Ending ‘cancel culture’ no defence for democracy

Dr Neal Curtis explains why we shouldn't simply dismiss people trying to resist discrimination by calling them anti-democratic

You may have heard a lot about ‘cancel culture’ recently, not least because of the 150 signatories to the Harper’s Magazine letter last week that supposedly cancelled cancel culture.

‘Cancelling’ is a relatively new name for boycotting and is a practice mainly seen on social media where people attempt to resist discriminatory opinions by calling out or shaming those who express them. As with other political phenomena such as deplatforming (shutting down controversial speakers by blocking access to venues) or throwing milkshakes at far-right provocateurs, cancelling has been presented as a threat to democracy and the free speech that underpins it.

These criticisms also propose the same antidote that every other supposedly pro-free speech argument adopts, namely that more speech is better than less, and that we should counter discriminatory, bigoted and hateful language with reasoned debate. Here, the rationality of public argument is supposed to act like a disinfectant in a ‘marketplace of ideas’ where the least fit will somehow magically disappear.

While the pros and cons of cancelling certainly need discussion, it is also imperative that we interrogate this vision of the democratic public sphere because it is not nearly as robust as we like to think. For the purposes of brevity, I will limit myself to three observations.

The first is that the liberal notions of enlightenment underpinning this so-called marketplace are not as neutral or as universal as we would like to think. We must remember that this type of thinking was crucial to the development of empire and the practices of colonialism that denigrated and regularly banned other ways of knowing, thinking and speaking. I am a firm defender of science and empiricism but this does not mean I am unable to also acknowledge how enlightenment rationality was essential to the racism that was also a product of that age. We cannot therefore assume that rationality is automatically anti-racist, for example.

The second relates to the idea of the marketplace itself. Like its economic counterpart that we like to call the ‘free market’, the ‘marketplace of ideas’ is a fantasy. As with the ‘free market’ it is assumed to be a completely level playing field free from power or bias. This is not true in economics and it is not true in the public sphere. Part of the criticism of ‘cancel culture’ comes down to the age-old problem of privilege and gatekeeping, and certain people would like to reserve the right to be doing the cancelling. They present themselves as defenders of democracy, but they are more often the defenders of the status quo.

Also, just as the mythical ‘free market’ is supposedly rooted in rational decision-making, the ‘marketplace of ideas’ is also supposed to be anchored to the rules of rational debate. However, as John Maynard Keynes understood all too well, economics is subject to what he called ‘animal spirits’. In other words people do not only make economic decisions based on rational calculation but on a whole range of complex and often contradictory emotions. The same is true for what we believe. Beliefs are often dominated by a range of activating emotions like anxiety and fear.

People are cutting the adjustable wire from facemasks because they genuinely believe these are 5G wires implanted to send signals to the brain and cause neurological damage. It would be extremely arrogant of me to think that my rational discourse on the matter would change their views. In fact, research on confirmation bias has shown that my intervention would only add to the veracity of the conspiracy theory and believers would commit to it even more firmly.

My point is simply that people do not always hold opinions because they are rational. This also goes back to the argument about having sole ownership over what qualifies as rational. Conspiracy theorists simply have another method of making sense that to them seems perfectly rational. Debating them will have little, if any effect.

The third point relates to the question of power and is linked to a new form of censorship that led Tim Wu in the Michigan Law Review to ask if the first amendment of the US Constitution is obsolete. Generally, free speech was supposed to protect speakers against an overbearing or censorial government, but Wu argues that in an age of social media we need to focus on viewers and listeners because increasingly powerful forces now have the ability to control what people see and hear.

In an age where the political strategy is to use social media, in Steve Bannon’s words, to ‘flood the zone with shit’, or produce what Peter Pomerantsev calls ‘censorship through noise’, it does seem that some limit on speech is needed. In the words of Tim Wu, when the articles of free speech were developed no one could foresee how speech itself could become a ‘censorial tool’. Advocating for the ‘marketplace of ideas’ in the age of Facebook is therefore like proposing a cavalry charge to defend against drone strikes. It’s 19th-century thinking deployed against 21st-century technology.

So, as censorious as ‘cancelling’ might appear to be, there are new forms of censorship and threats to democracy that liberal platitudes about reason, rational argument and the ‘marketplace of ideas’ are ill-equipped to resist. It is for these reasons that we cannot simply dismiss people trying to resist discrimination by calling them anti-democratic.

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