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 (although, according to Mill, same opinion would be ok to be circulated in the press. 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 a 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, violence necessarily receives more insightful definitions, like “actions or lack of actions which avoidably lowers potential” (say, Galtung, 1969).
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 human development, that is a strong indication of structural violence. These days 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 Mill would have to agree to revoke the immunity from those opinions.
Granted, it can be hard to agree which opinions increase violence (e.g. some still believe trickle-down economics does not entrench inequality), especially as counterfactual is often involved. But in case they clearly do, sane people should quickly agree to cut them. 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”, we will slide back to some terrible thought-dictatorship, are simply confused, blinded by their privilege, overly attracted to the mesmerising simplicity on offer, or simply biased/self-serving.
But in 2021, the arguments aren’t so transparent. Someone sacked by corporate HR hastily for fear of bad PR, small people enjoying shouting (while protected by keyboards) on “social” media, or an ideologue writing opinion pieces are very different issues but somehow they all end up lumped together as victims of “cancel culture” in the broader culture wars. I can’t help but think this is but a convenient fudge, a bit like adding some hooligans to the demonstrations will sully the cause of all the demonstrators.
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. The previous illustration comes handy again: imagine someone saying “if one hooligan breaks one window under the cover of public gathering, all demonstrations are wrong”.
Of course, those with great deal of privilege and access (the real drivers of the anti-cancel movement) and the ones aspiring to those ranks (the foot-soldiers in the ideological wars) don’t complain about “cancellation” on social issues — 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, like higher Maslow-needs (say, special treatment for academia and art), or basic privilege-protection like taxes, professional turf-wars or media reforms. Sometimes the topic is actually of no import whatsoever, and anything will do if a distraction is required: 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 sometimes the (also damaging) meaningless distraction, sometimes the voice-privileged may happen to be a positive force, for example when agitating against illiberal actions, 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 wet weather.
The often proudly amoral privileged and well-connected have always been the ones holding sweeping changes back (it is rational — why risk ending the good times?), but the new development of warfare means battles are fought on opinion-pages instead of barricades — and this requires new tactics. In 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 topics pushed publicly, of the confusing name which is just a straight PR move to assign a negative, abstract word (cancel) 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. It won’t be some oppressed voice fighting for a bottom-up issue like an aspect of social-justice. It won’t be someone really cancelled.