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.