The moral panic is a reaction by cultural gatekeepers to the democratising nature of online platforms, who otherwise cannot fathom being held accountable for their speech.
It was just five years ago that New York Magazine writer Jonathan Chait declared journalism to be besieged by a “system of left-wing ideological repression.” Political correctness, in Chait’s parlance, was “a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.”
Previously confined to academia, according to Chait, political correctness had gradually made inroads on social media and subsequently “attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.”
The main complaint of the now infamous open letter published by Harper’s Magazine does not vary from Chait’s denunciation of “political correctness” five years ago.
Much as Chait had bemoaned that debate had become “irrelevant and frequently impossible” due to political correctness, the letter decries that the very “norms of open debate and toleration of differences” are now threatened in favor of “ideological conformity.”
Nor are the stakes any different this time around.
Just as Chait warned that the growth of political correctness threatened democracy itself, the letter suggests that the “new set of moral attitudes and political commitments” make everyone “less capable of democratic participation.” Chait considered political correctness to be “antithetical to liberalism” and the letter maintains that the “lifeblood of a liberal society” is at risk.
It has now become common practice for prominent writers with access to platforms which reach millions to raise overwrought concerns that the very foundation of liberalism is crumbling.
What Chait called “political correctness” has increasingly come to be known as “cancel culture”: a supposedly censorious tendency which entails “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”
Ironically, what these writers and intellectuals consider to be a threat to free speech are in fact themselves acts of free speech.
Cancel culture, if one is to call it that, is merely an indication that free speech is alive and well. There is an audience which engages with the work of others and feels free to criticise what it does not like.
The responses can take many forms: criticism and “shaming” on social media, letters to the editor, or boycotts of publications, TV shows, and streaming platforms. These are all responses that an audience is entitled to and they are all well within the scope of free speech.
In their erstwhile desire to denounce the encroachment of the public on their turf, the guardians of our culture complain that they no longer feel as comfortable to share their opinions as before, due to how others may feel and react.
This is what the hand-wringing over and condemnations of “cancel culture” actually indicate. The immunity from criticism our cultural and political establishment enjoyed for so long has now been lost.
Access to liberal values has always been shaped by political contexts, material conditions, market incentives, cultural forces, and so on. This still remains true. What has changed is the growth of the internet as an open-forum.
The audience has access to tools which allow it to direct its ire at those who previously enjoyed unfettered access to traditional media and remained blissfully oblivious to the opinions of their readership.
Blogs in the early 2000s and social media, especially Twitter, since then have allowed and even amplified the voices of marginalised groups. It is these previously unheard voices which seem to be causing so much consternation to the cultural and political establishment.
The moral panic, thus, is merely an elite reaction to the democratising nature of engagement with traditional media which social media enables.
The gatekeepers can no longer control the terms of their engagement with their audience and are now treated to an unrelenting stream of criticism. They take this not just to be a personal affront but rather a significant cultural shift.
Free speech, and liberalism generally, face no threat from a sheltered cultural and political establishment finally being challenged or exposed to contrary views. In its classical liberal formulation, free speech guarantees protection from government persecution but not necessarily a platform to broadcast your views.
No one is entitled to a Netflix special or access to the opinion pages of the New York Times and no one’s freedom of speech is challenged when that access is “cancelled.” Never mind that many of those who are ostensibly cancelled actually go on to enjoy their lives and careers in much the same way as before.
As US House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out, no one has “the right to a large, captive audience” and does not become “a victim if people choose to tune them out.” The odds are, she continued, “you’re not actually cancelled, you’re just being challenged, held accountable, or unliked.”
It is telling that the Harper’s Magazine letter contains no concrete examples of how free speech is being threatened. The consequences for dissenting and marginalised voices have always been far more severe than disagreements and social media shaming.
Advocates of Palestinian self-determination are fired from their jobs and have their lives destroyed, Muslims are thrown in prison for translation work, Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists are threatened by intelligence agencies, and so on.
The “cancellation” of unnamed individuals from marginalised groups looks very different from the “cancellation” of a famous writer who may have to think twice before firing off another anti-trans tweet.
What the Harper’s letter, and denunciations of cancel culture generally, represent is an attempt to weaponise free speech to further constrict free speech: a list ditch effort by the self-appointed guardians of culture to ensure access remains limited to the select few.
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