On Free Speech and Cancel Culture, Letter Five
The right's media infrastructure has poisoned the public's perception of the world around us.
This is part 5 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.
Sorry for the slow response to your last letter. I wanted to make sure I gave this one a fair amount of thought before sending it out since it’s my last entry in the series before handing it off to you for the final word.
I think we have some pretty obvious disagreements (and I don’t mean that in any sort of “I disagree with you and I’m angry!” kind of way or anything like that) about the extent and scope of problems related to cancel culture, academic freedom, social media policies, and how all of that affects free speech and free societies. And that’s fine. For instance, on this point of yours:
I do think, though, that there have been enough college speech issues that point reliably in the same direction that coverage is appropriate, especially given that elite colleges train future leaders. (Including in media.) Additionally, I think that for every college speech issue we hear about, there’s probably several more that we don’t because they don’t have the sexiness to attract national media. I particularly worry about students and professors self-censoring to preempt these issues.
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I’m inclined to disagree that campus speech issues “point reliably in the same direction.” We hear about the campus speech issues that get blamed on the left as often as we do because those are the stories that tend to make the news in the first place. And the reason those are the ones that make the news in the first place is that there’s a whole right-wing media ecosystem dedicated to elevating these stories as part of how central self-victimization is to the right. There are a lot of examples I could point to, but here’s one that sticks with me:
Back in March 2018, the right-wing Campus Reform website published a story with the headline, “Student barred from class for claiming there are two genders.” There are lines in there like, “A student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania has been barred from attending a religious studies class required for graduation after pointing out that there are only two genders.” Apparently, on February 28, the teacher of this class included a TEDx Talk by Paula Williams, a transgender woman and pastor who spoke about how her life changed as society stopped viewing her as a man and began perceiving her as a woman. After the video, the teacher, Alison Downie, opened the floor for discussion, first asking the women in her class for their take. At this point, the student started interrupting and causing a bit of a scene. Here’s what the discipline referral form looked like (the student posted it to his Facebook before deleting it):
Description: “Disrespectful objection to the professor’s class discussion structure; refusal to stop talking out of turn; angry outbursts in response to being required to listen to a trans speaker discuss the reality of white male privilege and sexism; disrespectful references to the validity of trans identity and experience; disrespectful claim that a low score on any class work would be evidence of professor’s personal prejudice.”
That sure seems like a lot more complicated than simply this student “claiming there are two genders.” Anyway, after Campus Reform posted this, right-wing outlets like Fox News, Gateway Pundit, and Red Ice TV interviewed and promoted the student’s version of events. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight ran multiple segments about this one incident.
In April, Downie, who had become inundated with calls for her firing, issued as much of a statement as she was legally allowed to issue, writing in the campus newspaper. I’ll quote it in part (emphasis mine):
Stories circulating in various social media and internet sites about a course I am teaching have presented a one-sided narrative. The most widely circulated stories are full of inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and outright fabrication.
I am therefore issuing a written statement to present accurate information about this course and my teaching. I cannot, however, specifically dispute particular reports in the media, because, unlike students, I am bound by [The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974] which mandates that I cannot speak about any particular student behavior or classroom session. I am able, however, to explain the purpose and general content of this course, as well as how I teach.
This is why this story sticks out to me, and it’s a big part of the problem with so many of the “campus speech” stories: we tend to hear only one side of the story, while the other side is often muzzled for legal or professional reasons. We’ll never know what happened in that classroom, and we really don’t need to. I didn’t know Indiana University of Pennsylvania existed before that story became the outrage of the week for a few days in 2018. There are so many actual, visible, public attacks on free speech and expression (even on college campuses) that jumping in to take a position on these bizarre local oddity stories is just silly.
I’m more concerned about situations like the story about Florida professors who were banned from testifying in a voting rights case than I am about the kind of gossip that makes its way into the “cancel culture” stories we’re fed every day of the week in opinion sections. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is currently arguing in court that employees at state schools do not have any first amendment rights while on the job. That certainly seems more important than following up on the story of a teacher who was fired from his job for being a creep with students or whether a student protest at Middle of Nowhere University got out of hand.
“I Came to College Eager to Debate. I Found Self-Censorship Instead,” read a New York Times opinion piece by Emma Camp earlier this year. Within it, just as was the case in the IUP “banned from the classroom for saying there are two genders” story, we hear nothing but vague and one-sided claims.
When a class discussion goes poorly for me, I can tell. During a feminist theory class in my sophomore year, I said that non-Indian women can criticize suttee, a historical practice of ritual suicide by Indian widows. This idea seems acceptable for academic discussion, but to many of my classmates, it was objectionable.
The room felt tense. I saw people shift in their seats. Someone got angry, and then everyone seemed to get angry. After the professor tried to move the discussion along, I still felt uneasy. I became a little less likely to speak up again and a little less trusting of my own thoughts.
I was shaken, but also determined to not silence myself. Still, the disdain of my fellow students stuck with me. I was a welcome member of the group — and then I wasn’t.
I mean, okay? What, exactly, would she like to change? She doesn’t say! People judge other people for what they say and do, both good and bad. That’s just kind of… life. Everyone self-censors. That’s called tact. That’s the problem with these “self-censorship” surveys that right-leaning groups like FIRE put out: they don’t go into detail about what they mean when they talk about “expressing their views on a controversial topic,” as Camp framed it. Does that mean not bursting through the door of a classroom like the Kool-Aid man and saying you don’t think the Holocaust happened? Does that mean not derailing a conversation about literature by launching into a rant about ivermectin as a COVID treatment? It’s such a deliberately vague question that tells us absolutely nothing.
When I was in college, I took a course called “Self Identity and the Mind-Brain Question.” It was a fun course, and it opened my eyes to some points of view that I otherwise might not have considered. Throughout the course, though, there was a fellow student who was extremely religious (which is fine). Her view was clear: she believed that the concept of “self” was tied to a soul (which is fine). And that’s certainly a point of view that was discussed in detail during the class. Still, throughout the course, she’d interrupt other students and the teacher to outright reject other viewpoints. She’d say, “That’s not right,” she’d loudly sigh, she’d grumble, etc. You get the idea. So she certainly wasn’t self-censoring herself during that class, but I was, as I remember sitting there and thinking, “JFC, this moron is obnoxious.” Would I have been contributing much of value had I decided to stand up and declare that the idea of a soul was stupid? No. But that’s certainly what I was thinking during her semi-regular classroom tantrums. That’s part of why I struggle to grapple with “self-censorship” as a real problem: it’s something we all have to do. It’s something I do, that most of us do. Otherwise, what we’re calling for is not smarter, better conversation, but just straight-up id.
In the IUP story, it sure sounds like a student was exposed to a point of view he didn’t like and threw a little tantrum about it. Bit snowflakey, yeah? And the funny thing is that had it been a liberal student who did this, there would have been cries of “Look at these wimps who need their safe spaces and won’t listen to ideas they don’t like!” (In fact, that’s exactly the type of story Campus Reform has written up time and again.)
These are stories that end up on the news because the right has a vested interest in making them the news. No matter which way this plays out, no matter who is right, no matter who is wrong, these stories exist to further the right’s “campus speech” narrative. Hell, the very existence of groups like Campus Reform — which exist to weed out and punish “liberal” professors (you shouldn’t be allowed to say anything in class that suggests you’re left-of-center), promote right-wing students and professors (you should be allowed to say whatever you want during class no matter how disruptive and bigoted it is), while selling this crybully narrative — is an indictment of the whole “the left is silencing the right on campus” argument that gets bandied about.
Just look at the types of stories being promoted right now on Campus Reform to see how ridiculously inconsistent they are when talking about “free speech” and “cancel culture.” There’s… an article where they’re upset that a Wake Forest student “allegedly receives award after supporting fellow student’s anti-conservative rhetoric.” (Sure sounds like they’re trying to “cancel” this student!) There’s a list of professors who CR had apparently deemed insufficiently respectful of Queen Elizabeth upon her death, even reaching out to the schools themselves to take action. There’s their recent rage-post about schools offering “gender-inclusive” housing. There’s another article about the “woke ideology” of staff at East Carolina University, another one raging about Oregon State University offering queer studies classes as an option, and, well, you get the idea. All of those are from the past two days. Is that not “cancel culture?”
This is how the “campus speech” stuff works. Right-wing groups like Campus Reform, Young Americans for Liberty, and Professor Watchlist all exist to “cancel” teachers, students, and sometimes entire colleges for views they don’t like… all while crying “but free speech!” when it suits them. So, I think we will just have to agree to disagree on the question of whether campus speech issues “point reliably in the same direction.” The argument that the left is somehow more hostile on the topic of “campus speech” is propaganda, and it really saddens me to see how many people in mainstream media have bought into it.
Until people can get specific about what they mean when they talk about “cancel culture,” “self-censorship,” and “free speech,” it’s hard to take these conversations seriously. That’s been my point all along. I am extremely pro-free speech. And I do care about self-censorship. I think that where we may differ in points of view is that the mainstream concern about self-censorship tends to center around whether or not conservatives should feel free to rattle off a list of personal prejudices in classrooms without being judged; my concern about self-censorship has to do with whether people should feel comfortable being themselves in public.
This point is one that I meant to include in my last entry, but didn’t, for the sake of length. I’m thankful that you included it in yours:
Here’s what I would argue about the failure to enforce rules on big social networks, though: the practical impediments to enforcement are harder than you might think. 500 million tweets a day are sent. 2 billion people use Facebook a day. Moderating all of that requires immense resources and effort.
This might again point back to my longstanding argument that, in the internet era, censorship of extremism is essentially technologically impossible, if the extremists are persistent and adaptable enough. None of this means that you shouldn’t be frustrated and disillusioned by these companies when they fail to enforce the rules that are on the books. But I think that the difficulty in top-down moderation means that platforms have a great responsibility to provide users with tools to block, mute, go private, and avoid certain terms and topics.
Over at Techdirt, Mike Masnick has written about what he’s called Masnick’s Impossibility Theorum (a play on Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, which has to do with the idea that there is no one true perfect voting system, even if everyone sets out to create the fairest electoral system possible). Masnick’s argument has to do with social media platforms and content moderation. His point: content moderation at scale is impossible to do well. He goes into detail about what he means in this Techdirt post.
I’ve argued for years that while many people like to say that content moderation is difficult, that’s misleading. Content moderation at scale is impossible to do well. Importantly, this is not an argument that we should throw up our hands and do nothing. Nor is it an argument that companies can’t do better jobs within their own content moderation efforts. But I do think there’s a huge problem in that many people — including many politicians and journalists — seem to expect that these companies not only can, but should, strive for a level of content moderation that is simply impossible to reach.
And thus, throwing humility to the wind, I’d like to propose Masnick’s Impossibility Theorem, as a sort of play on Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. Content moderation at scale is impossible to do well. More specifically, it will always end up frustrating very large segments of the population and will always fail to accurately represent the “proper” level of moderation of anyone. While I’m not going to go through the process of formalizing the theorem, a la Arrow’s, I’ll just note a few points on why the argument I’m making is inevitably true.
With, as you point out, hundreds of millions of tweets per day and billions of active Facebook users, even unfathomably effective and accurate content moderation decisions will result in millions of daily content moderation misses — which is to say, some things that don’t break the rules will be taken down by accident, and some things that do break the rules will remain up. A 99.9% accuracy rate (which would be a truly unheard of level of success) on 500 million posts is still 500,000 “misses” every single day. I try to keep this in mind whenever discussing the issue of content moderation, generally.
This statement of yours, I think, is also important, even if I’m not sure how much I agree with a few of the finer points:
…the companies that make internet communication possible (platforms like Twitter and Tik Tok, search engines like Google, the “reverse proxy”1 service Cloudflare, the companies that provide the server space and infrastructure like Amazon Web Services) are motivated by what all corporations are motivated by, money. Individuals within these organizations may certainly be motivated by their own moral codes, but as organizations they will do what’s best for their profits and their stock price. Which means, among other things, that they’re fickle. They’re untrustworthy. They will enforce these platforming decisions not according to any consistent moral reasoning but through the vagaries of public relations.
For now, this tends to favor progressives. I understand that you feel that they too often don’t enforce their own rules against conservative accounts that violate the rules, and I hear you. This gets back to the point above, though - the right-leaning accounts that get away with rules violations are those that stay under the radar; they’re allowed less because the corporations approve of their actions and more because their actions never become newsworthy enough to attract condemnation.
Yes, if Amazon or Twitter or Meta or Google or whatever company could increase their profits by Thanos-snapping billions of people out of existence, they would. Companies don’t have values; they have profit motivators. They absolutely shouldn’t be trusted to do the right thing because it’s right, but because it’s profitable. I think you’re right in that actual policy at these places “tends to favor progressives,” at least in a certain sense and in certain instances, and I’ll get back to that point in a moment… However, I disagree that “right-leaning accounts that get away with rules violations are those that stay under the radar.”
Facebook, for instance, goes out of its way to give large right-wing figures preferential treatment. A 2020 BuzzFeed report uncovered evidence that Facebook’s head of policy, Joel Kaplan (who you may remember from his time in the Bush administration or as the guy who threw Brett Kavanaugh a party after sitting behind Kavanaugh at the justice’s confirmation hearings) had personally intervened specifically to protect right-wing pages:
On July 22, a Facebook employee posted a message to the company’s internal misinformation policy group noting that some misinformation strikes against Breitbart had been cleared by someone at Facebook seemingly acting on the publication's behalf.
“A Breitbart escalation marked ‘urgent: end of day’ was resolved on the same day, with all misinformation strikes against Breitbart’s page and against their domain cleared without explanation,” the employee wrote.
The same employee said a partly false rating applied to an Instagram post from Charlie Kirk was flagged for “priority” escalation by Joel Kaplan, the company’s vice president of global public policy. Kaplan once served in George W. Bush’s administration and drew criticism for publicly supporting Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial nomination to the Supreme Court.
Aaron Sharockman, the executive director of PolitiFact, told BuzzFeed News a contact at Facebook did call to discuss Kirk’s post.
“We had a call with them where they wanted to know how this post was aligned with the program,” Sharockman said. "Was this just a minor inaccuracy or was it something that we thought was something that had potential harmful effects?"
PolitiFact did not change its rating on the post. “We stuck to our guns there,” Sharockman said.
Past Facebook employees, including Yaël Eisenstat, Facebook's former global election ads integrity lead, have expressed concerns with Kaplan’s influence over content enforcement decisions. She previously told BuzzFeed News a member of Kaplan's Washington policy team attempted to influence ad enforcement decisions for an ad placed by a conservative organization.
Facebook did not respond to questions about why Kaplan would personally intervene in matters like this.
Conservatives screech non-stop about “anti-conservative bias” on social media, but it’s flat-out false. Not only is there zero evidence that the right gets treated worse than the left on social media, but there’s actually a fair amount of evidence to the contrary. It’s just that when someone on the right gets dinged by one of the social media companies for violating a policy, they get put on Fox News to cry about how they’re martyrs. When someone on the left gets dinged by one of these companies… nothing happens. Because there’s just not the same media infrastructure in place. The way right-wing media operates compared to “the left” is why issues of campus speech and discussions about free speech or cancel culture, generally, get elevated into the public consciousness in the first place. If writers can’t (or won’t) take that into account before firing up the “kids these days!” “the left is anti-speech!” outrage machine, then it’s probably a topic best left alone as it’s not actually helping people understand what’s really happening in the world, but what’s happening in the false world that’s being curated for them, specifically for the purpose of keeping readers raging.
Right now, right-wing media outlets and commentators are throwing a full-on tantrum because Lizzo was allowed to play an old flute. These are the same people who will go on and on about “cancel culture” while screaming to get products they don’t like taken off the market, banned books, movies pulled from release schedules, and more. I simply do not want to hear about “cancel culture” unless those of us who aren’t part of the right-wing rage-grift that guys like Ben Shapiro and Matt Walsh are a part of, finally get called out for their absolute obsession with “canceling” people and products they don’t like. The right is obsessed with micromanaging the lives of everyday people, right down to who is allowed to use what bathroom, what medications they’re allowed to take, how other parents are allowed to raise their kids, and so on. So I see all of these, “I-I-I’m being persecuted because people might judge me if I say what’s on my mind at every waking moment” takes and can’t help but roll my eyes.
Accusing people of engaging in “cancel culture” has become weaponized, and I am begging you to see it.
We can never actually discuss the merits of anything anymore. Framing every single conversation as a discussion specifically about “free speech” serves exactly one purpose: to silence dissenting opinions. Yes, you read that correctly. Right-wing media is currently waging a campaign built on lies and exaggeration against LGBTQ people. They’re getting their audiences all worked up over deliberately misleading claims, which has resulted in children’s hospitals, libraries, and schools being targeted with bomb threats. And anyone who stands up and says, “Hey, this is not an okay thing to do” gets called “anti-speech” or accused of trying to “cancel” people.
Do you see how far we’ve come from the days of “Hey, is it really fair to fire someone for a tweet they sent a decade ago?” That was what “cancel culture” started as, and I’m inclined to believe that, no, you shouldn’t fire someone for a tweet posted a decade ago or a single off-color comment from the past. But now it’s, “Hey, is it really fair to fire/criticize/sanction someone for something they’re doing right this moment, with intention?” Because the way “cancel culture” gets talked about in the press is just absolutely abysmal. Here’s an example:
”When the pronoun police come for eighth-graders” is a June opinion piece by George Will, published by The Washington Post.
If the pronoun police of Wisconsin’s Kiel Area School District were just another woke excrescence on American education, they would be merely local embarrassments. These enforcers are, however, a national disgrace because they are a direct consequence of federal lawlessness with a progressive pedigree.
In April, the district lodged a complaint against three eighth-grade boys for the offense of “mispronouning,” referring to a classmate using the biologically correct pronoun “her” instead of the classmate’s preferred “them.” This, district officials — supposed educators — said, constitutes “sexual harassment,” a Title IX violation.
There, the regnant Lhamonism that has seeped into educational crevices from coast to coast, and from kindergarten through graduate school, has resulted in yet another progressive attempt to supplant free speech with compulsory speech. Fortunately, the three middle-school miscreants accused of “mispronouning” seem to understand that the best defense is a good offense.
Represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, the boys are arguing that their use of biologically correct, if politically incorrect, pronouns is speech protected by the First Amendment. The Constitution also forbids the district from compelling them to speak as district bureaucrats suddenly — how long ago did they embrace this orthodoxy? — prefer. Furthermore, the institute says it has spoken with another Kiel Area family “whose daughter was recently given an in-school suspension for ‘sexual harassment’ based on a single statement using an allegedly ‘wrong’ pronoun — and the statement was said to a third party, not even to the allegedly ‘misgendered’ student.”
Perhaps Kiel Area schools can waste time trying to bully children into conformity to this or that fad because the schools have so splendidly accomplished their actual task: education. It might, however, be best if schools that are eager to engage in pronoun policing not even attempt education.
The absolute gall of Will to write this piece the way he did… Will, like most people who write about “cancel culture,” decided to take what the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty said at face value, and publish it in the paper, no questions asked. But here’s what actually happened:
A trans student in Kiel, Wisconsin, started going by “they” and “them” pronouns, with support from their parents and school officials. Cool. Great. Whatever, right? Three boys at the school began bullying this student and making a big show out of insisting on calling this student “she” and “her,” instead. The school asked the boys to leave this student alone, but they wouldn’t. The student would come home from school in tears after being picked on, called homophobic slurs, and subject to harassment. The school kind of shrugged it off, basically being like, hey, sorry, but we tried. The student’s parents, not sure what to do, lodged a Title IX complaint, which the school was forced to cooperate with. Again, all this kid wanted was to be left alone by bullies.
Right-wing media started covering this story, driving attention to it, framing the kids who wouldn’t agree to stop bullying this other student as victims, and stoking their outrage mobs. Guess what happened next? Bomb threats. Serious ones. May 23, May 24, May 26, May 27, May 31, June 1, June 2 — non-stop bomb threats.
A man was arrested for threatening to murder the school’s teachers. The school eventually had to close in-person classes because it couldn’t be sure if it was actually safe to go to school. The town canceled its Memorial Day parade because of the threats.
All of this happened because students wouldn’t stop bullying one of their classmates. Nobody told them they had to refer to this student by “they.” They were asked to just… not refer to the student at all, to leave this kid alone. (By the way, whenever you see a story where it’s like, “So and so was fired for not using the right pronouns!!!” there’s like a 90%+ chance that it’s much more complicated than that.) This didn’t need to become a national story, and the decision by The Wall Street Journal and others in right-wing media to elevate a misleading version of it only helped stoke anger and rage. And even after all that, when The Washington Post does cover it, there’s no mention of the bomb threats, the fact that the students were simply being asked to leave this other student alone, etc. It’s framed in the most uncharitable way possible, treating the bullied student as though they’re the problem here.
If people are worried about “mobs” shutting down speech, maybe it’s worth taking a look at the way the right does exactly that instead of pretending like a college freshman worrying about what people will think of her if she expresses her “controversial” views in class is some major threat to speech. That’s really what I’m asking the people who obsess over “cancel culture” to do: put things in perspective, and be honest about the tactics being used on the right to silence the voices of people on the left. This isn’t a matter of “cancel culture” not existing, but about the public perception being so warped that the continued obsession over it as a “left” problem only further twists reality. It’s dishonest.
Anyway, Freddie, thanks so much for engaging in this conversation with me. There are some stray thoughts here and there that I’ll probably write up in separate posts (one topic that I meant to get at that I just sort of ran out of room for was how the “cancel culture” discourse functions as a tool to uphold people in power and prevent those of us without power from leveraging tools like boycotts to press organizations for change — but I don’t think I’d be doing a service to anyone by dumping that at the bottom of a piece), but I have enjoyed our discussion and I really look forward to reading your final installment!