The talking point in social media at the moment (in my bubble, at least) seems to be the letter on justice and open debate, signed by 150 luminaries. It’s not been universally well-received. There was some quite measured comments in this article, and somewhat blunter ones in this article.
I find this quite a confusing issue. This is partly because people whose views I generally respect seem to disagree quite strongly about this, and make some compelling arguments both for, and against. I certainly agree that there are some serious problems with current public discourse; it would certainly be nice if it were easier to have good faith discussions about contentious issues. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that there is some major problem that we might describe as a “cancel culture”.
To be quite honest, I’m not even quite sure what “cancel culture” is, or even if it has been clearly defined. Where do you draw the line between a society threatening “cancel culture” and robust disagreements that might have gone further than we might like? How do we distinguish between someone justifiably objecting to what another person is promoting, and them trying to unacceptably silence/cancel the other person? When is it okay for an organisation to penalise one of their members for what they’ve said publicly and when should we expect organisations to defend their members in the interests of free speech, even if they also object to what was said?
My issue with this narrative is partly based on my experiences in the public climate debate. Most of those who complain about censorship, or being silenced/cancelled, seem to be those who say things that deserve to be criticised and simply don’t want to engage with their critics; it’s more about deligitimising one’s critics, than defending free speech. My understanding is that a number of those who signed the letter have similar reputations.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t be concerned about attacks on free speech. It doesn’t mean that some of what is highlighted in the context “cancel culture” aren’t things that decent people should object to. However, we should also be careful of dealing with things like this in ways that end up deligitimising valid criticisms, and underming valid social movements. In fact, I can’t quite see how we can deal with some kind of “cancel culture” (however defined) that doesn’t end up doing the very thing we’re trying to avoid.
Of course, I may well misunderstand many aspects of this; it is clearly a complex issue. I had intended to make this a bit of an open thread but, as usual, have written too much. I’d certainly be interested to hear what others think about this issue.