Tag Archives: freedom of speech

The uncanceled

John Kass, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, recently argued (behind a paywall that I’m not paying) that George Soros bought the State’s Attorney’s position by generously underwriting the campaign of Kim Foxx (a black woman). Unsurprisingly, this provoked a lot of criticism (as well as comparisons to the speech above from The Blues Brothers). The short story on that (not the point here) is that Kass’s invocation of racist tropes was not only racist but actually non-sensical, as Foxx beat an opponent who outspent her 3:1.

One other consequence of the piece was\https://www.robertfeder.com/2020/07/27/tribune-colleagues-blast-john-kass-column-antithetical-values (in the same spirit as some Wall Street Journal reporters who complained that the op-ed page’s very low standards of accuracy was undermining their work on the news end). Subsequent to this, the Tribune moved all of the opinion columns to a separate section, lest anyone get confused that Kass was writing an opinion piece.

That’s a kind of improvement, but alas, there still remains the standards question. Just because something is on the opinion page doesn’t make it immune from editorial criticism regarding the truth of the assertions, and, I think at least, the soundness and cogency of the arguments advanced.

Kass’s response was predictable: I’m a victim of cancel culture.

Will he get canceled for writing about cancel culture? Stay tuned!

This is where for me this cancel culture business loses meaning. As you all probably know by now, we’ve got many different variations of #cancel culture in play, so let’s just consider the one where columnists such as Kass or Bari Weiss or Andrew Sullivan or whoever get punished (they haven’t been) for their opinion.

Let’s start with a a basic picture: what does it mean to cancel someone, A? Let’s say A argues for p. You find A’s reasons q and r to be not only bad, but so bad that you’re done with A. You unfollow A or what is maybe worse you mute A. If you’re especially confrontational, you block them (happened to me and I’m nice). Not only this, you also share your opinion of A’s reasons with others. You encourage them to draw that same conclusion—to unfollow, block, or ignore A.

Now let’s say that your opinion about A gets some traction. Now lots of people are ignoring A. Now A’s publisher is considering dropping A because reading of A’s opinion is down. In addition, they worry that maybe people think continued publication of A reflects on them (see above). So they ditch A.

Is this an instance of cancellation? To review: you didn’t like A’s reasons, you shared this with others who agreed, and then A was gone. Perhaps your reasons are no good and people were idiots for listening to you. Perhaps people listened to you for the wrong reasons. Perhaps we should ask what would make a case of legitimate cancellation—like, perhaps the cases of the many who publish and publish and seem doomed to labor in silence.

So let’s think about them a second. The newspapers are full of the uncanceled. But they’re also unfull of the passively canceled: the countless many whose opinion for whatever reason no one listens to and never gains any traction. Now many of them might be absolutely right about their thing. But perhaps it’s just not interesting, or won’t have a large audience, or is too hard to understand. For whatever reason, someone has decided (even if only passively) not to include them and their voice. Now I’m not suggesting that we need to include everyone, but that perhaps there ought to be a reason why just these writers deserve a reason to continue to be heard. Is it like tenure, where you clear some kind of rigorous selection process and then the burden shifts to the would-be remover? So, a writer is canceled if they have achieved a certain platform, once they do, the burden shifts to the ones who would no longer hear them published there (not hear them at all). In the case of the countless passively canceled, there must be a reason they aren’t uncanceled.

So, one corner of the cancellation preoccupation seems to concern some measure of burden of proof. In other words, there seems to be a giant presumption that people with a form currently deserve it, and more than the usual reasons must be levied to change that.

This seems to imply that the columnist cancellation consternation is basically a version of the tenure debate (though my guess is positions are going to be at least partially reversed).

Let’s say for giggles that there is a kind of tenure for the likes of Kass: shouldn’t there be an analogous rigorous selection process for what goes into publication?

Stress test

Image result for prior restraint john goodman big lebowski

To my mind, argumentation studies doesn’t pay enough attention to the psycho-economics (and the just plain economics) of argumentation. How much, for example, does it cost you to engage (or not engage) in an argument with someone? How much do you have invested in your beliefs? What will it cost you in time,  money, and shame to change them? There’s a cost to everything.

One of the costs that comes with believing (or maybe just being) is stress. Yesterday there was an op-ed on point in the NYT by Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern (Boston). She writes:

But scientifically speaking, it’s not that simple. Words can have a powerful effect on your nervous system. Certain types of adversity, even those involving no physical contact, can make you sick, alter your brain — even kill neurons — and shorten your life.

Your body’s immune system includes little proteins called proinflammatory cytokines that cause inflammation when you’re physically injured. Under certain conditions, however, these cytokines themselves can cause physical illness. What are those conditions? One of them is chronic stress.

Your body also contains little packets of genetic material that sit on the ends of your chromosomes. They’re called telomeres. Each time your cells divide, their telomeres get a little shorter, and when they become too short, you die. This is normal aging. But guess what else shrinks your telomeres? Chronic stress.

If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech — at least certain types of speech — can be a form of violence. But which types?

That last question is a critical one. Barrett’s answer seems to depend on the duration of the stress caused by the speech:

That’s also true of a political climate in which groups of people endlessly hurl hateful words at one another, and of rampant bullying in school or on social media. A culture of constant, casual brutality is toxic to the body, and we suffer for it.

Here’s the payoff:

That’s why it’s reasonable, scientifically speaking, not to allow a provocateur and hatemonger like Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at your school. He is part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse. There is nothing to be gained from debating him, for debate is not what he is offering.

Well, there’s the problem. In the first place, to Milo’s many adoring fans, he’s not abusing anyone. If anything, he’s got to put up with your abuse (as they frequently allege). Besides, they might claim they get a rush of pleasure from the truth he speaks and that the discomfort people feel is the pain of cognitive dissonance.  Second, there’s an easy to way to avoid Milo’s noxious message: don’t go to his talk.

I’m sympathetic to the idea that there’s a psychological cost to unwelcome ideas. I’m also sympathetic to taking that into account as we offer them. But it’s difficult to see how these two things yield banning Milo. That his beliefs impose a high cost on hearers doesn’t seem sufficient to ban or even avoid them. I’ll leave it to the reader as an exercise to come up with counterexamples to Barrett’s view.

Guns & Ammo

Dick Metcalf, an editor at Guns & Ammo of all places, argued in an editorial for the fairly obvious (well, at least to most people) claim that even constitutionally guaranteed rights–such the rights to freedom of religion and to a well-regulated militia–ought to be, er, regulated some (but not very much). Not every instance of speech is allowed; to use the author’s example, you cannot shout “fire” in a crowded theater.

Metcalf’s argument didn’t sit well with the Guns&Ammo crowd.  You can view selected responses here.  It would be charitable to nut pick them.  Why bother anyway, in response to their many reasonable interventions, Guns & Ammo fired Dick Metcalf.

Not surprising that a bunch of gun fanatics would turn to the ad baculum.

Opposite marriage

Many are no doubt familiar with the saga of Miss California, an employee of serial net-worth exaggerator Donald Trump.  In case you're not, during a recent Miss America or Miss USA competition, she took a stand against gay marriage.  Here's what she said:

CARRIE: I think it's great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land that you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage and, you know what, in my country and my family I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anyone out there but that's how I was raised and that's how I think it should be between a man and a woman.  

One interpretation suggests the first line there is disingenuous: she does not think it's great you can choose and doesn't think you ought to be able to choose.  Another interpretation suggests she personally favors opposite marriage for herself, but thinks it's great that others can choose.  Either way, she answered the question.

Not surprisingly, she seems to have drawn some fire by her remarks, especially from those who don't favor the sole choice of opposite marriage.  That's free speech, some of you liberals will say.  That's why we have it.

Enter professional contrarian Michael Kinsley.  He says:

SEATTLE — I want the next Supreme Court justice to share my views on the Constitution. I don't care how she looks in a bathing suit, or halfway out of one. Miss California is a different story. Her qualifications, as a general rule, should be up to the people of California. Here in the state of Washington, we expect our beauty-contest winners to be able to split a log and appreciate good coffee. But Miss California's views on gay marriage have nothing to do with her qualifications for the job and shouldn't disqualify her for it.

This is really Liberalism 101, and it's amazing that so many liberals don't get it. Yes, yes, the Bill of Rights protects individuals against oppression by the government, not by other private individuals or organizations. But the values and logic behind our constitutional rights don't disappear when the oppressor is in the private sector. They may not have the force of law in that situation, but they ought to have the force of understanding and of habit. The logic behind freedom of speech is that "bad" speech does not need to be suppressed as long as "good" speech is free to counter it. Or at least that letting the good and bad do battle is more likely to allow the good speech to triumph than giving anyone the power to choose between them. Congratulations to Donald Trump for making the right decision in this case. But we can't count on every employer to be as sensitive and understanding as The Donald.

The "disqualification" issue regards unrelated violations of the rules of the pageant.  As for the "liberals who do not get it," notice that Kinsley does not mention anyone by name.  Nor could he.  No one is arguing that Miss California's freedom of speech ought to be restricted.  The most extreme scenario suggests Miss California ought to have given a more coherent answer to a question.  But the Q&A, after all, is part of the contest, so the answer does in some sense matter (in what sense I don't know).  That the answer in some sense matters, or that Miss California has drawn criticism, doesn't amount to restricting her freedom of speech.

I think that's really just Critical Thinking 101.