Even arch-libertarian John Stuart Mill concedes that “opinions lose their immunity if expressing them instigates a violent act”. An example cited in his main work “On Liberty” (1859) takes us back in time: an opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor…may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer. But, according to Mill, same opinion would be ok to be circulated in the press. So, according to his definition, when radio propagandists in Rwanda are egging Hutus on to kill even more Tutsis, with 100,000s more killed as a result, Mills would presumably be ok with that. You know, as long as one is not shouting in front of the Tutsi houses. Not the sharpest bunch, these libertarians.
Violence had (and still has for many) a simple meaning: a direct action causing physical damage, like a knuckle bending the nose of a corn-dealer or maybe a cannonball tearing through a body. Unfortunately for pure libertarians, under overwhelming evidence from many branches of science, humanity has moved on: as we can detect damage much better now, we judge what actions are harmful more stringently.
A definition like “actions or lack of actions which avoidably lowers potential” (Galtung, 1969) nicely encapsulates the idea of violence and allows it to change as our understanding of what is possible improves. So, dying of TB in times of Mills is not necessarily violence, but dying of it today is (as it is avoidable). When we see a group of humans in a society with statistically impossible lower life-expectancy or lower human development, we recognise it as a strong indication of structural violence. You know, civilisation happened. These days, when it is clear how a political speech or an article by opiniated journalist calling migrants rapists or blacks sub-human can cause terrible amounts of the new, less visible violence — even the most devoted Mill-acolytes would have to agree to revoke the immunity from those opinions after a short reflection.
Granted, sometimes not everyone agrees as to which actions or opinions increase violence — for example, some still believe supply-side (or “trickle-down”) economics does not entrench inequality or that excess CO2 isn’t a problem. If counterfactual is involved (“what would have happened if”), as it often does in social sciences, agreement is even harder to achieve. But as science advances, as tests like neuroimaging, and evidence in areas of psychology, sociology, economics, ecologic, etc. become clearer, we will become aware of more incontrovertible causes of violence. Depending on the newly understood benefits and damage, these actions may or may no longer be considered harmful. Sane people should quickly agree to discourage proven harmful action (say, by taxing) or even ban the more extreme ones outright.
Re-reading this last sentence, it looks so simple that it feels almost pointless, yet the point is still is incessantly argued over by so many. Starry-eyed liberal fanboys quoting Mills and somehow still believing in an updated form of the old domino-theory (that unless all opinions are equally valid, unless we fight the good fight against all “cancellation”, the good and potential in us will be insidiously stifled) are just shouting their ideology ever louder in hope of the volume substituting proof, but what proof and logic can be applied to this question is squarely against them.
While the brave liberal souls are quivering in their boots in face of today’s “thought police” of imagined, hugely overestimated power, these seemingly deep thinkers fail to observe clear patterns. Take for instance the historical resilience of the human quest for self-expression and discovery. Independent thought, art and science progressed even under the harshest conditions, when censored by strict ideologues or even when being actively suppressed. The liberals often don’t care about inequality and economic deprivation which demonstrably stifles progress, instead worry about actions which always fail at stifling.
Their black-and-white thinking is also completely at odds with reality. To think that human expressions will slide back to some terrible mind-dictatorship just because we regulate some evidently harmful actions around its edges is simply absurd. Our visual art will not suffer when we decide to criminalise paedophiles extolling the aesthetics of naked children. Our teachers will not be stopped from passing on as much knowledge as they can to their students just because it is forbidden to deny proven genocides. Obviously. Those believing these things are simply confused, blinded by their privilege, overly attracted to the mesmerising simplicity on offer, or are simply biased/self-serving.
B) Cancel culture
Cancel culture is linked to Libertarianism, but while today’s Mill fanboys are clearly delusional, the problems with Cancel arguments aren’t so easy to discern. Even if recognised as a more sophisticated, upgraded structure serving the same group, it is hard to critically evaluate not least because of its confused subject matter. Someone sacked by corporate HR hastily for fear of bad PR, small people protected by keyboards enjoying shouting misleading ideas from their selected rabbit hole on “social” media, or an corporate-backed ideologue writing opinion pieces on say “climate-hoax” in mass-media have very different drivers and benefit/damage ratios, but somehow they all end up lumped together as victims of “cancel culture” in the broader culture wars. Call me a cynic, but I can’t help but think this is but a convenient fudge, a bit like adding some hired hooligans to the demonstrations will sully the cause of all the demonstrators. But no examination of the variety of opinions is allowed by the anti-cancel-warriors — strident ideological voices will state in black-and-white terms that if ANY opinion is suppressed at all, we will ALL be eventually suppressed. Exactly like someone saying “if one hooligan hired by the anti-demonstration mob breaks one window under the cover of public gathering, all demonstrations are wrong”.
Of course, the old Libertarians (usually the ones with great deal of privilege and access, the real drivers of the anti-cancel movement) and the ones subconsciously aspiring to those ranks (the foot-soldiers in the ideological wars) don’t complain about “cancellation” on issues affecting the powerless — by and large, they don’t have problems there. They are very quick to cry “cancel” in other areas that are of import to them however or sound enlightened and therefore defensible, like higher Maslow-needs (say, advocating special treatment for academia and art), or basic privilege-protection like taxes, professional turf-wars or media reforms. Sometimes Cancel wars simply provide the distraction required, and the topic is actually of no import whatsoever. When a political opponent passes a wildly popular law, we’ll be more likely to talk about Dr. Seuss books being censored than that new law.
Apart from the (usually society-damaging) self-interest and meaningless distraction, sometimes the voice-privileged may happen to be a positive force, but this shouldn’t confuse the observer. Overall, the drivers of the anti-cancel rage just don’t want platforms giving counter-voices and legitimacy of counter-power — not when they have a near monopoly established and sophisticated voice and power already. They want “open” debates on topics, terms and timing of their own choosing, a bit like the army that has more tanks will want the battle on an open, level field in not overly wet weather.
Also, critics like to point out when cancel wars become shrill in tone, unproductive in nature, excessive. Well, all demonstrations do that. It is easier to argue calmly and with sophistication when all privilege and power is behind your back, rather than in front.
Typically, it has been the privileged and the well-connected that have been the ones holding sweeping changes back (it is rational — why risk ending the good times?). The new development of the old warfare means battles are now fought on opinion-pages instead of barricades — and this requires new tactics. In the new heart-and-mind battles, as opposed to the old bomb-and-bullet ones, it is the ones with overwhelming power who really benefit from making it unfashionable to write ideas off. That this is not a simple fact is entirely due to the packaging — like the selection of topics pushed publicly, or even the name “Cancel”, which is just a straight PR move to assign a negative, abstract word to anyone able and willing to challenge the legitimacy of the idea, i.e the existing power-structure.
Still not convinced that this noble-sounding effort is really projection of power, just a front in the service of ones with outsized opinion-control? Just as one can tell the tree most easily from its fruit, the true nature of war on cancelling becomes clearest when we observe the backgrounds of the anti-cancel warriors and the topics chosen to “liberate” first. Privileged “liberals” will be quiet if a book about Galileo is banned for being anti-church, or deeply illiberal laws are passed against the powerless, like asylum seekers and protesters. But they will complain about cancel culture when someone is fighting for a bottom-up issue like social-justice activism. You know, for someone who is really cancelled.