Culture & Society

In Defense of Unpopular Ideas

In the current cancel culture, both cancelers and anti-cancelers get it wrong

Image credit: “St. Augustine Arguing with Donatists,” Charles-André van Loo, French (1705–1765)/Wikimedia Commons

The pattern is now familiar: someone says something and another person takes offense. The offended party then takes to social media to accuse the speaker of participating in and even embodying the gravest of social ills and moral wrongs. Anyone who is associated with the speaker is labeled as “complicit” or “adjacent” and thereby encouraged to stop associating with the speaker. Friendships and careers can be destroyed, sometimes in a matter of hours.

The corrosive and chilling effect of these practices is so obvious that many are speaking out against this new “cancel culture.” Yet it is all too common to hear critics of these practices assert that of course their defense of free speech does not extend to Nazis, pedophiles, or other deplorables. There are limits, as all decent people recognize.

But those who take this view are censors, just like their opponents; they just want to censor a narrower range of beliefs. The difference between the critics of and apologists for cancel culture is not the principled difference that anti-cancelers make it out to be. It is, instead, a negotiation over where to draw the line between the acceptable and the unacceptable.

Defenders of free speech will generally attempt to draw this line in one of two places. The first appeals to the Overton Window: the problem with cancel culture is that it censors mainstream views. But this is indefensible. To say that mainstream views should not be censored is to say that the current social consensus of what speech is acceptable is exactly correct in all its contours; that is a radically conservative view of the bounds of acceptable speech. Surely there are some views that are considered disreputable but shouldn’t be and some views that are considered reasonable but aren’t.

And, of course, this is precisely the position of the cancelers: that some views currently considered reasonable are truly beyond the pale and worthy of social sanction. If you get fired for expressing a mainstream view, it’s because that view shouldn’t be in the mainstream. And indeed, this kind of boundary shifting is exactly what’s happening. For example, it is no longer acceptable in polite society to say “All lives matter.” The phenomenon of cancel culture is itself a shifting of the Overton Window. Defenders of cancel culture will say that this shift is a good thing. The range of views that are considered acceptable is being brought in line with the range of views that should be.

Thus, anti-cancelers will often appeal to a second moral line to defend any censorship. They argue that the views worthy of censorship are those that are genuinely morally wrong, such as Nazism or a defense of pedophilia. If there’s nothing morally wrong with a view, they say, then one ought not to be censored for expressing it.

But again, this is precisely the position of the cancelers. No one is being canceled for expressing morally good views. They’re being canceled for expressing morally repugnant views. The cancelers just have different ideas about what views are morally wrong. For a practitioner of cancel culture, saying “All lives matter” can be just as morally repugnant as Nazism, and those who say it should receive the same appropriate punishment.

Because of this, I think the “of course there are limits” line is a mistake. Those who repeat it show that their disagreement is not over the permissibility of cancelation or the desirability of free expression. Again, it’s a line-drawing exercise, a moral disagreement over which views are “beyond the pale.”

But for a defender of free expression, no view is beyond the pale. It’s time to rediscover the wisdom of “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The first clause of that motto is just as important as the second. To be a defender of free expression does not mean that all views should be accepted without comment. Some ideas are deeply abhorrent. But the proper response to an abhorrent idea is to disagree with it. Bad ideas must be countered not with condemnation but with good ideas.

This might seem absurd. Consider Nazism or pedophilia. Surely those views are beyond the pale! But is it really so inappropriate to counter Nazism with the force of better ideas rather than denunciation? Are there not excellent reasons to reject Nazism? And can those ideas not be eloquently and forcefully expressed? There’s simply no need to dodge the Nazi’s views and instead launch attacks on his or her platform and livelihood. There’s plenty that can be said against Nazism, and saying it should be more than adequate.

The more transparently wrong an idea is, the easier it will be to defeat that idea conclusively by exposing its flaws. There is no need to censor an absurd idea. And the less transparently wrong an idea is, the more hesitant we should be to censor. If there are good arguments to be made on either side of an issue, we should take both sides of the argument seriously. After all, we might be in the wrong. And even if we’re right, we stand to learn from the debate. Debate, not denunciation, is the appropriate response to all bad ideas.

Some will find this line of reasoning naïve. Committed Nazis will not accept our arguments; our speech will not move them. Yet neither will depriving them of their jobs or friends. If you fire someone for holding an opinion, that person’s response will not be to became convinced that his or her opinion was wrong. The more likely response is bitterness, and perhaps increased radicalization. Who wants to be on the side of the mob that got someone fired?

But by depriving Nazis of their livelihood or platform, have we not thereby limited their influence, preventing poisonous ideas from spreading? Not at all. By attacking the person rather than the idea, the idea remains unchallenged. The idea may even gain a frisson of subversive cool: these are the ideas that The Man doesn’t want you to hear. That will make those ideas more appealing to people who might already be disposed to accept them. Good ideas are the only antibodies that fight off bad ideas.

Perhaps the thought is that we must censor the Nazi because these views could lead to violence. This is worth worrying about, but as recent events in Portland and elsewhere have revealed with disturbing clarity, even advocates of morally admirable views can use their views to justify violence. In all events, it is violence that is worthy of censure, not ideas.

Despite all of this, we can recognize that sometimes people should lose their jobs for their views, but only in very narrow circumstances where someone’s views are directly relevant to their job. Blake Neff, the head writer for Tucker Carlson’s show on FOX, was fired for expressing deeply racist views. This seems appropriate, but not because Neff is a racist per se, but because he was the head writer of a political opinion show. Not having racist views was his job, in a very real sense. It would have been just as appropriate to fire Neff for expressing progressive political opinions.

We can also recognize some legal limits on freedom of speech. If speech is against the law, then the question of societal censorship doesn’t even arise. Speech that furthers fraudulent activity, for instance, is not legally protected, nor should it be.

As private citizens and actors, when we attempt to limit the range of acceptable speech by denunciation and depriving people of their livelihood, we undercut our own goals. When we encounter ideas that we disagree with, we must drive those ideas from the public square with the force of better ideas, not with social coercion or attacks on someone’s livelihood. That’s true no matter how unpopular the bad idea is. Why have so many forgotten this?

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