The editorial board of The New York Times today went all-in on "cancel culture" anxiety [archive], declaring that free speech is more than a right to say what you will: it's the right to say what you want without being "shamed" or "shunned" by others. Heaven forfend that "harsh criticism" be the outcome of something one says…
The progressive movement in America has been a force for good in many ways: for social and racial justice, for pay equity, for a fairer system and society, and for calling out hate and hate speech. In the course of their fight for tolerance, many progressives have become intolerant of those who disagree with them or express other opinions, and take on a kind of self-righteousness and censoriousness that the right long displayed and the left long abhorred. It has made people uncertain about the contours of speech: Many know they shouldn't utter racist things, but they don't understand what they can say about race or can say to a person of a different race than they are. Attacking people in the workplace, on campus, on social media and elsewhere who express unpopular views from a place of good faith is the practice of a closed society.
The Times does not allow hate speech in our pages
A lot might be said about all this (and the funny disclaimer about its own pet exceptions) not least that it's all wildly incoherent: "shaming" and "shunning" are themselves acts of free speech, ones so mild they may even be expressed by saying nothing at all. Presumably "harsh criticism" is where the action is at.
"Many Americans are understandably confused, then, about what they can say and where they can say it," says the Editorial Board, plainly confused about what Americans can say and where they can say it. (Buried deep within the piece is an offhand admission that the First Amendment provides "freedom from government restrictions on expression." Thanks!)
The Times's editorial is, in effect, a cri de cœur seeking a new culturally-bound exception to free speech: all the bad mean speech must be somehow vanquished so that the good respectful speech may be saved.
Thing is, though, there were many people already being "silenced" by shame and shun in that glittering beforetime. What changed?
"This social silencing, this depluralizing of America, has been evident for years," they write, as if America was until 2016 a place of harmony and civility where everyone spoke freely and was treated with respect and forebearance.
This editorial represents the perspective of well-off media people who still have no idea what life is like outside their floating world. They find it incomprehensible that Americans hold their tongues at Thanksgiving. And yet a 93-year-old resident of Connecticut who claims to be left of Lenin but doesn't believe in cancel culture is right there in the rolodex.
We don't know who wrote this collective editorial. But I know plenty of folks like them, and they've become insecure in the last few years because their careers have been "captured" by social media platforms (i.e. Twitter). They are all financially dependent on it, relentlessly abused in it, and completely addicted to it. This is why they dream of free speech as a very specific thing that needs protecting from itself: because they're speechcroppers.
The real culture war aspect to this is this: the belief that the desperation of young people presents a strategic threat to freedom far more dangerous than the direct attacks on it exacted by the government, corporations, instutitions and private individuals who can afford lawyers. Censoring people, in the sense of coercing, threatening or retaliating against them? Not their problem until it is.
Legally, constitutionally, there is no "fundamental right" to voice your opinions in public "without fear of being shamed or shunned." You have no right to freedom from "harsh criticism" or "anxiety" about what you say. The government can't stop you saying what you like but for very slim exceptions, but you can be sued by people for what you say about them, and platforms can ban you (confetti rains! fireworks burst! the crowd cheers!) for any reason or none at all.
This is the shit sandwich everyone else has been eating since time immemorial and now you get to eat it too, you stupid fucking soaks.