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Words have weight

Rethinking cancel culture

A woman takes part in a pro-Palestinian rally in Seattle on Oct. 21. Associated Press/Photo by Lindsey Wasson

Words have weight
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In the aftermath of Hamas’ horrific terrorist attack on Israel, an almost equally horrifying phenomenon began unfolding at elite college campuses and law schools across America: Student groups began mobilizing to celebrate the slaughter of innocents! Trained by decades of deconstruction and “decolonization” to view virtually every human interaction through the simple binary of “oppressor” vs. “oppressed,” reflexively denouncing the powerful and celebrating the less powerful, they couldn’t seem to help themselves. If Israel had a bigger military and more land, then clearly any form of “resistance” was automatically justified.

Thankfully, it turned out that even most woke elites and institutions drew the line when it came to the decapitation of infants. At least some of the appalling student demonstrations were met with a swift backlash. For instance, a student from NYU Law School who had authored a particularly appalling statement pledging her “unwavering and absolute solidarity with Palestinians in their resistance against oppression” found her offer of employment summarily revoked by the prestigious Chicago law firm, Winston & Strawn. “These statements profoundly conflict with Winston & Strawn’s values as a firm,” they declared. In short, the student found herself cancelled, much to conservatives’ delight.

But of course, to put things this way highlights an irony. For years now, conservatives have united in an almost unanimous denunciation of “cancel culture,” describing it as a cowardly but coercive tactic employed by the left to silence conservative voices. Of course, they aren’t wrong. The list of conservatives who have found themselves barred from speaking podiums or even deprived of employment opportunities for daring to utter common sense is long and growing. But there is a dangerous imprecision in responding by simply denouncing “cancel culture.” After all, some things really do deserve cancelling.

Too often, we allow the First Amendment to morph into a blank check, an authorization for anyone to say anything they want to any time they want without facing any consequences whatsoever. However, a moment’s reflection should expose that train of thought as absurd. Obviously words have consequences. Some words are indeed still subject to legal consequences, such as defamation and incitement. But many other words can and should have consequences in the private sector. Indeed, this is a principle conservatives should be particularly concerned to uphold. If an aspiring Christian schoolteacher declares his enthusiastic support for transgender rights, one hopes that his potential employers would take that as good reason not to hire him.

In the past, healthy conservative societies were societies where one could easily get “cancelled” for blasphemy or obscenity—not to mention celebrating terrorist acts against American citizens and allies.

Speaking gigs, publishing opportunities, employment offers—all of these are privileges, not human rights, and privileges that can and should be withheld or withdrawn if an individual shows himself unworthy of them. To be sure, it is bad form to renege on an offer already made, but it might be even worse form for an institution to move forward with platforming or hiring someone antithetical to their core values. In the past, healthy conservative societies were societies where one could easily get “cancelled” for blasphemy or obscenity—not to mention celebrating terrorist acts against American citizens and allies.

It will not do then for conservatives to simply rail against “cancel culture” as if there were no principles or policies to hold people accountable for their words. Are we really just complaining that our society has been cancelling the wrong people—namely, we conservatives? It is hard not to feel a smug satisfaction at seeing woke campus extremists getting a taste of their own medicine. That said, there is a ditch on the other side as well. We should not be free speech absolutists, pretending words have no consequences, but neither should we allow ourselves to think that “cancel culture” is fine if we can just manage to turn it around on progressives. To want to silence anyone we disagree with represents an abandonment of our calling to critical thinking, just as an “anything goes” relativism does.

Just as an individual grows to maturity as he learns what words are appropriate in what contexts, a mature society is one able and willing to make the hard judgment calls about which views should be off-limits, and when and where. For instance, it would be dangerous to institute a policy that no one could ever publicly voice sympathy for Hamas. However, in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ horrific assault, statements that might previously have been merely questionable or offensive can become downright reprehensible and even dangerous. Faced with a powder-keg of Islamic radicals in many of its major cities, France went so far as to impose a complete ban on pro-Palestinian demonstrations days after the start of the war.

Unfortunately, we are not a mature society. Lacking any principled norms for how to speak responsibility, along with any principled commitment to objective truth, we find ourselves lurching back and forth between extremes of hyper-tolerance and angry intolerance. If anything good is to come out of the present heart-wrenching conflict, perhaps it will be a cultural moment of reckoning about the need to treat our words once again with the seriousness they demand.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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