways. The government is already violating free speech by funding countless organizations, corporations, foundations, publications, and administrations that are actively suppressing people’s right to speak freely. The government is already violating precepts of free speech by designing a Byzantine system of laws that favor the Big Guy Who Obeys The Rules Of The Thought Police at the expense of the Underdog Who Could Never Hope To Compete Even If the Playing Field Was Level Which It Isn’t.
Thus, it cannot be said that The Letter is wrong because “the First Amendment only applies to government”. The government is balls deep in every arena of American life, handing out money like Daddy Warbucks and imposing competition-stifling books of regulation so thick the antifa is using them to throw at police officers. Thus a college or a charity or a newspaper or a corporation that receives massive amounts of Federal money and/or a protected status under Federal law is acting under the auspices of the government, and hey, guess what, that means the First Amendment had damn well better apply to them.
Please, please, by all means, let’s start applying the First Amendment to government exclusively. Please, please, by all means, let’s. And let’s start by preventing the government from funding certain political views and religions. Please. I’d freaking love that.
Brief aside, if the Republicans weren’t so stupid and complicit, they’d have gone to the mat over this one 30 years back and none of us would even be here now. But speculating why Republicans are such milquetoast Quislings going along with every item on the liberal wish list lo these many years is a fifteen-page essay onto itself. So, let’s move on.
Because none of it even matters. Because the truth is, Constitutional limits are not something that liberals respect in any arena anyway, so they read that stuff I just wrote up there and snort derisively. I mean, these are people who will debate the meaning of “the right to bear arms shall not be infringed” ad nauseum, so forgive me if I’m skeptical that where speech is concerned they’ve suddenly become strict constitutionalists. I don’t expect to convince them. I just want it on the record that in many of those fields I listed above, the government is so heavily involved in them via funding, regulation, and granting them special legal standing and protections, that they may as well BE part of the government. Ergo, it’s a bullshit disingenuous argument for liberals to claim that “well, free speech is only protected when it comes to the government, private companies should be able to do as they wish, la-di-dah, now bake me a cake” since they’ve never said that about anything else before.
It is extremely ironic to me that the exact same people who would say things like “the roads must never be privatized because surely greedy corporations would then prevent people from walking upon them” or “private companies should not be able decide whether or not to pay for their employees’ birth control devices, even over legitimate religious objections” or any number of similar arguments liberals have made along these lines, are now saying things like “it is good and right that private corporations get to decide the boundaries of polite conversation and acceptable political discourse and punish/fire people accordingly”.
I mean seriously, liberals, have you had a goddamn brain transplant?
Just be honest. You are making this argument solely because the corporations happen to agree with you. If they disagreed with you, you would be making a different argument because you stand for nothing other than getting your dirty, sweaty mitts, up to and including Romney, upon the levers of power and steering hard left. You are making this argument that free speech protections only apply to the government, then defining “government” using the very narrowest definition of the term, because you think you’ve won the Culture War, because you think you’re the one who gets to place the Schelling fence, and so you plan to place it wherever you want and move it freely for your own benefit. You have dropped your old principles that you claimed to value oh-so-highly and assumed these new, vague, ill-defined, rapidly-shifting principles when it behooved you to because you’re the one in the definition business. You did this just as you only believed in the underdog when you yourselves were the underdog.1
In light of that level of deception, the sheer audacity liberals display in their hypocrisy over free speech, how dare they criticize a SOUL for signing that letter? As a recovering liberal, I criticize everyone who DIDN’T.
Because for all the mental gymnastics the Woke Fascists do to try to justify themselves to that handful of real liberals who yet still haven’t sold their souls to the Cancel Culture Devil, the truth is, not having the right to dissent in the private sector means that soon enough, the government will end up controlling speech anyway. Because people who never encounter ideas that challenge them turn into pretty awful people. And people who are told that they have the corner on morality also turn into pretty awful people. Awful people, when they are empowered by the wind of a dominant culture at their backs, can and will turn their eye to using the law to repress dissent, and so it’s only a matter of time till the Woke Fascists legislate what at present is done voluntarily in the private sector (I mean “voluntarily in the private sector” by groups and organizations that are granted special legal standing and showered with massive amounts of government money – because the First Amendment like so totally only applies to government and not the private sector LOLZ do you guys even believe people are falling for this??)
All this is why I – and I suspect a good many people who signed The Letter -– believe it’s best to set our Schelling fence to protect free speech not by applying it to acts of government alone, but in the culture itself. Because politics is downstream from culture and anything toxic in the culture finds its way into politics eventually anyway. (Lord, does it ever.) Even if the government didn’t already have a finger or two in every private sector pie, a toxic intolerant culture WILL create toxic intolerant politics eventually, it’s only a matter of time till it does. The time to stop the witch hunt is way back when people are saying “Methinks there be witches about” and NOT when the Grand Inquisitor is holding the torch to the wood stacked up around your feet. And the time to stop the Woke Scare is when it’s (mostly) in the (kinda) private sector rather than the public one.
Standing up for free speech in the private sector PROTECTS free speech from government intrusion by creating a cultural climate where no one is even tempted to abuse the government to limit speech. Let alone pre-emptively circumventing mob thought, notorious for causing good people to lose their freaking minds and do things they never would have done otherwise, like using the force of law to go after people who say things that pissed them off.
And I think all of that is a damn fine argument. I’m tempted to leave it at that, especially since I didn’t want to write this piece to start with and there are a lot of other, more interesting things I’d rather be writing about. But I know there are a lot of people who will still insist on following the letter of the law rather than the spirit whenever it behooves them, so let’s do this the hard way.
Set all those arguments I just made aside, pretend they don’t even exist, because the biggest flaws in the critiques of The Letter involve the fundamental limitations we’ve all already agreed that free speech ought to have to begin with. The limitations upon Constitutional free speech as we’ve already defined them proves The Letter correct.
Most would agree, even the freest speakers among us, that cases of libel/slander (gonna call this “defamation” from here on) and outright fraud are not protected under the First Amendment. You can believe fully in the First Amendment and understand that it doesn’t apply to defamation and fraud. NOT defamation and fraud done by government, but defamation and fraud done by private individuals. In fact, the government reserves the right to apply punitive measures to individuals who use language to defraud and defame others, and this is not seen as a violation of the First Amendment in any way. To the best of my ability to sum up the principle, the general consensus is that free speech in the form of defamation or fraud, done with malice and the intent to harm, is not protected under the First Amendment and thus can be regulated by the government.
Furthermore, most would agree that “fighting words” and urging others to commit acts of violence, are also not protected speech. These are known restrictions on the right to speak freely. We agree on these things, as a culture. We have long agreed upon them. The First Amendment is not carte blanche to say absolutely anything under the sun and it never was. The government has used these limitations on the First Amendment to set limits on some speech in the public sector, while in general erring (rather admirably, IMO) on the side of free speech. So, believing in the First Amendment yet accepting that there are reasonable and seldom-to-be-used limitations upon it is not only possible, but a reasonable position to hold – one backed by centuries of legal thought.
Thus, it is entirely possible to stand with the First Amendment –- completely and totally stand with it –- and at the same time criticize Cancel Culture for the dangerous shitshow it is. That’s not hypocrisy. Because Cancel Culture does, in fact, utilize untruths, and not a few of them. Cancel Culture defames entire groups of people in its service. It dishonestly assigns evil motives (not words, not deeds, both of which are open to criticism, but MOTIVES) to ordinary people who are just speaking the truth as they see it (in many cases, truth that has been widely accepted AS truth throughout human history and oftentimes has a good body of science backing it up) and fraudulently attributes pure motives to jerks who just want to make others dance to their twisted tune. Cancel Culture absolutely and undeniably harms reputations with these untruths. Cancel Culture as it is manifesting itself here and now, comes perilously close to defamation. It fits every point on the definition of defamation as a criminal offense:
1)The things that were said defame someone’s character
2)The materials were conveyed to others
3)The plaintiff could be identified
4)The plaintiff suffered some injury to his or her reputation as a result
Well, looky there. I may be just a simple country woman but it appears to me that the worst excesses of Cancel Culture are not protected under the First Amendment. T’appears to me you can hold a position of concern over Cancel Culture and at the same time remain a First Amendment Superfan. T’appears to me it’s actually the people invoking the First Amendment to defend Cancel Culture who were the hypocrites all along.
Forget writing letters, we gotta start suing these a-holes for defamation. JK, where you at, baby?
As for the whole “incitement to violence” thing, there are ample, numerous, horrifying-in-both-frequency-and-perversity examples of Woke Fascists making absolutely spine-chilling threats against people who have expressed different political and scientific viewpoints. While I have the receipts, a positively depressing number of them, I’ve made the call here not to give these people airtime. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, if you haven’t seen these regular influxes of venom and toxicity geysering all over the Internet, Google is your friend. And before anyone tries to turn this around to twist the definition of “defamation” or “incitement” to stifle those who dissent from the Woke Scriptures, legitimate scientific and political disagreement is NOT defamation. At the same time, defaming people you are having a scientific or political disagreement with is NOT protected speech.
The government, rightfully, thankfully, uses claims of defamation and incitement to violence to limit speech very sparingly, because imposing them broadly upon the entire nation would not only grossly violate civil liberties, but would be impossible to enforce anyway. Are these slippery slopes, you betcha, the slipperiest, but we gotta set our Schelling fence somewhere, and defamation and incitement are things we’ve already agreed are not protected by the First Amendment. Yet defamation and incitement are at the core of Cancel Culture. I point this out not because I’m hot and horny to use this strategy against my political enemies, if any, but simply to reveal the specious motives of those attempting to invoke the First Amendment to defend a movement that is constantly trucking in the two biggest exceptions to that First Amendment.
As a free speech absolutist I would say ideally we need to reserve that right to criticize everyone –- even the signers of Letters –- equally whenever they deserve it. As a free speech absolutist, I would even say we should reserve the right to cancel people for views that are abhorrent. But as a polite and tolerant person, I would use my free speech to try to convince others that the right to cancel should be used sparingly, and never in cases of legitimate good-faith scientific and political disagreement. And as a practical person, I’m simply saying there’s a case to be made for special limitations on the First Amendment in RARE instances. Wiser folk than I have already made that case, and that’s why defamation and incitement to violence are not considered protected speech.
What I do know is this –- where we SHOULD NOT ever set our Schelling Fence is in a place where the most powerful group in a culture, who already possesses the ability to say whatever whenever however about a much less culturally powerful group or individual in many very important spheres, should have free reign in every arena of human existence, while individuals in the less powerful group have axe emojis posted about them in their workplace. If we don’t have semi-reasonable free speech protections within the auspices of the workplace, PARTICULARLY when our workplace itself is meant to be, at its heart, about the free exchange of ideas, then we don’t have free speech.
Controlling speech for purposes of political control, EVEN when it is not by the government, is an ugly and terrible thing because if it becomes widespread enough (and we’re practically there, folks, that’s why people are writing letters and terribly long essays rather than going on vacay) it equates to the same thing. If you cannot speak good-faith political viewpoints and/or share actual scientific viewpoints and research because you’re afraid you’ll get fired, then that is headed down the road to government control over speech, because vast swaths of people are unable to contribute to the democratic process. If unpopular political viewpoints – not drowning puppies, but political views – are silenced or even just muffled before they ever enter the public sphere, then these people will never be able to influence the direction our country is headed. This IS suppression of political speech whether it is done by government personally, or if the government is just the beneficiary of this stifling cultural environment. Either way, the politically powerful are allowed to speak, and the minority view is silenced. And this is illiberal, period, end of story.
Scott Alexander once described the idea of the dictatorless dystopia. Imagine a country with only two rules – one that you have to shock yourself with electricity for 8 hours a day, and another rule where if anyone failed to follow a rule, or spoke against a rule, or failed to enforce a rule, that everyone could immediately kill them. And so, everyone ends up shocking themselves 8 hours a day and never saying a word against it because saying anything means you’re going to be obliterated. Everyone hates the system, everyone longs for it to end, everyone understands how stupid and destructive it is, and yet it endures because the cost of speaking out against the system is your very life itself. People living under such a system might long to be free, would probably even realize, if everyone just collectively agreed to stop doing this, all of a sudden, all at once, the nightmare would end, but because the ability to punish transgressors is baked right into the society, it’s hard to convince anyone to be the guy to take the first step.
The brilliant idiots betraying everything liberalism ever stood for in their misguided quest to defend their precious Cancel Culture because they think they’re on “the right side of history” (or IDK I honestly cannot even ken what’s going on inside y’all’s minds right now, especially any of you over 40, srsly WTAF) are creating a dictatorless dystopia in which none of us will be allowed to speak out against it because speaking out against it will mean we are killed, figuratively speaking, and probably eventually literally. And unlike in Scott Alexander’s vision, it won’t just be we ourselves who are killed, it will be our families, our friends, anyone associated with us, because that is how totalitarian regimes work.
Pretty gloomy, isn’t it? But I know something some people don’t about humanity. I know that if there really was that dictatorless dystopia, it would be even harder to implement than it would be to end. We can imagine that dictatorless dystopia where the tradition had existed for so long no one questioned it, but in our real dystopia, people would question. People ARE questioning. Even in a hypothetical world which speaking up meant certain death, understanding human nature I know that there would be people, a lot of people, who would be willing to take the chance. Who would never shut up even if it cost them their lives? Who would rather die than live in a world like that? Because a whole lot of people value truth and freedom over their lives. Even in a world where speaking out meant certain death, people would do it.
You might think, my liberal peeps, that you’re creating a world that would be peaceful and beautiful if only everyone stayed silent and followed your rules, but I assure you that world you think you want will not be implemented without an astronomical cost in human life.
You think people have behaved irrationally about being forced to wear masks? Just try telling them they can no longer speak.
It’s rather odd that the liberal movement, a movement that purports to value human life so highly, rabidly pursues this course of action that for anyone with an ounce of imagination, and a smidge of historical knowledge, will clearly end in human suffering.
Is life mattering just another thing like underdogs and free speech, liberals? Is life mattering another principle you never actually believed in, and shall now promptly abandon once you’ve won?
Because I kinda think that it is.
Under the agreed-upon rules that govern free speech, there is one time when it’s allowable to call fire in a crowded theater, and that’s when the theater is actually on fire. Calling fire is allowable if it means it will save more lives than it costs. I’m yelling it at the top of my lungs here. The people who signed The Letter are yelling it. It’s not because we are attention seekers or mad that the world is changing. It is because we think there is actual danger.
Here be dragons, and dragons breathe fire.
Those who speak in soothing tones and tell you to stay in your seats, not to rock the boat, to leave your fate in the hands of the people who are running the theater and hope they will do the right thing by you, and wrap it all up in fancy talk of the First Amendment when in reality they are slitting the throat of everything the First Amendment stands for – they want you to stay in a burning building. They want you to stay in a burning building because they think, as so many others have thought before them, that they can control the flames, that they will use the fire to burn up the people and ideas they hate while preserving the people and ideas they like. But that is not the nature of fire. Fires grow. Fires spread. And more people die from the toxic smoke of a fire, even when the flames never actually touch them, than die from burning up.
Ignore these people telling you to stay quiet. Fight the fire. Fight it now while it’s small rather than waiting till it’s a full-blown conflagration, consuming everything in its path. We could put it out now with a freaking garden hose if only we try. And if you can’t fight the fire, alert as many people as you can by speaking up. Those people sitting in their seats who just came to see the show – let them know the world is smoldering, that it’s about to burst into flames. Don’t stay silent and just hope that the fire will just burn itself out, because fires only do that after they’ve burned up everything in their paths or they’ve sucked all the oxygen out of the room.
If you are not ready to write and sign a letter of your own, you’re either not paying attention or you think your side is winning.
And the thing about the Great Culture Wars of the 21st Century is that even if you win, you’re gonna lose.
- Imposing morality because you’re in the dominant culture is no different than Christian busybodies banning the sale of dildoes or firing women when they get pregnant.
I suspect there’s a lesson to be learned here along the lines of guerrilla cultural warfare and the behavior of a dominant culture vs. a secondary one in a pluralistic society, a case to be made that the zealotry that the left has long attributed to “Christianity” is a quality that arises naturally in any dominant culture unless quashed, and the heterodoxy that the left (once accurately, but now deceptively) attributes to itself is simply a quality that arises naturally in a secondary one, a political ploy that will be eventually abandoned and not an innate act of moral bravery unique to leftists in any way.