The Debate over Cancel Culture: Some Thoughts

Over the past week there has been considerable discussion about cancel culture and free speech. But some of the analysis possibly misdiagnoses the problem.

Much of the media attention and hype focuses on academic censorship or social media censorship, but–news flash–censorship is everywhere where there are humans and a scarcity of the most valuable resource of all, attention. The internet is nothing but censorship, from the biggest of social networks, all the way down to tiny forums and Reddit communities.

I moderate a colon cancer ‘sub’ on Reddit, and I am aggressive about removing posts that break the rules about not posting symptoms, and members complain when I fail to remove the posts fast enough. I delete 1-3 such posts a day. For someone who is worried about having colon cancer, my removal of their posts is technically censorship, but is necessary to preventing the forum from being cluttered by such posts.

I think the problem, rather, is selective enforcement of the rules: that is, left-wing views being less likely to be censored compared to right-wing views. This is especially true for social media and academia. So rather than censorship, the problem is bias.

Regarding campus censorship, a problem is that both sides are guilty. [I will be discussing this in more detail in a forthcoming article.] Campus republicans have sought to censor professors and guest speakers who express criticism of pro-life positions, Israel, or opposition to the war in Iraq, etc.

Indeed, censorship cuts both ways, not just against the right. For example, regarding the BDS movement:

Zoom’s decision to de-platform the event followed a staunch pressure campaign from right-wing Zionist organizations, who took credit online for its cancellation. Tech giants Facebook and YouTube followed suit, cutting the event stream and removing promotional materials from their platforms.

Freddie is a possibly a principled free speech absolutist, but few people are like that. Almost everyone has their own biases. ‘We’ want to see views that confirm what we already believe. This is just an unavoidable part of human nature, of mass socialization. If you’re one of those people who says they are above caring what other people think or ‘above the herd’, you are probably full of shit. Or unless you are a sociopath or on drugs. Conformity served humans well for eons as survival mechanism that is likely hardwired, why would you suddenly be an exception to this.

If someone of power wants you gone, they will look for any reason/excuse to make it happen, even if it means inventing new rules. To justify removing Trump from Twitter despite his popularity, then Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey created a rule in which questioning or disagreeing with the election process or ‘legitimacy’ of the 2020 United States presidential election became the same as inciting violence, and hence a ban-worthy offense. So you’re allowed to disagree with the outcome, but you cannot question the fairness of the process itself. Stupid.

But still, there is tons of censorship online is that not politically motivated at all, like the example I gave. The problem is the internet has too many people competing for a comparably scare resource, attention, and the inevitable result is censorship. Scammers, ideologues, trolls, etc. lower community trust overall, so everyone pays the price in the form of lowered social trust and thus more censorship.

Once a rule is put in place to combat spam or trolls, such rules are seldom rescinded, so the end result given enough time is more rules and restrictions, which makes the community worse for newcomers but even community veterans.

4chan for example is touted by the mainstream media as a ‘free speech website,’ yet there is tons of censorship there, such as blocking VPN IPs and tor IPs from posting (as well as blocking IPs from certain ISPs too), as well as a nearly indecipherable captcha system required to post. Twitter, despite being ‘left wing’, does not have these restrictions, but misgendering someone, spreading ‘Covid misinformation,’ or questioning the outcome of a certain election, can get your account suspended. So all sites are bad, but in different ways.

I think also cancel culture is a clash between the successful vs. the unsuccessful, low status vs. high status. The biggest proponents of cancellation tend to be people who are not that successful professionally or wealthy, such as low-paid, low-status journalists and interns who write for money-losing publications, whereas the staunchest defenders of free speech are people who are successful, wealthy, and or have big platforms, such as Jordan Peterson, Elon Musk, Matt Taibbi, Freddie DeBoer, Lex Fridman, Eric Weinstein, Michael Tracey, Joe Rogan, and Glen Greenwald. But I cannot find any woke or left-wing equivalents who have equally large platforms or status, except for maybe AOC, but she is a politician, not a pundit. If you want to compare politicians who have large platforms, she is matched by the likes of Ted Cruz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, or Ron DeSantis.

Most of the woke are obscure authors writing for tiny publications for little to no money, for whom writing is not their full time job, or they write for academia instead of a mainstream audience. Even writers for The Atlantic or the New York Times have less status, money, or clout than those aforementioned individuals, except for possibly a few exceptions like Paul Krugman, whose long-running NYTs column still has some cultural relevance. So I think envy could play a role in this too, not just ideology. Overall though, even if the woke control the institutions, as far as individual platforms go, the woke are losing. They suck at building brands, getting subscriptions, getting content viral, etc. Thus, they need the help of huge legacy publications to make people care about things like systemic racism, Covid deaths, or alleged racism in policing (and also, the help of those platforms at banning/censoring dissenting views and individuals). They cannot make this stuff go viral organically.

Regarding fears and concerns over online censorship, I think this is more of a symptom of the internet itself becoming broken and more centralized. So in the end, human nature being what it is, means more censorship can be expected.

1 comment

  1. Time for completely decentralized blockchain internet services. They would be slower though, maybe text only or referring to encrypted content distributed online.

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