On Free Speech and Cancel Culture, Letter One
What We Talk About When We Talk About Cancel Culture
This is part 1 in a 6-part correspondence series between writer Freddie deBoer and me, Parker Molloy. I will be writing parts 1, 3, and 5 here at The Present Age; Freddie will be writing parts 2, 4, and 6 at his Substack.
Links will be added as the letters get published: letter 1, letter 2, letter 3, letter 4, letter 5, and letter 6.
I’m tired. One thing I find so draining—among many—is the inability to actually discuss any culture war bugaboo without spiraling down into a pit of bad faith nonsense and recriminations, with the battle lines inexorably stagnated. If you’re a reasonably online-saturated person, you may have some prior experience with this enervating and frustrating state of being.
So then, I want to try something a little different. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” as Beckett instructed. It will involve the writer Freddie deBoer, and an attempt at an actual exchange of ideas that doesn’t leave both parties feeling like they’re pounding nails into the floor with their forehead. In this case, I want to talk about cancel culture. “Ha, ha!” you might think. “Good luck with that.” Fair, but I can’t stand the bile-inducing futility and sameness of The Discourse right now. There’s a nonzero chance you might feel the same way.
But first: some things that are true.
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For months, a Twitter account called Libs of TikTok, operated by a woman named Chaya Raichik, has waged an all-out war on LGBTQ people. Raichik has targeted trans people, gleefully cheered on the cancelation of pride events (particularly events that included drag shows), and demanded the firing of “any teacher who comes out to their students” as LGBTQ. For example: When an Idaho school board told a non-binary teacher in January that they could not go by “they/them” pronouns at work and posted a video with the text, “I do not feel safe here,” Raichik celebrated that as “good school news” and “based.” More recently, Raichik has been part of a campaign to stoke fear and backlash against hospitals that provide gender-affirming health care to transgender teenagers. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the hospitals being targeted have been on the receiving end of harassment and at least one bomb threat resulting in an arrest.
Those viral clips, framed to induce maximum outrage, have spurred GOP legislative efforts. Earlier this year, Virginia Republicans unsuccessfully moved to make it illegal to sell Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer” and “Sarah J. Maas’s “A Court of Mist and Fury” to minors, citing the state’s obscenity law. Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has enthusiastically championed bills—that which, by any sensible reading of the First Amendment, are unconstitutional—that restrict speech to make the state what he called “a brick wall against all things ‘woke.’” This has led LGBTQ teachers to rethink their professions and led the University of Central Florida to retract an “Anti-Racism Statement” because the document now “violates Florida law” under DeSantis’s policies. Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) has made it the official position of the National Republican Senatorial Committee that obscenity laws should be utilized to “protect our children from the explosion of pornography and cyber predators.” They’re far from alone. Republicans in dozens of states around the country are currently trying to ban certain books from being carried in school or public libraries by labeling them “pornographic” or “obscene.” In May, a Tennessee Republican who would go on to get elected as the Hamilton County district attorney, said that she would consider prosecuting librarians for carrying books about LGBTQ issues or puberty because they may be “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”
These are all extreme, tangible attacks on free speech, yet they tend to go all but ignored by the cancel culture obsessives on magazine mastheads. Instead, the public is fed a steady stream of (frequently misrepresented) stories about things like the librarian who quit her job after being asked not to do a rap during orientation, debunked squabbles over cultural appropriation in the Oberlin College dining hall, or the merits of the Dr. Seuss estate’s decision to take a handful of the author’s lesser-known books out of print after decades.
I could keep rattling off instances of the right using the power of the state to restrict what people can say or read, but you get the idea: The people who are most obsessed over cancel culture and claim to be proponents of free speech obsess about minor left-wing transgressions, particularly online, and seem unbothered by actual, real-world laws set to be put on the books. It’s intellectually dishonest and makes it nearly impossible to have honest conversations about the very real threats to speech that the U.S. (among other countries) is facing right now.
Those conversations aren’t happening. Instead, we’ve remained stubbornly attached to conversations about cancel culture even as it’s become clear that we’re not even working from the same definition of the term. What used to be questions over whether someone should be fired for a decade-old tweet, an embarrassing moment, or a stray comment that doesn’t reflect who that person is, have shifted to questions over whether there’s even an acceptable way to register dissent with those on the political right about something they’re actively doing. What’s worse: increasingly, the right is engaging in an active campaign to shut down speech they disagree with, often through state power or physical intimidation.
While I’m a firm believer that generally speaking people shouldn’t be fired for old tweets and the like, it seems crucial to acknowledge that’s not actually what most people seem to be talking about when they say “cancel culture” in the year 2022.
This is an attempt to hit the reset button on the way we talk about free speech and cancel culture. I’m glad that Freddie has agreed to take part in this experiment. My impression is that he and I share enough of a point of view on this to have a productive discussion, but diverge on enough to keep it challenging. Maybe it’ll turn out that we agree much more than either of us anticipated; maybe the opposite will be true and we’ll find that we share less of a common vision than we thought. In any case, this is intended to be a friendly correspondence, not a debate.
There’s a glaring hypocrisy in how we talk about speech and cancel culture. Until we address how one side has weaponized claims of cancel culture while embracing cancel culture tactics, I don’t see how we’re ever supposed to have anything resembling a real conversation, let alone a way to, you know, get better.
Back to Raichik. In April, Newsweek published an opinion article titled, “The ‘Libs of Tik Tok’ Exposé Is Part of a New Trend: Shaming Private Citizens who Dissent.” In it, writer Angie Speaks argued that an article by The Washington Post’s Taylor Lorenz had engaged in “a naked attempt to shame” Libs of TikTok’s Raichick “into silence,” and warned that this was “part of a larger trend in which liberals use legacy and social media to silence dissent.”
I can’t stop thinking about the grim irony in these words and how they represent so much of what is wrong with how we discuss just about everything.
The "Libs of Tik Tok" account exploded in popularity last year for hosting viral videos of overly-zealous liberals engaging in bizarre behavior and advocacy. As bizarre as doxxing an anonymous account over political differences seems, Lorenz went as far as harassing the family members of the woman behind the account in an attempt to gather information.
But these kinds of attacks on the privacy and anonymity of private citizens who dissent from the liberal hegemony in ways found to be "problematic" have unfortunately become more commonplace in recent years. And it's not just coming from journalists.
You see, for the majority of folks on the right, Libs of TikTok only posted “viral videos of overly-zealous liberals engaging in bizarre behavior and advocacy.” (This claim, while frequently made, is not true.) Sure, Raichik and her followers would regularly find and post the names and employers of the people in the videos she posted. Sure, the captions that were put on the videos were sometimes less-than-accurate. Sure, real people lost their jobs and were subjected to harassment by LoTT’s massive following. Apparently, this was fine, but Lorenz’s and the Post’s decisions to report on an anonymous account that had gained major political prominence was somehow beyond the pale—a violation, even.
At no point in the Newsweek piece did the author seem to consider that maybe the people who were targeted by LoTT were entitled to the same kinds of privacy that Raichik’s defenders insist she was owed.
After howling that the Post profile was an example of “the absurd lows that corporate media will stoop to in order to silence independent voices that capture inconvenient popular sentiments,” Newsweek urged people of all political persuasions to rally behind LoTT to oppose “these attacks on anonymity and privacy being normalized and celebrated as brave activism.”
I’m sorry, but I just can’t. Are we all just supposed to pretend that the entire purpose of Raichik’s LoTT account isn’t to silence people who say things she doesn’t like? Are we supposed to pretend that people won’t self-censor out of fear of being targeted by her account? Haven’t there been countless articles from outlets as prestigious as The New York Times claiming to care about these very things – at least when the person self-censoring is on the right? Because reading this and other conservative defenses of LoTT makes it pretty clear that their understanding of free speech is that people on the right should have the ability to say and act however they want without facing any negative consequences. (Positive consequences of their speech and actions are okay, though, obviously.) To my eternal dismay, they cling to these supposed truisms all while praising an account that demanded the firing of “any teacher who comes out to their students” as LGBTQ, for instance.
Raichik was (and remains) significantly more culturally and politically relevant than any of the people she’s targeted. The power imbalance is undeniable. The Newsweek column even semi-acknowledges this by complaining that the Post didn’t do more to explain “the cultural and political reasons why the ‘Libs of Tik Tok’ Twitter account gained such cultural prominence,” and harangued the Post for “fail[ing] to contextualize why the choice to doxx the anonymous user served any real political or journalistic purpose beyond a show of malice and intimidation.” (They did, Newsweek. Read the article again.) Again, though, if anything, this is an indictment of what accounts like LoTT do. Or at least it should be an indictment of what those accounts do in order to achieve prominence, and, in Raichik’s case, a profitable post-real estate career.
The same goes for the way other forms of speech, such as protests and boycotts, that often get derided as efforts to “cancel” people and groups when being done by people on the left, but get championed on the right.
It seems like every week there’s some new article out claiming that the “censorious left” is trying to cancel someone with “heterodox” views. Even after a few paragraphs, it becomes self-evident that these stories often boil down to: people criticized me online; I didn’t like that and therefore, I’ve been canceled. Sometimes, the gist is more along the lines of: I said or did something that some feel made for a hostile work environment and I got fired for it; this is cancel culture. What do we ever learn from these accounts? Did the story about a librarian who quit her job after being asked not to rap during an orientation actually teach us anything, or was it simply fodder for the “OMG, the wokes are at it again! Campus speech! Silenced!” peevish tweets out there? I’d argue that it’s the latter. To be clear: Being criticized, especially publicly, is not fun. Both sides (sorry) will dogpile, and for anyone that’s ever found themselves inundated by a swarm of reasoned critiques and painful insults alike, it can seem like the world is ending. I am in no way intending to diminish that experience.
But when some left-leaning people who support trans rights decided not to support the work of J.K. Rowling after she published a lengthy essay making various claims about transgender people and how they should be allowed to live their lives, they were slammed for trying to “cancel” her. But what does that mean? What does that tell us about the ideas she put forward? For all the uproar over her alleged canceling, it doesn’t actually seem like her supporters want to have actual discussions about what Rowling said. (If you’re genuinely interested in what I believe to be a strong point-by-point response to the statements made in her essay, please check out these three posts by Zinnia Jones.) Instead, all discussion related to her beliefs about trans people tends to focus on a kind of cancel culture heavily steeped in tu quoque reasoning rather than an honest and sober assessment of how to balance the interests of various groups who all have to exist in society.
I won’t rehash all of my past writing about this sort of cancel culture hypocrisy, but let’s just say that it’s clear that the left and the right get held to very different standards and treated in wildly different ways. The same outlets that would turn the cancelation of a right-wing speaker’s speech on a college campus or at a corporate retreat into a five-alarm fire will smile and nod when a left-wing speaker has their speech canceled, their work banned, or their job eliminated. Not only that, but sometimes the media outlets that do this will even rage if action isn’t taken against someone for expressing an opinion they don’t like, as we saw recently when Carnegie Mellon professor Uju Anya was mobbed on Twitter and became the subject of a series of outraged Daily Mail articles for a tweet wishing Queen Elizabeth II “excruciating” pain. This plays out over… and over… and over again. When that happens, when the only speech the supposed free speech advocates seem interested in protecting is that of people they agree with? They’re not actually in favor of free speech at all, are they?
What’s more, it’s worth considering why it’s “cancel culture” when random and largely powerless people on Twitter express an opinion about something a massively famous public figure like Rowling says, but not when Jeff Bezos points a metaphorical neon arrow at a Carnegie Mellon professor over a tweet. Why is it “cancel culture” when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) tweets, “Oh look, it’s the sound of me Googling ‘how to make your own Adobo,” in response to the CEO of Goya Foods praising then-President Donald Trump at a White House event, but not “cancel culture” when Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) successfully pressures Visa and Mastercard to block payments to Pornhub? Why is it “cancel culture” when a conservative journalist gets laid off from his job at USA Today for (what he claims) was a tweet (the truth is that Gannett has been rapidly downsizing and more than 10,000 other employees had also lost their jobs), but not when Lauren Wolfe gets fired from The New York Times for tweeting that she had “chills” seeing Joe Biden’s plane land when Emily Wilder gets fired from the Associated Press because she had tweeted support for the Palestinian people when in college, or when Will Wilkinson loses his Times opinion contributor status for tweeting a joke about how Trump supporters wanted to hang Mike Pence (that right-wing media pretended was him making an actual call to hang Pence)?
It’s easy to see those things and decide, yes, these are all examples of cancel culture and they’re all bad, but that’s not really the question I’m getting at. I’m asking why there’s such a massive imbalance in which stories get talked about as cancel culture, which people get treated as victims, which people get treated as bullies, and so on. It’s hard to take conversations about free speech and cancel culture seriously when only some of these stories ever get discussed in meaningful ways in mainstream media. For a concrete example of this, look no further than the way Fox News covered the aforementioned “cancelation” of Dr. Seuss compared to its reaction to rapper Lil Nas X releasing “Satan Shoes.” Fox talked about the Seuss story for five weeks, lambasting the “cancel culture” involved in the business decision to no longer put additional copies of certain books into circulation, but played an active role in getting Lil Nas X’s shoes taken off the market.
This has resulted in a media-manufactured “speech crisis” that treats overzealous student protests as somehow equal to or worse than politicians passing laws that ban the teaching of the 1619 Project, that deny professors tenure because of their political beliefs, and more. Somehow, the wild abuses of state power only seem to make their way into works from ostensibly pro-speech activists, commentators, and journalists in the form of short “to be sure” asides. It creates and reinforces the perception that threats to speech are either primarily a problem on the left or equally split between the left and right. This simply does not match reality, in which right-wing speakers (or at least those who espouse conservative views on LGBTQ issues, nationalism, racism, and abortion) receive robust defenses in the press while actively contributing to the overall decline of actual speech rights.
I believe that obsessing over cancel culture, and framing every discussion as a free speech issue only serves to safeguard the interests of people who currently have the vast majority of the political and cultural heft in this country. The powerful benefit from never having to actually unpack their beliefs substantively while being able to roll their eyes at or outright troll their critics, dismissing them as censors trying to shut down the free exchange of ideas when it’s clear no ideas are being freely discussed right now at all. To be clear, if someone wants to take the position that LGBTQ people do not deserve the same rights as their straight, cis counterparts, and therefore should be shunned, okay! Make that case. I’d consider it bigoted and reprehensible, but at least it’d be honest.
I just want to be able to have honest conversations on topics of speech, but I don’t see how we can do that until we all get on the same page, agree to a shared set of definitions over what terms like “free speech,” “cancel culture,” and so on even mean. I hope we can start having that conversation.
This seems like as good a place as any to pause and pass the baton over to Freddie, who’ll have the next installment in his newsletter. A few weeks back, we agreed to trade a few posts back and forth as part of a six-part conversation on this topic. I’m writing the first, third, and fifth iterations, and Freddie will write the second, fourth, and final one.
I don’t know where this will go, and while I imagine he and I will disagree at certain points, this is intended to be a friendly correspondence, not a debate. Speaking of dishonesty and exhaustion, nothing is solved and no one is persuaded by a debate.
The ball’s in your court, Freddie. If you disagree or think I’ve lost the plot entirely, fire away. I’m excited to hear what you think.