The “Free Speech Crisis” Is Not a Crisis. It Is Progress.
America is in the midst of a profound renegotiation of speech norms. That process can be messy. But it’s not “cancel culture.” It is necessary and overdue.
This is Part II of my exploration of the moral panic around “cancel culture.” Please check out Part I, in which I examined the available evidence for the claim that America is currently experiencing a worsening “free speech crisis” that constitutes a national emergency.
The narrative of a worsening national emergency caused by “wokeism” running amok is built on supposedly irrefutable evidence that doesn’t hold up to serious scrutiny. We therefore need to shift our attention to the question of what all this talk about “cancel culture” is actually about? If we don’t accept the pervasive “cancel culture” discourse as a mere representation of an objectively existing free speech crisis, then how do we explain and interpret its omnipresence and the fact that so many people are fully committed to this idea at this exact moment?
Thanks for reading Democracy Americana! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
That’s precisely where the reactions of prominent “cancel culture” pundits to the Dilbert affair can really help us unpack what is going on here. As the cartoonist Scott Adams began bemoaning his “cancellation” at the hands of the “woke” mob, Thomas Chatterton Williams, one of the most prominent (self-proclaimed) free speech advocates, was quick to point out that this was actually *not* a case of “cancel culture” – Adams, according to TCW, was just facing the rightful consequences of “going on a stupid and boring racist monologue.”
When asked to clarify what, exactly, distinguished the Adams case from others, given that it seemed rather analogous to instances that “cancel culture” pundits often present as evidence for excessive “wokeism,” TCW elaborated that “Cancel Culture is really about when someone is called out and made an example of by a social media mob for transgressing a not-yet-agreed upon norm.”
TCW gave a similar answer when pressed about his definition of “cancel culture” by Isaac Chotiner in The New Yorker in 2020, shortly after the publication of Harper’s Letter, which he had authored. In the interview, he said: “I understand this is not a science, but if there’s a punitive aspect to the collective response to something you do and it’s around a not-yet-solidified norm, that seems to me to be very different than to transgressing what seems to be a commonly understood norm.”
Here we have it then, the paradigm around which self-proclaimed “free speech” advocates seem to have consolidated: Transgressing a “not-yet-agreed-upon” or “not-yet-solidified” norm is fine and must be accepted. That’s actually very revealing in several respects. The first thing that stands out is that the line between rightful criticism or sanctions on the one hand and “wokeism” running amok on the other is drawn solely based on the content and substance of the speech in question. That strikes me as eminently plausible – yet goes against one of the tenets of the “cancel culture” discourse, in which those who are acting as advocates of free speech usually dismiss the substance as mostly irrelevant and claim to be defending the higher principle of a right to free expression. Take, for instance, the much-cited FIRE “College Free Speech Rankings” I talked about at length in Part I: The surveys on which such rankings are built are predicated on the idea that *every* objection to sharing or platforming a viewpoint publicly is problematic and indicative of a culture of censoriousness. And the way the survey results are then presented is designed to downplay the actual substance, which is deliberately obscured behind nebulous characterizations of the speech deemed problematic by college students as either “straying from liberal orthodoxy” or just “conservative beliefs,” when we are really looking at extreme attitudes only shared by a small percentage of the American public.
In this way, the reactions to the Dilbert affair should be seen as a reminder that the debate about “free speech” is actually never about abstract principles. Almost every time someone claims to be defending a principle rather than the content, they are deliberately attempting to divert the attention away from the specific speech in question because they understand that their brave stance against “cancel culture” tyranny would look a lot less heroic if people paid attention to the substance of what is actually being supported. Everyone – at least everyone within the boundaries of what is accepted as mainstream political discourse or anywhere close to political and cultural power – agrees that certain transgressions, certain public speech should be met with criticism, even with shaming or shunning. The real question is: Where is the line, and who gets to draw it?
That brings us to the second thing that stands out about the reactions to the Dilbert affair among the “cancel culture” brigade. If we are to believe that the criticism of public speech is to be classified as either excessive “wokeism” or legitimate pushback depending on whether the speech in question offended “not-yet-agreed-upon” as opposed to “agreed-upon” norms, the obvious next question to ask is: “agreed-upon” by whom? The answer emanating from the “free speech” punditry seems to be a hearty: “Well, agreed-upon by us, of course!”
Conor Friedersdorf, a staff writer at The Atlantic who occupies a similar ideological space and functional role to Thomas Chatterton Williams in the mainstreaming of the “cancel culture”/“wokeism” moral panic, was even more overt in this assertion. Quickly coming to TCW’s defense on Twitter, Friedersdorf separated illegitimate “expansive new taboos” from what he regards as rightfully “beyond the pale.” Where is the line? Literally where people “in my circles” have always drawn it, because that’s just the way it’s always been “as far back as I remember.”
This points to what is at the core of the current “cancel culture” debate. The real contention here is that people like Conor Friedersdorf and Thomas Chatterton Williams insist that they should get to define what is and what is not regarded as acceptable public speech. But a lot of people don’t agree with the assumption that the boundaries should be drawn in accordance with the sensibilities of the Friedersdorfs and TCWs of this world, that everyone else needs to wait until they may or may not agree and give their approval to a new set of norms. The dissenters are unlikely to have ever agreed. And in a much more diverse, pluralistic environment, and equipped with new technological means, they are now in a position to object more loudly and forcefully than they traditionally had the chance to do. This chorus of criticism and dissent is reaching people in positions of power and influence more regularly and more directly than ever before – specifically through social media. And those in power tend to translate that as a dangerous, illegitimate form of “woke” illiberalism.
This dynamic is shaping the political and cultural debate more broadly. Traditionally, it was the prerogative of a relatively small, predominantly white, predominantly male elite to draw the lines and define the boundaries of what was acceptable. And unless they aggressively transgressed these self-defined boundaries, people in positions of power were unlikely to face any consequences or coordinated forms of pushback. This elite prerogative has come under fire. Institutions and public spaces (including the virtual public square, to the extent it exists) that used to be, until quite recently, male-dominated and patriarchal have become significantly more diverse and multicultural. The place where that is more visible than almost anywhere else is the college campus. In addition to this general demographic and cultural diversification, traditionally marginalized groups have gained enough credibility and have acquired the technological means to influence the political debate, to make their demands for respect and accountability heard, to extract a political cost for certain discriminatory speech or behavior. But as soon as that happens, certain elite circles start bemoaning “persecution.” That’s a historical pattern if there ever was one.
We have been here before. The current “free speech crisis” had a direct precursor in the “political correctness” discourse of the early 1990s – another instance in which long-standing conservative complaints went mainstream in the form of a pervasive moral panic. Let’s remember that the rightwing crusade against the college campus as a place of subversive liberal indoctrination is eternal. William F. Buckley, the godfather of modern conservatism and founder of the National Review, published his first book in 1951. Titled God and Man at Yale, it told the story of Buckley’s undergraduate experience that was supposedly marred by liberal professors forcing their collectivist, atheist beliefs onto the students – an environment entirely hostile to conservative values and religion. In the 1960s, as Ronald Reagan rose to political stardom in California, he vowed to fight back against those out-of-control radical leftists in Berkeley, to reign in the Free Speech Movement and restore order on campus. It has been a core tenet of conservative political identity since the formation of modern conservatism in the middle decades of the twentieth century that “the Left” has taken over the central institutions of American life and is using both institutional and cultural power to suppress conservative speech, that conservatives are being shut out from spaces they are entitled to control and dominate. Higher education has always been one of the institutions on which this rightwing resentment was focused most intensely.
In certain moments, the reactionary crusade manages to cross over into the mainstream and blossom into a society-wide moral panic. The Right has never been able to generate such mainstreaming itself – it depends on the normalizing support from mainstream outlets. That’s exactly what happened in the early 1990s, when America’s leading papers and magazines were all too eager to pick up the complaints by conservative commentators and activists like Roger Kimball, whose Tenured Radicals came out in 1990, or Dinesh D’Souza (yes, that guy), whose Illiberal Education was a bestseller in 1991.
Such books were accompanied by a massive wave of opinion columns, editorials, and features decrying leftwing “political correctness” as a threat to free speech: The New York Times bemoaned “The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct,” in October 1990, New York Magazine asked “Are You Politically Correct?” in January 1991, and on and on and on… to the point where President George H. W. Bush made the “pc” threat to free speech a big part of his commencement address at the University of Michigan in May 1991, warning that “We all should be alarmed at the rise of intolerance in our land and by the growing tendency to use intimidation rather than reason in settling disputes.”
Compared to today’s “cancel culture” discourse, the “political correctness” craze of the early 1990s displayed strikingly similar dynamics – very similar arguments, built on similarly faulty evidence that didn’t stand up to scrutiny, targeting similar groups as supposedly responsible for the assault on freedom. It is remarkable how ahistorical the current debate over America’s “free speech crisis” is. None of the leading “cancel culture” pundits will even acknowledge, let alone reflect critically on the fact that they are legitimizing conservative warnings about the impending doom of Western Civilization that are as old as modern conservatism itself, that according to the Right, it has been five minutes to midnight for free speech in America for ages, that “political correctness” was supposed to plunge the land of freedom into an eternal darkness of totalitarian censoriousness decades ago… and yet, here we still are.
The pervasive mainstream acceptance of the “cancel culture” moral panic signals a new phase and quality in the ongoing struggle over who gets to define the norms of public speech. Conservatives in particular and traditional elites more broadly don’t like the fact that their prerogative to define speech norms is now contested more than ever. The “cancel culture” lament is an attempt to delegitimize the claims by traditionally marginalized groups, to push back against those changing norms and sensibilities.
In a narrow sense, these reactionary crusades stem from the fact that traditional elites face a little more scrutiny today than in the past. This is causing a lot of anxieties, and well beyond just the Right, almost across the political spectrum. This is how the “cancel culture” campaign ties into the broader political conflict. It happens in the context of social, cultural, and demographic developments that have generally resulted in traditional hierarchies of race, gender, religion, and wealth coming under pressure. As part of a broader reactionary counter-mobilization against those changes, conservatives have extended the “cancel culture” complaint to basically any progressive or supposedly “leftwing” idea, demand, and policy they don’t like. Anything that might threaten not just the prerogative of a traditional elite to set the boundaries of acceptable expression, but white Christian patriarchal dominance in general is derided as being part of an insidious leftist “cancel culture.”
At its core, the “wokeness-cancel culture-free speech crisis” discourse is the latest iteration of an elite struggle to stave off and discredit certain long-term political, social, and cultural changes that elites perceive as threatening. There was no talk of a “free speech crisis” as long as those in traditional positions power got to define the boundaries of acceptable speech – there wouldn’t be, if only everyone could stick to what are “agreed-upon” norms in Conor Friedersdorf’s “circles.”
Ultimately, what is widely derided as “cancel culture” is better understood as a much-needed conversation about changing norms. This process of re-negotiating the boundaries of acceptable speech is conflictual. And it can be messy. We should acknowledge that, and acknowledge that it makes many people uncomfortable. But the way we address this discomfort, and what follows from it politically, matters greatly – it can either play into the hands of a reactionary political vision or advance the project of egalitarian multiracial pluralism.
Shortly before the 2022 midterms election Barack Obama addressed the question of discomfort directly. During an appearance on the “Pod Save America” podcast, the former president said: “You know, sometimes, people just want to not feel as if they are walking on eggshells. And they want some acknowledgement that life is messy and that all of us at any given moment can say things the wrong way, make mistakes.” Unfortunately, Obama located the cause for this phenomenon in Democrats tending to be “buzzkills” and being generally aloof, which only seemed to confirm the resentments behind the “cancel culture” panic. The eggshell metaphor itself could serve as an important reminder, however, that many people do indeed feel some level of discomfort in a changing America. And it is true that people in the public spotlight, and some university professors as well, find themselves in uncomfortable moments more often, faced with new, more direct and immediate forms of criticism. As a straight white cis male college professor, for instance, I am now speaking to a much more diverse, less male- and white-dominated audience, inside and outside the classroom – to an audience that feels generally more empowered to object, critique, and push back than what might have traditionally been the case. That can absolutely lead to a general sense of uncertainty around how best to address topics of political, social, and cultural relevance. The situation is new, there is little experience to fall back on, it is somewhat experimental. We should give people space to express that discomfort and sense of uncertainty. But in a multiracial, pluralistic democracy, we need to demand they don’t react by demonizing that which makes them uncomfortable, by delegitimizing the claims for equality and respect from those who have traditionally been treated as less than equal. Because occasional discomfort is not proof of encroaching totalitarianism or “woke” persecution. Saying “Cancel Culture is a problem” is very different from “Speech norms are being renegotiated, which is a necessary, but also conflictual process that can be messy.” The latter recognizes there is something going on – the former simply helps perpetuate a reactionary moral panic.
We should embrace this process of renegotiation, messiness and discomfort and all. It is necessary because traditionally marginalized groups are finally part of that conversation – and the only alternative would be to exclude them again and restrict participation in the discussion around speech norms to a much smaller, more traditional group. The hallmark of a truly egalitarian, multiracial, pluralistic democracy, however, is that traditional elites no longer get to have that conversation amongst themselves. As such, the “cancel culture” lament is a manifestation not of decline, crisis, or carnage – but, from a democratic perspective, progress.
Thanks for reading Democracy Americana! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
"But a lot of people don’t agree with the assumption that the boundaries should be drawn in accordance with the sensibilities of the Friedersdorfs and TCWs of this world"
That is a gross (intentional?) misreading of what Friedersdorf and TCW really said. The idea is that there has to be collective consensus about a norm to be enforced and NOT that any activist group can stipulate them unilaterally.
Secondly, what many (including Zimmer) confuse, is a distinction between punitive consequences and no-platforming. There is seldom a case where punishment for an act of free speech is warranted. Instead, "cancellations" in this vein (that includes most firings but not all) are usually purely vengance-driven acts of tyrrany. With no-platforming it is more complex. Generally, any institution is free to determine who they want to give a platform and who not. But: the grounds for that need to be reasonable, dependend on to the type of institution (public vs private, partisan vs neutral etc.) and they need to incorporate the epistemic uncertainty about a subject. Often we don't know yet as a society which answer is factually or morally correct. And exactly that is what those who Zimmer scolds as "reactionary centrists" - people like Friedersdorf, TCW, Matt Yglesias, Yascha Mounk and others - intend.
How is the "woke" side of this acting any different? They are also claiming that *they* should define what is and is not acceptable public speech and deciding what the norms are - they're just drawing the line at different, more speech-restricive places than TCW and friends.