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Opinion

KNOWLES: The Bad Faith Debate Over ‘Cancel Culture’

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It is high time we cancel “cancel culture” — if not the phenomenon then at least the slogan, which has engendered tedious and dishonest debates that fail even to address the issue that those two words describe.

Such debates begin when someone makes a comment that offends leftist sensibilities. The offender may be a public figure or a private citizen; he may be a rock-ribbed conservative or a heterodox liberal. Whatever the circumstances of the offender, leftist activists mobilize to attack his reputation and destroy his career. Conservatives then decry “cancel culture,” attack leftist “censorship,” and extol the virtues of “free speech,” at which point the leftist censors observe that the First Amendment does not prevent “private companies” from censoring whomever they please.

The cancelers next observe that the American free speech tradition does not protect citizens from any and all consequences that might result from their speech. Finally, they point to the many examples throughout American history of conservatives’ suppressing radical speech, from the Alien and Sedition Acts all the way up through McCarthyism and beyond, and they accuse the Right of hypocrisy.

But opponents of “cancel culture” are not hypocritical; they’re just imprecise. Political activists of all stripes rely on slogans to represent and popularize complex ideas. A debate in good faith may make use of slogans, but it will address the ideas that the slogans represent. Bad-faith debates, on the contrary, often deal primarily with slogans, misconstruing them to score political points by refuting opinions that one’s opponents do not actually hold.

The slogan “cancel culture,” much like the slogan “pro-life,” refers to a specific phenomenon. “Cancel culture” describes the present inclination to censor and ostracize people who contradict leftist orthodoxy. “Cancel culture” does not refer to the general belief that people ought never to incur consequences for the things they say or write, nor does it suggest that society ought to have no standards whatsoever. No one believes that an employee who shows up do work in a brown shirt and yells, “Seig Heil!” from the water cooler has some sacred right to keep his job. Defenders of “cancel culture” evade the issue by straw-manning their opponents’ views.

The American legal system has prohibited large swaths of speech from our nation’s earliest days, including fraud, sedition, threats, and obscenity, among other categories. Laws such as the Smith Act have empowered the government — rightly, in the opinion of this author — to prosecute communists and other subversives who sought to overthrow the government by force of violence in the middle of the twentieth century. One may both support laws that suppress communism and oppose “cancel culture” without hypocrisy because cancel culture refers to a specific phenomenon. Constitutionalism and communism are both forms of government, but they differ in substance. There is nothing hypocritical about embracing one set of standards and opposing its opposite.

Bad-faith debates over the ethics and legality of abortion follow a similar pattern. Opponents of abortion use the term “pro-life” as shorthand for their belief that babies ought not to be butchered in the womb. The slogan does not refer to a general opposition to the use of deadly force — say, by the police, military, or civil authority — nor does it represent some utopian wish to avoid or abolish death. Debates over capital punishment, pacifism, or the extension of human life have their place. But it is not hypocritical to support capital punishment and oppose abortion because the two issues involve different moral questions, no matter what a slogan might suggest.

Supporters of “cancel culture,” like defenders of abortion, act in bad faith when they interpret their opponents’ slogans to mean something they do not and never have meant. The tactic precludes the possibility of substantive debate. But then perhaps that is point.

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The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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