The Trouble with Canceling Cancel-Culture

I put a lot of effort into trying to follow independent thinkers who are actively open-minded; high-decouplers who question everything, and don’t just blindly accept the popular narratives of the day. Sometimes they get things wrong, of course, but when they get things right they are at the forefront of society’s evolution towards progress. They push our civilization to discard our bad, outdated ideas, and embrace new insights. As you might expect, these types of people run into a lot of resistance when they promote heterodox ideas, and are more likely than most to come up against cancel-culture. It’s frustrating to see people I admire get attacked by outrage mobs that completely disregard the complexity and nuance of the situation. I’m thinking of incidents with people like Steven Pinker or Nicholas Christakis. Because of this, I tend to be strongly against cancel-culture.

But occasionally I come across something like this:

Yikes. Laura Loomer was a candidate for Florida’s 21st congressional district in 2020. She won the Republican primary before losing to Democrat Lois Frankel in the general election. She has been banned from Twitter and other social media sites for hate speech and for spreading misinformation. Based on the statement above, it’s hard for me to summon much sympathy for her. My gut reaction to a statement like this is that it should end her career as a politician. Not only that, I think she should be radioactive. I think this should pretty much end the career of anyone who endorses her after saying something like that. Reasonable people can disagree about immigration policies, but hoping for refugees to die is just inhuman.

Does this mean I support cancel-culture after all? Maybe I just have a different pressure points than some, and I support cancel-culture just as much as anyone when my own personal buttons get pushed? I think this gets really tricky because we typically have two conflicting goals.

First, we want to have a society that is capable of evolving. That’s the point of free speech. We want to have an environment where people can argue for unpopular positions. If the sun is not revolving around the Earth, we want to find that out sooner rather than later. There are certainly many ideas today that are both unpopular and true. We need to have some decent people who are willing to advocate for those ideas, so that they can gradually gain traction. We want to protect these people from consequences when they advocate for unorthodox ideas. That means we don’t execute them, we don’t jail them, and we don’t threaten their livelihoods. In this spirit, we also want to limit the social consequences of having abnormal opinions. It doesn’t do any good to protect people from legal consequences if the social pressure is so great that nobody will risk challenging the status quo for fear of being ostracized.

Second, we want to cultivate good values among our society. A society with norms of peace, freedom, compassion, honesty, and cooperation will do better than a society that has norms of violence, corruption, mistrust, cynicism, and prejudice. People rely on the norms of their environment to help them navigate through life. We want our best ideas and values to spread to the entire population. In 2009, singer Chris Brown assaulted his girlfriend Rihanna, leaving her face battered and bruised. There was an immediate backlash and many of his appearances and opportunities were canceled. The public turned against him, and he was “canceled” (for a while, anyway). Society sent a message that we do not tolerate domestic violence against women. This seems like a good thing! Not all cultures would share that value. Hopefully this incident promoted the belief that domestic violence is really bad and helped it to penetrate a bit further into society. Of course, getting canceled for violence is different than getting canceled over an issue of free speech, but the same principle applies. Applying social pressure can steer society’s values in a chosen direction. Ideally, I’d like to see our culture continue to change and to improve over time. That means we need to speak up to promote good changes and push back against bad things, like domestic violence.

These two goals are often directly opposed to each other. When Loomer is happy about thousands of refugees dying, I think that’s bad. I think we should try to stop that opinion from spreading. In that respect, cancel-culture can be a virtuous thing. A flourishing society with good values ought to have a natural immune response against bad ideas. Social pressure should correct people who fail to adopt the good values that help us all thrive. Cancel-culture is one manifestations of that immune response against bad ideas. But all of this is, of course, the opposite of our other goal. We want to protect unpopular speakers, because unpopular speakers sometimes turn out to be right. We want to reduce the burden that falls on people for having unpopular opinions. Where does that leave us?

For starters, we need to recognize that we are deliberately accepting a tradeoff. Beyond that, I think we must give priority to the side of free speech as much as we can bring ourselves to. We must accept that we can’t fight to improve our culture as hard as we might like. As tempting as it is to bring the maximum amount of pressure that we can muster against bad ideas, we have to hold back. As believers in free speech, we must trust that good ideas really do beat out bad ideas in the long run. My reasoning is that attacking people for bad ideas comes naturally to us humans; Too naturally. It’s too fun and too satisfying to get caught up in a self-righteous outrage mob, especially in the modern digital world where it is so easy to do. But defending an abstract principle like freedom of speech? That’s really unnatural. It’s something we have to work at. We must fight bad ideas with reason and evidence, but without trying to destroy the person speaking those bad ideas.

Now let’s bring this home and get back to Laura Loomer. What tactics should we use to push back against her views?

  1. Should we try to find out where the lives and works and disrupt her real-world life as much as possible? No. In most cases, doing so would definitely work against the purpose of the first amendment. We want to protect the marketplace of ideas from these types of consequences. In practice, this is going to get messy. I can understand people not wanting to work with Loomer. Hell, I wouldn’t be happy if I had to work with her. So it’s easy to see how a company might cave to pressure and fire someone like her if enough people complained about her. To some extent, it’s probably unavoidable that this will happen from time to time. I think we just need to keep in mind that firing controversial people is probably a failure of dedication to the principles of free speech rather than an ethical victory. If you think that getting some deplorable person fired is a virtuous act to be celebrated, then you might have things backwards. It’s more likely a act of weakness than of strength and virtue. Maybe that’s ok – we can’t always be saints with endless tolerance for asshole coworkers. But recognize it for what it is; A failure, not a victory.
  2. Should we round up an outrage-mob to attack Loomer on social media to tell her how wrong she is? This gets messy. As I said, the social pressure isn’t all bad. People should push back against bad ideas. But I do think we should try to do things in a healthy way, as much as possible. Mainly, we should be cautious about joining in on a pile-on unless we have the full context. We should be very careful about attacking people directly, rather than attacking their ideas. We should pay careful attention to whether the person is making an honest effort to engage in a reasonable debate. If so, we should try to defend them from unfair personal attacks, even if we disagree with the specific statement in question. I think Loomer fails this test; I think she’s more interested in being an outcast martyr than she is in persuading anyone with reason and evidence. Still, this is a very difficult distinction to make, so I think we should give people the benefit of the doubt as much as humanly possible. We should also be very careful about trying to shame people for their bad opinions. When targeting people in our in-group, I think shaming can be very effective; probably far too effective. Nobody wants to advocate for an unpopular belief if it means getting shamed by their peers and friends! But when used against an out-group, I think it can have a backfire effect and cause the other side to believe their opinions even more. I think we’ve seen a lot of that in the Trump era. So, I think it’s reasonable for people to get angry at Loomer and to push back against her ideas. I think we should try to focus on persuasion instead of attacks. But I think that any kind of line between civil discussion and unnecessary cruelty is going to be very vague, so we can’t enforce this easily. Discussions are going to get heated, and the line between discussion and outrage-mob is going to get crossed. I think we have to accept this. I think we must do our best to stop it from spilling over into real world consequences, as much as possible.
  3. Should we ban her from Twitter and other social media? I honestly haven’t figured out a consistent principle that I’m happy with on this question. If platforms want to enforce some standards of civility, that doesn’t seem like the worst thing ever. But as a general principle, I’m quite worried about the encroachment on free speech. I don’t want to make tech companies responsible for these types of decisions. It seems too likely that these companies will just want to take the easy way out whenever a controversy comes up. If a bunch of people complain about a user, Twitter might just ban them instead of doing the hard work of evaluating whether the person is trying to make a sincere good-faith argument. To give an example from recent times, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the CDC and the WHO were both arguing against wearing masks for the general public. Luckily, I was getting better information from Twitter users, so I was ahead of the curve when the mainstream reversed course. Ten months later, Youtube now has a policy of removing any videos that contradict the WHO. Will other sites do the same? This seems like a really bad idea that will make us less prepared the next time we face a crisis. Anyway, back to Laura Loomer: I’m not strongly against the decision to ban her, since she fails some pretty basic tests of civility, but I don’t want to see this happen too aggressively from social media companies, and I’m worried about the trend.

Heterodox thinkers are always going to face a lot of anger and social pressure when they advocate for unpopular ideas. We can’t fully stop outrage mobs, because the line is so blurry between healthy disagreement and unproductive shaming and humiliation. Not everyone is going to spend a lot of time trying to untangle the concept into a coherent viewpoint. And even if they do, it’s not always easy to tell if people are sincere thinkers who are trying their best to find truth, or just contrarians trying to get attention. Usually it’s a combination of both. It’s not always easy to tell if a backlash is doing the good work of promoting good values, or if it is squelching free speech. It’s not always easy to tell if speakers are so far out of line that they should face real-world consequences. It’s not always easy to tell if your witty retort to a bad idea is a persuasive and illuminating refutation or if it is needlessly cruel bullying. But hopefully a few of us are in a position to think about this topic more carefully, and to resist the worst elements of cancel-culture. We must work hard to try to defend people from facing too much pressure for their weird, unorthodox, unpopular ideas, even when it feels wrong to do so. Refuting bad ideas is good, but making it impossible to talk about bad ideas is counterproductive to the big picture. Let’s try to occasionally make the effort to call people in, instead of calling them out.

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