Cancel Culture is Not Consistent with Freethought


I think it would be safe to assume that every one of us has had the experience of experiencing an impulse to say something in response to something happening around us, thinking better of it, and choosing to keep our mouth shut in that moment. That is, we are all used to inhibiting our impulses to speak out when it is in our interest to do so. One of the more popular narratives on the left at the moment is that staying silent in the face of what they consider injustice makes us complicit to the injustice. Some take this narrative a few steps further by saying that silence is violence. I think they are selective about the context in which silence equates to violence, but it seems to be a position that is becoming more popular.

Maybe we should rethink whether to hold our tongues as we often do. Nobody wants to be complicit in injustice, after all. Where things get tricky is that people have very different ideas about what counts as injustice. What if I considered something unjust that many on the left supported. If I spoke out against that, I'd quickly be labeled an enemy and treated as such. Setting aside our reason and responding with outrage whenever the urge strikes us would feel good, but this does not mean we should do so or that doing so is without risk.

That said, there is something genuinely appealing about the notion that not speaking out against something one opposes helps whatever it is that one opposes. Although I disagree with those who claim that remaining silent is equally bad as causing the problem in the first place, I'm not sure they are entirely wrong to suggest that silence could be viewed as tacit approval. I oppose church-state violations. But if I was faced with one and decided to ignore it, I could see how some might decide I was okay with it. This wouldn't necessarily be the case, but it could be the case.

With all this in mind, I'd like to state for the record that I oppose what is now being called cancel culture, a particularly vicious form of outrage culture in which the outraged seek to harm someone who said something with which they disagree. The intended harm takes many forms, but it usually includes efforts to get the person fired. Someone says something objectionable, and an angry mob utilizes social media to publicly shame the offender and pressure their employer to fire them. It doesn't matter if the offender has a family counting on them for financial support. That's their problem. The mob never considers how their actions might inflict poverty on the offender's children.

It doesn't seem like it was that long ago that liberals used to worry about things like poverty. We thought the many disadvantages it confers contributed to a troubling lack of equity. The idea that we'd deliberately inflict it on someone is hard to reconcile with liberalism. With cancel culture, these considerations no longer apply. All that matters is harming the offender. The mob accepts no responsibility for the harm it inflicts. This is about punishing the offender and sending a message to everyone else. Collateral damage in the form of harmed family members is ignored or justified through a variety of cognitive processes some psychologists refer to as moral disengagement.

I cannot reconcile this behavior with anything remotely like humanism, compassion, empathy for others, justice, due process, or the rule of law. It is vigilantism, plain and simple. It is the sort of thing Orwell described in 1984, and it has no place in a democratic society. This cancel culture stuff should make atheists, freethinkers, and anyone else who holds unpopular views very nervous. Just because the focus is on race today does not mean that the negative things you have to say about religion will not be considered unacceptable tomorrow.

In the end, I think this all comes down to the sort of empathy that is one of the most basic building blocks of humanism. We have all made mistakes, and all of us do or say things today that we may eventually view as mistakes. Others have forgiven us for our mistakes, and we need to extend this courtesy to others. We need to allow growth and change without seeking to destroy everyone who offends our sensibilities. This is the only way we are going to have the world we want instead of one of those post-apocalyptic scenarios with warlords and militias. We can and should criticize ideas with which we disagree, but we need to stop pretending we have the moral authority to punish those who dare to express views we don't like. Remember, we are supposed to be the ones who oppose punishing blasphemy.