“Cancel culture isn’t an assault on freedom of speech,” the dishonest argument of the moment goes, “It is free speech.”
That isn’t really true, inasmuch as the entire point of “cancel culture” is to limit and suppress speech, which is nonetheless limitation and suppression when the tool used to accomplish it is speech, of a sort, if we are liberal enough to define “speech” as including the beef-witted grunts on Twitter. Cancel culture is not discourse but antidiscourse, a genre of speech intended not to facilitate the exchange of views and ideas but to prevent such an exchange. It is free speech in the sense that shouting down a speaker is free speech.
“Cancel culture doesn’t exist,” say the exact same people who, in recent years, denounced men, #yesallmen, for being under the malign influence of an evil spirit they called “rape culture.” But as Scooby-Doo and the members of Mystery, Inc. repeatedly demonstrated, most of these phantoms, when unmasked, reveal the all-too-human face of tribalism and motivated reasoning. It has certainly become trendy in recent years to target people’s jobs and reputations in order to enforce progressive orthodoxy and create a climate of fear (as even Noam Chomsky attests). But underneath it all, it’s the old simian urge to harass our peers into conformity and punish them for dissent. That urge is ancient and relentless, like the sea attempting to reclaim the land. Legal rights to free speech and freedom of association can’t create a dike by themselves. A principle of charity is also necessary, akin to Keats’s negative capability: an ability to rest easily among heterodoxy without any irritable reaching after retribution and enforced obedience. Without that, symbolic actions like the Harper’s Letter are just fingers in the dike, delaying the inevitable.