In many ways, freedom of speech is the most fraught, controversial, and essential right in any democratic society. Without it, in fact, there can be no democracy, since advocacy, activism, and dissent become impossible if free speech is forbidden.
At the same time, free speech can be an engine of hate, violence, insurrection, racism, and indeed tyranny itself. Ironically, the right that is most essential to democracy can also destroy it.
As a result, the question of what limits — if any — should be placed on free speech is one of the most difficult facing modern democracies. At our present moment, the question is more or less defined by what has come to be called “cancel culture.” This is, essentially, the practice of limiting speech deemed unacceptable via destructive retaliation or outright silencing. People can find their internet platforms banned, their occupations threatened, and their presence shunned by ostensibly decent people.
Cancel culture, in many ways, reached its peak with the cancellation of a president of the United States. After Donald Trump incited the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, his Twitter account — which was his primary means of direct communication with his supporters — was unceremoniously shut down, and the most powerful man in the world suddenly found himself silenced. This was a titanic development, and raises the most profound questions about free speech in the internet age.
It is easy, of course, to simply denounce Twitter’s decision as a violation of free speech. But this is obviously inadequate. Trump had incited an assault on American democracy itself, and extreme measures were justified in response.
This question of real-world threats resulting from online speech is in many ways the essence of cancel culture. For the Jews, of course, this is an issue of absolute and immediate importance. Using social media, neo-Nazis, far-rightists, and antisemites of every political stripe can promote their ideas, organize for action, and incite their followers to hate and kill Jews. And this has already resulted in real-world violence, such as the Tree of Life synagogue massacre, which was incited by online hate. The killer even announced his intentions on social media before committing his atrocity.
I once interviewed Abraham Foxman, the former head of the ADL, who told me he had gone to Silicon Valley in the early 2000s to speak with “the geniuses.” He told them that along with all the glories of the internet, they had also created a “superhighway” for hate speech and racism. Their response was “algorithms, algorithms.” It has now become clear that this was catastrophically inadequate, and people have paid the price with their lives. The giants of big tech appear to at long last understand this, and have thankfully taken appropriate action. In this case, at least, cancel culture will save and may have already saved lives.
At the same time, however, the critics of cancel culture make an important point: while the far-right has weaponized free speech, the far-left has weaponized cancel culture. For some time, there have been ferocious campaigns by the “Twitter mob” to cancel anyone who dissents from “Woke” culture. That this is a threat nearly as egregious as hate speech itself is impossible to deny. It is the imposition of extra-legal limitations on speech that come very close to outright totalitarianism. In any free society, this simply cannot be tolerated.
And the imposition of such limitations is often wholly arbitrary. While Trump deserved to be canceled for his incitement, the fact that the “supreme leader” of Iran, Ali Khamenei — who is a genocidal racist antisemite whose ideology is almost indistinguishable from Nazism — has not been canceled is astounding hypocrisy. If cancel culture must exist, then it must be consistent, and we are right to be skeptical of it so long as it is not.
All of this presents a terrible dilemma. Cancel culture simultaneously saves lives and profoundly threatens our most elementary democratic freedoms. The question, then, is what should be done about it?
The answer, it seems to me, is to retain the positive aspects of cancel culture while limiting its abuses. The best way to do this is for social media companies and other institutions to adopt clear and consistent criteria for when people should be canceled. My own modest proposal for what these criteria should be:
- A consistent pattern of hate speech and incitement to violence, committed over an extended period.
- Immediate and concrete threats to individuals or groups, such as Trump’s incitement to insurrection, which directly threatened the congresspeople gathered to certify the results of the 2020 election.
- Total lack of repentance or apology. Everyone from time to time says or posts something offensive; if the person attempts to make amends for this, they should be given the benefit of the doubt rather than being immediately and summarily silenced.
- Respect for legitimate political disagreements by setting a high and clear bar for what is deemed unacceptable speech. This could include the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism and formulating similar definitions for other forms of hate. These definitions should respect free speech but also draw a clear line that should not be crossed.
- Perhaps most importantly, we must demand overwhelming evidence that the above criteria have been met. Khamenei’s dozens and perhaps hundreds of tweets calling for a Nazi-style genocide of the Jews, for example, constitute such evidence. There can simply be no question, given the size and scope of his incitement and hate speech, that he should be immediately canceled.
People will, of course, disagree with some of these criteria, and present their own ideas on what would justify cancellation. This will require debate and discussion, which should begin immediately. One of our most essential rights, after all, is at stake.
Originally published at the Algemeiner.