A Quickie on Cancel Culture Questions

[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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9 thoughts on “A Quickie on Cancel Culture Questions

  1. I think the attempt to frame free speech itself as an unmitigated good leads to an inescapable contradiction.

    For example, if I read your last paragraph correctly, you say you count public criticism as a free speech limitation.

    I understand that and agree that it has that effect. But I don’t see how any cluster of norms that discourages public criticism could be considered more free-speechy than a set of norms that permits it.

    As long as words have the power to influence human behavior, some people will use their freedom of expression to attempt to stifle the free speech of others.

    The contradiction can be resolved like this: some free speech is cancel culture; all cancel culture is “bad”; therefore some free speech is “bad.” But we need to support it anyway.

    Everything has tradeoffs. Even the things we love.

    In the end, I think you just have to have faith in a free market of ideas. If cancel culture can take root and flourish in a free market of ideas (sorry about the mixed metaphor), then free speech was a doomed project anyway. That would indicate free-speech just can’t survive can’t survive in the wild.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I mostly agree. Note that I don’t count public criticism as such (actually I’d like to reserve the word “criticism” for criticism that *isn’t* attempted punishment), only the component that’s punishment, meant to shut the speaker up, and not engagement with the purpose of evaluating ideas. Obviously this isn’t an easy distinction to make, but I think it exists in principle.

      I think we should look at free speech the same way we look at freedom in general. Where I (basically a social liberal) differ from liberatarians and anarchists is that I don’t think a minimal amount of formal restriction maximizes the level of freedom people actually experience. Freedom is a capacity that needs to be built and nurtured. It’s not just the absence of direct control.

      Or, as you might also say, a well-functioning free market is not the same as a completely unregulated market.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. One thought: “And generally, the bigger a platform is, the greater its duty to uphold free speech.” I don’t think size matters, or at least should not be a deciding factor, mostly because size is not relevant to reach or power. Example, the large newspapers don’t let just anyone write for them. It is quite hard to get in etc. The same with all large media. OTOH an opinion by the Supreme Court with only a handful of writers has tremendous power and reach. Are either the large newspapers or the Supreme Court in their own productions allowing free speech? Not sure. So I am thinking size doe not matter when deciding how much freedom a platform needs to have, if at all.


    1. I meant this restricted to platforms that are by default open to the public. But size itself isn’t the best measure of what I’m getting at, maybe exit costs? Partly dependent on size but not the same.


  3. Part of what I think Julia was referring to is how the debate about a specific thing is often less about the specifics and more about what category the thing is an instance of. Seems like collapsing an event or person down into a representative of a class makes it easier to know how you feel & to justify a position, but harder to accommodate nuance.

    It’s easy to express support for free speech generally but harder to support or oppose deplatforming of a specific person who engaged in a specific act of (for example) incitement of insurrection for reasons specific to the incident, mostly because of the extra work involved in becoming aware of the specific details.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t really know why, but I often get a sense of existential dread when I read things you write. Don’t get me wrong, I like reading what you write, it seems very insightful, and in particular helps me understand better where certain people with different ideas from mine are coming from. Particularly holists, idealists, subjectivists, and generally people who don’t primarily view the world as emerging from simple phenomena.

    Maybe the existential dread comes because I feel that my general view of the world as a big computation is challenged: even if it might technically be true, this way of looking at things may be useless, and it can be dizzying to think about all the alternative ways of looking at things. It can make the world seem less defined, less certain.

    I dunno if this is useful to say, or really relevant to this post, but I wanted to say it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The post at https://everythingstudies.com/2017/03/06/science-the-constructionists-and-reality/ discusses the physics-centered vs. human-centered view of reality, might be relevant to your concerns. I get the sense John Nerst is inclined favorably towards the view that everything we humans do is in principle derivable from the fundamental laws of physics plus initial conditions, but this perspective is often not too useful in practice, and human-centered models may be more useful in many contexts. A similar perspective is discussed at length in the book “The Big Picture” by physicist Sean Carroll, and Einstein had some relevant thoughts at https://www.site.uottawa.ca/~yymao/misc/Einstein_PlanckBirthday.html — “the general laws on which the structure of theoretical physics is based claim to be valid for any natural phenomenon whatsoever. With them, it ought to be possible to arrive at the description, that is to say, the theory, of every natural process, including life, by means of pure deduction, if that process of deduction were not far beyond the capacity of the human intellect.”


  5. Perhaps a better perspective to look at the situation from is one of good and bad faith – does the speaker say things they believe are true or not? Pro-free speech arguments are at their most valid when the speakers involved aren’t purposely lying.

    Looking at the situation as Julia framed it, it brings to mind Ephesians 5:12 – “For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.” Here Paul of Tarsus says that there are some things so evil that allowing them to be spoken of is also evil. But as you say, there remains substantial disagreement on what exactly are the indisputable evils that should be treated this way.

    In most societies, the threshold required for deplatforming has most often been actions enforced on them like imprisonment, enslavement, exile and execution. If you are so evil or deficient as to lose the right to be in public, then you should not be listened to. And every society has their own detailed laws that defines how people become this way.

    “Deplatforming” is really just a synonym for “excommunication”. The act a group takes to stop communicating with someone. This is generally when people are physically separated, as just described, though it can be separate to that. And when this has been the case, each group that has done this has again had it’s own rules and procedures regarding it.

    Societies always define evil as they see fit, including which evils are immutably “in stone” and which are disputable.


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