digital rhetoric

free as in beer: speech in the social media market

Harper’s Magazine published a letter signed by 150 journalists, authors, artists, academics, and related folks basically in defense of free speech as we conventionally understand it and in opposition to cancel culture, broadly conceived. American Conservative followed with an op-ed in support of that letter (which, rhetorically speaking, probably doesn’t do many of the people who signed that letter any favors). It’s a short letter, but here’s the final bit.

The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

As I see it, there are really two parts to cancel culture. The first has to do with the collective, social-mediated action of cancelling, where a group of people try to convince more people to stop following or endorsing someone who says something objectionable. The second, follow-on part is an economic, market-based strategy wherein those calling for someone’s cancellation looks to have them fired by their employer or to boycott their products or the products of those who run commercials during their tv show or something like that.

I think we can agree that the first part is itself an example of free speech itself. If people want to get up in the public square and denounce another person, that’s free speech. The signatories to this letter may not approve of the rhetorical strategy of cancel culture, but their own argument asserts that their approval is not required for that speech to be accepted. The assertion that “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion” is a curious way to argue against cancel culture. Generally speaking, when I hear about the latest prominent cancel culture target (e.g. J.K. Rowling at this point), that’s when I also hear about the objectionable statement they made. That is, one of the primary things cancel culture does is expose a wider public to the objectionable words. In addition, it’s self-evident that cancel culture aims to be persuasive. The signatories may not agree with the argumentative-rhetorical-persuasive strategies that are employed in cancel culture, but again their own allegiance to free speech requires them to accept this form of argument.

This letter also asserts that we should not attempt to silence or wish away our opponents. And yet, one could say that is what they wish to do here. In fact, that’s how arguments often work. If I win an argument, then the opposing argument becomes silent. Of course that’s an abstraction, but let’s stay focused on political arguments in the public square. In these contexts rarely is there compromise and even more rare would be the situation in which those holding the positions have their views altered. Instead, these arguments are typically made for an uncommitted public audience. In short, public arguments are almost always about silencing one’s opponent.

I think the objection in this letter is to the form/genre of argument that cancel culture takes.

The second part of cancel culture is to pursue economic consequences for the targeted person. The letter points this out:

More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

To be clear, these actions are not directly in the control of those engaging in cancel culture. They are market-driven decisions made by institutions, corporations, etc.

As the saying goes, free as in speech is not the same as free as in beer. Speech comes at a cost. No one says there will be no consequences. We do not need cancel culture to learn this. The things you say to loved ones shape your relationships with them. What you say at a job interview could cost you a chance to be hired. Editors demand changes before they publish your work. That’s their job. Many news stories go unreported or under-reported for all kinds of economic and political reasons. Journalists in the WH press corps have to behave in certain ways if they want to keep their jobs. Students in my classes aren’t permitted to stand up and start yelling anything they want. As a SUNY professor I am legally prohibited from campaigning for a political candidate during my classes. In fact, we are generally restricted from certain kinds of speech in the workplace that are unrestricted (or have different consequences) elsewhere. What we say, where we say it, who we say it to: these things have always mattered.

I would hope that one thing we could learn in this moment is that many people do not experience the benefits of free speech described in this letter. To speak in “non-standard English” has come with consequences. To come out as gay has meant risking reprisals. To speak as a woman has meant risking one’s ideas being dismissed.

There are always borders on the space of “free speech” because it is market-driven. You face the consequences of your audience’s judgments and you have to pay costs from the labor of constructing your message to paying for a platform to distribute your message. Even this blog costs $. And if you’re on Twitter or Facebook or whatever then you pay in other ways with your intellectual property and personal information.

Here I am reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s work on Kafka and minor literature. If you have the benefit of being in the middle of accepted speech then those borders are like a picturesque romantic landscape painting. They describe the context in which your words make sense. For others though, those borders cut right across their bodies.

In other words, those worries described in this letter are not new worries. The letter begins with recognizing the “needed reckoning” on matters like “police reform.” The signatories to this letter should understand that one of the ways police violence occurs is through speech. A citizen who speaks in the “wrong way,” with a particular accent or a lack of appropriate “respect” as the cop sees it, can find their lives in danger. In short, what you’re experiencing if you are fearing for your livelihood because of your speech is what millions of others have felt for a very long time. The institutions that have secured your or my feeling of safety are the same ones that have threatened them.

None of this is to suggest that injustices have not been carried out in the same of cancel culture. I’m not thinking of any specific cases. I’m only saying that these are the actions of groups of humans and all such groups are capable of injustice. We are in the midst of shift in rhetorical practice. It is risky. It could go wrong. There’s plenty of historical evidence of things going wrong in societies. At the same time, we need to recognize we cannot and should not go back to the way things were.

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