An owl's eye view of forests and trees

Where Do We Draw Lines on Free Speech, Censorship, and Cancel Culture? Part I

Let’s talk about cancel culture, free speech, and that Harper’s letter. You know the one I mean.


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Pardon my rambling thoughts. I have so many regarding censorship, free speech, tolerance vs. intolerance, and cancel culture that I find it hard to get them organized and written down. However, in the interest of chipping away at my executive dysfunction, I decided to start putting some of those thoughts on virtual paper.


To start, Harper’s Magazine recently published “A letter on Justice and Open Debate” signed by many prominent thinkers and personalities across the ideological spectrum and intended to appear in the magazine’s October issue. Well, it is not actually the start. We also have the president’s recent rhetoric prior to the letter calling out cancel culture with the clear intent to use it as a campaign talking point. Also, people have been calling for action or avoiding product from various personages over their stances on racism or LGBTQ+ folks. (By the way, please do not forget that while many have marched and knelt protesting racism in the last month, July was also Pride month.)


As a result, many folks are debating aspects of free speech, censorship, and cancel culture right now, and the Harper’s letter steps right into that debate. It technically does not use the term “’cancel culture” but it discusses some of the common elements that go into all these discussions and clearly vaguely waves in the direction of cancel culture.


Where to really start? How about with a definition of “cancel culture”? Wikipedia defines the term in an entry on online shaming: “The act of canceling, also referred to as cancel culture (a variant on the term “callout culture”) describes a form of boycott in which an individual (usually a celebrity) who has acted or spoken in a questionable or controversial manner is boycotted.”


The article defines other types of online shaming, like doxing, spamming negative reviews, or revenge porn.  Thus, we know that cancel culture does rise to the horrible levels that doxing or revenge porn do. Posting negative reviews to punish businesses holds goals often adjacent, if not equal, to those of cancel culture but is not quite the same. From discussions swirling around the internet and the complaints made against cancel culture, we also know that people also apply the term to business boycotts not just backlash against celebrities, which makes sense. And based on its location in a Wikipedia article, cancel culture falls into a sub-category of online shaming, something about which people have also debated a lot in the last several years. Given the association with online shaming, we can readily see why many people, regardless of ideological leanings, have expressed concern about cancel culture.


People have expressed dismay over public shaming for a long time. With the internet, it has become easier to attack people without much thought or much repercussion to the attacker. John Oliver did a piece on public shaming featuring Monica Lewinsky which highlighted some of problems of the practice. People have complained bitterly about victim blaming used to justify inaction or horrible acts. The internet magnifies our ability to publicly shame, thus making something already ugly turn downright horrific.



Actress Kelly Marie Tran left social media, a vital means of keeping public attention for a modern-day celebrity, because of the extreme harassment she received due to a fictional character she played.  Off-duty police officer Amber Guyger shot and killed Botham Jean, a Black man, while he was sitting in his own apartment. Guyger claims that she thought she had entered her apartment and that Jean had broken in. On the day of Jean’s funeral, the results of a post-mortem search warrant of Jean’s apartment went public, trying to show he had drugs in order to justify his murder. People decry fat shaming as being deeply psychologically harmful and serving no other real purpose.  A parent a made video of his punishment of his 13-year-old daughter by cutting off her hair for some unspecified offense. While the father did not apparently intend it to happen, the video ended up online, and the girl to jumped from a highway overpass to her death. Cyberbullying has led to suicide and acts of self-harm.


The litany of harm that online shaming and harassment cause goes on and on.


Therefore, cancel culture’s intersection with online shaming rightly makes some people pause. Behind all of this lies a healthy respect and fear for what mob mentality can do. And the weight of the mob drives the power behind both online shaming and cancel culture.


We all should have a pretty good idea of what a mob can do. Mobs lynched Black men in the South. Mobs have destroyed property after their team won a championship. They are a hive mind, working at a fever pitch, that cannot be reasoned with. Scary stuff.


The Catholic liturgy includes a reading from the Gospels during Mass. On Good Friday, that includes a long reading that covers from the Last Supper through to Jesus’ crucifixion and requires audience participation. Because lots of folks do not make it to Good Friday mass these days, the reading often occurs on Palm Sunday instead. The experience has given me just the barest hit of how terrifying a mob can be. The normal reader reads from the Gospel. The priest speaks Jesus’ words from the text. And the congregation speaks the words from the crowd. A congregation chanting “Crucify him! Crucify him!” – Even when only make-believe, by unconvincing actors, it gives you chills.


We have established it can be reasonable to have concerns about cancel culture. But let’s also take a look at where it’s just more of the same stuff we have actually praised in the past.


Cancel culture, at its heart, amounts to boycotting over something other than the quality of the service boycotted.  People boycott an actor for his political stances, rather than whether he puts on good performances. People boycott a business because of the way it treats its employees. And so on. Nothing new here.


Once upon a time, a country had to fight a war in a far-away place because it had a few satellite states there, and the people who lived in them decided they wanted more land and then got pushy with another country’s satellite states. The country had to spend a lot of money and resources to fight so far away and the main benefactors, arguably, were the people living in those satellite states. The people in the country already paid taxes on many things. To help pay for the war, the country chose to make the people in the satellite states pay a fraction of what the people in the country were paying in taxes. It was only fair under the circumstances. However, the people in the satellite states, not having to pay such taxes previously, went ballistic. As one if its efforts to calm things down, the country decided to give the people in the satellite states access to some products they really liked at a steep discount. The people responded by boycotting the product, even though they liked it, and in some instances, destroying it. Not because the product was bad, but because of the principles behind…wait for it…taxation without representation. Because of course, I am talking about Colonial America.


We have been boycotting things for reasons other than the quality of product or service for some time. We often question whether we should or should not have boycotted something. Was it a good idea not to boycott the Olympics in Hitler’s Germany? Was it a bad one to boycott the Olympics in the USSR in the 1980s? The answer to both of those questions may be, “Yes.” Regardless of the answer, we clearly hold boycotting as an important ability.


We have long praised the ideal of an economy driven by consumer demand and business supply. We have lauded the ability of the consumer to influence the market. In so doing, we also should recognize that the reasons for consumer choices frequently included things beyond the quality and price of whatever the consumers sought to purchase.


Part and parcel with that, we must recognize the often the additional factors in play have sinister roots. Maybe consumers buy from one manufacturer over another because the one has had better working conditions in their plant. But just as often, it is because the owner is a Jew. Or that landlord also rents to Black people. And so on.


Often, dialogues arise as to whether a boycott has gone too far. More often those dialogues arise when the minorities and the marginalized dare to make a stand. “Don’t you think those Negroes have gone too far letting this bus boycott go on so long?”  Those minorities or marginalized people are merely using their power of the purse, the only leverage they have in some situations, to effect change. Isn’t that what is supposed to be driving our economy and making it stable? Purchasing power and where the consumer chooses to spend it? Isn’t that supposed to be a virtue?


A bus carrying Negro League baseball players travels the South.  It stops at a gas station it has stopped at numerous times before. One of the players gets off the bus and asks to use the restroom. The owner tells him, “No. They’re for whites only.” The player turns around and tells the others to pull the nozzle out of the gas tank.  If the place will not allow them to use the facilities, they do not have to give it their money. Faced with the prospect of losing a huge sale on the filling of a bus gas tank and spare gas tank, the owner grudgingly allows the men to use the facilities. A microcosm of boycott power used to effect positive change. Buck O’Neil recounted this first-hand experience. Jackie Robinson was the player that sparked it.


So when we fear the power of the mob to boycott, we have to bear in mind that people have used this power to crush minorities and the marginalized, while at the same time decried it when used by the minorities and the marginalized.  Today, more than ever we need to be cognizant how the painting of cancel culture as a horrible negative has been used to keep minorities and the marginalized from exercising what still amounts to one of the few bits of leverage they have to make change happen.


Colin Kaepernick, after consulting with a white U.S. veteran about respectful approaches, started kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. People threatened to boycott his team or the NFL. Kaepernick eventually found himself unable to play in the NFL – No team would even give him consideration.  The kneeling continued. President Trump decried it and again, people threatened to boycott the NFL.  Nike paid Kaepernick to do an ad campaign for them. People decried that, burned Nike products in protest, and encouraged a boycott of Nike.


People protested the racism evinced by the president of Papa John’s and threatened boycotts. People encourage avoiding Chik-Fil-A due to its ownership’s numerous stances against the LGBTQ+ community. That gets labelled as taking cancel culture too far.  The people who often decry cancel culture or boycotting the loudest happily engage in it when it suits their desires to maintain status quo. An unfair and unjust status quo. They also frequently see no hypocrisy in their stances. Of course, I am talking about those who usually classify as Right-leaning.


In contrast, those on the Left tend to think much more about the possibility of overreacting. They wring their hands and fret about whether they are going too far or acting hypocritical. They question cancel culture whether it favors their causes or not. Which means they end up blunting their own efforts to boycott for change, while those who lean Right do not.  Both sides are not equal in this. And branding cancel culture as bad from the outset only serves to further make it easier for the Right to use it themselves and deny it to the marginalized for whom it is often the only tool they have.


Things have only been getting worse on this front. Not just because of the internet’s ability to spread both cancel culture and the talking points against it like wildfire, or the Left’s further and further ceding of the middle-ground to an ever more extreme Right. The very nature of business in this country has shifted dramatically, meaning that even the tool of buying power has been evaporating for minorities and marginalized groups.


Free market, unfettered capitalism, in the modern age, has not resulted in more competition. Instead big companies buy out smaller ones, until only a few huge corporations really provide any competition in a sector. In turn, that shatters the old concepts of supply and demand. The few corporations are the only supply. They have enough capital to withstand dips in fortune due to customer demand waxing and waning. And they are only absorbing more and more capital, aided by years of supply-side, trickle-down economic theories made law. The more they absorb, the bigger they get and the less they need pay attention to consumer or employee concerns. They become so large that we label them “too big to fail”. We just cannot afford for them to shed jobs due to downsizing or remove their product from the market. Therefore, should they get into any trouble, they can argue we need to bail them out or face dire consequences. Even though, as noted, they should have more than enough capital to cover their losses. They just will not spend any of it.


As time goes on, that means that the leverage for change through boycott weakens. People have been complaining about and boycotting Walmart over its practices for years. It seems to have had little impact.


What is the point of going on about all of this?  To show that while at first blush, painting cancel culture with a tarred brush may seem reasonable, but we have a long history of not only using it to positive effect but also of praising it as a virtue. It does good, and it is often the only tool that some people have to make good come about. And we are running out of time to use it. Like with all things, we can question whether we have overreacted in any given context, but it is not necessarily inherently wrong or right in its own right. It’s merely a tool we can use to do wrong or right.


I think I’ll stop there for now, but I have so much more to talk about, including about free speech and censorship and where they intersect with cancel culture. And what that Harper’s letter has to do with any of it.


  1. Cheryl O

    I’d argue that the phrase ‘cancel culture’ itself is a far or alt right frame job. Or maybe an alt right branding of boycotts and complaints. I prefer not to give it usage. I vote with my dollars where possible, and tell people if it seems appropriate or could help gain traction.

    • Ann Anderson

      An excellent point. Rebranding the term and thus reframing it really needs to happen, because, like many things today, calling it cancel culture is accepting the far-Right’s terms of engagement.

  2. Ross Anderson

    I’ll add my two cents, even though it’s more in the vein of an observation. I felt that the Harper’s letter was very passive-aggressive in its format, as if to shame the reader into not voicing a disagreement with its stance.

    • Ann Anderson

      I have to agree it was passive-aggressive to some degree, and trying to shame you into agreeing with it. It also was using figleaves to cover what it was really saying – don’t apply consequences to those who not only spew, but deliberately try to spread intolerant, bigoted ideas.

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