An open letter in a major US current affairs magazine has provoked a storm of debate about so-called ‘cancel culture’. The letter’s general thrust is that today’s public sphere has been severely damaged by a decline in open discourse due to a culture of political correctness. According to its proponents, this in turn poses a huge threat to ‘free speech’, or perhaps even to the foundations of open discourse itself.
There’s certainly something superficially attractive about this argument. After all, who could possibly be against free speech and open discourse? But in reality, the letter has a gaping blind spot. Because though it doesn’t name ‘the left’ or ‘left-wingers’ specifically, the message clearly implies that there is some kind equivalence between our conduct and that of the Trumpian faux-populist right. Ironically, this insinuation is not just completely outrageous but also is far more dangerous to public discourse than any of the letter’s own ominous and misplaced apprehensions.
An innocuous veneer
On 7 July, Harper’s magazine published an open letter signed by multiple public intellectuals titled A Letter on Justice and Open Debate. The list of signatories ran the political spectrum from right to left and included figures as diverse as former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum and linguist and political dissident Noam Chomsky.
The letter starts off innocuously enough. It describes “demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society” as “overdue”. But having made this point, it then goes on to say that these demands have nonetheless “intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity”.
It then concedes that “forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world”, while acknowledging that this is primarily something associated with the political right. It singles out US President Donald Trump, who it says “represents a real threat to democracy”. But it then says that “democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides”.
Concealing a deeply dishonest premise
At first glance, this sentiment appears reasonable enough. It seems to imply that those voices speaking against everything Trump represents ought to stay clear of adopting his traits of bullying, hectoring, gaslighting, and so on. But the reality is that this insulation, which forms the central premise on which the letter is based, is at its very core a flagrant strawman fallacy. Because there’s absolutely nothing about the conduct of the left that in any way mirrors the Trumpian modus operandi.
The letter claims, for example, that “it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought”. This claim is essentially a slightly more sophisticated version of the right-wing mantras of ‘political correctness gone mad’ and ‘you can’t say anything anymore’. And these notions are not only hopelessly facile but also completely misleading.
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Setting the record straight on ‘free speech’ and ‘political correctness’
First of all, as much as people on the right whine about how they’re somehow being ‘persecuted’ or ‘silenced’ by ‘political correctness’, it is simply not in any respect a threat to freedom of speech. The concept of freedom of speech is about preventing the government from interfering in what can be published and put into the public sphere.
So when left-wing commentators like myself, for example, call out bigots for the racist things that they say, we’re not impeding their free speech. In the first place this is because we’re not the government. But, moreover, it’s because criticizing our political opponents for what they say is itself freedom of speech that is protected every bit as much as their freedom of speech.
What the right is really complaining about is not that they are being silenced. They’re complaining that they can’t say whatever they want without facing consequences, which may well include public criticism. And if what one says is prejudiced, intellectually dishonest, or otherwise contemptible, then one runs a very real risk of facing such a consequence.
A flagrant false equivalence
The letter goes on to say:
While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.
This idea that the left is somehow bullying the right with a conceited ‘moral certainty’ is another favorite rallying cry of the right-wing ‘PC gone mad’ brigade. It was best summarized by the Mail on Sunday’s “fulminator-in-chief” Peter Hitchens during a discussion about same-sex marriage on BBC Question Time. He whined:
What is actually going on here is not a liberation of homosexuals. It’s an attempt to impose on the whole of society a new bigotry under which those who happen to hold the opinion that homosexual marriage should not take place will not just be excluded from the center of things, they will increasingly be hounded and treated as pariahs just, in fact, as homosexuals were treated before the 1967 law was rightly repealed. …
There is a new liberal bigotry which will not tolerate… and increasingly wishes to suppress conservative opinion.
Just look at their own huge public profiles
First of all, this is completely false. Because if this were the case, then why would Hitchens and others of his ilk like Nigel Farage get invited onto Question Time (which they both do very frequently) in the first place? And why would Hitchens have a column in one of the most widely circulated newspapers in the UK, along with a blog on one of the most viewed news websites in the world?
The notion is also a complete fallacy. Because it doesn’t have anything to do with whether what the left says is factually correct, or whether it’s based on sound logical or moral reasoning. It’s essentially just a duplicitous way of manipulating people’s emotions by stealthily trying to invoke guilt for supposedly having a sense of moral superiority. Sadly, this kind of guilt-tripping is often effective because of the emergence of the fatuous pop culture notions that everyone’s point of view is somehow equally ‘valid’ and that we are obligated by social convention to ‘respect other people’s beliefs’ irrespective of what those beliefs are.
In fact, the idea that there’s something inherently wrong with a sense of moral superiority is complete intellectual dishonesty when you think about it. Because of course left-wing people think that our beliefs are morally superior. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t hold these beliefs in the first place. Of course, it’s exactly the same for right-wing people. Because obviously they hold their beliefs because, by definition, they think those beliefs are superior to those of their political opponents. Yet they nonetheless hold a persecution complex because, as time goes by, they are gradually losing their ‘have cake and eat it too’ situation whereby they can challenge their opponents yet not get challenged themselves ‘like it was in the good old days’.
Hysterical fears, yet no concrete examples
This hysterical persecution complex is on full display in the Harper’s letter. It states:
More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.
This certainly sounds pretty disconcerting. But the letter doesn’t give a single concrete example of any of this actually happening. The reason for this is that the idea of right-wing people living some kind of clandestine life, constantly looking over their shoulder in fear of persecution by the so-called ‘liberal elite’, is largely a myth.
Contrasting the leading figures of the left and the right
Take the example of the leaders of the UK’s respective major parties at the time of the last general election. Jeremy Corbyn was hounded, defamed, and sabotaged by political opponents using a completely manufactured smear campaign based on the preposterous premise that his leadership had seen a drastic rise of antisemitism in the Labour Party. But Boris Johnson, a man whose racism, homophobia, and generalized bigotry is very well-documented and far too extensive to exhaustively list here, largely gets treated in the mainstream UK media as some kind of charming, lovable rogue.
His career as a ‘journalist’ was also instructive. Because he made the equivalent of £2,291 per hour as a right-wing pundit and also served as one of the early pioneers of ‘fake news’ as the peddler-in-chief of ‘Euromyths’. Some of his fellow right-wing columnists like Douglas Murray, meanwhile, continue to get gigs at well-oiled right-wing think tanks, invitations to speaking events at prominent debate societies, and ample space in an overwhelmingly right-leaning UK media. Some martyr’s life this is!
The final stake to the heart of the letter’s credibility
This brings us to the final, and perhaps most important, reason why we should reject the premises of the Harper’s letter. And that is because it completely glosses over the current power structures that exist in the public square. Its arguments proceed as if public discourse happens in a vacuum. But the reality is that the public space in which this discourse takes place is currently steeply tilted in favor of powerful interests.
As The Canary has previously reported, the UK media is overwhelmingly owned by wealthy corporations and billionaires. And therefore their interests are naturally reflected in these media outlets’ editorial lines. The situation in the US is largely the same. So when right-wingers harp on about ‘free speech’, what they really mean is that they want to defend the dominant position of their own voices in a context in which they are already given pride of place.
The proof is in the pudding
This tendency is by no means confined to just the media. As Jane Mayer points out in her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, wealthy individuals have been engaged in a decades-long campaign to infiltrate academia and think tanks in order to build public support for tax cuts and reduced public spending.
Meanwhile, the voices in favor of radical change get increasingly marginalized. The Canary itself is a good example; we were targeted by the so-called ‘Stop Funding Fake News’ group that was a key player in the antisemitism smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn. For the ‘crime’ of adding some balance to coverage of Cobyn’s leadership and scrutinizing the establishment campaign against him we lost ad revenue and were downgraded in social media algorithms.
Time to redouble our efforts
Clearly, it’s high time that we call out the purveyors of the empty ‘cancel culture’ narrative for the dishonest and self-interested hypocrites that they are. Because with the state of the world seemingly getting more and more desperate by the day, the need for radical social, political, and economic change gets greater and greater with each passing hour.
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