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Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Debate: Free speech v. Cancel culture (Updated)

Ken (Popehat) White for the position that "cancel culture" is a cynical ploy to undermine counter-speech v. Greg Lukianoff (of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) for the position that the real source of protection comes from "free speech culture," which means a culture of accepting other people's views and going along for the ride.

Unsurprisingly, I agree with White. Critics of cancel culture are imposing norms on "more speech" that they do not impose on the speech being rebutted and are essentially insisting that more speech not be too harsh. Lukianoff makes the good point that a culture of free speech is as important as formal legal protection for free speech. But he never deals with White's argument that much of what is derided as cancel culture is counter-speech, including many of the outrageous examples he offers. Lukianoff emphasizes the heralded legal principles "Sticks and stones" and "to each his own," which are possible responses to obnoxious speech. But there is no reason they should be the only responses to obnoxious speech.

Lukianoff kind of proves White's point with his requests: Don't call people hypocrites, welcome temporary allies, and don't lump free-speech advocates (himself or Nadine Strossen) with cynical partisans (Charlie Kirk). The last is well-taken, although most serious free-speech advocates do not do that. But the last is inconsistent with the first, which seems to require us to accept Charlie Kirk's support for free speech rather than recognizing its hypocrisy. In any event, Lukianoff's argument is about policing speech, about declaring some expression out of bounds. His arguments never answer that concern.

Update: As if on cue: Kelly Loeffler--Senator and senatorial candidate from Georgia, co-owner of the WNBA Atlanta Dream, and critic of BLM and kneeling basketball players--cries "cancel culture" because WNBA players wore t-shirts supporting her opponent in the coming election. It is difficult to imagine anything more central to the First Amendment than speech saying "Vote for X." Can it possibly lose protection because spoken in response to Loeffler's statements about about BLM and the flag?

Meanwhile, Auburn is investigating a (non-tenure-track) faculty member for "fuck the police" tweets and a Republican congressman is calling for him to be fired for anti-police hate speech. Proving White's point that there are hypocrites and grifters.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 4, 2020 at 02:25 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink


I have not heard or read any stories of college/grad students being removed from college classrooms for MAGA hats or wall t-shirts.

In any event, the response on the right to alleged left censorship has not been "if you cancel us us, we'll cancel you." It's been "stop canceling because free speech demands that people be able to say offensive things." Can't have it both ways.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 5, 2020 9:24:39 PM

Democrat professors kick us out of class for wearing MAGA hats (and 'build the wall' shirts) and you're surprised that we retaliate by calling for them to be fired when they tweet "f**k the police"?

Maybe when all teachers and professors call for the end of student dress codes then they can worry about their own academic free speech as well

Posted by: Effthepopo | Aug 5, 2020 6:33:03 PM

Maybe in the same way that the US constitution's second amendment doesn't apply to individual civilians but applies to collective in-the-militia rights (Stevens' dissent in Heller), maybe some countries free-speech amendments only apply to government employees and/ or officials?

Maybe just as Scalia invented legal civilian gun-ownership out of whole cloth, maybe Americans are reading civilian-free-speech into other countries historical tradition of government official freedom of expression?

Posted by: Karl Lenin | Aug 5, 2020 1:07:35 AM

Lukianoff's point is that free speech law (in the sense of a written protection in a Constitution) exists in many countries that lack a free-speech culture. So his point is that a legal protection must have a surrounding culture that gives the law force.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 4, 2020 8:32:50 PM

Calling for someone to be fired or expelled because they've said something offensive isn't anti-free-speech, just like calling for someone to be fired or expelled for having an abortion or marrying a homosexual isn't anti-abortion or anti-gay-marriage.

Just because you believe something is a right doesn't mean you believe that person (who exercises that right) should be able to get an education or earn a living. Only people who live by the communities shared morals have a right to learn and work, that's what religious toleration means.

Posted by: Cancel Cults | Aug 4, 2020 6:27:24 PM

We all agree that free-speech-culture is not unique to europeans, english-speakers, or protestant monotheists. We all agree that a majority of people in every country in every state/province have a free speech culture.

But only the countries with free-speech law actually get to experience some degree of free expression comparable to what english-speakers will tolerate without revolution.

So free speech law is more important because it results in a free speech environment; free speech culture doesn't necessary lead to anything at all.

Posted by: The content and the character | Aug 4, 2020 5:16:08 PM

Are you still mad at me, Howard?

Posted by: thegreatdisappointment | Aug 4, 2020 3:05:27 PM

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