Many champions of free speech are less into civil liberties than the preservation of a certain view of modernity. “Free speech,” in its discursive form (the form it takes as a rhetorical ideal), can be a mechanism to discipline people who have long been voiceless. Beyond its legal dynamics, the term often reifies capitalist principles of free-marketeering and accumulation. It also enables social media luminaries to deflect criticism when they share ghoulish opinions. Above all, the discourse of free speech preserves a vision of Americana implicated in an unacknowledged colonial origin. Harmful politics, logic has it, are a necessary feature of democracy.
Recrimination for controversial speech is contingent on relations of power. One needn’t be Goebbels in order to bring about uniformity of thought. Those operating under the guise of civility perform repression all the same.
In short, free speech isn’t merely an ideal that allows everyone to have a say, commie and Nazi alike. It is a politic, a sensibility, a custom, a rhetorical device outfitted to the reproduction of bourgeois common sense. It elides the relationship of access with subservience. It pretends to be a universal liberty while maintaining a slick ability to rationalize fine-tuned mechanisms of blacklisting and persecution. It unconsciously facilitates the status quo. The Nazi always comes out ahead in this arrangement.
For people who have been punished because of a radical commitment to equality, people exiled, killed, fired, imprisoned—entire demographics systematically ignored and ostracized, expunged to the periphery of civic life—the idea of granting special dispensation to reactionaries for the good of the polity isn’t an especially attractive proposition. It’s certainly not as attractive as it will be to people the system favors. Not everyone’s willing to accept a set of civic virtues amenable to racism.
(I’m not arguing to abolish free speech, by the way. I support it as both social norm and legal prescription. I’m wary of narratives that deploy simplistic notions of civil liberties to rationalize bigotry, shield luminaries from condemnation, or ignore disparities of power.)
So many supposed defenses of free speech these days—especially variations that decry “cancel culture”—are just a pretext to suggest that Black and brown people (or transgender people and other undesirables) are unsuited to modernity. “Free speech” alludes to a kind of civilizational superiority. Think about how Americans like to distinguish themselves from “backward” places in the Global South: we can hold our leaders accountable; we forcefully defend our values; we all have the right to an opinion. Our freedoms make us exceptional.
A lot of the grousing about cancel and call-out culture conceptualizes free speech as an enlightenment value that oversensitive minorities (Black people especially) are incapable of understanding—or unwilling to understand. It never takes long for everyone to start fretting about civilizational decline.
But why this investment in the myths of a benighted polity? No civil liberty in the USA has ever been universally accessible. Today is no different. Civil libertarians should acknowledge the limitation of their promises.
I’m wary of cancel culture, too. Cancellation often comes in the form of a pile-on (aka mobbing or dogpiling) that can be ugly. The ease with which people join in, either for a sense of validation or the thrill of righteousness, is one of the internet’s scariest phenomena. A pile-on can be disquieting because it reveals dark impulses to conformity. But most complaints about cancel culture maintain a similar impulse under conditions favorable to the ruling class.
(Why is there so much hand-wringing about “cancel culture,” yet so little concern for the umpteen people cancelled for criticizing Israel? Why do people who deny Palestinians the privilege of speaking enjoy the honor of serving as our nation’s free speech paladins? Why isn’t Zionist repression, which gets a hearing in statehouses across the country, a constant scandal among the speech-loving punditocracy? Let’s not pretend that individual consistency can overcome structural inequalities. Sooner or later, even the most consistent free speech purist needs to ask why certain communities are disposable.)
Matt Taibbi recently took his turn to deplore the state of modern commentary. In a piece that got wide circulation, he defends his colleague Lee Fang from “a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts.” On June 4, Fang’s Intercept coworker Akela Lacy called him out for a pattern of anti-Black behavior: “Tired of being made to deal with my coworker @lhfang continuing to push narratives about black on black crime after repeatedly being asked not to. This isn’t about me and him it’s about institutional racism and using free speech to couch anti-blackness. I am so fucking tired.”
Arguments broke out, as they tend to do on the platform, and Fang issued a tepid apology. General sentiment among the professional types favored Fang as a hardworking journalist defamed by an irresponsible colleague. Taibbi ran with this perspective and produced a lengthy condemnation of witch-hunting among online hordes and pusillanimity in his beloved profession. His thesis is basically, “Snowflakes are killing the honorable field of journalism.” Taibbi lambasts an undefined “left” beholden to histrionics and irrationality. But for the typical (and by now boring) flourishes of Taibbian smartassery, the essay could have been written by Jonathan Chait.
There’s much to say about Taibbi’s piece, but his sense of nostalgia stands out. Like nearly all nostalgia, it is self-serving and ahistorical, in this case revealing the sensibilities of a golden child intent on maintaining a world arranged to his benefit. As such, it’s the very definition of reactionary.
Get into the meat of Taibbi’s argument and it’s little more than a lament that Black mobs, with their stunted appreciation of enlightenment values, are ruining everything for the responsible people. Even Pulitzer Prize winners can be accused of racism these days, he marvels. If you ever wondered how Archie Bunker would sound with a college degree, here’s your answer.
Let’s focus on what Taibbi omits. He ignores the racial hierarchies in which Lacy is positioned, making no effort to understand why she might have been upset. She’s just a nag; that’s the upshot of her existence in his narrative. Nothing about structural racism. Nothing about unique challenges in a historically racist industry. Nothing about insidious forms of workplace power. Only an assumption that he and Fang and Lacy occupy the same flat earth, unaffected by the inconveniences of race, gender, class, and ideology. (Is Taibbi aware that the essay makes him sound every bit the establishment hack as his old nemesis Thomas Friedman?) In a piece about the decline of journalistic heroism, Taibbi doesn’t care to comprehend, or even to acknowledge, sensibilities of Blackness in a white supremacist society.
In lionizing an ideal, he ignores material politics, offering instead a paranoid rant about unruly hordes dragging us back into the Stone Age. Whatever one thinks of free speech and cancel culture and journalistic integrity, we should be skeptical of narratives that implicitly accept racism as a normative feature of democracy. The idea of free speech—that is, the civilizational and economic value of speaking—comes before all else, certainly before critique of anti-Blackness in a uniquely noble profession like journalism. Prioritizing “free speech” over anti-racism (and it is the free speech purist who created this binary) is a choice, just like any other political commitment, but one that can be offered without explanation because free speech occupies a place of sanctity. Racism is but an unfortunate side-effect of freedom. Taibbi’s essay is system preservation par excellence.
(Why is Taibbi complaining, anyway? This is a man whose career has risen despite his name being on a book that tells tales of rape and child abuse and who followed up in later years with reams of frat house bullshit. He’s awfully perturbed about a cancel culture he’s completely escaped, absolved by vigorous anti-communism and two half-assed Facebook apologies. No surprise. Misogyny has always been a better career move than radicalism. Whatever the reason, Black women have never enjoyed the same kind of grace.)
Complaining about “cancel culture” can be a pretext to deplore the indignity of being criticized (especially if the criticism comes from people with less status). I’ve seen many a luminary whine about the practice because of nothing more than a well-deserved ratio. Apprehension about cancel culture is sometimes just coded career anxiety for the social climber.
But let’s leave aside personal comportment, because it’s the source of unmanageable complexity. It’s wise to remember that nobody has the means or motive to cancel like the state and so people who identify as leftist ought to be mindful not to reproduce institutional power when they lecture the rabble about online etiquette.
That’s the thing about people of influence with opinions about cancel culture: they say a lot but rarely transcend liberal orthodoxy. The routine inevitably becomes a dull parade of luminaries grousing about all the time they’re forced to spend beating back rubes and barbarians. In turn, discourse around cancel culture often acts as a firewall for the status quo, no matter how troublesome it is to the worker. So disturbed are these luminaries by the declining social life of capitalism, so anguished by the possibility of futures authored by neophytes and commoners, that they fail to consider a version of humanity untamed by convention, instead transmogrifying their class interests into a universal ethic.
Theirs is a messianic attitude, similar to U.S. leftists who hold forth with unwavering certainty about the flaws of whichever Global South country is in the Pentagon’s crosshairs. Free speech! Cancel culture! Civil liberties! The supreme court! Vote! Leave those statues alone! No revolutionary sentiment in sight. It’s all about saving bourgeois customs. So what if white supremacy must be saved alongside them?
I dislike cancel culture insofar as it presents in the form of mobbing, usually from liberal scolds. (Still, let’s not forget that some of cancel culture’s loudest detractors gleefully unleash their followers on random Twitter critics.) But note an important pattern: complaining about cancel culture and the death of free speech overwhelmingly tracks right. Those complaints offer a looking-glass into otherwise subtle attachments to the vision of an exceptional America. The limits of settler common sense are why members of a leftist publication like Grayzone can coordinate a bizarre, historically illiterate defense of Indian-killer Ulysses S. Grant and then respond to pushback by invoking Taibbi’s essay. And why an ostensible anti-imperialist like Pepe Escobar can share alt-right propaganda about thought police on campus as if it’s incisive social criticism.
Can we have a meaningful discussion of cancel culture without reifying U.S. exceptionalism? It doesn’t appear possible unless thought-leaders take a moment to consider that their sense of logic isn’t a universal prescription for the ideal society, that the configurations so accommodating of their success are a barricade for people on the margins.
Whenever people degraded and ostracized by the system decide they’re tired of the same goddamn conventions, every white guy with a platform suddenly morphs into a dimestore Hitchens. How are we supposed to trust the judgment of a thinker who chooses acrimony over empathy when a Black woman expresses fatigue about toiling in an industry hostile to her very existence?
(The phenomenon is too large to map. Cancel culture is based on subjective need. Nobody will ever properly define it because political difference precludes uniformity of definition, and politics determine what any individual will deem worthy of cancellation. And yet nearly all people tacitly accept cancel culture, including those who claim to disdain it, because of a worldwide belief that certain viewpoints and behaviors are irredeemably harmful. Cancelling people isn’t actually the problem; human communities with vastly different histories have always banished repulsive individuals. Corporate media predicate editorial policy on annulment of voices they deem unacceptable. It’s fundamental to academe, as well: what is denial of tenure but ritual cancellation? Individuals simply differ about where to draw the line and what kind of protocol to follow. It’s impossible to support or oppose “cancel culture” without a set of ideological presuppositions.)
Repression is everywhere, in both intersecting and contradictory ways, and it creates tremendous anger. The repression is a byproduct of capitalism. We’re in endless competition for finite resources. Few of us will be able to make a living through art or commentary, so it’s unsurprising that turf wars and call-outs are common to social media. It’s easy (and often satisfying) to rant about defective personalities, but in the end we need to understand these conflicts in relation to a marketplace laboriously restricted by the ruling class, for whom platitudes like “free inquiry” and “tolerance” are an easy means to curtail revolutionary sentiment. Nothing safeguards a person from cancellation more effectively than proximity to power. Public discourse will never be worth a damn if darlings of the system keep suggesting that dispossession is a natural outcome of freedom.