Naively, I had assumed that when progressives encountered cancellation for their views they would finally acknowledge that cancel culture exists. Turns out they will only agree that it exists *in their case*. https://t.co/l3UST89Lx0
— Sarah Haider 👾 (@SarahTheHaider) October 31, 2023
In recent weeks the air has been thick with accusations of hypocrisy, flying both ways. Left wing American academics, justifiably upset about being censored by employers for pro-Palestinian speech, have accused those who oppose cancel culture of going quiet (even if that’s not actually true). Free speech enthusiasts like me have taken great pleasure in seeing far leftists suddenly discover the importance of unrestricted speech. Much as I enjoy schadenfreude, charging someone with hypocrisy is the easy part. I agree with Matt Yglesias when he says, “Any time you find yourself prosecuting a hypocrisy case, you ought to take some time to consider what you think is actually correct.”
Free speech isn’t just a question of the law, it’s a question of norms, and establishing norms is up to all of us. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America he noted that although there were more formal protections of speech there than in Europe or anywhere else, there was no place with less “independence of mind and true freedom of discussion”. The social pressure to conform was too great.
When J.S. Mill read Tocqueville’s Democracy In America he absorbed this point and incorporated it into his theory of liberty. Mill argued that having legal protections for the rights of individuals to speak freely is a minimal but insufficient condition of a free society. You also need a culture that tolerates and supports that freedom. Otherwise, even without a tyrant on a throne telling you what you can and can’t say, people will still be subject to “social tyranny”.
I’ve always considered myself a free speech maximalist, but lately, I’ve started to lean more toward something like this:
Free speech is much more durable as a detente backed by legitimate political threats than as a principle.
— Coddled affluent professional (@feelsdesperate) October 26, 2023
In other words, our cancel-happy progressive friends are simply going to have to feel some serious pain in order to be reminded why it’s a bad idea to overturn social norms in favor of the pursuit of raw power. If that means a bunch of academics or radical students suddenly find their career prospects curtailed, oh, well. We didn’t make this bed, but we’ll be happy to tuck you in and bid you sweet dreams. Free speech in its ideal libertarian sense is like pacifism — it’s only workable when your opponents already share your basic moral values. In the face of a genuine enemy who only recognizes the morality of that Frank Herbert quotation, it’s suicidal.
I realize that this is a dangerous proposition. Once you’ve decided that certain ideas are beyond the pale, what’s to stop you from rationalizing that all criticism and dissent is essentially giving aid and comfort to the enemy? In the abstract, I don’t know if there’s a satisfactory answer to that question. To me, though, that just means “so much the worse for abstract reasoning.” As an atheist, I run into that sort of objection all the time: if you don’t believe in a transcendent law or lawgiver, what’s to stop you from raping, robbing and pillaging on a whim? Lots of things, including social norms, practical reasoning, and what Adam Smith called “natural sympathy.” I don’t mean to digress into theological debates; my point is just that everyday life is all about discerning the difference between countless shades of grey. That judgment is shaped by experience more than abstract axioms. My judgment in this instance is that healthy social norms around free speech will only be restored through a threat of mutually assured destruction, not purity of principles.