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The Cancel Culture Paradox

The Cancel Culture Paradox
If self-censorship is the norm, why is free expression so unrestrained?

By David French
August 25, 2021

Earlier today the Liberty Fund Network published an extended essay I wrote entitled "Can American Liberty Survive American Animosity?" The thesis is relatively simple: While the law of free speech is at a high water mark, the culture of free speech is under assault, and the longer the cultural assault lasts, the more fragile our legal protections will become.

Presently, the law of free speech is at odds with the culture. Over time, however, the law of free speech will merge with the culture, and unless we can reverse the cultural momentum against free expression, then the law will grow more restrictive.

But as I wrote the piece I was keenly aware of a paradox. First, it's clear that a large number of Americans are afraid to share their views, and for good reason. A recent CATO Institute survey found that 62 percent of Americans agree that "the political climate these days prevents me from saying things I believe because others might find them offensive."

Why would they feel afraid? It's not just the isolated incidents of cancelations that we see online. No, there is widespread, punitive loathing of our political opponents. The survey found that "50 percent of strong liberals support firing Trump donors," and "36 percent of strong conservatives support firing Biden donors."

So, yes, there is an atmosphere of fear, and that fear exists in part because tens of millions of Americans want to punish their political opponents because of their political activism.

At the same time, however, here comes the paradox. As I wrote in the essay, a visitor from another planet would open Twitter or Facebook, look at American discourse and think, "If this is restraint, I'd hate to see freedom." The online world is awash not just in political opinion, but in extreme vitriol, vicious hatred, and extraordinarily profane and pornographic expression.

More Americans have more ability to express themselves (in almost every conceivable manner) to more people than at any time in the history of humanity, and nothing about the visible culture of social and political discourse says, "I'm watching my words," or "I'm afraid to speak."

So what is going on? For one thing, we've paid insufficient attention to the reality that cancel culture empowers speech as much as it silences speech. And the problem of cancel culture is just as much who it empowers as it is who it silences.

For example, there is a cancel culture economy on the right--the class of "fearless" partisans and ideologues who deliberately and provocatively walk up to the line on social media moderation and then run to Fox (or talk radio, or their other social media platforms) the instant they face suspension or an outrage mob they did their best to create.

Not only do prominent voices on the right often seek cancelation, the hardest edges of the new right also attempt cancellations themselves. Conservative dissenters from Trumpism or from new right reactionary populism often face extraordinary harassment, including offline threats and online "brigading" that mimics the outrage mobs on the other side.

There's an extremely vocal cancel culture economy on the left as well--the far-left cancelers themselves. In the CATO survey, for example, "strong liberals" expressed the most confidence in sharing their views. They were the only group where a majority felt they could share their opinions freely. The angry side of the online left shows little restraint. It sprays its own firehose of fury into the public square.

In my experience, however, ideological surveys of cancel culture fears don't quite capture the human reality of who actually self-censors. For example, the same CATO survey that showed strong liberals feel free to speak showed that the overwhelming majority of "strong conservatives" feel they can't share their opinions. But does that square with reality?

The online world is positively awash in right-wing opinion, strongly expressed. Strident right-wing voices tend to dominate Facebook metrics, for example. In fact the very culture of right-wing expression itself is increasingly vitriolic. In many cases, anger is seen as an indispensable marker of a person who belongs in the new right tribe.

After living for several years in our cancel culture universe, I'm convinced that the real demarcations between those who feel free to speak (and speak loudly!) and those who do not are less partisan or ideological than they are temperamental or relational.

Who speaks? Those with thicker skins or those who possess a sufficient sense of rage or urgency that enables them to push through the pain of blowback.

Who doesn't speak? Those with softer hearts or those who are unwilling to risk personal and/or professional relationships over politics or to fight the culture war.

I'll give you an example, taken from one of countless conversations I've had since the rise of cancel culture. A conservative doctor recently told me that after January 6th he "unplugged." He stopped watching cable news. He stopped listening to talk radio. And lest he be tempted to engage in political arguments online, he deleted social media apps from his phone. He described the change as wholly positive for his life. He was happier, and his blood pressure was lower.

I had two immediate thoughts. Good for him. Bad for us. Here's a good man who has good things to say who simply decided, "It's not worth it." No, not because anyone could cancel him. (He has a thriving independent practice). But because speaking his mind carried with it an unacceptable emotional cost.

As my friend Russell Moore put it in a recent newsletter, "What then ends up happening is a kind of self-cancel culture as the emotionally and spiritually healthiest people mute themselves in order to go about their lives and not deal with the pressure from those for whom these arguments are their lives."

And thus my doctor acquaintance joined what More in Common calls the "exhausted majority"--the majority of Americans from both right and left ("they aren't political centrists or moderates") who broadly share four key characteristics:

They are fed up with the polarization plaguing American government and society

They are often forgotten in the public discourse, overlooked because their voices are seldom heard

They are flexible in their views, willing to endorse different policies according to the precise situation rather than sticking ideologically to a single set of beliefs

They believe we can find common ground

In this construct, the vitriol that surrounds public discourse doesn't so much "cancel" (except in isolated circumstances) as it "exhausts." Even the worst voices--those chased from platform after platform by social media moderators--ultimately continue to speak and often speak to millions.

Thus the cancel culture paradox--a nation can be both awash in angry debate while missing arguably the most vital voices of all, those voices who value human connection more than partisan combat. An American minority is hectoring the majority into weary silence.

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