Last week’s open letter in Harper’s in defense of free speech against “cancel culture” produced a response that . . . well, it didn’t exactly come out in defense of cancel culture. Instead, it followed the usual formula for defending the indefensible:
“This thing never happened. But if it had, it would 100 percent be justified.”
The anti-anti-cancelers would have you believe that this entire phenomenon is all in our heads. Sure, maybe a few people got fired for dubious infractions, but “they are not trends.” Also, if they did get fired it was only because somebody was calling them out for their bigotry.
The “actual meaning” of the pro-free-speech letter, the anti-anti-cancelers claim, is expressed in “coded language” understood only by the signers of this new letter. The people who say they’re in favor of free speech are actually just panicking because “black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people—particularly black and trans people—can now critique elites publicly and hold them accountable socially.”
The anti-anti-cancelers complain that many of the signers of the Harper’s letter are “white, wealthy, and endowed with massive platforms.”
This last point is worth considering carefully.
Of course the signers of the Harper’s letter are powerful and established. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been in a position to sign it, now would they?
That’s precisely how all of this is supposed to work: The influential and the established are supposed to use their power to uphold principles that protect everyone else.
What is obvious to anyone who has been following the cancel culture debate is that none of this sturm und drang is actually about J.K. Rowling or the other famous names on the letter.
Sure, Rowling is a target for saying sensible things about transgender fanaticism. But she’s not going to get canceled. She knows it, and we know it. No publisher is going to drive away the cash cow that is the Harry Potter franchise, and when a couple of much lesser-known writers who share Rowling’s literary agency pitched a fit about her, the agency invited them not to let the door hit them on their way out.
But remember how this whole thing with Rowling started. It was because she used her massive social media following to speak out in defense of someone without such a following: Maya Forstater, a tax expert with an anti-poverty think tank who was fired from her job for tweeting that “men cannot change into women.” Rowling didn’t have to stick her neck out in Forstater’s defense. But she did so, in part because she could afford to.
That’s not to say that everyone who signed the pro-free-speech letter has nothing to fear for himself. Salman Rushdie once had the very great “privilege” of being put on a hit list by Muslim fanatics. But if you want to see what cancel culture actually looks like, consider the real stories.
There is the Mexican-American electrical worker fired by San Diego Gas and Electric for holding his hand in a totally innocuous way that was interpreted, in the hyperactive imagination of an extremely online leftist, as a “white power symbol.”
We’ve seen mild-mannered knitting designers with anxiety disorders hounded into submission or out of business for expressing eagerness about a trip to India in shades of expression that only someone deeply committed to finding offense could detect as racist.
Most recently, there is the girl attacked for using a “racist hashtag,” which turns out to be “#BlueLivesMatter,” to express her grief on the day her father, a police officer, was murdered in the line of duty.
You can find a helpful list of these incidents in a seemingly endless Twitter thread devoted to the purpose. They all fit a by-now familiar pattern and it really is an appalling list of ordinary people with no fame, no money, and no power having their lives turned upside down because some bluenosed zealot wanted to make an example of them. These ordinary people are the targets of a massive moral panic over racism and “bigotry,” which in practice is interpreted to mean, “anything a busybody with a social media account doesn’t like.”
What is most helpful to these ordinary people when they face the onslaught of the hectoring “social justice” mobs? Well, one thing that might help is having a ring of defense from powerful and well-known people. People in a position secure enough that they cannot be canceled. People like those who stuck their necks out in the Harper’s letter.
These people are able to take the heat on behalf of the hapless targets of the mob. Every time I’ve had to stick my own neck out, every time I’ve had to say something unwelcome that I knew could get me in trouble, the worst part has been watching people with more money and status scurrying to hide.
Because when the people who can afford to speak up don’t, that shifts the burden down to those who can afford it a less.
And the truth is that when the big names do speak up, it can make a substantial practical difference. It provides what we sometime call on social media “air support”–prominent people swooping in to beat back the frenzy of the mob.
It also makes an intellectual difference, changing our cultural expectations. The stand taken by prominent people sets an example that makes dissent from the mob more acceptable for everyone else. The more we think it is acceptable for J.K. Rowling, or Steven Pinker, or any one of a long list of scientific and literary luminaries to challenge the prevailing dogma, the easier it is for a young writer just starting out, or a graduate student, or any other random citizen.
Historically, freedom survives precisely because people with power and status stand up for it and don’t just let the little guy swing in the wind.
This can be true even when the powerful and prominent only set out to defend themselves. The Magna Carta was intended primarily to protect the rights of the barons against the king—yet it established basic rights and principles that ended up protecting everyone. The Declaration of Independence may have been written by a slaveholder, but it provided a “promissory note” for the natural equality of man. America may have fought monarchy and fascism and communism out of concern for our own freedom and national power, but in the process we liberated much of the world.
People on the left might reflect that this also secures their own freedom to express their views. The old left—the one that remembered being on the receiving end of blacklists and suppression—often understood this.
Showing tolerance for the speech of others is the best way to secure it for your own.
The signers of the anti-anti canceling letter seem to have precious little empathy for the ordinary people who have been hounded and bullied. Instead, their letter is primarily dedicated to the proposition that its signers are the only real victims—and anyone who disagrees with them is secretly a bigot.
Freedom flows from the expansion of the “circle of empathy”—the recognition of other people as fellow humans who deserve the same rights you enjoy, the sense that “if this can happen to you, it can happen to me.” The anti-anti-cancel position represents a contraction of that circle. They only deign to recognize the fellow humanity of a very narrow ideological in-group. This is a movement that is only about power, and only for a narrow clique.
But at least we now know that those of us who care about free speech have the support of a lot of prominent and influential people.
Because in a civilized society, that is one of the jobs of powerful people: to use their power to protect the rights of others.