Cancel Culture and Free Speech

By Albion Tusha

Cancel culture has always coexisted with humans. People who have dared to challenge their eras are usually the ones who have contributed to humanity. Without these would advancement would have been slower. Think of figures such as Galilei, Muhammad Ali, and many more who were cancelled in their respective eras.

Today, we value our hard-earned free speech. However, times have changed and people naturally change as well. Change can make humanity forget the comfort it currently harbours. After all, we are creatures of habit. The ability to express oneself freely has become a human right, a great achievement in its own right. Nonetheless, significant new societal norms are beginning to attack our hard-earned free speech. Cancel culture is a relatively new term for a phenomenon that acts as the modern form of exclusion from society. Through social media, everyone can ostracize anyone who in their judgment is saying or promoting something wrong. The thing is, giving such power to everyone with access to the internet can destroy innocent people’s lives and reputations. Remember the case of Johnny Depp who was accused as a wife-beater, then it turned out he was innocent. Wrongdoing committed by a group removes the feeling of liability from the individuals. Especially so when the consequences impact someone from the other side of the world.

Today’s cancel culture is strong because of a growing human need for crowds. Individualistic lifestyles have contributed to a generation in need of a crowd. Humans love socializing, socializing is for humans is like water is for fish. However, in the last three decades independence has become a necessity in the western world. Independence makes people more aloof and confident but it also makes them individualistic. Crowds are essential to socializing but the independent contemporary human is stuck between its independence and its innate desire for crowds. Crowds are herds of people who want everyone to conform to the collective train of thought. Anything outside of that train of thought is ostracized and attacked. This herd mentality forces everyone to think the same, as thinking otherwise will be met with (social) punishment. Crowds have a common objective, and usually, that objective is the priority. A lot can be sacrificed in the name of that one goal. This collective punishment is reckless and vengeful. It does not know the difference between a good societal norm and an evil societal norm. I highlight evil because I believe there to be inherently good norms and evil norms. For example, generosity can be considered good for humans overall. Meanwhile, sexual abuse of children such as the Bacha Bazi tradition in Afghanistan should be considered an evil societal norm. Believing in notions of good and evil is necessary for a healthy society. Despite this, when functioning as a collective herd society cannot distinguish between the righteous and not righteous thoughts, ideas, and norms.

Righteousness and justice are hard to explain, but people do have a moral compass. Justice derives from morality, and experiments have proven morality to be a tool that helps the group. Ever since our earliest days, most are taught the basic principles of what is right and what is wrong. It should be said with this that education may also teach the wrong norms, which will lead to people fighting for the wrong causes simply because they do not know otherwise. The herd is like a stormy sea, it can sink even the biggest of ships and with them the greatest of people.

In other words: Groups naturally create crowds, crowds think like a herd. Therefore, they will have a natural tendency to ostracize different opinions. The term cancel culture might be new but it has existed as a phenomenon throughout time all along. Today the term cancel culture is being used in a variety of ways. The definition I use is: the practice or tendency of engaging in mass cancelling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.

Technology has impacted every facet of our lives. Our social lives and communication have greatly changed because of technology. Through social media, technology has transformed into a tool for exerting social pressure. We can say that our social media profiles, our search engines, and our online presence have become an open reflection of our psyche. We pour everything personal of ours into our devices and everything we think about is reflected. If someone has access to your laptop or smartphone, they have access to a big part of your life. Think of Twitter where people constantly post sentences of stuff they think. Through social media, people can find out so much about you without ever meeting you. It is intriguing yet creepy and scary.

Many celebrities adored by the people have been cancelled because of various things they posted, said, and did. The internet has united against them and has delivered a sentence just like a court would. The court of the internet is more prone to mistakes, however, and therefore less just one could argue. Many have gotten what they deserved, but some have suffered unrighteously. In some aspects, the court of the internet can give harsher sentences than an actual court. Pay some good lawyers and most likely you will get away with a minor sentence, of course only if the violation is portrayed as minuscule and your pockets are deep.

This sort of collectively acceptable form of exclusion is a primitive form of punishment, yet people feel so attracted to it. Generation Z is particularly affected by this phenomenon. Someone famous somewhere says something on a platform that was controversial and immediately a storm falls upon them, millions of people will go out of their way to demonize one individual simply because of one statement. It does not matter if that person is a major philanthropist, a loved figure for a certain community. Think of Stephen Colbert who was briefly cancelled for a joke.  Express something which is not politically correct and you will be ostracized for it. Often these controversial pieces of opinion are put out of proportion, misinterpreted, and wrapped. The scariest aspect of it all is the fact that writers are suffering because of this cancel culture. This cancel culture, with its support from generation z, is highly toxic by default. It pollutes diversity and fights for conformity.

Our current generation has a hero complex, it is easy to notice it. It is very likely that if you scroll down your feed on any social network, you will see a post by that one Social Justice Warrior (SJW) friend. People have become active on social media for all sorts of issues. The social justice warrior is a common archetype in Generation Z, and this is not an inherently bad thing. Fighting for what you believe is a right is an honourable cause, but most will agree that social media is hypocritical. People online behave differently from real life, online they vocalize their views radically but in person, they hide and simmer down their inner flame for arguments. In the comment section, they are fierce politicians who fight for their beliefs and stand up for what is right, yet in real life, many rarely do anything critical to change what they advocate to be wrong. Of course, there are people who talk the talk and walk the walk, meaning they really want to change a situation and are prepared to work hard to see this change. However, if most people were like that there would be a significant surplus of voluntary workers, healthcare medics, soldiers fighting oppressive regimes, and more. Contrarily, there is a lack of people in these fields of work. This shows that out of half a billion social justice warriors on the internet, few do anything to fight for the things they advocate for. Maybe they do not have the capabilities to do voluntary work, and that is completely fine, but unfortunately, this is not always the case. The fiery politicians of the internet most often end up being hypocrites who feed their ego with a hero complex. Their online presence is an intricate mechanism meant to serve themselves. As I mentioned previously, technology has exposed our thoughts and psyche to an open database. Humans are egotistical beings, we come first. When someone expresses something that does not conform to the current norms they are fiercely attacked by the aggressive commentators. Holding a different belief attracts negative attention and you suddenly find yourself surrounded by people who hate and demonize you, simply for thinking differently. Voltaire used to say: “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too.”. This advice is quite relevant today, in my opinion.

As the internet removes the personal aspect of communication with people, most are not concerned with offending people. Despite their general hypocrisy, social justice warriors have become more honest online. In real life they are tolerant, disengaged, inattentive, and respectable, but online they come off as someone completely different. Online they say the things they do not dare to say in real life. The possibility of suffering for your mistakes is lower so they simply say screw it.  Think of it like this, drivers would never speed if there were speeding cameras everywhere. Drivers would most certainly be always fined, but the thing is they are not, as not every alley is equipped with a camera.  The internet lacks major mechanisms to catch and punish offenders. One account may be banned, the user simply opens a new one and repeats their previous behaviour. Without punishment, users are more free and honest which uncovers the intolerance behind seemingly tolerant people. Generation Z critiques the previous generations for being judgemental, yet you just have to take a scroll in a post and will see highly judgmental comments from these same people. So much for raising our children to be better than us. The saying like father like son was based on some truth after all. 

Here lies the main issue with the cancel culture: conformity is king and it does not matter what is right or truthful. What matters is that you oblige to what the majority believes. If someone does not agree with the agenda of LGBT groups that someone is immediately attacked. Such was the case of a Catholic teacher who was fired for using the wrong pronoun on a transgender student. They are labelled as LGBT phobic/some other phobic term, ridiculed, hated, threatened, and more. Another one tweets that he does not agree with Islamic values in a western society immediately people claim that he or she must belong to a far-right extremist group. That person is now Islamophobic and a racist. Another one tweets about the military actions of the USA. This person is now labeled as communist, radical nationalist, or some other label. Far-left feminists created the kill all men movement and made it sound like a catchy phrase. If someone says something about it they are misogynistic and rapists. Using the wrong pronoun can get you fired nowadays. It feels like common sense has become limited. Despite not having the intent to offend or promote hate, expressing unpopular opinions will get you attacked from every direction for not conforming. Almost everyone has become too sensitive, more than necessary. The slightest provocative thought is swiftly being labelled an extremist by groups with their own extremist tendencies. 

Criticism and diversity are shunned, even if you do not have the intention to attack anyone by expressing your different opinion, prepare to be besieged. Somehow, thinking critically often means offending others even if you have no beef with them. There is this comedian by the name of George Carlin who did a piece on euphemisms. He comments that somewhere during his life toilet paper became bathroom tissue, executions became neutralizations, and car crashes became automobile accidents. People who are broke became blessed with negative cash flow positions. Language has been adjusted to not offend people at the expense of righteous criticism. Every phrase feels lifeless. Language is now must be adjusted to fit everyone. Sugarcoating has become the norm, saying something how you think it will either earn you respect or enemies, depending on how this idea fits the current social standard. This political correctness helps to make everyone feel included but the conformity of political correctness relies on the us versus them principle. If you are not politically correct you may find yourselves barred from expressing your opinion. Criticizing has become hate speech unless you belong to that particular minority group. That is why today almost all the political debates on television are attended by people whose identity correlates to the issue. Someone of a different background does not have the legitimacy to talk about something that does not affect the person personally. Honestly, I see why people would not want to hear anybody’s opinion about everything. Frankly, not many would hear a western young adult who lived their entire life in a major European city talk about war. Meanwhile, a war veteran does have the competency and validity to talk about it. The question is whether should we stop that young adult from having an opinion. Maybe, that young adult may provide a solution or a different point of view to an issue. When allowing only personally affected individuals to talk about a topic we are further contributing to the taboo stigma for a topic. Silencing and wishing away a clearly wrong opinion will not defeat it. On the contrary, it will make that visibly wrong opinion even more dangerous. All of this defeats the purpose of free speech. 

An open letter signed by various important intellectuals was written concerning this topic. The following quote describes the core of the issue clearly: 

“The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers, we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk-taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.”

No matter how much we change our wordings, an execution is an execution. Using a different word for it will not change the gravity of the word. Instead of fearing words and escaping the reality and gravity of a word, it is better to face it head-on. No matter how much we play with words, grain will not become gold because of our linguistic choices.

Today, words are changed to serve justice to oppressed minority groups which feel attacked, stigmatized, or oppressed. Protecting the disadvantaged is a righteous goal but changing words is not always the way to protect the disadvantaged. In the process of salvation, a lot of intellectual work will be sacrificed to fulfil this greater goal. This ritual of salvation will seek more and more sacrification until censorship becomes the norm. In the name of the disadvantaged, all will become disadvantaged.

Let us say that you, me, or anyone else is writing a piece of poetry. A writer pours their soul into their work of art. A fragment of the soul transforms into a word that expresses the intention and emotion of the writer. Making a writer be careful with the words he uses is like imprisoning a wanderer. You take the only thing that matters from the writer. Think of taking the brush from the painter, or violin from the violinist. A writer scared of using words is like a tiger scared to ambush its prey. A tiger is a brave predator by nature, take away its braveness and you have nothing but a big orange cat with stripes. Hating and criticizing are different things and everyone should know the difference. Nonetheless, if someone contradicts the obvious blinding truth, then he or she must be told the reality. If someone has died and has been buried, it does not matter whether one thinks that the person is alive. The corpse lies underground unbothered by the elusive belief of the one. If one chooses to believe in illusions and not in truth that simply is a choice. As long as the choice does not inflict great purposeful harm to another party it is perfectly fine. It often happens that people lie to themselves even when they know the truth. The problem with people is they want to hear what they already believe. Insecure about their beliefs, humans demand affirmation. The necessity for affirmation enforces conformity. Out of fear of punishment many are scared of saying what they think. When supporting political correctness, indirectly, we could end up supporting subterfuge and attacking honesty. 

The paradox of tolerance:

Honesty is always condemned by the intolerant. As Voltaire said: “If you want to know who controls you, look at who you are not allowed to criticize.”

Intolerance is the best word to describe cancel culture. The idea of the paradox of tolerance has always been one of the main problems of free speech. Basically, free speech says that one must tolerate even the ones who do not tolerate it. Think of it like this, to respect the freedom of speech one must be intolerant of intolerance. As Karl Popper puts it: The paradox of tolerance states that if a  society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually seized or destroyed by the intolerant. Just like everyone before us we live in times of this great paradox. Slowly, we are witnessing how intolerant people of all sorts of identities are aggressively fighting to make their ideas the “only” ideas. People in these groups are motivated by an agenda. Therefore, their main goal is to fulfil that agenda. Such people will not accept a rational argument. On the contrary, they will denounce all arguments. “Intolerant ideologies” will go as far as forbidding people of their group to listen or speak about these different ideas. Failure is not an option for intolerant ideologies, when losing an argument they will resort to violence.

Cancel culture is a product of an intolerant environment. A strong belief is not

sensitive, therefore it tends to be more tolerant. It does not have the need to assert itself therefore it is not sensitive. Sensitivity and insecurity go hand in hand. A weak foundation is a catalyst to an intolerant society. 

Paradoxically, tolerating intolerance is most likely the spark that will light the fire on our system of tolerance. Having a so-called strong opinion about a taboo topic barres you from expressing your opinion. The forbidden is more attractive than the non-forbidden. Think of children who do the opposite of what their parents say. When told what to not do, that is what one will be more attracted to do. Barring one from speaking will make one more inclined to speak out. Inclination will turn into bitterness that will lead to a disrespectful attitude which in turn will transform into hate speech. The whole dilemma is that intolerant ideologies are very hard to change. Intolerant ideologies seek conflict, therefore conflict will eventually happen. The debate will not change the views of intolerant ideologies, therefore everything halts to one decision. Either we tolerate the intolerant and slowly wait for a conflict to happen or we suppress intolerant ideologies. The second one will lead to the tolerant society become the thing they fight. This is why free speech is such a sensitive discussion, it ultimately leads to a paradox with no solution nor end.

The thing is that the line between opinion and hate speech is a thin one. Insecurity in one’s beliefs brings sensitivity and a thin line, “which transforms into a deep abyss”. All intolerant ideologies are deeply insecure. Simply put: an insecure entity that feels threatened will be more likely to attack. A simple word is a declaration of war for the cornered.  Where I come from we have a saying, the word can kill more than the bullet. Words can kill and so can bullets, but words kill many more throughout time. We should be careful with our words. Fundamentally, we should not be scared of going against the current. The current has been wrong many times. If we discourage resistance, diversity, and adversity we are contributing to a frail society that will crumble at the gentlest wind.

Edited by Helena Reinders, artwork by Chira Tudoran