by David Geelan  |  11 May 2022  |

To be honest, I’m not 100% sure what I think about “cancel culture.” Often when I sit down to write for Adventist Today I have a fairly clear idea of the conclusion I hope to share, or at least the question I want to leave you with. On this topic, I’m writing to help myself think it through. Perhaps, at least, my thought processes will be helpful to you too… even if we end up coming to different conclusions.

“Cancel culture” is the name given to the practice of publicly shunning, and possibly “deplatforming” someone who is judged to have said or done something unacceptable. I should note that, in this piece, I’m mostly talking about speech and discussion, rather than about actions. Perhaps in a future discussion I’ll explore the “canceling” of people like Harvey Weinstein or Ghislain Maxwell for abuse they’ve actually perpetrated on people.

I worry a little bit about the term itself. It seems to me to come from, and be used by, the same sort of voices that talk negatively about “political correctness” and “virtue signaling.” I’d argue that “political correctness” is a label given to the desire to be as inclusive as possible in the language we use in order to show respect to all people, including those most unlike us, and what is described as “virtue signaling” is often simply acting, thinking and speaking in virtuous ways. The notion of virtues almost seems old-fashioned, yet it seems to me foundational to trying to make the world a better place.

Who and how

Anyway, I’ve digressed a bit, but one way to analyze a new terminology is to look at who uses it and how. When the people who speak most about “cancel culture” are the people who are decrying it, not those advocating it, and when often those people are also championing things like white supremacy or transphobia, it worries me. “Cancel culture” is often defined as being in opposition to (absolute) free speech.

Free speech is widely misunderstood, and you’ve probably already heard and read enough clarifications, so I won’t go into it too much. Free speech means that the government should, where possible, not curtail speech, especially political speech. It does not guarantee someone a platform at a particular place or in a particular medium. You may legally express an opinion, but Adventist Today or the New York Times is not required to publish it, nor Twitter, or a university campus host it and give it prominence.

Beyond that, there is some speech that, while we might defend its right to be free from government suppression, we would oppose: active advocacy for eugenics or pedophilia, for example. Not everything is moral to advocate. We may discuss such things and describe them, but to argue in favor of them is considered beyond the pale.

I’m an academic, and I support academic freedom: and that includes the freedom to disagree with me and my strongly held views! I would support an academic who used their academic position to argue against taking action to mitigate climate change as having the right to make that argument, while I would argue as strongly as I could against the position they were taking.

Facts and disputable matters

I think there’s an important distinction here between matters of fact and “disputable matters,” as Paul put it. It’s a fact that the world has been warmer (on average) in the past couple of decades than at any time since we began recording temperatures. That’s not debatable. It’s a fact that carbon dioxide, methane and some other gases cause Rayleigh scattering of infrared radiation that heats the atmosphere. But the question of what, if anything, we ought to do in response to those facts, combined with the amount of those gases that our activities put into the atmosphere, is more debatable: the questions are not scientific but economic and social, and involve value judgements.

Debating whether the world is flat shouldn’t be politically suppressed, but it is “bootless”—pointless—since the empirical evidence is clear as to what is true. It may be amusing to participate in such debates, and might even sharpen the wits of the participants. It’s not consequential in the sense of causing harm—as long as the person planning the route of my flight accepts that the world is an oblate spheroid.

Other debates are much less harmless. The “scientific racism” discussion of innate biological differences between the human races on attributes such as athletic prowess and intelligence has been running for a long time, and the best evidence largely falsifies its claims. Within-group variation is greater than between-group differences. Still, debating it causes real harm, by implying that people of certain groups shouldn’t aspire to succeed in certain pursuits. I’d argue that it shouldn’t be suppressed, but neither should it be platformed. I won’t be inviting its proponents to give a guest lecture in any of my classes, even in order to challenge and debate the claims. I won’t be participating in a public debate on the topic, because that is giving it credibility I don’t think it deserves.

It’s a matter of fact that biological sex – in humans as well as in other living things – is much more complex than a simple binary: there are a range of other forms of life than simple XY male and XX female. Gender, as a social construct associated with biological sex but not identical to it, is even more diverse. (I think that sentence is also a fact, but there are people who would vociferously debate it and argue that gender is (a) a real thing in the world and (b) exclusively binary.)

J K Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, has taken a particular position on sex and gender, and in some circles has been lauded for that, in other circles “canceled” or deplatformed. I think this is part of the point: canceling is far from universal. It tends to occur when one group lionizes someone another group thinks is harmful. Donald Trump lost his platform on Twitter, but it’s hard to argue that he’s canceled and invisible when a third of Republicans (a sixth or so of Americans) want him to be the next president!

In the same way that entertaining the “scientific racism” debates harms some people, since it is an innate characteristic of their humanity that is under discussion, I’d argue that much of the discussion around trans people – whether that be about washrooms, sport participation or their simple existence – is actively harmful to people, and in this case some very vulnerable people, who generally have a very tough time in our society—and who have quite high rates of suicide and self-harm. These are complex matters, and consequential, but discussions between trans people themselves and those who care about them are more likely to be open and caring and seek solutions, and less likely to do harm, than discussions by those who hate or fear trans people, or who are merely debating as an intellectual exercise.

Freedom and vulnerability

As a side note, we’ve seen so many of the same arguments played out in society around race, and then around homosexuality. We’ve largely moved forward on those topics as a society, with large minorities dissenting, but it’s frustrating to now have to rehearse so many of the same arguments in a new context. Which characteristic of a minority of human beings will next be singled out for exclusion and ‘debate’?

LeVar Burton made this comment, which I think sums it up well:

In terms of cancel culture, I think it’s misnamed — that’s a misnomer. I think we have a consequence culture and that consequences are finally encompassing everybody in the society, whereas they haven’t been, ever, in this country. I think there are good signs in the culture, and I think it has everything to do with a new awareness on [the part of] people who were simply unaware of the real nature of life in this country for people who have been othered since this nation began.

The “absolute free speech claim” – that absolutely everything should be open for debate and is owed the largest available platform – in the end pits the right of people, often in pretty privileged positions (yes, like mine), to the entertainment and intellectual exercise of a debate against the right of vulnerable people to simply exist and try to live their lives. Whether someone exists at all, and whether that person should have human rights, is not a matter for devil’s advocate intellectual posturing and rhetorical flourishes, I’d argue. Coming in humility to those affected and seeking to learn from them seems more powerful. I’ve always loved this quote from philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend:

It is time to stop ratiocinating about the lives of people one has never seen. It is time to give up the belief that humanity … can be saved by groups of people shooting the breeze in well-heated offices, it is time to become modest and to approach those who are supposed to profit from one’s ideas as an ignoramus in need of instruction… (1987, p. 17)

In conclusion, then, I think there are matters for all of us that we would argue are appropriate for public discussion and debate, and others where the balance of harm and risk means that, at the very least, the venues and media in which a discussion occurs need to be carefully considered. It is necessary to weigh the costs and benefits of the discussion in terms of human flourishing and safety, and to balance the needs and interests of the powerful and the vulnerable.

Reference

Feyerabend, P. K. (1987). Farewell to Reason. Verso, London.


Dr. David Geelan is Sue’s husband and Cassie and Alexandra’s dad. He started out at Avondale College, and is currently Professor and National Head of the School of Education, within the faculty of Education, Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney, Australia.

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