In the wake of Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel and the subsequent armed response, the pitched battle over free speech and cancel-culture in the West has suddenly taken an unexpected turn.
Until last week, it had been the “woke” left deplatforming speakers, calling for boycotts of those who questioned leftist orthodoxy, or firing people for making arguments that progressive cultural arbiters deemed “hateful”. Progressives often denied that cancel-culture even exists, but when pressed would defend punishing the holders of heterodox opinions on the basis that free speech does not mean freedom from consequences.
The political right, often on the receiving end of cancellation attempts, made championing free speech a cornerstone principle.
Almost overnight, these roles were reversed.
In response to deeply offensive rallies and statements coming from the left that seemed to champion (or at least condone) Hamas, it was suddenly the right calling for the government to ban pro-Palestine demonstrations, demanding that those taking part in such protests be fired from their jobs, and even going so far as calling for these people to be blacklisted from future employment opportunities.
Meanwhile, progressive-dominated institutions have conveniently rediscovered a passion for free speech. Harvard University, for example, sits near the bottom of university free speech rankings. Yet suddenly, when faced with criticism for not censuring student groups that applauded Hamas, Harvard President Claudine Gay put out a statement celebrating Harvard’s commitment to free expression.
This is not the first time that the left and right have switched sides on the issue of free speech. In an earlier era, it was the religious right calling for censorship of material it considered to be immoral and the left defending freedom of expression.
The constant shifts in position suggest that many people and institutions want free speech for themselves but their support for those same protections evaporates in the face of ideas they abhor.
But a selective commitment to principle is no commitment at all.
So it is perhaps at this moment, when both right and left have felt the harsh sting of cancel culture, that we can collectively articulate principles that will protect the ability of all sides to express views that others find distasteful.
The first and most important principle that should guide lawmakers and institutions that influence speech rights alike is that society’s zone of permitted speech should be as broad as possible. A free society starts from the premise that all humans are fallible and must continuously search for truth through vigorous debate. Our laws, policies, and norms therefore should be designed to free people to openly question accepted orthodoxies without having to fear financial, professional or reputational ruin.
This should not be mistaken for a ‘absolutist’ interpretation of free speech. Words that incite “imminent lawless action” and public incitement and wilful promotion of hatred are criminalized in the U.S. and Canada, respectively. Most democratic countries also rightly punish fraudulent statements and libelous assertions. This should continue to be the norm in civilized societies.
Nor does it mean that we must refrain from expressing moral outrage or passing judgment on those who hold abhorrent opinions. Offensive speech can, and often should, be met with condemnation and rebuttal from institutions, government and the public at large – but this is not the same thing as outlawing it.
When in doubt, our institutions should err on the side of speech. Substantive institutional punishment for speech that is legally permitted should be rare and reserved for truly extreme cases. Expressing views on controversial topics, be it the view that Israel is to blame for the conflict in Gaza or that there are only two genders, should not lead to a person losing their livelihood or having their right to peaceful protest outlawed.
To achieve this outcome, government officials must show leadership by refusing to cave to demands for censorship. Further, employment laws should be modernized to make it harder for employers to fire someone for political expression outside the workplace. Doing so would blunt the destructive power of cancel culture to threaten livelihoods.
A second principle that will hopefully protect us from the excesses of cancel culture is cultivating a culture of forgiveness and second chances. Everyone makes mistakes, and there should exist a path to redemption – especially in a world where simply Googling someone’s name can reveal the worst mistakes they’ve ever made.
In recent years, as progressives cancelled many people for increasingly minor infractions, we began to see a growing trend of groveling apologies, uncomfortably reminiscent of Maoist struggle sessions. These apologies would often be rejected by a ferocious online mob which, sensing weakness, called for blood. But an unforgiving society in which expressing the wrong idea or even telling an off-colour joke can render one persona non grata indefinitely is, by definition, a highly illiberal one. And it is not one in which any decent person would wish to live.
The solution here is largely cultural. It requires that our institutions not immediately fire or blacklist people when faced with organized pressure tactics to do so. Instead, they should develop thoughtful ways for people who have expressed genuinely repulsive views, not just politically unpopular ones, to learn why their community rejects such views. If the speaker shows genuine remorse and makes amends, they should eventually be forgiven.
The left and the right each portray the other side’s speech as “hate speech” and accuse opponents of “censorship”. But many of these claims are in the eye of the beholder, and still others are made in bad faith.
The effect of this, as both sides have now experienced, has been a poisoned atmosphere. The free speech values that have served liberal democratic societies well for the past few centuries are the antidote. It is time for us to rediscover those values.
This article was first published by The Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and has been reprinted with permission.