My post earlier this month on the so-called “cancel culture” letter proved to be the most polarising I have written – matched only by another recent post on the pulling down of a statue in the UK to a slave trader. The ferocity of the reactions to both, I believe, is related. It derives from a similar refusal, even on the left, to factor in power – and how it is best confronted – when assessing issues of speech and oppression.
But first, I want to briefly address the concerns of those who think that the focus by me and others on the open letter, published this month in Harper’s magazine and signed by 150 prominent writers and thinkers, has been excessive. They argue that there are more important things going on in the world that need highlighting instead.
The discussion on the left about the letter is not simple navel-gazing. Speech rights and how they are exercised are the arena in which our thoughts, narratives and ideologies are shaped. Nothing is more important than how we talk to each other, and what we are allowed to say and think. That is why I am revisiting the issue.
The illiberal climate identified in the letter is a real thing, but the discussion promoted by the letter has been ahistorical, lacked proper political context, and the purpose it is being put to, in my view, is dangerously antithetical to improved free speech. The problem with the letter is not what it says – which few of us would disagree with – but what it doesn’t.
Refusal to sign
What is missing is highlighted by two insights into the letter’s provenance that have emerged since I wrote my post. They help to shed light on my original concerns.
In a column on the letter in the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg, one of the more progressive voices among the signatories, reported that she refused to sign the initial draft because it was explicitly about the threat to free speech posed by “cancel culture”.
Goldberg was rightly wary of adding her name because “cancel culture”, as I explained in my first post, is a term that has been increasingly appropriated by the right to attack the speech rights of the left. It is meant to skew public discourse in the same way as “fake news”, “Bernie Bros”, “antisemitism” and “Russian trolls”. Like cancel culture, these things exist but they have been malevolently repurposed by the right as a stick with which to beat the left. Donald Trump recently equated “cancel culture” with “far-left fascism”, for example.
After her initial reluctance, Goldberg signed a second draft chiefly, it seems, because the phrase “cancel culture” was removed – even though the letter’s original intent remained unaltered. Those sentiments were so obvious that observers immediately dubbed it the “cancel culture letter”. That was also, of course, the reason why a bunch of warmongers, Israel fanatics and left-baiters were so eager to sign the letter.
A second insight came from Thomas Chatterton Williams, one of the main drafters of the letter. In an interview last week, he revealed that the original intention was to have it signed by Glenn Greenwald, the civil rights lawyer turned journalist who is a well-known champion of free speech. Ultimately, however, Greenwald was not approached because others behind the letter objected. In short, and paradoxically, free speech advocate Greenwald was cancelled from signing a letter about the threat posed by cancel culture.
HAHAHAHAHAHA here's thomas chatterton williams, the main drafter of the harper's letter, saying he didn't have glenn greenwald sign it because he was "outvoted on that". HAHAHAHA they "cancelled" glenn in the anti-"cancel culture" letter. LMAO you really can't make this shit up pic.twitter.com/bYr5oRKlwC
— ☀️👀 (@zei_squirrel) July 18, 2020
The admission about Greenwald underscores the main point I made in my original post. One can be a free speech absolutist – as indeed I am – and still recognise that the issues around free speech are complex, and that pretending they are not is actually harmful to free speech. It is not as simple as being for or against free speech. After all, the vast majority of us are for free speech in the abstract.
“Free speech” is like “equality of opportunity”: hard to disagree with the principle. But very few of us are committed to achieving it in practice – and for similar reasons.
In the case of “equality of opportunity”, no meaningful efforts have ever been made to achieve it. None of the main parties in the US or UK, for example, are pushing to end all inheritance entitlements, a move that would mean we started our adult lives with a cleaner slate. Even if that were the case, more fundamental change would still be needed, otherwise children raised in wealthy, privileged homes would enjoy a significant head-start over those from deprived backgrounds.
Part of the reason most of us accept as inevitable a lack of equality of opportunity is because we struggle to imagine how such inequality could ever be redressed without making structural changes to our societies along socialist lines. The corporate elite – which is deeply opposed to making those kinds of changes – has persuaded us through its media that structural reform would be Stalinist, repressive and unjust.
Speech rights in conflict
There are similar problems with the idea of free speech, as Greenwald’s “cancelling” highlights. It might help if we referred to “speech rights” rather than “free speech”, because then it would be clear that, as with other rights, there can sometimes be conflicts between my speech rights and your speech rights. Once this point is conceded, things begin to look a whole lot messier.
The “cancel culture” letter is not just in favour of free speech. It prioritises certain speech rights over other speech rights. It promotes the speech rights of prominent writers and thinkers who dominate the public square against the speech rights of a supposed “Twitter mob” – those who had no significant speech rights until they were able to amass them through force of numbers and force of will on social media.
Again, that is not to deny that cancel culture is a problem. Mobs who try to impose their speech rights on others always were, and still are, a threat to free speech. Rather, it is to point out that the letter is not defending some pure, untainted idea of free speech. It assumes instead that existing power structures should continue unreformed, even though those structures are designed to ensure some people enjoy privileged speech rights – including the right to define who belongs to the “mob” and who constitutes a threat to speech.
Who is the real ‘mob’?
The reason we are talking about cancel culture in the first place is that social media has given ordinary, politically and socially invested individuals, who until recently had no voice, the chance to exercise their speech rights more aggressively (and sometimes irresponsibly) by uniting with other like-minded individuals. Their collective voice can partially challenge and disrupt the narratives crafted by those who have long dominated public discourse – and have done it from platforms, let’s remember, paid for and controlled by billionaires or the state.
As a result of social media, public discourse has grown more complex and treacherous.
But the cancel culture letter does not help us to navigate through this discursive minefield. It is intended to waylay us. That should be obvious if we consider who gets to be characterised in the letter as a “threat” and as the “mob”. In fact, the “Twitter mob” is overshadowed by a far bigger, more powerful, more insidious mob represented by most of the 150 signatories. They act as little more than media stenographers for a corporate elite who have amassed enormous wealth and power in our societies and who are almost never held to account.
The letter ignores the full spectrum of threats to free speech – including the biggest – because it refuses to recognise that its own signatories constitute a mob too, and a far more dangerous mob than the Twitter one.
Evil Russian mastermind
It may help if we again compare “free speech” with “equality of opportunity”. Most conservatives and liberals support equality of opportunity in principle even as they defend society being organised in ways designed to uphold their class privileges. It is not just that they are hypocrites. It is that the discourse they promote is meant to deceive and disempower.
What is needed to guarantee equality of opportunity is the reorganisation of our societies in ways that threaten elite power. For this reason alone, such restructuring cannot be countenanced. So the elite’s strategy has been to espouse equality of opportunity while actually doing everything they can to undermine those who try either to challenge their power or to bring about a little more equality.
The most effective route to blocking equality of opportunity has been to develop a dominant discourse that presents true egalitarians as secret authoritarians. So democratic socialists – whether Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, or Bernie Sanders in the US – were condemned by the corporate media for supposedly advancing the interests, not of the publics they represented, but of an evil Russian mastermind. The equality each sought was specifically recast – exploiting the fashion for identity politics – as racism (antisemitism in Corbyn’s case) and as bullying misogyny (sexism in Sanders’ case).
Social media power
In similar fashion, the majority of the letter’s signatories pay lip service to the principle of free speech but wish to avoid any of the structural changes needed to make sure free speech is meaningful for everyone, not just for themselves. They want to maintain speech relations that prioritise their speech rights by characterising those who challenge their speech privileges as a “mob” intent on “cancelling” them and those like them.
True, a cancel culture exists, but it is not found solely on the left, as the letter implies. It exists everywhere, as interest and identity groups find new ways to become empowered through social media. Social and political actors on the right, such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, have proved particularly adept at harnessing this power for their own ends.
The danger for the right and centrists is that the left’s speech, including its cancel culture, has the potential – and so far, only the potential – to impel a discussion about how our societies might be reorganised to make them more equal, and in ways that would improve access to speech rights for all. That is why the left’s speech is viewed as an especial threat and why the left’s version of cancel culture needs to be vilified.
Making one’s voice heard
In fact, we can probe deeper still into the nature of cancel culture, which has always been a feature of unequally structured societies. Cancel culture existed long before social media. It was exercised chiefly through the dominant, corporate media and was one of the main ways power protected and veiled itself.
The greater visibility of cancel culture today is not because there is more of it. It is because the public space is more contested, and acts of cancelling noisier. The new visibility of cancel culture is the inevitable outcome of offering speech rights – through the anarchic platform of social media – to those who were formerly voiceless. Cancel culture is a feature of speech, made more visible by the greater democratisation of speech rights through social media. It is not a peculiar feature either of social media or of left discourse.
To make one’s voice heard above the general and often trivial drone of social media, the best strategy is to forge alliances with those who are like-minded, creating a strong collective identity, and then act aggressively. The alternative is a return to powerlessness and irrelevance, even at the symbolic level.
The “mob” is an in-built feature of speech relations that are unequal and designed to stay that way. The problem isn’t really the “mob” or “cancel culture”, it is a society where one set of values and interests are given pre-eminence – those that uphold the power of a wealth elite. When state-corporate platforms – such as the New York Times, CNN, the BBC, the Guardian – dominate the public square, the only way to be heard is to join a mob and shout as loudly as one can.
Bread and circuses
Social media is not designed to channel the frustrations and anger of the voiceless into useful, constructive debate that could effect real change – change that might truly threaten the plutocratic class that runs our societies. It is designed to create gladiatorial contests that keep us weak because all we can do is shout. It is the new bread and circuses.
The solution is not to erase popular “cancel culture” so that the dominant, corporate “cancel culture” can once again rule supreme. It is to meaningfully address the inequality of speech rights and, more generally, the way power is structured in our societies. It is to democratise the media, taking it out of the hands of plutocrats and making it genuinely pluralistic.
That means guarding the rights of everyone to have a say, even those who are noisy and vulgar, by ensuring that corporate-owned social media is not able to gradually disappear dissenters and trouble-makers either through the skewing of algorithms or by allowing them to be dismissively labelled as “fake news”, “Russian trolls”, “antisemites” or Bernie Bros”.
A fairer, more honest, less captured media environment would lead to a calmer, more reasonable, more considered public discourse.
None of this will be easy. Speech is tricky terrain because it is tied to the way power is expressed. In our profit-driven societies, money buys speech, as it does everything else. It is time to recognise that and the urgent need for fundamental change, not get gulled into a debate whose premises are that the small speech rights we enjoy are already too much.