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The Censorship of 'Cancel Culture' May Ultimately Be Most Dangerous for Social Justice Champions

Calling on institutions to bar those with odious views on race and gender empowers them to also exclude those championing equality and progressive change.

In 2014, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign community rallied in support of Professor Stephen Salaita, who was terminated from his tenured faculty position for criticizing Israel on social media. (Photo: Jeffrey Putney/flickr/cc)

In 2014, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign community rallied in support of Professor Stephen Salaita, who was terminated from his tenured faculty position for criticizing Israel on social media. (Photo: Jeffrey Putney/flickr/cc)

Since President Donald Trump came to office, he has let loose a torrent of bigotry through his attacks on immigrants, minorities and women. It’s no surprise that his noxious rhetoric has fed the urgency of citizen-led efforts to banish hate.

The #MeToo movement, mounting popular opposition to racism and police violence, and mobilizations against anti-Asian, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant hostility have all been galvanized by Trump’s menacing of vulnerable groups. The resulting dialogue has allowed previously silenced communities to gain voice and audience, and has catalyzed dramatic shifts in public opinion and new policies to eradicate systemic racism, sexual harassment, transphobia and other forms of marginalization.

If authorities are at liberty to punish expression, they will, on balance, deploy that prerogative self-servingly to suppress critics.

We should celebrate these developments as victories for open debate and the power of free speech to effect meaningful social change. As social movements gain momentum, though, their supporters should recognize that the free speech rights that make possible their progress should form a part of what they are fighting for. Instead, in some instances, we see the opposite: an attempt to silence those who question or buck the cause through demands for institutional punishments directed at speech.

"The current movement toward a more equitable, just society will be strengthened by rejecting an instinctive impulse to appeal to authorities to punish errant speech."

The campaign for a more just and equitable society is vital. Those who campaign against offending speech are themselves exercising their free speech rights; a noxious opinion revealing racism or misogyny deserves a scathing rebuke. But when citizen-led campaigns cross over into demanding official retribution for offending speech, they can yield unintended consequences.

Reflexive demands to punish errant speech discourage people from engaging in the kinds of dissent and deliberation that keep a society dynamic and prevent rigid orthodoxies from hardening. Even more dangerously, demands for such reprisals reinforce the notion that society’s powerful institutions should act as gatekeepers defining the bounds of acceptable ideas and discourse.

It’s risky to assume that institutional authorities can be empowered to suppress the expression of odious views on issues such as race and gender, without that license someday being used to stamp out the views of those advocating social justice, challenging officialdom or demanding reform.

Indeed, the very premise of free speech protections is that without them — if authorities are at liberty to punish expression — they will, on balance, deploy that prerogative self-servingly to suppress critics. A prime example is Trump, who decries “cancel culture” but has used the power of his office to retaliate against journalists, muzzle scientists, urge the NFL to blackball quarterback Colin Kaepernick and suppress critical books.

But this behavior is not just confined to Trump. Take the case of Florissa Fuentes, a Springfield, Massachusetts, detective who was dropped from the force last month after posting a photo of her niece with protest signs hostile to police, a dismissal that provoked an outcry. It turns out that three years earlier, the Springfield Police Department had fired another officer for posting insensitive criticism of peaceful protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. While many of us might have cheered the removal of the first officer, it set the stage for firing Flores to avoid what the city’s mayor called a “double standard.”

And it’s not just government institutions that have been roped in to discipline offensive views. In Cleveland, a museum exhibition by a Black artist was canceled when protesters objected to images of police brutality they viewed as disturbing. A research consultant allegedly lost his job for tweeting about a study by a Black scholar at Princeton University suggesting violent protests could trigger a conservative backlash. A Boeing executive was pushed out after an employee filed an ethics complaint based on an article he wrote that made sexist arguments against allowing women in combat. Even though he wrote the piece 33 years ago and has since expressed remorse, these mitigating factors fell by the wayside.

Academia, despite its stake in the strength of free inquiry and open discourse, is a particular focus of calls for institutional power to be deployed against problematic views. Activists now scour social media to catch teenagers who at some point uttered slurs and send the incriminating evidence to university officials. In more than a dozen cases, offers of admission have been rescinded. Such incidents cross ideological lines: Ann Coulter’s mockery of a Harvard undergraduate who used TikTok to jokingly threaten to stab anyone who said “all lives matter” cost the student a consulting job. A student at Fordham University was punished when students complained about a photo he posted on Instagram of himself holding a gun, referencing in the comments the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square.

To be sure, punishments for speech are sometimes warranted. When words threaten or harass, they can violate the law. When a person in a position of power, such as a professor or a supervisor, denigrates others on the basis of sex, race or sexual orientation, they may deprive students or employees of their legal rights to equal opportunity in an educational or employment environment. When a prominent institution’s standard-bearer flouts its values or sullies its reputation to the point where a majority of stakeholders lose confidence in that person’s leadership, removal may be appropriate.

Outside of these clear lines, however, we should be leery of inviting institutions to more aggressively police speech. Throughout U.S. history and around the world in places such as China, Turkey and Iran, it is dissidents, minorities and government critics who have been most vulnerable absent robust free speech protections.

Those taking to the streets to eradicate racism and remake the police rely on free speech protections to resist government efforts to silence their movement and message. If Trump and his allies had not been constrained by the First Amendment and the uproar of leaders and citizens alarmed to see it breached, he might well have made good on threats to shut down the protests with violent force.

It’s of course important to emphasize that when institutions do submit to outcry and punish speakers, the decision-makers bear prime responsibility for taking unwise steps that chill speech. They hold the power and, at least in theory, are free to resist impassioned appeals from employees, protesters or tweeters.

It’s ultimately up to us to express when we find views unacceptable and then demonstrate why and how they should change, rather than calling on the authorities to clamp down.

But it’s also true that power is distributed in complex ways. We implore leaders to be responsive to employees and the public. While principled leadership remains an essential bulwark against governance by Twitter outrage, online choruses have considerable sway themselves, particularly at a time when reasoned laments can give way to death threats.

That’s why it’s ultimately up to us to express when we find views unacceptable and then demonstrate why and how they should change, rather than calling on the authorities to clamp down.

Achieving social change requires pulling along vast groups of people who don’t get it at first and then gradually come around. They will do so more readily when they don’t fear that anything they say can and will be used against them by the places they depend on for education, employment and political representation. The current movement toward a more equitable, just society will be strengthened by rejecting an instinctive impulse to appeal to authorities to punish errant speech.

Suzanne Nossel

Suzanne Nossel is CEO of PEN America. She was formerly executive director of Amnesty International USA and deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the State Department.

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