[Note: Unpolished and draft-y]
Yesterday I got this question put to me on Twitter.
I said this in response:
At the moment I didn’t have time to go into it, but I think I should explain what I mean a little bit further. This is off-the-cuff, but I’ve been kicking these thoughts around my head for quite a while.
Galef says the disagreement is about “which views are bad” rather than whether it’s in principle wrong to “cancel” people for the views they hold. I tend to agree, since I think almost everyone (there are always exceptions) thinks there’s some combination of expressed views and job/position that are just incompatible. To be stark: you do not want a pro-pedophilia activist as a kindergarten teacher.
The question becomes a matter of line-drawing, and matters of line-drawing, however complex and delicate (on a multidimensional issue, a simple “line” becomes a complicated hypersheet we can’t even picture), always deteriorates into a tug-of-war and thus gets represented as simply “for” or “against” something. This is a necessary consequence of limited communication bandwidth and lack of continued, stable exchange that builds common understanding.
Yes, there’s disagreement about what’s counts as bad, but “bad” isn’t a well-defined concept (tries have been… unsuccessful so far) and it has several different meanings. “Bad” vs. “not bad” is a categorical distinction, but even if we grant that something has some badness in it, we disagree on how much badness is required before we find the label “bad” justified. How bad does something has to be before it’s “bad”?
It’s also not clear whether “bad” means “has enough badness” or “has more badness than goodness”. Good qualities and bad qualities are independent, and we have a habit of adding them up, seeing which is greater, and then judge the whole thing as essentially one or the other. Just adding up the weights of properties slightly differently can give you a result that looks, in the end, like the complete opposite (82-78 in favor of good makes a “good thing”, while 79-74 in favor of bad makes a “bad thing”).
Two people might even agree perfectly about the bad qualities of a thing, but disagree about the good that counters it. Do they agree or disagree about the badness of the thing?
There’s a difference between morality and etiquette that I feel has become much less salient lately. Breaches of etiquette are subject to frowns and other implicit social censure, but actively bringing it up is itself a breach of etiquette (the distinction between the two is somewhat dissolved online as implicit social signals become either erased or “explicitized”). Part of the disagreement around cancel culture is that people put things in different buckets: breach of etiquette or moral violation. One is to be brought up (i.e. publically and explicitly judged bad) and not the other.
There’s another way of phrasing this that places concern for etiquette on the other side of the divide. Etiquette often means placing social harmony above honesty and truthfulness. This is fine in contexts where those things are not so important (do not say “why yes, you do look fat in that dress”), but not so fine when there are genuinely important matters at stake. Which rules apply in which cases is not obvious, there’s constant fighting over borderlands, and people will try to use that ambiguity to their own advantage. In the contemprary media environment there aren’t even well-defined contexts any more (anything can be yanked out and go viral) so establishing separate local norms becomes even more difficult.
I mentioned the action/inaction distinction in my tweet, in relation to free speech and deplatforming. There’s an argument that deplatforming somebody does not violate free speech because nobody is obligated to give you a platform. That’s correct, strictly speaking, but personally I think action vs. inaction complicates things. I’d argue you go against free speech, in abroad sense, if you take an action that prevents somebody from expressing themselves to others who want to hear them. Not inviting somebody to speak or not publishing their book or op-ed or whatever is no problem, because those platforms are not by default available to the public. But when they are, and you need to take an action to deny people the opportunity to use them, the burden of justification changes dramatically and I think it’s entirely fair to call it censorship (tentatively I think the same applies to disinvitations after an invitation has been extended and such — those counts as actions, not inactions).
That doesn’t make me an absolutist. Not every place has free speech or needs to have it — this blog’s comment section doesn’t, for example, since I’ll ban anybody who’s being disruptive — but we should be honest about it. And generally, the bigger a platform is, the greater its duty to uphold free speech.
I think the principle extends to taking an action that imposes a cost on a speaker for expressing their ideas, with the goal of shutting up the speaker in the future. That’s what I mean by “what constitutes punishment” in the tweet. In essence, having free speech means to not be punished for expressing your views. “Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences” the story goes, but I think it does, insofar as the consequences in question can be construed as a punishment.
Yeah, there are massive gray areas. Is simply disassociating from somebody tantamount to punishing them? Mostly not, but to the extent that it’s meant as a punishment, it is a free speech limitation. The same goes for public criticism, which in my book counts as attempted silencing to the extent it’s trying to, not counter ideas directly, but instead impose social and reputational costs on the person having spoken. While not solving the difficulties (and inferring intent is always difficult), I do think turning the question into “is it a punishment?” is valid and helpful.
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