There’s been a great deal of palaver of late – palaver in which I’m now ashamed to have participated – about the cancel culture that’s now doing a number on the academy. I’m ashamed not because I shouldn’t play my assigned role as a defender of academic freedom. I should and I do. Rather I’m ashamed because I’ve allowed it to sound as if there’s something new in all of this, when in fact it’s always been thus, and all that’s changed is the places of the players. At one time it was the church burning the heretic, at another National Socialists murdering their critics, then Stalin, then Mao, then the right canceling the left, and now it’s the woke canceling … well, I guess we must be the unwoke.

It’s an open question whether it’s useful to put yourself in the place of your enemy. On the one hand it takes some of the wind out of your sails. But on the other it can take too much wind out of your sails. The key is to reserve a place for yourself above the fray.

The ineluctable problem is that calls for academic freedom, or freedom of expression in general, are always partisan. We claim it’s not. We say we’d fight to the death for your right to be wrong. But we wouldn’t really. Nor should we. “There are no two sides about global warming.” “To debate the historicity of the Holocaust is to lend legitimacy to the deniers.” “To deny that trans women are women is to deny my existence.” And so on.

Are there principles by which to distinguish free speech from hate speech? Of course there are. Any number of them. Just pick the one that affords you the answer you want. People cite Mill’s On Liberty, but they don’t actually read it. If they did they’d see Mill leaves himself enough except-when’s to paint Torquemada as a saint. 

So it comes down to what it always has. It’s a political battle. The woke will back off if and when the unwoke learn to cancel back. To start blacklisting the blacklisters. The relative freedom that was enjoyed after the English Civil War was not because either side discovered it was wrong to impose its religion on the other, but because they exhausted themselves trying. Those of my friends and colleagues who whip themselves into high moral dudgeon do our cause a disservice. If you want to put our enemies on notice, start taking names.      

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy, Why My Colleagues Are Idiots

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4 replies

  1. Bruce Arthur Coates.

    Write it down.


  2. Bruce, you’ve thrown a gauntlet. You might add some reasons why you have done so.

    Thank you. P


  3. Paul, you say: “start taking names.” But, what I suggest is not doing so to put those named ‘on notice’. Rather, to ensure that they ‘are noticed’. Add the word “Elect” behind each of their names, John McWhorter’s coinage for the new religion he describes. Not as a rhetorical flourish but as in fact a new religion comprised of religious fundamentalists.

    Recognising a religious fundamentalist will at least inform you of the limits of your discourse, and you can adjust your expectations accordingly.

    1)John McWhorter: The Neoracists: A new religion is preached across America. It’s nonsense posing as wisdom. Feb 08, 2021. https://www.persuasion.community/p/john-mcwhorter-the-neoracists

    “My goal is not to venture the misty statement that a diversity of opinions is crucial to a healthy society. Citing John Stuart Mill at Third Wave Antiracists serves no purpose because they are operating under the influence of a religion…My interest is not “How do we get through to these people?” We cannot, at least not enough of them to matter. The question is “How can we can live graciously among them?” We seek change in the world, but for the duration will have to do so while encountering bearers of a gospel, itching to smoke out heretics, and ready on a moment’s notice to tar us as moral perverts.”

    2)John McWhorter, THE ELECT: THE THREAT TO A PROGRESSIVE AMERICA FROM ANTI-BLACK ANTIRACISTS, Serial excerpt No.1, It Bears Mentioning, Jan. 27, 2021. https://johnmcwhorter.substack.com/p/the-elect-neoracists-posing-as-antiracists

    “This book is not a call for people of a certain ideology to open up to the value of an open market of ideas, to understand the value of robust discussion, and to see the folly of defenestrating people for disagreeing with them. My assumption is that the people in question are largely unreachable by arguments of that kind….

    Most of us think of Stalinist kangaroo court procedure as a barbarity long condemned as a mistake. But to these inquisitors, it is an acceptable and even urgent modus operandi. In this, they are not only menacing, but also distinctly pious. What kind of people do these things? Religious fundamentalists. Why do they get away with it? Because they scare us in calling us heretics in the public square. Are we going to let them continue to? Not if we want to live intellectually and morally coherent lives and push our society’s sociopolitical fabric in a genuinely progressive direction.

    Something must be understood: I do not mean that these people’s ideology is “like” a religion. I seek no rhetorical snap in the comparison. I mean that it actually is a religion.”

    3)To be released October 26, 2021: John McWhorter, Woke Racism


  4. More from McWhorter. If interested, you can follow him on his “It Bears Mentioning” newsletter.

    Some think it’s just that I don’t like religion and haven’t studied it. And they’re right. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t watched a religion emerge since last year.” It Bears Mentioning, June 25, 2021.


    “How about this, for meeting my religious detractors – of which there will be increasingly more – halfway? An alternate-universe version of The Elect would be forging, even with a certain smug impatience with real questions, real change on the ground for real people who need help. That religion would be fine with me. In a way, it is the Catholicism of, say, Dorothy Day.

    However, the this-universe version of The Elect make a pretense of being about activism when what really gets them going is shaming people and virtue signalling, while exploiting black people they don’t truly respect as tools for the former – as actual black people join them unaware of the profound dismissal that pity entails.

    So the problem is not that The Elect is a religion. It’s that it’s a shitty religion.”


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