In the lively debate about “cancel culture” provoked by that letter to Harper’s magazine, there’s one point which I fear is underplayed. This is that there are understandable reasons why reasonably educated middle-aged people should be surprised and discomforted by what the Harper’s signatories call “moral certainty” and what Janice Turner calls an “angry throng.” It’s because several strands of the western liberal tradition simply don’t prepare them for this, and have left some of us – including me – befuddled by da yoot. One thing I’m thinking of here is Rawlsian liberalism. This rests upon the concept of a veil of ignorance, which requires that we slough off any knowledge of our identity – our race, gender, religion or intellectual abilities and beliefs – and build an idea of a
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In the lively debate about “cancel culture” provoked by that letter to Harper’s magazine, there’s one point which I fear is underplayed. This is that there are understandable reasons why reasonably educated middle-aged people should be surprised and discomforted by what the Harper’s signatories call “moral certainty” and what Janice Turner calls an “angry throng.” It’s because several strands of the western liberal tradition simply don’t prepare them for this, and have left some of us – including me – befuddled by da yoot.
One thing I’m thinking of here is Rawlsian liberalism. This rests upon the concept of a veil of ignorance, which requires that we slough off any knowledge of our identity – our race, gender, religion or intellectual abilities and beliefs – and build an idea of a just society independent of our own identities. This invites us to perform a psychological trick, to distance “ourselves” from who we are and what we believe.
Such a trick is reinforced by some readings of Richard Rorty’s liberal irony. the idea that we cannot find a “God's-eye point of view” which frees us “from the contingency of having been acculturated as we were.”
Now, one interpretation of this is that it rejects gender (and racial) essentialism. But it also warns us to beware of the limits of that acculturation and of how our identity constrains our thinking. Hence the need, said Rorty, for free speech:
Our best chance for transcending our acculturation is to be brought up in a culture which prides itself on not being monolithic – on its tolerance for a plurality of subcultures and its willingness to listen to neighbouring cultures. (Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, p14)
A further, separate, influence here is the cognitive biases research inspired by Daniel Kahneman. In its worse interpretations (and I might have been guilty of these!) this invites us to see other people as a mass of errors of judgment. But it has a better reading – that we ourselves are also easily mistaken.
These traditions are – or should be – a massive influence upon educated people of my age. Taken together, they are antithetical to what Helen Lewis called the desire for a simple world, or what Richard Sennett called “purified identities”. Instead, these traditions encourage a cool-headed scepticism in which we are alive to the possibility that we are mistaken, and can distance ourselves from who we are and what we believe. A.J.P. Taylor expressed this tradition when he said he had “extreme views, weakly held.” This blog’s tagline – an extremist not a fanatic – is in the same tradition.
If you come from this background – as liberal centrists do – you will be discomforted by anger, moral certainty and attempts to close down debate. It’s the product of their acculturation.
But is it justified? There has always been scepticism about whether we really can pull off the Rawlsian trick of separating “ourselves” from our identity: this was expressed by Michael Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. It is easier to be a liberal ironist if you are a white man than if you are somebody whose gender and race defines their oppression and marginalization. In this sense, it’s a lovely irony that those influenced by the liberal tradition are failing to do what Rorty encouraged us to do and are not transcending the limits of their acculturation. It’s also of course the case that ironic self-reflection has not always been prominent in the writings of all those who are opposed to “cancel culture.”
Indeed, we can level more serious charges at some opponents of “cancel culture”. One is hypocrisy. Some of them have been happy to overlook the marginalization (cancellation) of BAME or trans people (or Marxists) in the media for years. Some, as Andrew Gelman says, “want to maintain their power by suppressing dissent”. And others are quicker to whine about disobliging comments on Twitter than they are to condemn genuinely disgraceful attempts at cancellation such as the death threats against Dawn Butler. And there is an under-appreciation of the power of corporations to limit the free speech of their workers or critics; to read some complaints about cancel culture you'd imagine that the only threats to freedom come from the little people. There's some force, therefore, in the old saying: when you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
And it is, of course, quite reasonable to question privilege. It’s as reasonable to ask whether somebody deserves the big platform of a newspaper column as it is to ask whether Joe Denly deserves to be in the England side.
Even those who aren’t guilty of hypocrisy, however, are failing to see that a well-functioning marketplace in ideas requires that bad ideas be driven out - be cancelled. Reasonable people surely think it a good idea that David Irving’s holocaust denial has been cancelled, and that we don’t waste time debating defences of slavery or of denying women the vote. A healthy public realm must have some element of cancel culture: the issue is how much.
But, but but. Even narrow-minded privileged hypocrites can be right sometimes. There is a point – which is hard to define, especially when passions are high – when robust opposition shades into bullying and harassment. Bari Weiss might not deserve the privilege of a platform in the New York Times, but she is entitled to not being bullied.
Mill surely had a point when he warned that the tyranny of the majority (or even of a fanatical minority) could have a chilling effect upon legitimate debate. One person’s legitimate elimination of bad ideas is another’s unreasonable silencing.
All of which leads me to agree with Dorian Lynskey. He points out that the issues here are ancient ones – Socrates was cancelled – precisely because they are tricky. If you think there’s a simple answer here, you don’t understand the problem.