Criticism Is Cancelled

The authoritarianism of the ivory tower is a contradiction

Joshua Collins
Oct 1, 2020 · 5 min read
Widely used image from Social media (this iteration from UC Davis blog)

“‘Cancel Culture’ is out of control and threatens liberal discourse!” has become a rallying cry for those, who often for the first time in their lives, and usually from a powerful platform, face public criticism that they have historically safely ignored. Shocked by the temerity of peasants who dare to speak back to their cultural masters, they have created an increasingly popular myth to avoid adapting to a quickly changing world. Do not be fooled. They make a dangerous and dishonest argument that is designed to silence popular dissent.

In the past, this group of rich and powerful celebrities, tenured academics, famous journalists and world-renowned authors could lecture the masses from ivory towers and production studios without fear of having to entertain the opinion of their passive audiences. The peasants didn’t matter- they were to speak only when spoken to. The gatekeepers opinions were the only views that mattered.

They were the guardians of all that was “correct” and the arbiters of popular opinion. They were the appointed ones, the chosen few whose sacrosanct proclamations could be challenged publicly only by fellow members of the comentariat class.

Those days are gone. The internet and instant global communication have leveled the playing field, for good or for bad. Somewhat predictably, those accustomed to wielding such cultural power are not taking the rebellion well. And so they push back against the unruly peasants.

Critics are portrayed as a “mob” rather than “detractors”. The voice of the public is demonized and discredited so that these pundits, who possess megaphones capable of reaching millions, will not face the consequences for their ideas, nor even have to endure the inconvenience of having them challenged.

It is a dangerous attack on civil dissent that comes from a place of immense privilege. Aside from the obvious hypocrisy of squelching free speech in the name of open discourse, they advocate liberty of expression only for themselves. Their critics however, must be brought to heel.

It is informative who these first-world pundits and renown writers refer to when they speak of being ‘cancelled’. They do not mention journalists in conflict zones, those risking their very lives under authoritarian regimes or killed for unearthing stories of crime and corruption.

They don’t speak of people like Julio Valdiviva, 42, who was beheaded in Veracruz, Mexico after witnessing a confrontation between police and criminals. Nor for some reason do they speak of people like Abdiwali Ali Hassan, 26, a radio journalist who reported on human rights and who was gunned down on his way to work outside Mogadishu, Somalia.

No, they are referring to people like J.K Rowling, who speaks to hundreds of millions of people, has a reported net-worth of over $670 million, and seemingly suffers no issues in publishing new books. Or Bret Weinstein, a University professor who admittedly was subjected to a campaign of harassment by a group of rather miserable people with poor arguments. Weinstein resigned from the University that employed him and promptly sued them for half a million dollars. He now addresses millions as a regular guest on cable networks and speaking-circuits where he talks of being “silenced”. He is seemingly more free to speak now that he has been “cancelled” than when he was a Biology professor, a position he would no doubt have little problem obtaining again if he so chose.

The recent open letter published at Harper’s Magazine, whose signatories included some of the most powerful and famous journalists and academics in the world is another painfully ironic example. I imagine them, sitting comfortably well-fed behind very expensive desks at prestigious organizations, making the argument that they are victims of the masses. These are the oppressed voices that must be defended by squelching the rights of critics to respond? I am less than convinced.

To be sure, there are those in the world who attack ideas they do not like with emotion and reductive nonsense rather than logic. There are those who discredit the writer rather than their idea. And there are those who would prefer to sidetrack a debate on the merit of ideas into one of skin color, religion or geography, especially when the facts are not on their side. This phenomenon is nothing new.

Mark Twain wrote of the newspaper office as a battlefield. If the writer’s hide isn’t thick enough to endure rhetorical sticks, rocks, pistols and even dynamite, they may be in the wrong profession. Powerful people and popular movements alike will try to silence messages they do not like through backhanded means. This is foul. But this is the world. There is no way to remedy that problem without restricting debate even further.

Some readers will object that this trend in modern discourse endangers “free speech”. Those making this claim either do so disingenuously or do not understand how freedom of speech actually works. People possess the right to dissent as much as any author possesses the right to publish.

Freedom of speech does not guarantee freedom from criticism and consequences. Nor do the principles of free speech protect one’s ideas from debate. Any attempt to censor the public is by its very nature an illiberal idea.

Some advocates of this idea point to decisions by social media companies to suspend the accounts of hate-speech advocates as “censorship”. This is also a fundamental misunderstanding of how free speech works. One cannot force private entities to publish ideas they don’t wish to publish. Should we legislate the content private companies may host in the manner of authoritarian regimes throughout history? Or worse, would you have the State mandate what they must publish?

Much as you are free to say what you wish, I am free to ignore you. And I am certainly under no obligation to repeat your ideas in the public square. Yet this seems to be what some who decry “cancel culture” are inadvertently suggesting when they demand white supremecists like David Duke be given huge public platforms on twitter and youtube.

No one is obligated to rebut David Duke’s hateful rhetoric because no one is obligated to read it. Neither are institutions obligated to publish it. Those who complain loudest about “cancel culture” are those who seem to understand the principles of free speech the least. Popular sentiment certainly does not always have the truth on it’s side, but nor does truth always lie with the writers who spread the myth of being “cancelled”. Public debate has evolved into a global phenomenon, and as much as it may irritate those who are accustomed to wielding power:

This is a good thing.

Joshua Collins is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Colombia. He has worked for Vice, Al Jazeera, the New Humanitarian and various other organizations in Latin America. For more stories you can follow him on twitter or at his website Muros Invisibles.

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Joshua Collins

Written by

A reporter on immigration and world affairs, based in Cucuta, Colombia. Bylines at Al Jazeera, Caracas Chronicles, New Humanitarian and more

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +799K followers.

Joshua Collins

Written by

A reporter on immigration and world affairs, based in Cucuta, Colombia. Bylines at Al Jazeera, Caracas Chronicles, New Humanitarian and more

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +799K followers.

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