Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Harpers Letter on Justice And Open Debate And What Followed. Act II. The Online Cancel Culture.

For part 1 go here and for part 3 go here.


What does canceling mean in the context of political speech

It does not mean making fierce, critical, or even rude comments about something someone has written or spoken when the intention of those is to debate the issue at hand (1).  That,  my friends, is joining the debate, though any moderator certainly has the right to mute that rudeness and should censor any ad hominem attacks. 

Some have said that it is like cancelling the snail mail when you go on that beach vacation or like canceling your subscription to the New York Times because they front-paged an article written by mentally disordered weirdo, wouldn't let anyone comment on it and you can spot three factual errors in it and that gives you dyspepsia on the beach. (2)

Others have compared it to boycotting a store for its policies, refusing to buy its products and refusing to frequent its premises.  From this angle the canceling of an idea or a person or an organization is similar to a commercial boycott:  You refuse to buy it and enlist others to join your boycott.  

That gentle definition doesn't fit most of the online cancellations I have observed in real time.  They are more like first boycotting a store, then standing outside its windows equipped not only with protest signs and megaphones but also with rotten eggs and perhaps even projectiles for breaking the windows, and when the store finally closes (because the protests never end), making certain-sure that it can never ever open for business again, not even in a busy commercial area where competing stores sell products which directly counteract the messages of the store which is considered harmful. (3)

It is possible to cancel an idea or a person, the above rough definition states, but in practice the way to cancel an idea is to cancel everyone who  tries to express it.  Thus, in the rest of this post cancellation refers to people getting cancelled though of course the real goal is to get ideas cancelled by turning them into something so costly  to utter that nobody will.

Cancelling people for political speech has a long history.  It has been practiced by governments (4), by political parties from both sides of the aisle, and by powerful business interests.  Although the current cycle is one where the cancel culture (5) has support on the left or far left (6), it was fairly recently thriving on the right or the far right and is likely to do so again in the future.  

Thus, the explanation for the existence of a cancel culture cannot be derived from the political leanings of those who are currently pushing it or even from the seismic changes that the Internet has created by providing almost everyone with instant anonymous access to individuals someone, somewhere,  might like to cancel.

But the Internet, and especially the rise of social media do affect the special flavor of today's cancel culture:  

1.  Anonymity means that joining in the cancelling of someone comes now with minimal personal consequences.   It's an almost no-risk romp for those who like to express their anger and to feel their power by joining in a faceless mob of avenging angels.   And it is far, far easier to cancel someone when one can stay a long distance away from watching the real-world effects of that cancellation on, say, the cancelled person's family. 

2.  Even numerically very small ideological groups can create viable online coalitions powerful enough to cancel a person for wrong-speak because the costs of coalition building are minimized, and, perhaps for the first time in history, disadvantaged groups can get together online and so join in the historical trend of wielding the shining sword of those who cancel (7).

3.  The Internet makes cancelling a person so easy.  It provides instant access to much juicy information, ranging from the person's family and employer to the person's professional affiliations, religious ties and even any recreational group he or she might belong to.  

Many of those can be almost instantly contacted by email to increase the chances that something very unpleasant or at least inconvenient will happen to the wrong-speaker, and this can be done at the same time by several avenging angels!   

This saturation tactic is probably the most vicious aspect of mob-led social media cancellations (a death by thousand paper cuts) because it is executing a sentence given by no judge or jury and because the person so sentenced might, in fact, be innocent of any wrong-doing (8).  But even if wrong-speak can be "proven", turning this process on can magnify any intended punishment out of all fair proportions.

All these reasons explain why a cancel culture is particularly likely to thrive in the cyber era.  That is a poignant and bittersweet thought about the Internet once thought to herald in the era of truly open and free democratic debates, accessible to all and not just the most privileged few.


Act III, the last part of this post, will focus on some additional characteristics of the current round of the cancel culture and on the responses of those who disagreed with the Harpers Letter.  I hope it won't take quite as long to write as this one did...

(1)  If the intention of an arranged online pile-on of such comments is to silence the person rather than to  add to the debate on the topic, then we might be talking about an attempt to cancel someone.  
You can usually tell when that is the case because the behavior of the attacking mob looks like heckling (nananaIcannothearyou) and  because no answer to the criticisms thrown at the accused will be accepted for further debate.  Rather, the same initial accusations are repeated without end.

Two  articles giving more detailed definitions of what cancel culture might mean are by Emily Yoffe and Jonathan Rauch.
(2)  No, that person was not Donald Trump but of course Donald Trump would also qualify.
(3)  After much thought I have decided to keep the actual harmfulness of the message largely out of how to evaluate the cancel culture. 
There are messages which can be extremely harmful, even lethal (think of Nazi propaganda about the Jews in the 1930s or the radio propaganda in Rwanda before the Rwandan genocide), because they incite violence, either directly or indirectly. Those should be "canceled" by the government or whoever is in charge of a particular private speech platform. 
Things can get very hairy when it is the government itself which promotes lethal propaganda against some of its own citizens.  Ideally, though, the question what constitutes harmful speech in the legal sense should be defined and debated in a democratic process open to all the citizens.
But this is not what the current debate is about.  Rather, it is about the use of cancellation (to stop all debate on certain issues) by much more informal coalitions of individuals or even online mobs where the identities of the participants are unknown or known only as pseudonyms.   
It is these entities which then decide which messages are harmful and which are not.  That decision process is neither transparent nor democratic.  It cannot be questioned by outsiders and its decisions cannot be appealed.  
And that is the problem.  Some of the messages which have been cancelled in this manner through social media activism I also see as harmful or potentially harmful.  
But that doesn't turn those who cancelled the individuals spouting such ideas into avenging angels (think long shining swords, white wing-feathers) worth praising.  The process of cancellation is still opaque, undemocratic and liable to result in excessive sentences for minor thought crimes.  
Besides, in the next decade those in charge of the cancel culture might be the top demons from hell (think red horns, long shining swords, black hooves and tails).  So no, the ends cannot justify the means.

(4)  Including government departments which go feral.

(5)  I assume that the term "cancel culture" is used to refer to a Zeitgeist where canceling people to cancel ideas is either approved of by many or at least not disapproved of by many.  Today the term would mean that individuals on the far left are likely to use and approve of the use of cancellations.

(6) It would be interesting to study if the use of cancelling people for bad speech is linked to  authoritarianism which is a character trait that those on the far right and on the far left have been argued to share.  
Another interesting question concerns the possibility that the so-called Dark Triad (DT) traits which one recent study argues to be more common on what roughly equals the far left and the far right might be the reason why the cancel culture has at different times appealed to these particular political sections.  I quote from the study:
It is possible therefore that DT traits do not influence left vs right political orientation in the same manner as the Big Five (i.e. openness to experience and conscientiousness predict political left and political right political orientation respectively), but rather influence the strategies that that people use to achieve their ideological goals. For example, right and left oriented individuals high in trait psychopathy might use similar aggressive means to achieve their goals, despite such methods being inconsistent with traditional, compassionate, left-oriented values. 
A safety warning:  I have read the study but have not scrutinized its methodology.

(7)  The benefits to disadvantaged groups from that inclusion are enormous, overall,  and so are the resulting benefits to the whole society.  
My point, not intended to be flippant, is that with that deserved increased access to political debates comes increased access to practices which close down debates.  The former is fantastic and should very much be exploited by all who have an interest in an issue.  The latter?   Well, not so fantastic.

(8)  Both in the sense that the insulting speech may have been misinterpreted and in the sense that a surprisingly large number of people share identical first and last names and even professions which increases the odds of cancelling someone who had absolutely nothing to do with the original argument.  And, of course, in the sense of the three examples in this Atlantic article.