The Lovers’ Quarrel Between Free Speech and Cancel Culture
A recent letter from Harper’s was penned to encourage open debate and free expression in the midst of what Harper’s editors describe as an increasingly intolerant “cancel” culture. The letter, ostensibly non-controversial, instigated fierce debates and interminable Twitter threads that read like the last caustic fight of an angry couple before parting ways. Much like the angry couple who cannot stop talking past one another, one half seems hopelessly obtuse while the other, inescapably bitter.
The claim, by some, excoriating the Harper’s letter is that the kerfuffle is not really about speech, but instead about who gets to establish the boundaries of “acceptable” speech. The argument is that in days past, the elites traditionally dictated the boundaries of acceptable expression. Now, however, with the advent of social media, the tides have turned, and “cancel culture” is the mere “democratization” of who gets to set the boundaries, with marginalized voices now wresting a modicum of power away from the powerful. The marginalized can now apply limitations to those who would opine on their marginalization.
Particularly bothersome about this free speech quarrel — more so than the over-the-top outrage — is the noticeable dearth of voices from the letter’s proponents bringing attention to the most often and likely canceled; those who dare criticize the government of Israel and its occupation of the West Bank. Aside from the always dependable stalwarts of free speech and heterodox consistency — world-renown linguist Noam Chomsky and journalist Glenn Greenwald — absent is the chorus of voices shining a light on the myriad of people attacked, fired, or professionally ruined due to their criticism of the Israeli government.
Considering the contemporary fervor surrounding censorship, de-platforming, and cancellation, it would seem apropos to remind the signatories of the concerted smear campaigns that targeted Palestinian, Jewish, and American professors in academia.
Dr. Joseph Massad, a Palestinian professor of Arab Politics and History, found himself at the center of what the New York Civil Liberties Union described as an attack intended to “jeopardize academic freedom at Columbia University”. The campaign reached such heights that Columbia launched an investigation into Massad and then New York Congressmen, Rep. Anthony Weiner, called for Massad to be fired. What norms did Massad violate to cause such a stir? He espoused a pro-Palestinian political position. The investigation found Massad not guilty of any wrongdoing, and he managed to remain in the employ of Columbia University.
Barely a year later, Fulbright Scholarship recipient and doctor of anthropology, Palestinian-American professor Dr. Nadia Abu El-Haj, found her nearly completed granting of tenure to Barnard — the women’s College at Columbia — threatened by a cancellation effort. What out-of-bounds transgression did Dr. El-Haj commit to foster this effort to thwart her career? She authored a book, well-reviewed by her then colleagues at the University of Chicago, examining Jewish biblical claims to Israel. Fortunately for Dr. El-Haj, the effort to sabotage her career was discredited, and Columbia University eventually granted her tenure.
Not all willing to step outside the acceptable boundaries and criticize Israeli government policy have survived the cancellation efforts against them. Another Palestinian-American professor, Dr. Steven Salaita, had his job offer retracted after the University Of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign discovered tweets critical of Israeli policy, after initially being offered a position. Dr. Norman Finkelstein, an outspoken Jewish political science professor, long critical of the Israeli government, was denied tenure at Depaul University in Chicago after a sustained lobbying effort by famed constitutional lawyer Alan Dershowitz. Temple University professor and then CNN contributor, Marc Lamont Hill, gave a speech concerning human rights before the U.N., where he called for “a free Palestine from the river to the sea”. The very next day, CNN fired Hill.
Another, no less controversial form of criticism, might warrant the descriptor of “pre-cancellation”. More than 20 states in the U.S. explicitly forbid state governments from doing business with contractors that participate in BDS, a Palestinian led campaign promoting various forms of protests, boycotts, and sanctions against the Israeli government.
One would be remiss not to ask where the signatories to the Harper’s letter were when these attacks were being waged on Massad, El-Haj, Salaita, Finkelstein, and Hill? It turns out a few of them were actively participating in some of the cancellation efforts. Bari Weiss, a former NYT opinion writer, played an integral role in the movement to cancel Dr. Massad and sabotage the tenure of Dr. El-Haj while studying at Columbia University. Cary Nelson, professor emeritus of English at the University Of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, publicly supported his University’s decision to withdraw their job offer to Dr. Saliata.
While there are many journalists and academics the Harper’s editors could have sought to add as signatories to the letter — Greenwald and Matt Taibbi are conspicuously absent — one might think that at a minimum, having participated in the cancellation of others should have been a disqualifier. Aside from signatories like Chomsky, long known for advocating for Palestinian rights, the question remains, why did the Harper’s editors not find the cancellation efforts, then, worthy of penning a letter to defend “what can be said without the threat of reprisal”?
The letter’s critics are likely aware of the rarity of those publicly supporting Zionism or espousing criticism of Palestinian leadership to face professional repercussions for their speech. This begs the question, would they prefer those espousing pro-Palestinian politics the right to speak without risking professional reprisal? Or would they prefer that Palestinians — and those with pro-Palestinian dispositions — have license to “cancel” their counterparts? The implications regarding the limits of free speech are not necessarily concerned with what can be said, but rather who should decide what is permissible, and therefore what audiences can and cannot hear.
The letter’s detractors suggest that now the marginalized voices dictate what is and is not acceptable. The claim is that these new social norms will better protect marginalized communities. One must question if changing the author of the free speech standards will provide the desired protection? Is having an author of these boundaries even necessary in the first place?
In 1965, at the University of Cambridge, Black writer James Baldwin squared-off against conservative intellectual juggernaut William F. Buckley Jr. to debate the following motion: “The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro”. Having come from neither the prestige nor the wealth of the Yale-educated Buckley, Baldwin not only unanimously won the day but also the history thereafter. It is Baldwin, born and raised in poverty in 1930’s Harlem, who is remembered for presenting the more convincing, moral, and sound argument of that debate, not Buckley.
Buckley, born into a wealthy family and founder of the National Review — the most influential of conservative journals — was no match for the gay Black writer who never attended college. While Buckley’s arguments — in that era — constituted an articulation of white supremacy, Baldwin was not afraid to test his ideas against Buckley’s. It was not necessary for the debate moderators to place any arbitrary limitations on Buckley’s speech for Baldwin to prevail. All that was necessary was Baldwin’s voice, his passion, and the audience’s freedom to hear his intellect.
We cannot be certain, that if Baldwin could have “de-platformed” Buckley from that debate, that he would have. What is certain is that the brilliance of Baldwin’s debate performance was, in part, only evident due to the juxtaposition of his ideas against Buckley’s. We should imagine what would have been lost if Baldwin had not had the opportunity to contrast his ideas regarding the plight of Black Americans against Buckley’s assertion that “the South must prevail”. The prime benefactor of this clash of ideas was not so much Baldwin, as it was the audience at Cambridge, and more importantly, the rest of us, who now have the privilege of looking back with great reverence and admiration at the stark contrast presented between such disparate ideas.