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On 7 July 2020, Harper's Magazine published a letter signed by 153 prominent artists, writers and intellectuals including J.K.Rowling, Noam Chomsky and Margaret Atwood. Titled "A Letter on Justice and Open Debate" the signatories warned against the "intolerant climate" crushing free speech. They alleged that the rise of "cancel culture" whereby public figures are called out and boycotted for controversial views, was an assault on free speech. Others see their complaints as ironic, pointing to their elite status and use of a global platform to complain about being silenced. So, what do the two camps believe?

The Signatories Show more Show less

153 notable signatories from across the political and ideological spectrum, including many academics and authors, claim cancel culture is eroding our freedoms, curtails free speech and is bad for democracy.
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Cancel culture threatens democracy

Democracy is built on freedom of expression. Refusal to acknowledge contrary views is wrong. The signatories are right to protest this witch-hunting culture, brought to global attention by J.K.Rowling's "terf war." When disagreement becomes a crime, democracy dies.
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Proponents


Context

Cancel culture began to gain popularity in 2017, growing with the rise of the #MeToo movement. It involves the withdrawal of support for various public figures and social media users, through boycotting, unfollowing, and frequent public bashings. What began as a series of cancellations against people like R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein accused of sexual assault has become cancellations over problematic posts or comments made on the internet. The letter published in the Harper Magazine on July 7, 2020, accused this culture of creating a toxic environment and shutting down people's abilities to speak. It argued that collaboration and peace could only arise out of a strengthened set of liberties, especially the ability to talk freely without the internet ruining their careers.[1]

The Argument

The letter brought up a fair point: that cancel culture has gone too far. The culture is no longer the popular check on the actions of powerful individuals that it used to be. Instead, it is now merely a way for the majority to threaten and silence those with controversial opinions. This puts societies on the road to ideological authoritarianism. It is the same genre of control that Stalinist Russia used to turn government critics into "unpersons." Cancel culture also feeds off of a culture of shame. The idea is that publicly calling a person racist or transphobic, and their followers blocking and unfollowing them will force people to learn their lesson. Shame is counterproductive because it separates and divides people even more. To convince people to change, you need to create incentives and room for them to be better. Democracy relies on convincing others that you have the right opinion and thereby creating change in society. If getting to the best version of society involves intimidation and shame meant to scare and silence people instead of improving them, then democracy has failed.[2] Furthermore, as a result of the speed and chaos of social media where all it takes to cancel someone is to Tweet or press unfollow, canceling can happen abruptly. Those who are canceled never have the opportunity to defend themselves. Cancel culture also ignores the nuances of issues in favor of quickly making a black and white decision about it. It creates a culture of dichotomies, where you are either racist or anti-racist, feminist or anti-feminist, canceled or accepted. This poses a significant threat to democracy, where we cannot accept that people have different opportunities. This is not only bad for free speech, but it also means that democracy loses out on the diversity of thoughts.

Counter arguments

Freedom of speech is not granted absolute protection. People have a right to speak their thoughts, a right to Tweet freely, and a right to think in whichever way they want. However, just as a person can be shunned by their friends after making an extremely insensitive comment, an internet user can be shunned for Tweeting a certain message. Freedom of speech guarantees you a right to speak, not a right to avoid the repercussions. It is necessary to call people out when they are racist or sexist so that we have less hateful speech and people think more about whether their comments are hurtful.[3] Cancel culture has worked before. When comedian Jess Hilarious had a fearful reaction to four Sikhs on her flight, she was called out for being racist, xenophobic, and ignorant. Before the canceling happened en masse, her response to the backlash was to brush the event off, telling everyone that she was entitled to her own opinions. After the canceling amounted to a substantial effect on her online fanbase, she came out with a public apology where she admitted to being ignorant and promised to educate herself further in the future. She also committed to donating $15,000 to the families of the victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings. Critics of cancel culture might argue that this didn't actually change Jess and that she is now simply a racist who hides it because she is afraid of the backlash. It is, of course, desirable to fundamentally change people's racist beliefs, but this takes a lot of time and effort. Even if people stay silent out of fear, a decrease of hurtful language that makes the internet such a hostile environment for the oppressed, is still a very good thing.[4]

Framing

Freedoms are more powerful, with fewer checks, and speech should be absolute.

Premises

[P1] Shame and fear are unproductive in discourse. [P2] It is good to hear a range of views, even if they are sometimes controversial.

Rejecting the premises

[Rejecting P1] Shame might not fundamentally change a person, but at least it makes them more scared of hurting other people. [Rejecting P2] Speech isn't absolute, and it is okay to limit certain people's right to speak.

References

  1. https://www.insider.com/cancel-culture-meaning-history-origin-phrase-used-negatively-2020-7
  2. https://www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/culture/a33296561/cancel-culture-a-force-for-good-or-a-threat-to-free-speech/
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/08/is-free-speech-under-threat-cancel-culture-writers-respond
  4. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/vbw9pa/what-is-cancel-culture-twitter-extremely-online

This page was last edited on Thursday, 10 Sep 2020 at 01:04 UTC

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