Yes, And —

On open letters, open debate, and how the arguments against illiberalism could be even stronger

Oliver Traldi
Jul 8, 2020 · 11 min read

On July 7th, an open letter appeared in Harper’s signed by many of my friends (including some Arc contributors and my college professors Roger Berkowitz and Ian Buruma). The open letter is about the increasing danger to social and professional prospects that one faces when one engages in public debate about certain kinds of sensitive topics. The letter is correct: That danger is increasing, and that’s bad (though perhaps, as some conservative critics of the letter have suggested, things have been bad for some time already). To the letter I say: “Yes, and…”

There are two elements to the “and,” and they both have to do with the letter’s focus on ideas, and on those who work with ideas for a living.

First, the letter emphasizes the necessity of toeing certain lines in the present days as (for instance) a creative writer, a journalist, or an academic. This stifles debate, making it harder for us to come up with good ideas and to come up with arguments against bad ones. Yes! And — this necessity is also present for people who do not work in jobs relating to ideas. Ordinary workers in, say, service jobs are not simply free to say whatever they want on social media. They are as much at risk as a graduate student like me.

A libertarian might reply that a McDonald’s franchise is not obligated to adhere to liberal norms the way the government, and institutions that serve public discourse like newspapers and universities, are. Maybe not quite as obligated. But as philosopher Elizabeth Anderson and commentator Freddie deBoer have argued, the state-like quality of an ordinary workplace raises its own concerns of justice. And one needn’t call for new laws against, for instance, firing people for views they express on social media in order to criticize such firings (though maybe one should — see this piece by Zaid Jilani, one of the letter’s signatories).

The other element is causal. It is common in many circles to think of the rise of the sorts of stifling and “canceling” instances the letter speaks about as being due to the rise of certain kinds of ideas — perhaps “postmodern” ones, or perhaps ones relating to clinical psychology — and certain technologies, like social media, which provide vectors for outrage. But an underrated component of the current atmosphere is the oversupply and fungibility of most workers, even writers and teachers, and the resulting precarity of almost all jobs, even intellectually “elite” jobs.

Cancellation almost never involves just a social media “mobbing” — what progressive journalists call a “brigading” when it’s done to them, in which case it’s bad — because one can just “tweet through it” if one is attacked on social media. Rather, cancellation involves the imposition of real-world social and financial costs on someone’s expression: the loss of a job or an accolade, for instance.

Cancellation is never just people criticizing what you said; it’s your boss saying they’re tired of hearing about it and firing you because of it. Your boss can only do that because there are so many other people with your qualifications waiting in the wings, and that’s only the case because there are so few other jobs for them to do. In this sort of atmosphere, having work at all comes to seem like a privilege — one which your expressing the wrong views means you don’t deserve.

Preceding the publication of this letter, a lot of “hot takes” about cancellation and “cancel culture” had been circulating on Twitter among journalists, think-tankers, and other ne’er-do-wells unsympathetic to the letter’s contents (as well as one person who signed the letter, who is, I assume, just perpetually confused). I’ll use this space to do a quick rundown of a few of them. But first, I’ll note that some critics have objected that some the letter’s signatories are being hypocritical in expressing support for open dialogue and opposition to cancellation. To that I say: yes, almost certainly some of them are. Humans are messed up, and hypocrisy is worthy of criticism. Have at it!

The first view on “cancel culture” is that it doesn’t exist. Evaluating this depends on answering the question: what is a “culture”? Is it sufficient for the existence of a “cancel culture” simply that more cancellations happen than we’d like? In that case, we also live in a “murder culture,” a “robbery culture,” and so on. I try to stay away from the phrase “cancel culture” myself. I prefer to just talk about the phenomenon of cancellation and argue that it’s generally a harmful one. If what’s meant by “there is no cancel culture” is that there are no cancellations, that nobody ever loses their livelihood or their life as a consequence of expressing their views, that’s obviously false, as Yascha Mounk has shown in The Atlantic. If what’s meant is that everyone deplores these things when they happen, that’s not true either. In fact, there are always powerful people willing to defend them publicly.

The second view is similar. It goes something like: “All cultures are cancel cultures.” The idea is supposed to be that in every culture, some view or another is outside the bounds of acceptable expression; there’s no way to have a culture without this. Okay, maybe. Again, I don’t know much about what makes something a culture. But that doesn’t mean that a given culture can’t be criticized for placing too much, or the wrong things, outside the bounds of acceptable expression, or for having the wrong kinds of consequences for unacceptable expression. All cultures have norms against certain kinds of sex (nonconsensual, incestuous, and so forth). But that itself does not mean that any norm against any particular kind of sex is justifiable. An individual norm must be justified on its own terms, not through some sort of transcendental argument for the necessity of having some norm or another. It’s as if a parent decided to let their children decide what to eat for dinner, and someone said to that parent, “You wouldn’t let them eat out of the garbage. So it’s just disingenuous to pretend you’re really giving them the choice at all.” A lot of critiques of liberal principles are shot through with this kind of error.

A third view has it that cancellations are real and bad, but they’re not that important. “Why do you care about this?” says the person expressing the view. “There are so many bigger problems in the world.” Well, this is a fair point. I think there is space for reasonable disagreement about how important cancellations are in the grand scheme of things. I am mostly motivated by personal animosities and vague aesthetic commitments. I suspect most “political” writers and tweeters are like me. And this explains not only why there is so much furor against cancellations, but why so much energy goes into defending them: there is enmity between the sides and this is the staging ground that has evolved to channel it. If cancellations are bad and there are bigger problems, then surely the people breathlessly defending cancellations are even more worthy of chastisement than the people breathlessly attacking cancellations— and yet it is the latter at whom this critique is aimed.

A fourth view was expressed recently by commentator Will Wilkinson on Twitter. Wilkinson takes the view that “‘cancel culture’ is what you get when people can’t do politics through a broken political system.” But this really misunderstands what cancellation is. Most cancellations have nothing to do with politics, and in particular it is a mistake to think of the outcomes they think of as political. When Alison Roman was let go from The New York Times for saying something about Chrissy Teigen being rich or whatever, that had nothing to do with politics in any real sense. When The Washington Post got someone fired by reporting a story about a Halloween costume they’d worn to a private party two years prior, that had nothing to do with politics either. When a man was fired for something he wrote in 1987, that wasn’t political. Cancellation in these cases is either social — a way of hurting someone you don’t like — or psychological — a way to feel powerful and participate in something that has a tangible effect on the world — or economic — a way to further your own interests by removing a competitor in your industry. If cancellation is a replacement for politics, it is a pretty bad one!

A fifth view is expressed in a well-known xkcd cartoon, which has it that “if you’re yelled at, boycotted, have your show canceled, or get banned from an internet community, your free speech rights aren’t being violated. It’s just that the people listening think you’re an asshole, and they’re showing you the door.” There are a lot of problems with applying this narrow point about “free speech rights” to the broader debate about cultural liberalism and cancellation, but Osita Nwanevu has made a heroic effort to do so recently in The New Republic. Nwanevu argues more or less that since cancellation is always in part an expression of a group’s right to free association, it is actually those inveighing against cancellation who are illiberal. Nwanevu makes at least one big mistake each in his theory and in his use of concrete examples, however.

First, as those on the other side of free speech debates always say, freedom to do something does not mean freedom from being criticized for doing that thing. This point is often made regarding free speech, but the same goes for free association. It is not illiberal to say that a group — a university, a newspaper, or whatever — is organizing itself in a manner that does not exhibit liberal virtues like open-mindedness, curiosity, and a preference for reasoned dialogue. This is simply the natural consequence of prominently acting in an illiberal way in a liberal society that allows institutions to be criticized.

Second, in order to justify his claim about the dynamics of cancellation as a mechanism of group association, Nwanevu badly misconstrues at least one important case: that of the New York Times’s firing of its editor James Bennet for publishing Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed favoring the use of the military to respond to protests in American cities. Nwanevu writes:

Senators like Tom Cotton have every right to have their views published in a newspaper. But they have no specific right to have those views published by any particular publication. Rather, publications have the right — both constitutionally as institutions of the press, and by convention as collections of individuals engaged in lawful projects — to decide what and whom they would or would not like to publish, based on whatever standards happen to prevail within each outlet.

But in the case of the Cotton op-ed, the Times did in fact make the decision to publish Cotton’s op-ed. That was what the standards at that outlet led to. This decision was what led to an enormous backlash both from within the organization and from without. By Nwanevu’s own reasoning, since printing Cotton’s op-ed was an associative decision on the part of the Times, it must be illiberal to criticize it.

Yet Nwanevu seems to be saying the opposite. He seems to be saying that it is illiberal to criticize those who criticized it. For Nwanevu, it is only the freedom to exclude, not the freedom to include, that seems to fall under the freedom of association — a convenient though hardly fully principled avenue to take if your goal is to justify the exclusion of those who disagree with you while continuing to inveigh against those who would build more intellectually and ideologically inclusive institutions.

It is always important to look closely at how real-world situations are analyzed in these sorts of pieces; often they are broken down very opportunistically, as this one was.

There is a simple argument against the anti-cancellation crowd which I have never seen broached but which seems very natural to me. Though I am not convinced by it, I will relay it here anyway, since it seems better than any of the alternatives.

At the moment, our country is convulsed by a particular social movement. This social movement is extremely good and promises to rectify many injustices. (This, of course, is from the perspective of whoever would be making this argument.) In addition to consequences like a reduction in police brutality, a reduction in racist attitudes, a reckoning with our country’s dark past, and so on, one effect of this movement is a slight uptick in cancellations. Cancellations are bad. But this social movement is very complex, and it is difficult to see how such changes could take place without some cancellations accompanying them. All in all, though we should criticize them when they occur, these cancellations are a small price to pay for all the good things that are happening, and we shouldn’t overestimate our ability to stop them without endangering the gains made in other areas.

Consider someone who is making a delicious and healthy meal for a large group of people. Everyone will enjoy the meal and benefit from it; it will be accompanied by a lot of talking and laughing, everyone just having a good time. In other words, the meal is a very good event. Now, of course, the host will have to wash the dishes afterwards, and there will be a lot, since the group of people is large. This is a slight cost, but I think most of us would think it is rather insignificant compared to the benefit of the meal itself. (Perhaps I am an extremist in this regard, since cooking for people is my preferred way of demonstrating that I care about them.) Well, now imagine that one of the attendees can’t stop talking during the meal about how many dishes the host will have to wash. We might think that, while not wrong, the attendee is not quite enjoying the meal in the appropriate way, that they are focusing on the wrong things, and that they are, I suppose, kind of ruining the vibe. We would especially think this if the attendee somehow seemed to think that it was possible to make a delicious meal for a large group of people without creating the necessity of washing a lot of dishes.

In this analogy, the letter’s signatories are like this attendee. I don’t, personally, believe the signatories are guilty of this behavior, but I sort of suspect that this is what’s bugging some critics, even if they’ve focused on making the more tendentious sorts of objections I considered above. People will judge you as much by what you choose to focus on, and thus what you choose to ignore, as by what you end up saying. So even if a statement is completely agreeable in its content, critics may still lambast it if they think the people making the statement ought to be spending their time talking about something else.

This is bad news for people like me, who have no nose for judging the real-world consequences of their thought and speech, and who like to write and think about interesting intellectual puzzles and problems rather than systematically ameliorating social ills. But then again, the world is full of bad news.

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