Cancel Culture vs. Free Speech

“While I disagree with what you say, I will defend with my life your right to say it”
-Evelyn Beatrice Hall

“But muh freeze peach!”
-Twitter user Official Terrorist ANTIFA™@ShredyBettyMTB

In the summer of 2018, I had finished my first year of law school and was halfway through an internship with the Crown Prosecution Service in London, England. This was an incredible experience and like everyone who has ever studied abroad I bring it up every opportunity I get. But while I was there, I observed a terrorism trial (at the Old Bailey, no less!). Ordinarily this would be the experience of a lifetime – the opportunity to observe a terrorism trial while seated with the prosecution does not happen frequently.

Instead, I was horrified. See, the UK’s Terrorism Act of 2006 allows the Crown to prosecute any individual that “engages in conduct” and is “reckless as to whether their conduct would cause anyone in the world to engage in an act of terror”. Those standards seem reasonable at first blush. After all, who wants terrorists to recruit or encourage radicalism and terrorism over the internet? But how does this look in practice?

Anthony Small

Enter Anthony Small – a British boxer and Muslim. After a successful boxing career, Mr. Small turned to making youtube videos and publishing his (and this is being generous) poetry. While he was certainly no Robert Frost, Mr. Small used some admittedly distasteful imagery to convey the point that he believed Mecca, a holy site for Muslims, had fallen to the ills of consumerism. In a poorly performed spoken word poem, Mr. Small said that he or someone should “grab desert eagles, cock ‘em, and let ‘em fly” in reference to Starbucks and McDonalds in Mecca.

Distasteful? Absolutely. Abhorrent, even. I cannot express how strongly I reject the means by which Mr. Small conveyed his disagreement with the current state of Mecca. But he was not inciting or encouraging anyone to do anything. He was using extreme imagery – such as that present in rap and heavy metal lyrics – to convey a message. Not to incite action. Fortunately, a jury saw it the same way and acquitted Mr. Small.

I thought about this while reading the now infamous letter in Harper’s magazine and the accompanying reactions. The letter purports to be in support of free speech and the necessity of combating bad speech with more speech. It is clear that the signatories are fed up with their livelihoods being destroyed because they do not echo popular opinions.

The letter in Harper’s Magazine

Ostensibly, this makes sense. In Texas, a prosecutor was fired for sharing a meme about Nazis tearing down statutes. Hell, even one of the signatories to Harper’s letter saw a coworker email their boss (and then post the complaint to twitter). I mean seriously? Is this really the world we want to live in – where signing your name to a declaration in support of free speech gets you in trouble with your boss and vilified on Twitter?

While the letter itself is relatively dry and unpersuasive (and other, better writers than I have already addressed this point) it is controversial. The controversy stems from the sheer hypocrisy of the signers—many of whom have tried to get those that disagree with them fired. It left many readers feeling like the so-called “pundit class” was upset it was losing its status as the principal deciders of life, the universe, and everything. Entitlement is a hell of a drug.

To many, it came across as a preemptive attempt to shut down criticism and delegitimizing reasonable disagreements by holding any opposing view to be a “mob mentality”. Through this lens, the letter’s stunning hypocrisy is made evident. It purports to defend free speech by attempting to silence speech it doesn’t like. The fact that many signers have, themselves, called for the firing of people with divergent opinions itself is seemingly the least of it. The icing on the cake is the utter vitriol—and death threats—lodged against those who criticized the Harper’s letter. That letter missed the mark, wide. So let me try again. Freedom of Speech is, without a doubt, the most important right guaranteed by the Constitution. And while it is true that the Constitution only prohibits the government from infringing on a speech, it is important for employers—heck, for everyone—to strongly consider the fundamental importance of this right when deciding to give in to “cancel culture”.

Freedom of Speech is, without a doubt, the most important right guaranteed by the Constitution

People are free to use their freedom of speech to try and “cancel” people, to get them fired from their jobs, or otherwise shunned from polite society. And they should be able to do so. That’s an inalienable truth. That right shouldn’t be restricted or narrowed—to do so is purely hypocritical. And yet the world will be all the worse if employers, schools, and the like gave into this troubling trend of firing people for holding contrarian views in good faith. It should be made clear, however, that private employers can and (in my opinion) should fire racists, sexists for expressing these intolerant views—and it goes without saying that racist, sexist views can never be held in good faith because views such as those were not arrived at through either moral or rational thought processes.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant—at least for bad ideas—as the saying goes. The way to combat these “bad ideas” is through an injection of spirited debate and empirical evidence directly into the veins of the culture. Debate is vitally important—not just to change the minds of the interlocutor, opponent, or adversary—but to influence the minds of everyone reading and watching. In my last article, I implored readers to define their values and wear them on their sleeves. By doing so, the whole world can understand your values and can seek to mold and shape them through objective evidence. Never before has humanity had the ability and the time to debate to the extent we do. The Ancient Greeks didn’t have Facebook and Twitter but participating in the political and social discourse was considered the highest pursuit, if not the purpose of any adult’s life. We should be encouraging everyone to put all of their cards on the table so that, as a species, we can grow.

2018 Munk debate on the subject of Political Correctness

Retribution for the expression of controversial beliefs is the complete opposite of sunlight. It provides a dark, mildewy space for the fungus of ignorance to take hold. While people are free to call for such punishments for dissenting from the general consensus, those in a position to do so should exercise restraint. Racist or sexist views cannot be held in good faith, but labeling anything outside what you consider acceptable as bigoted is its own form of bigotry. And when we are talking about people’s livelihoods, there is an inescapable moral imperative to act in good faith in the pursuit of affixing those labels, much less pursuing consequences for those to whom they have been affixed.

The case of Anthony Small and every other petty attempt at infringement on unpleasant speech serves as a stark reminder of just how slippery the slope can be. The antidote for bad ideas and incorrigible viewpoints is open debate and dialogue. Spirited, open debate is vitally important to the social discourse, particularly on contentious issues and especially when the participants are both focused on stating their case in a good-faith manner. And when they are not, even when shifty tactics of rhetoric and quibbling and obfuscatory speech are employed, the debate doesn’t have to serve the purpose of changing either participant’s mind as long as it informs and the minds of those listening. Or in the words of our questionably-esteemed Editor here at Bullshido and veteran of virtually every argument ever held on social media:

“You don’t argue with an idiot for the idiot’s benefit, you argue for the benefit of the audience.” -Phrost

Cancel culture robs us of the opportunity to argue with idiots and consequently, the opportunity to remind the audience exactly what is idiotic about their arguments. Free speech advocates are often placed in the unenviable position of defending the expression speech with which they disagree. But what is right and what is easy are rarely the same. Accordingly, it is incumbent on all of us to vigorously defend all forms of free speech—difficult as that may be—because we are all better when everyone feels the ability to communicate their views to the world…

…even if it’s only because we get to know how ridiculous they are.

Define “fascist”.

(Also, black lives matter.)

Maximillian Fightmaster
Maximillian Fightmaster
Derek Debus is a trial lawyer in Arizona and a graduate of the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law where he earned recognition as a Willard Pedrick Honors Scholar and received the designation of Trial Advocacy Fellow. Prior to attending law school, Derek served in the United States Marine Corps as an infantryman and combat instructor and worked to train law enforcement as a professional firearms instructor. Derek also serves on the Board of Directors for the nonprofit organization Academe Grove -- a 501(c)(3) nonprofit focused on providing training and resources to education institutions and first responders. Follow him on twitter @derek_debus.
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