For years now, ‘cancel culture’ has been counted among the most potent weapons of the online battles between the Left and the Right. It was and remained the real power behind the social justice mob, the ace played when movements had to be supported and revolts explained. Fleeting and capricious, it planted the seeds of fear, creating the illusion of widespread discontent in the minds of politicians, top managers, and regular social media users.
Leftists generally claim that if there even is such a thing as cancel culture, it is a matter of accountability rather than a tool of oppression. Their position is usually as follows: people may have the right to speak, but they are not entitled to an audience, and others are well within their right to exercise their own free speech in order to de-platform the opinions they disagree with. They are not, after all, banning their opponents—they have no power to do so—but only suggesting that their ‘offensive and harmful’ ideas should not be condoned. Public speakers, in particular, are completely fine to target since they are responsible for spreading incorrect messages. “How can such-and-such be considered silenced?” leftists further ask. “We have only blocked his events, but he still has a published book and a YouTube channel.” Moreover, they are giving a voice to the marginalised communities (a terrible cliché phrase beloved by progressives), thus making another step towards the much-desired equality.
The first part of this view has a valid point. Indeed, one may have the right to speak, but nobody else is obliged to listen, and those who disagree are surely free to express their disagreement. It matters not how terrible one finds the expressed idea as long as it remains an idea. Words have the power to inspire or cause doubt, they can hurt, they can influence public opinion, but they are not violence. One can choose not to engage with them or decide to accept the challenge and be judged according to his merits. Developing a thick skin is a part of growing up, and maintaining it is a personal responsibility. There is a clear difference between ignoring or disagreeing and taking active measures to deny those who might be interested an opportunity to make their own choice, as well as deny the speaker a chance to make his case. The former is fair game. The latter is censorship.
Where do we draw the line between the two? It is evident that a post on social media that says, “N is a bigot and a horrible person” falls within the first category, while blocking the door to N’s lecture hall belongs to the second. But what about a post saying, “N is a bigot, and therefore his publishing contracts must be terminated, lest his publisher wishes to share the label”? What of a thousand such posts? And what about a determined yet peaceful demonstration in the vicinity of the lecture hall? The answer rests with the intended result: is it simply to make the alternative known or to shut the opponent down by all means available?
As for the argument that cancelling is not censorship, since there are no ways to enforce it other than social pressure, this is a highly formalist approach. Its critics are not concerned with direct legal implications—though sometimes those are very real, as in most cases of so-called ‘hate crimes’—but with the mindset that allows and encourages the cowardly denial of dissenting thought. It is not activists’ sincere belief in the harm caused by wrong words that is the problem, but their ill-founded hubris, their self-assumed role of holy avengers bringing the world to the right side of history, and their justification of personal attacks. It is the fact that their first reaction is to take offence and march on, armed with pitchforks, to scare and manipulate, to present it all as the new normal. In other words, it is the cancel culture that is utterly reprehensible.
Another significant part of it, arguably the key one within the current paradigm, is accountability. Namely, the accountability of those who happen to have an audience and against whom a targeted campaign might be organised, though others are not necessarily exempt from it. The idea is that influential people need to understand the consequences of their words, always consider the context, and do their best to make every single listener feel accepted, respected, and secure. It is further implied, if not stated outright, that every human deserves to be treated this way by default and has the right to expect such treatment, especially if he is perceived to be historically disadvantaged. If it is denied to him, intentionally or not, he is offended and entitled to an apology; and since such cases are class actions in the court of public opinion, it falls to the concerned activists to represent the interests of the wronged group.
The above approach is symptomatic of a society that has convinced itself that it must uphold equality and the well-being of every individual but, at the same time, is painfully aware of its inability to do so. It enforces politeness with the zeal of a nursery governess scandalised at the show of impropriety. However, in the adult world, respect is earned, not given, and proper courtesy requires acknowledging that everyone is only entitled to their own opinion and moral values. People may choose to cherish one another, but they may also choose not to, and an attempt to destroy their life would still not be a proportional response.
This does not mean that there are no circumstances that call for placing natural limitations upon speech. A professional environment, for example, does not allow free expression. We do not expect to hear about our business partner’s family during an important meeting, nor do we routinely discuss animal welfare with a waiter in a restaurant. Unless otherwise specified, the same rule applies to education: it is a service we pay for, either directly or through taxes, and so the teachers are supposed to adhere to the approved curriculum rather than preach about their own beliefs.
The speech aimed at minors is another area where caution is necessary. Realistically, there is no way to shield the children entirely and no need to do so—in fact, it is much better to prepare them to face the world and let them explore it. Still, it is up to their parents (or caretakers) to decide what is best for them, not the government or tutors. This does not mean that parents can police public spaces, but they can and should have control over the sources of information available to their children.
It is paramount to remember that cancel culture is not just a leftist disease. Criticising the other side while failing to notice and condemn the same issues that surface among our own is somewhat hypocritical. As mentioned, it would be a common courtesy to assume that a left-leaning individual feels as strongly about his cause as we do about ours and restrain from trying to silence him if nothing illegal is happening. There is nothing wrong with arguing, ridiculing, and even intentionally offending at times, but bans and personal retributions are distasteful. If anything, they are a sign of weakness and should be avoided.
Some say that cancel culture provides a push for positive change, making influential people aware of their messages’ effects. Yet this shifts responsibility from the individuals who refuse to think for themselves and makes them less capable of meeting the challenges of reality around them. The truth is, not a single unpleasant comment can inflict actual damage, and if strangers’ opinions, jokes, or actions get under somebody else’s skin, it is not reason enough to stop them. A society that gives up freedom of speech is sure to give up every other liberty, and that is a path equally destructive for everyone involved.