Or: How to Start Having a Better Debate About Speech
Federal police roaming downtown Portland in unmarked vehicles to snatch protesters off the street are the most convincing argument that the “cancel culture” discourse is dangerously overblown. The now infamous open letter in Harper’s has aged so poorly that it’s merely bone dust now.
Yet there remains value in trying to understand the debate on speech, largely because we are in an epistemic break driven by new voices having their say. There is a more complex discussion to be had on the left about marginalisation, silencing, bullying, and so forth; about catharsis masquerading as activism, say, or about traumatised people hurting each other because their communities can’t or won’t support them. And yet, obviously, this is not what the Harper’s letter was about. Indeed, the letter and the high profile resignations of people like Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan seem suspect in their timing considering the fact that political science professor and pundit Yascha Mounk is starting a brand new platform called “Persuasion” whose About page reads like a first draft of The Letter, and whose initial contributor list is almost entirely made up of signatories.
We’re condemned to this discourse. But we cannot have a speech debate worth having until we accept a fundamental fact:
There are no free speech absolutists.
There are two broad issues that have to be reckoned with in any honest discussion about speech. First, most speech debates are not about the value of free speech itself, but about other values guiding our beliefs about the ideal conduct of speech; the second is the fact that if call-out culture or cancel culture is real, most of its actual victims are people we almost never hear about and whose concerns would never trouble most “free speech defenders.”
The lack of honesty about these issues bedevils the speech debate in the mainstream press, which continues to be prosecuted as a fight between those who are either for or against free speech. But every signatory on The Letter believes in curbing free speech; most are simply not candid about that.
The Values Question
In defending the open letter, some claim that the hypocrisy of some signatories (e.g. Bari Weiss agitating to get professors fired for their views) matters less than the nobility of the letter’s ideas. But the actions of the signatories offer the only real-world context for those ideas—one of whom cheered on a SLAPP lawsuit threat I received from a right-wing YouTuber. Indeed, she explicitly hoped for my impoverishment. Clearly she thought my speech was out of bounds, that I said things that Ought Not Be Said, and that I even deserved punishment for this.
That sort of thing is context. Indeed, it is some of the only context the Harper’s letter provides. It demonstrates the emptiness of its content and how thoroughly it sidesteps the very heart of the argument it claims to intervene in. How do we decide on which values guide speech?
Every signatory, and everyone who enthused about the letter, believes that some things simply shouldn’t be said—either from the privileged site of a platform, or at all. Such limits exist at every level of even the freest society, from a whole nation, to a subculture, to a given space, to a given affinity group. Debates about speech are about where and how to draw the boundaries and not truly about whether such boundaries should even exist. The boundaries in question are informal; they are neither drawn nor policed by titled state actors, but by the subtler forms of enjoinment that define any society. And, as with any informal system, it is wide open to abuse.
Yet this issue is not addressed in grandiose declarations like the open letter. They can’t be because they force the would-be free speech absolutist to accept the fact that they are not so absolute after all. It is easier and more satisfying to believe your opponents are “illiberal” vandals on the “reactionary left” who want to destroy the beautiful marble colonnades of “the free exchange of ideas” and “a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.”
By design, these are abstract “principles” with positive-sounding words that few could disagree with. Yet in reality, these would-be absolutists are no different from me.
What we actually disagree about is where lines should be drawn, not whether they should be drawn at all. In a rousing debate with Mounk, The New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu made this abundantly clear as he criticised the signatories for being mysteriously silent about Fox News firing Tucker Carlson’s racist writer, Blake Neff, for a slew of bigoted posts he made on a private forum:
“Now, the response to people who bring this up has generally been, well look you shouldn’t lump this in with other cases, because Blake Neff is a racist. And this is where it gets sticky. Once you say it’s OK for somebody to lose their job because they’re a racist, the question then becomes, OK what is racism? What is sexism; what is transphobia? It becomes not a question of speech and liberalism in the abstract, with one side supporting liberalism and free discourse and the other side not supporting liberalism and free discourse. It’s a question of where the lines are. And people are functionally going to disagree about that.”
Mounk’s response was to essentially dodge that point. Who could be surprised, however? It forces the pseudo-absolutist onto messier terrain, denying them the “I know it when I see it” consensus they share with their fellow travellers. To actually specify what limits should be imposed where would lead to a breakdown among their number, dissolving into a bitter debate that denial has rendered them ill-equipped to have.
There’s a recursive quality to the arguments about cancel culture that never gets addressed. Who is the biggest canceller? The canceller or the one who cancels them for cancelling? It’s not just that the term “cancel culture” is meaningless in much the same way that “political correctness” is; it’s that it’s meaningless for the same reason. It describes behaviours everyone participates in to one degree or another, setting informal boundaries for what can and ought not be said.
The Harper’s open letter was defended by many people who claimed that criticism of the signatories’ privilege—and the fact that several are fabulously wealthy, famous, and do not want for platforms—missed the point. The letter was written on behalf of the voiceless, you see. The main textual evidence for this was the following line: “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 more notable thing about that sentence, however, is that it disappears, well, the people being disappeared in Portland right now. It suggests a false equivalence between the machinery of an oppressive state and its monopoly on mortal violence with Twitter toxicity.
This is further belied by the letter’s own examples of cancel culture gone amok: “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces,” (i.e. Bennet) or “the heads of organizations” who are “ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.” Not exactly “those who lack power,” is it?
What of those who do genuinely lack power, though? Do they run afoul of “progressive orthodoxy”? That is an inapt framing because it locates the problem almost entirely in left-wing political identification, but the short answer is: yes. The problem for many of the signatories isthat these are the same people they want to exclude from discourse and decisionmaking, so it would be inconvenient to mention them.
Trans women of colour, for instance, especially those of us with working class backgrounds who were not raised by parents who hosted dinner parties have sometimes chafed against the in-group/out-group dynamics of some activist groups, especially those dominated by well-educated middle class white people; crucially, however, this often happens because of latent transmisogyny or misogynoir or classism.
Meanwhile, I’ve also seen cis Black women targeted by white women who weaponise “safe space” discourse against them, transmuting their fear of Blackness into rhetoric more palatable to social justice oriented spaces. “I feel threatened,” so easily recognised as racist when, say, a white police officer or Amy Cooper uttered it, is alchemised into victimhood intelligible to progressive rhetoric: “this is supposed to be a safe space.”
This is why I have, for years, cautioned against treating activist insights—for instance, the fact that “tone policing” is a thing—as inflexible rules. Particularly in the hands of young white activists who are coming into their own, it can be too easy to slot these “rules” into a system of informal power that they just so happen to already dominate. But again, such insights would not really interest most of the letter’s signatories unless they can be twisted to reinforce their own power. For instance, Times columnist Michelle Goldberg (who signed the open letter) took a shine to my 2014 essay on this topic and interviewed me for a piece in the Nation about call-out culture. What I didn’t realise was that she had cast writer and activist Mikki Kendall as the piece’s villain, for allegedly being rude to too many white women on Twitter.
Looking back on those pieces of mine from 2014, I realise that I was still rather naïve, myself. At the time I wrote things like “There are some people whose records are such that they could indeed be justly called ‘an unrepentant racist’ or ‘pathological transphobe,’ but there are many more whose mistakes deserve far, far less fire in response. Some may not have made prejudicial mistakes at all.”—such notions are not far afield of the Harper’s letter, especially in isolation. There is much I would write differently today, and I still tried to have it both ways about the Nation article, still trying to claim there was room for us somewhere in an enterprise that was specifically about erasing us. I regret that deeply.
Thus, I can empathise with people of colour who saw something like justice in the open letter’s Rorschach inkblot, like The Nation’s Jeet Heer who signed on behalf of silenced Palestinian activists, or Reed College professor Lucía Martínez Valdivia who was horrified to find the space she shared with transphobes (she has since had her name removed from the letter). But when vague statements of principle are put into the public sphere, the interpretation that favours those with the most power will win out.
Back in 2014, though, I at least made a point of highlighting the fact that when marginalised people talked about callout culture we were referring to how the experiences of Black and brown trans women were colonised into mute rules by white queer activists, or how multiply marginalised people in activist communities fear making a mistake, or how “calling in” might be a more productive way of hashing out pain and disagreement.
Notably, in all of that discourse (some of which is now a decade old), there was discussion of “disposability,” a term that almost never appears in mainstream free speech jeremiads against what is now called “cancel culture.” We fear our energy, power, vulnerability, and pain being bled from us to fuel the personal or political power of more privileged activists or scholars or journalists who would then simply get rid of us when we had nothing left to give. We also feared the horizontal hostility that comes from hurt people hurting people, which meant we often feared each other. Indeed, I was nearly driven away from speaking publicly about trans politics by another translatina back when I was a baby tran, for instance.
Over the years I’ve seen how brutal we as trans women can be to each other because so few of us achieve anything like mainstream visibility, each bearing the unenviable weight of a diverse community’s expectations. Either we somehow manage to be all things to all trans people or we implode. Invariably, we fail, or just distance ourselves from the community.
Yet whenever these stories are picked up by mainstream sources they are invariably positioned as cautionary tales about how “the left,” writ large, eats its own, as the cancel culture reaching its logical conclusion, rather than what it’s always been: marginalised people being held hostage in their own spaces to white supremacy and other forms of structural prejudice.
If you can find any of that complexity in the Harper’s letter, anywhere other than a gloss that massively over-interprets a single line, do let me know.
There are, of course, many texts in the open letter’s genre; several are already going up on Persuasion. But the letter remains a useful touchstone because it so perfectly distils everything wrong with that way of thinking. The free speech defender genre is, here, distilled down to its essence as a bundle of clichés in search of a principle. I am far from alone in criticising its lack of specificity. But I had hoped to add these two larger points: recognising that speech debates are about values rather than whether speech should be curbed, and recognising that the bitter debate about callout culture/cancel culture on the left has a much more complicated discourse among the very people the Harper’s letter claims to protect.
We’re not stupid. We know that when the “free speech defenders” criticise the hypocrisy of white social justice activists they are doing so to silence them, not elevate our voices, our expertise, our theory. That is both the truth about both our victimisation by callouts and why some of us are “toxic” as a matter of survival (I strongly recommend Sydette Harry’s thoughts on Crash Override here).
What I despair about is how little we have been able to advance this conversation, especially in public. It’s not a coincidence that whatever language we use to describe anti-social behaviour in activist circles is very quickly seized on by those with real power as a shield, but I wish I knew how to circumvent this.
Can we do better? Perhaps, but not by pretending that it is actually possible to be a free speech absolutist; aside from a few people who are perfectly consistent in opposing any state intervention upon speech, there are no true absolutists. What is at stake is what has always been at stake: our values. The debate about intra-left speech is often parallel to the wider debate about speech in our society as a whole, but these things are conflated to the detriment of the whole conversation.
“The School of Athens,” meanwhile, does not depict a real place, nor even an ideal that is frequently achieved by its loudest proponents. It does not depict the progress of democracy, nor how societies decide which debates have had their day. Dealing with speech and association as a society has never been particularly easy or fun, but we are doing it right now through speech. Perhaps it is worth listening to what the unheard have to say.
Influences on this piece include Julia Serano’s “Excluded,” which is a thoughtful discussion of exclusionary dynamics in queer communities, and this excellent recent thread by writer Kai Cheng Thom.
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