Free Speech and 'Cancel Culture'

9 July 2020

With Harper’s open letter in the news, I’m seeing lots of discussion about the relationship between free speech and ‘cancel culture’. I thought I’d write something up briefly explaining what a free speech principle commits us to (in section 1); rehearsing a traditional argument for the principle (in section 2); and talking about why, if you accept the principle, you should be concerned about ‘cancel culture’, and what exactly you should be worried about (in section 3). (Section 3 presupposes some of what’s discussed in sections 1 and 2, but any section can be read independently of the others.)

This isn’t intended to be an argumentative essay, by the way. My goal isn’t to persuade anybody to change their views about free speech, or about ‘cancel culture’. The goal is just to lay out the principle of free speech, as I understand it, give one reason for endorsing it, and explore how it bears on ‘cancel culture’.

1. The Principle of Free Speech

The principle of free speech says, roughly, that we should not punish an individual for the expression of an opinion. We’ll have to be a bit careful when interpreting ‘punish…for the expression of an opinion’ in this principle. We may, of course, punish an individual for an act which just happens to be achieved through the expression of an opinion. To take a fanciful example, suppose I create a bomb will explode whenever somebody says “We should abolish the FED” in its presence, and then I express this opinion in its presence. A principle of free speech offers me no defense. I can be punished. What I can be punished for, however, isn’t the opinion I expressed, but the act of setting off the bomb. The general lesson is this: we don’t only say things with words. We also, and at the same time, do things with words. According to the free speech principle, the things we do with words are apt targets of collective punishment; the things we say with words are not. (For the cognoscenti: illocutionary and perlocutionary acts are apt targets of punishment, but locutionary acts are not.)

Once we’ve distinguished the things we say with words from the things we do with words, and allowed that the latter are apt targets of punishment, there’s a serious worry that the principle has been bled of any real force. After all, whenever anyone expresses a controversial opinion, one thing they will do is cause someone else’s blood pressure to rise. If causing someone’s blood pressure to rise is enough to justify punishment, then no controversial opinion will ever be protected by the principle.

There are really two worries here. The first worry is that we could custom-tailor our punishments so as to only punish the expressions of some controversial opinions, while leaving others’ unpunished. For instance, if I decide to criticize the Catholic Church, one thing I will thereby do is undermine the authority of the Church. If we decide to punish anybody who undermines the authority of the Church, this will have the same effect as simply punishing anybody who criticizes the Church. Because of this first worry, the free speech principle is also committed to what’s often called a principle of ‘content neutrality’. Content neutrality requires that our reasons for punishment shouldn’t have anything to do with the opinions a person has expressed. Think of it like this: leaving everything else the same, exchange the expressed opinion for another. This shouldn’t make a difference to our punishment. If we collectively punish someone for setting off a bomb by expressing the opinion “We should abolish the FED”, then we should equally well collectively punish someone for setting off a bomb by expressing the opinion “We should not abolish the FED”.

The second worry is that the principle may allow us to shut down all debate and discussion. Suppose that we decide to punish anyone who upsets someone else with their opinions. This is a content-neutral policy. But it is antithetical to the reasons we have for endorsing a free speech principle in the first place (see section 2 below). So, in addition to content neutrality, we should also endorse a principle of content universality: whatever collective punishments we devise, they should permit the expression of every opinion, in some manner or other.

In summary: a free speech principle says that, while we may punish people for what they’ve done, we may not punish people for what they’ve said, or what they think; our reasons for punishment should be insensitive to people’s opinions; and those reasons should allow the expression and defense of any opinion.

It’s worth noting some things which this principle does not exempt from punishment. It does not exempt threats or intimidation. In my opinion, many of the acts which recent opponents of free speech point to—for instance, sending an email reading “I’m going to kill you and your family” to an author you disapprove of, burning a cross on a black family’s lawn, or telling a person speaking Spanish on the street that should “go back to where they came from”—are rightfully understood as threats and intimidation. So a law against intimidating people by sending them death threats, burning a cross on their lawn, or accosting them on the street, does not run afoul of the principle of free speech (in the case of cross burning, the US Supreme Court agreed in Virginia v. Black).

2. Mill’s Argument for the Free Speech Principle

J.S. Mill argues for a principle like this in Chapter 2 of his “On Liberty”. Mill makes several argumentative moves in Chapter 2, but I’m going to focus on what I see as the most central argument in favor of the free speech principle. This argument is redolent of Karl Popper’s views in the Philosophy of Science. Popper thought that, in order for a theory to be scientific, it must expose itself to the possibility of refutation and falsification. Insofar as a theory shields itself from refutation, that theory is unscientific. Mill holds a similar view, except that he’s not concerned with what’s ‘scientific’ or not, but rather with what it takes for us to have collective knowledge. Mill thinks that a society cannot achieve knowledge of some claim unless we have exposed ourselves to the possibility of being refuted. At least, Mill thinks that’s the case when it comes to matters of ethics, politics, and religion. His reason for thinking this has to do with the way that he thinks societies paradigmatically come by true beliefs in the realms of ethics, politics, and religion. As he points out, human societies have been wrong—and badly wrong—about these matters time and again throughout history. Widespread error in ethics, politics, and religion isn’t some unusual occurrence. It is the norm. Intelligent groups of people with good intentions have excused rape and murder, justified slavery, discrimination, and oppression of all kinds; intelligent and well-intentioned groups have favored political actions which led to bloodshed, terror, tyranny, mass starvation, and worse. When a society arrives at truth in the realms of ethics, politics, and religion, it could do so in two ways: firstly, through sheer accident. Secondly, through reasoned discourse in which their errors are corrected. The first route is too capricious, too accidental, to qualify as knowledge. Collective knowledge cannot be ‘lucky’. So, if we are to attain knowledge, we must take the second route. And the second route requires the freedom of opinion and discussion.

In sum: to silence those who might disagree with you is to forestall the possibility of having your errors corrected; but this possibility is needed in order for you to know that your opinions are correct. The final premise of the argument is this: society is justified in collectively punishing somebody for the expression of an opinion only if they know that that opinion is false. Mill concludes that society is never justified in punishing somebody for the expression of an opinion. For adopting a policy of punishing those who express heterodox opinions takes away your knowledge that those opinions are false. And if you don’t know that what they are saying is false, then your punishment isn’t justified.

A subtlety with this argument is worth raising. Think about a case in which society has already attained knowledge of some moral, political, or religious truth. For those kinds of cases, Mill needs to say that the continued possibility of refutation is needed for us to continue to know this truth. I think that this is plausible. Think about a scientific analogue: suppose we currently know that general relativity is at least approximately correct. If we outlawed experiments designed to test general relativity, would this collective knowledge persist? I’m inclined to think it wouldn’t persist for very long. So I’m inclined to agree with Mill about this. But it’s worth noting nonetheless that Mill needs something more than the claim that collective knowledge isn’t ‘lucky’. He also needs to claim that dogmatically shielding an opinion from criticism defeats collective knowledge.

In summary: Mill argues for a free speech principle on the grounds that such a principle is needed for us to attain moral, political, or ethical knowledge. The argument isn’t that this kind of knowledge is a valuable end worth pursuing in-and-of itself (though he thinks it is). The argument is instead that this kind of knowledge would be needed for the punishment of an opinion to be just. Since punishment for the expression of an opinion would undermine and defeat the very knowledge needed for the punishment to be just, this kind of punishment is never just.

3. Free Speech and ‘Cancel Culture’

I’ve been talking throughout about ‘punishment’. By this, I mean a bit more than punishment by the state, or legal punishment. Legal punishment is one kind of punishment, but it is not the only kind. For instance, boycotts, tarring-and-feathering, and smear campaigns can also count as punishment.

If you’re persuaded by the Millian argument, you shouldn’t want to distinguish between these different forms of punishment. For, if that argument works, it works both for legal punishment for other kinds of punishments. American revolutionaries tarring-and-feathering someone for being a British sympathizer is only just if the revolutionaries know that the British sympathizer is incorrect; but if British sympathizers are tarred and feathered, then they will not share their opinions, and the American revolutionaries will have undermined their collective knowledge that these British sympathizers are wrong (supposing, for the sake of argument, that they were wrong).

Of course, not just anything which harms counts as a punishment. When a large group of people strongly disagree with and criticize me, this raises my blood pressure and leads to psychological distress, which is plausibly a harm. But it is not a punishment. Some people seem to understand ‘cancelling’ as a widespread expression of disagreement. If this is what ‘cancelling’ means, then cancelling as such does not conflict with a free speech principle. (In fact, commitment to free speech means promoting these kinds of ‘cancelling’.) What makes something a punishment? It’s not entirely clear, but I believe that intent must play a role—if a harm is a punishment, then your reason for harming somebody must be that you take them to have done something wrong. If your intent is simply to persuade or express disagreement, then even widespread and vehement criticism does not constitute punishment.

Nor is calling for somebody to be fired from their job necessarily calling for them to be punished. Consider a police officer who is caught on tape expressing racist views. In my opinion, a widespread call for the police officer to lose his job is not necessarily in conflict with a principle of free speech. If those calling for the officer to lose their job are doing so because, in their view, these opinions make him unfit for the job, then I don’t think that they are seeking punishment, and the calls are not in conflict with a free speech principle.

Nonetheless, some activities which have been called ‘cancelling’ do seem, in my opinion at least, to constitute punishment. In my opinion, there are some instances of groups engaging in a form of bullying with the intent of bringing harm—psychological distress, loss of income, loss of social status, or what-have-you—in retribution for expressed views. And this, I think, is inconsistent with a free speech principle. Some of us feel that these kinds of punishments have been happening with an increasing frequency—though I don’t have any hard data to verify that sense.

If that’s right, and if you endorse the free speech principle, then you have reason to be worried about these more extreme instances of ‘cancelling’. The principle of free speech can effectively serve its purpose of exposing us to the possibility of refutation only to the extent that a preponderance of society abides by the principle. As more and more people advocate punishment for increasingly banal and milquetoast opinions on certain topics, you will see fewer and fewer people willing to address ideological errors on those topics.

Notice that, to the extent that acts of ‘cancelling’ are carried out with the intent of intimidating and threatening those who disagree, they are not themselves covered under a principle of free speech—anymore than intimidating and threatening through cross-burning or accosting somebody on the street with racist taunts is covered. Of course, a principle of free speech must permit, and even encourage, criticizing the principle of free speech itself. So it must allow people to defend acts of ‘cancelling’. But it does not follow that it must permit the acts of ‘cancelling’ themselves. So I must disagree with those who characterize these acts of ‘cancelling’ as ‘just more speech’, or who characterize its criticism as suppressing speech. Opposition to ‘cancelling’ isn’t an objection to the things that people are saying with their words; it is an objection to the things that people are doing with their words.