One of the important features of cancel norms is that cancelation is a punishment. The “cancelers” aren’t in the business of simply shutting down a line of argument, or silencing a publicized view. The goal is to make the person less influential by penalizing them for violating some kind of norm (often a new and controversial norm that exists within sub-groups, but not outside of them). Once we see that cancellation is punitive, we have a method of morally evaluating it, for a punishment is only appropriate when a norm violation is culpable. If someone violates a norm by advocating a view that is out of bounds morally speaking, but they are not culpable, then attacking them, trying to harm them financially, or something of that sort is immoral. It’s a form of brow-beating and authoritarianism. Cancelation is only legitimate if the person has engaged in some kind of moral failing for which he or she is morally responsible.
Now, what is the ratio of apt cancelations to total cancelations? What percentage of canceled persons were culpable for the norm they were canceled for violating? I think that’s hard to determine because I think it is hard for cancelers to know why the “cancelee” is violating the relevant norm, and so how culpable the cancelee is.
I think this is because the reasons that others disagree with us are frequently unclear. There are both epistemic and metaphysical reasons that people deeply disagree that will often absolve them of culpability for what they believe. The epistemic reasons, following both John Rawls and F.A. Hayek, are that many social and political issues are challenging, and involve complex assumptions that we are frequently unaware of. Consider, for instance, the metaphysics of gender. I’m a philosopher, indeed a value theorist, and I just don’t know how to settle certain currently controversial topics, like the metaphysics of gender. I find it very difficult to say not only which views are true or false, but which views only a morally flawed person could hold. And so it seems to me that people, generally speaking, should not be canceled because of their position on the metaphysics of gender. It’s a hard issue.
I also affirm the broader point: I usually don’t know why people believe what they believe because their life experience and thought processes differ greatly from my own. I’m not in a position to judge that someone believes something false because of some kind of moral vice. So I’m hesitant to cancel anyone for a view that they hold, even views that strike me as odious.
Perhaps I’m really weird in this regard. I have a diverse range of friends on Facebook, many of whom have unfriended one another on social issues. I enjoy sitting back and encountering diverse views, even ones I think are crazy, and, in a few cases, views that I think are probably evil. But again, I am usually not in a position to determine whether I should blame people for the position that they hold.
Maybe the cancelers are just really good at discerning moral vice in persons who defend the positions that merit cancelation. Perhaps they have enough insight that they can see that anyone, anywhere who holds a certain position simply must be at fault to such a degree that they should pay crippling social costs.
I’m prepared to grant that some people are good at this in day-to-day life where they know someone well and interact with them a lot, like family or friends. But on social media, we usually know very little about those we interact with. This is especially true on Twitter because the expression of ideas is highly truncated, and so seldom represents a person’s full position and relays only the smallest bit of content about how they think.
So I doubt that most cancelers are in a position to determine that canceled persons are culpable for their beliefs. And if the cancelers are not in a position to determine the culpability of others, it seems obviously wrong to cancel people.
I think the Harper’s Letter demonstrates the reality of cancel culture and widespread shaming for expressing certain kinds of opinions. And I morally condemn cancelation unless the cancelee is reasonably thought to hold the forbidden position based on some kind of moral vice, rather than an innocent mistake. And I morally condemn cancelation in general because I think we are seldom in a position to determine why people hold the positions that they do, especially on Twitter.
Open up the range of expressible opinion. Fight views you hate with arguments, but be wary of canceling others. It often indicates a lack of epistemic humility.
It helps even more to remember that human beings were placed on this earth to love one another, and that the primary factor that makes a life go well is how loving a person is. Canceling others, I think, is bad for the soul, and makes the canceler’s life go worse. Of course, I know this last point is controversial, but it is true!
I have a response to this post on my blog: