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The Threat to Civil Liberties Goes Way Beyond “Cancel Culture”

The “cancel culture” debate is stale. But there are real threats to civil liberties in society today. The Left must claim the mantle of free speech, broaden its scope, and bring in the dimension of class.

A sign outside designating a "Free Speech Zone."

In recent years, there has been a marked and disquieting increase in the willingness of a raft of actors left, center, and right, both in government and in civil society, to engage in a practice and attitude of censorship and to abandon due process, presumption of innocence, and other core civil liberties.

There have been some attempts from different quarters at a pushback against this, but the most recent such effort at a course correction is an open letter decrying the phenomenon appearing in Harper’s magazine. The letter, signed by some 150 public intellectuals, writers, and academics including figures like Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, and Salman Rushdie, has provoked a polarizing response.

Current Affairs editor Nathan Robinson, for example, argues that all this is a right-wing myth, slander against the Left, that those perpetrating the alleged acts of censorship are in fact relatively powerless, and that when incidents of alleged “cancel-culture censorship” are investigated, one finds that the targets are doing just fine after all.

Because the Harper’s letter was fairly anodyne and declined to mention any specific incidents, Robinson cherry-picks a small sample of occurrences that he imagines must be what the signatories are talking about and tries to demonstrate that these incidents were really nothing-burgers of no consequence, distracting us from real issues.

What is true is that to limit this discussion to the acts of the extremely online mob, to, say, British author Jon Ronson’s concerns about Twitter public shaming, or to the ill-defined term “cancel culture,”  entirely misses the far wider atmosphere of an aggressive and accelerating threat to civil liberties.

It is understandable that a brief open letter would not offer a catalog of episodes, but this is nevertheless unfortunate, as it allows Robinson and others to maintain a “nothing to see here, please move along” stance.

When we do in fact consider such a catalog, we find that to deny that this is happening, or to diminish it as inconsequential is untenable. There are simply too many examples.

Acknowledging the Problem

Consider efforts to ban Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) activists, other opponents of the current Israeli government, and critics of Zionism tout court from campuses. Since 2016, the Ontario legislature has been the site of multiple efforts to condemn or criminalize BDS activity and pressing campus administrations to cancel “Israeli Apartheid Weeks.”

In 2014, the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign withdrew an offer of employment to English professor Steven Salaita after some faculty, students, and donors asserted that his tweets critical of the Netanyahu administration during the Gaza war were antisemitic. Due to the controversy, he’s been driven out of academic employment and now works as a bus driver. Political scientist Norman Finkelstein, another critic of the Israeli occupation, was denied tenure at DePaul University in 2007 after a successful campaign by the Anti-Defamation League and lawyer Alan Dershowitz. He likewise has difficulty finding employment and says he struggles to pay the rent.

When appeals to academic freedom and due process are raised in all these cases, the response from the pro-Likudnik right has echoed the “no platform” rhetoric from the Left, arguing that criticism of the Israeli government is hate speech and thus should not be protected (and indeed, in Canada, unlike in the United States, hate speech is not constitutionally protected). They also copy the liberal-left’s demand for “stay in your lane” identitarian deference (in which only the oppressed group concerned may speak to an issue), asserting that non-Jews cannot comprehend Jewish suffering and so must shut up and listen.

Despite his cancellation, Salaita does not support the Harper’s letter. This is perhaps understandable given that English professor Cary Nelson is a signatory but was also among those who led the charge against hiring Salaita. It must be equally galling to him that New York Times opinion writer Bari Weiss, another Harper’s signatory, spent her Columbia University days campaigning against pro-Palestinian professors for alleged intimidation of Jewish students under the Orwellian guise of “Columbians for Academic Freedom.”

But while Nelson and Weiss may be guilty of egregious hypocrisy, hypocrisy does not undermine the letter’s argument for freedom of speech. Despite Finkelstein’s cancellation, or indeed precisely because he knows his cancellation to be a breach of academic freedom, he remains an adamant defender of freedom of speech. He knows that the solution to his own censorship comes not from censorship of those who censor him, but from an end to censorship entirely.

The upturning of lives and livelihoods comes not just in the arena of the Israel-Palestine conflict with respect to Salaita and Finkelstein. In some cases, the religious right’s efforts to de-platform is actively defended by the Left, such as when Iranian feminist Maryam Namazie was shouted down in 2015 by Islamic conservatives at Goldsmiths University and the university’s feminist society defended their use of the heckler’s veto.

There are those who deny that the current chilly climate amounts to censorship, as censorship is only something that can be imposed by the state. Some concede that it is also something that elites can impose. But both positions deny that censorship is something that the crowd can impose. Yet there are many cases that involve independent schools, so this plainly cannot be the action of a state, even as this is quite clearly censorship. And the Islamic conservatives at Goldsmiths could in no way be described as elites. So to suggest that ordinary people cannot participate in censorship or inculcation of an illiberal environment is to be blind to the ways that such attitudes can operate at multiple levels in society.

Campuses are in any case far from the only sites of struggle. Over the past two decades, conservative governments such as those of George W. Bush, Canada’s Stephen Harper, Australia’s Tony Abbott, and now Donald Trump have repeatedly muzzled climate scientists and other earth science and conservation biology researchers.

Conservatives who historically tended to oppose free speech and held the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as chief in its pantheon of villains have suddenly rebranded themselves as free expression’s greatest defenders. But while they were happy to defend alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’s right to express xenophobic and misogynist comments, when he began talking about the messy complications of the age of consent among gay men, they threw him under the bus.

Donald Trump has worked to clamp down on trade unions “salting”  workplaces, that is, the century-old practice of getting a trade-union-friendly person hired at a workplace that is targeted for unionization. And perhaps most notoriously, the same man who at Mount Rushmore denounced a “far-left fascist [sic] cultural revolution,” calling for “free and open debate” instead, only weeks before used the National Guard to teargas and clear nonviolent protesters from the streets of Washington for the sake of a cheap photo-op.

One might expect the liberal-left to be among the strongest defenders of free speech at work, and of the right of workers to say what they wish, but too many have enthusiastically called upon employers to fire workers for alleged reactionary speech outside of the workplace, in effect cheering on at-will termination of employment, and embraced the multibillion-dollar human resources department–organized and employer-supervised “sensitivity training” industry, imposing top-down workshops, where workers are petrified they might say the wrong thing.

How this enhancement of the semifeudal powers of bosses to deliver 24/7 monitoring of workers’ speech is going to advance the trade union movement is a mystery. Instead, they should join efforts to organize unions both as the greatest bulwark against workplace censorship and the greatest weapon we have in delivering sexual, racial, and economic equality, and, if anything, pushing for the extension of First Amendment protection to the workplace.

Authoritarian governments such as the Islamic conservative administration of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have demanded that comedians who make fun of them be censored by other governments. Germany acceded to the request for prosecution. In a similar fashion, China has convinced tech giants and even the NBA to censor discussion of human rights domestically and overseas. Hollywood is no less acquiescent, deleting from movies anything that Beijing objects to, from references to torture by Chinese police to appearances of Winnie-the-Pooh (a symbol of democratic opposition).

Meanwhile, too many on the liberal-left, like turkeys voting for Christmas, urge ever-greater de-platforming of “hate speech” from these tech companies, only to discover how easily their own expression gets categorized as hate speech and taken down (as when various left-wing groups were kicked off Reddit along with pro-Trump ones).

Liberal governments have been little better. Former president Barack Obama may have given a salutary address criticizing cancel culture, but he also used the 1917 Espionage Act to prosecute more leakers and whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning and Ed Snowden than all previous administrations combined.

Secularists in France and Quebec have produced a raft of laws banning burkas or the veil in various forms, thus engaging in the same practice of telling women what they can and cannot wear as those who elsewhere force women to wear burkas or the veil.

Similarly, the French government of center-left President François Hollande marched alongside millions in the streets in defense of free speech after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, but then proceeded to prosecute school students for expressing their sympathy for the attackers.

Libertarian groups, to their credit, have criticized much of this, but when it comes to censorship by the likes of Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit, there is a sudden quiescence. Despite such social media platforms becoming a de facto public square, these are private companies, note libertarians. This is simply the workings of the market. Their stance is simply, “If you don’t like what they are doing, then don’t sign their Terms of Service agreements.”

The galloping advance of censorship and restriction of civil liberties is not restricted to high politics and Silicon Valley. Local conservative politicians in some two-thirds of European Union member state Poland have declared their regions “LGBT-free zones” and tried to ban Pride parades as far-right thugs violently attack them. In the UK there have been regular efforts by municipalities of every political flavor, police, and private security firms to restrict leafleting by NGOs, campaigners, arts groups, and businesses, as well as ever stricter constraints on busking, homeless people begging, ball games, “inappropriate dress,” and other “annoyances” under such vehicles as Public Space Protection Orders and antisocial behavior laws. And whenever there are major international meetings, cities now regularly restrict protests to “designated free speech zones.”

And as any journalists’ rights organization such as Reporters Sans Frontières or the Committee to Protect Journalists will tell you, there has been a radical change in the terrain of war in the last couple of decades where both state and non-state actors increasingly view journalists as legitimate targets, from Western bombing of TV stations in Iraq through Turkish imprisonment of reporters to Russian arrest of those exposing Kremlin autocracy to Mexican cartels silencing news crews investigating missing women. Trump meanwhile takes every opportunity to attack the media as an enemy of the people, even encouraging physical assaults on reporters by his supporters. Some activists on our side seem to be of a similar opinion that the media are fair game, too.

The Nature of the Threat

In short, there is an epidemic of censorship and a retreat from an ethos of civil liberties across the board, in almost every country, by those of almost every political persuasion, and at all levels of society. And if the liberal-left denies that illiberalism is occurring when we are the ones perpetrating it, as Robinson does, then we have no leg to stand on when it comes to all these other, innumerable examples. Civil liberties are for everyone, and above all for those we oppose.

Some of these examples are plainly worse than others, but we do not win or lose our right to free speech at the advent of the most extreme and obvious cases of censorship. It is already lost with the smallest of infringements, at the edge cases, and the ones where all reasonable people would agree that the speech is indeed hateful.

David Goldberger, the Jewish ACLU lawyer so committed to free speech that he represented a group of Chicago Nazis in court in 1977 to defend their right to march through Skokie, Illinois, recognized that it was even or rather precisely in these sort of cases where the struggle for liberty is won or lost.

It is a particular shame when it comes to the Left, historically the first champion of civil liberties. Many progressives today are not aware that the struggle for free speech was a central project of the Left and something that was historically resisted by the Right. We know of Thomas Paine’s and John Stuart Mill’s pioneering articulation of these freedoms, but Karl Marx’s entire philosophy grew in part out of his fury at Prussian official press censorship as a young man; Frederick Douglass recognized that there could be no struggle for abolition without a defense of freedom of speech, and that abridgment of that freedom is a double wrong, for “it violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker”; Eugene Debs was tried and convicted for sedition, and his trial and those of his comrades would set in play the crystallization of American free speech legal protections that are the envy of the world entire; and the New Left and counterculture of the Sixties that in many ways gave birth to the current left began with the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964 under the leadership of giants like Mario Savio.

As a result, too many modern progressives, particularly younger ones, have become indifferent to free speech, or, worse, come to view the defense of free speech as something foreign to the Left and a weapon of oppression.

This is a historic disaster. Throughout the twentieth century, from Stalin’s purges to the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Killing Fields of Cambodia, it was precisely when the Left abandoned civil liberties and embraced groupthink supposedly in the service of some “greater good,” that those who claimed the mantle of emancipation perpetrated their greatest evils.

Robinson decries such comparisons to Maoism or what Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi has critiqued as “Twitter Robespierres,” saying that it requires guns and concentration camps for something to count as totalitarianism. Yet if you read the heartrending personal accounts of those such as Victor Serge who experienced the purges and the show trials, or Gao Yuan who participated in the struggle sessions of the Red Guards, or Dith Pran who experienced the collective indoctrination of the Khmer Rouge, you notice a pattern of pathological interpersonal relations that repeats itself over and over: a fear of speaking out, peer pressure, status-seeking through denunciation, a rush to denounce before one can be denounced oneself, self-criticism, public humiliation, a hunt for heretics, ostentatious displays of piety, and assertions that certain identities (petty bourgeois, kulaks, those who wear glasses, etc.) are inherently epistemically untrustworthy. These terrors of the past of course required material, economic conditions for them to emerge, but they were also built upon a foundation of morbid intragroup psychological dynamics.

The executions, torture, and imprisonment of these events were not simply the product of an external, alien force imposed upon its victims as in the case of an invasion by a foreign army or a coup, but perhaps even more terrifyingly, they were also a horizontal process that involved a breakdown of trust between friends, old comrades, coworkers, students and teachers, husbands and wives, even between parents and children.

Of course, intragroup illiberalism is something common to all humans rather than unique to the Left. We also see similar group dynamics when we explore historical events not directed by our political camp. The witch hunts of sixteenth-century Salem was another notorious instance of intragroup terror, the dynamics of which were famously dramatized by Arthur Miller as an allegory for McCarthyism and the associated blacklist. Here again we might note, contra the arguments that non-state actors cannot engage in censorship or illiberalism, that neither Hollywood studios that fired or no longer hired left-wing actors, screenwriters, and directors, nor the trade union bureaucracy that purged alleged Communists as part of that process, were agents of the state.

Yet because the Left is the cradle of civil liberties, we have a special responsibility to guard against illiberalism. After the experiences of the twentieth century, we will forever have a solemn task to constantly be on our guard against any recurrence of the morbid group dynamics that helped give rise to them, and within our own movements before anywhere else.

There is a need to let progressives who support free speech know that they are not alone and to give them confidence to speak out against censorship and illiberalism on their campuses, in their organizations, in their communities, or wherever someone imposes it, whether this comes from the right, center, or left, from the state or civil society.

But beyond the need for the Left to recognize that freedom of speech and civil liberties are the prerequisite for our own ability to organize, we cannot leave the discussion at the level of liberal principle.

As necessary as liberal freedoms are, socialists have always known that they cannot be fully realized within a class society. Liberalism contradicted itself by insisting on free markets and the right to own property, which undermine the equal exercise of all other liberal freedoms. Neither a poor man nor a rich man in liberal society have any legal restriction on the ownership of a printing press, but only one of these men materially has the ability, the freedom, to make use of that press. There is no true equality before the law so long as there remains class inequality outside the law.

In Karl Marx’s first printed article, published in 1842, a report on the debates on freedom of the press in the Rhenish Diet, he attacks censorship of the press and then also the defenders of the bourgeois conception of freedom of the press as suffering from “pseudo-liberalism” and “half-liberalism”:

The French press is not too free; it is not free enough. It is not under an intellectual censorship, to be sure, but it is under a material censorship … Therefore the French press is concentrated in a few places; and if material power concentrated in few places has a diabolical effect, how can it be otherwise with intellectual power?

That is, as mid-twentieth century democratic socialist and Berkeley Free Speech Movement militant Hal Draper explains in his 1977 exposition of what pushed Marx to go beyond the radical liberal conceptions of his youth: “Tying the exercise of a freedom, then, to possession of enough money to operate it is a form of censorship too, and not to be borne.”

Put another way, civil liberties may be the necessary condition for the Left to be able to argue for and to organize the building of an egalitarian society, but the building of an egalitarian society is the necessary condition for the realization of civil liberties.

Thus the limitations of the Harper’s letter are certainly not that it decries censorship, or that it is anodyne liberal centrism, but that it does not take its professed values seriously enough. In the fight for civil liberties, Marx was right: neither censorship nor “half-liberalism” will do.