A revolution is taking place. A deafening chorus of influential voices floods our workspaces, our streets, and our media and threatens the most intimate right of open society: the right to speak freely and honestly with each other. Every day the situation grows worse. At one moment, a transgendered YouTuber comes under fire for heretical viewpoints. At the next, social scientist David Shor loses his job for tweeting research about the consequences of violent protests. Then, an editor at the New York Times is forced to step down after publishing an Op-Ed by a conservative senator. And who can forget Lee Fang, a journalist at the Intercept who almost lost his job after quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., on Twitter, a man who many activists now consider insufficiently radical? The nauseating storm of outrage presently washing over our institutions has a name: cancel culture.
The success of cancel culture means the destruction of liberalism, the foundation of every successful progressive movement since the Enlightenment. Liberalism celebrates the freedom and innocence of the individual, not the tribe. It declares us equal in worth and unique in our abilities. It says that truth is possible and that the truth belongs to us all. No other political philosophy champions so boldly the freedom of speech, which in turn means the right to disagree, to explore, and to exist as our imperfect selves. It is hard to imagine another worldview that so dignifies and respects human life. Even modern-day conservatism protects the achievements of yesterday’s revolutionaries (hence the term “classical liberal”).
Liberalism is not against so-called “identity politics” or social justice. It advances the interests of oppressed groups by bringing human rights to all. Nor is liberalism inherently “moderate.” The promise of liberty and equality in America’s founding documents roused Frederick Douglass to denounce the savage hypocrisy of American slavery and spearhead the campaign to abolish it. Almost two centuries thereafter, the LGBTQ community and their allies in America secured marriage equality and workplace protections in a series of landmark Supreme Court rulings. Liberalism has a long, rich history of championing universal human rights, including the rights of minority voices to be heard.
Cancel culture, on the other hand, is a Frankenstein monster created in the labs of Critical Social Justice, a term popularized by James Lindsay to distinguish it from true social justice. Critical Social Justice is a totalitarian ideology that preaches winner-take-all revolutionary change. It explicitly denies the possibility of truth and flattens our world into an eternal struggle for power. In the work of “scholars” like Robin DiAngelo, liberal values like individuality and objectivity are just tools for the privileged to keep their authority. In this sense, Critical Social Justice is more like communism than liberalism. Activists beholden to this worldview–sometimes known as social justice warriors—view people as either allies or obstacles. Activists enforce their vision in part by bullying colleagues (often while claiming to be the victim), using manipulative language, or threatening violence. These are the tactics of mobs, but they now bear the veneer of respectability after nearly thirty years of pseudo-scholarship.
Cancel culture will not go away on its own. You and I have to stop it. The liberal principles that I outlined at the beginning of this manifesto have not suddenly become obsolete. Far from it—they are more important than ever, especially in an era where the illiberal right is also ascendant in the West. But we must have new norms to guard liberalism from cancel culture. We should shame the people who engage in these tactics. We must stand up and defend our peers who risk losing everything by pissing off the wrong person. We should call out patently abusive behavior for what it is. If you and I agree that threatening others’ livelihood is morally bankrupt, we must acknowledge that doing nothing to stop it is also wrong. We should call out abusers even if it puts us within their line of sight. To share the cost of speaking up reduces its burden. As Marcus Aurelius once wrote, “do the right thing. Nothing else matters”.
You might think that my suggestion is a contradiction. It isn’t. A clear sense of right and wrong calls us to shame abusive behavior, not different opinions. We will shame coercion and manipulation, not disagreeable speech. We will state frankly that people like Katie Kingsbury—the New York Times’ new acting editorial page editor—abuse their authority when they encourage employees to snitch on each other. We will shame the people who stalk their peers in hallways and online. We will speak out against those who call for jobs to be lost, reputations to be destroyed, and even statues of abolitionists to be taken down.
To be clear, I am not offering a silver bullet, and some of our interventions need to be systemic. Some organizations like FIRE and the Heterodox Academy work hard to foster free and open dialogue within academia, and they deserve our support. Other movements, like StopSOP in Canada, have managed to vote out extremists in a bencher election by running candidates dedicated to freedom of expression.
But regardless of whatever strategy you choose, you will need to speak up. And if you think we are right, I ask you to join us. We will no longer be silent when others face the whirlwind.