While some Republicans build their campaigns around cancel culture in the form of a broad bumper sticker slogan or rebuke the party for seeking leaders dissimilar to neoconservatives like Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the issue of standards—and what those standards ought to be—should be at the heart of the cancel culture discussion on the right. It’s time for conservatives to make morals a focal point and not overgeneralize by invoking free speech as an end-all, be-all.
Cancel culture, which Federalist writer Tristan Justice aptly defined as “the deliberate de-platforming or ultimate unemployment of an individual for views fraudulently held to be outside an increasingly turbulent public square,” is no doubt one of the consequences of a society controlled by woke millennials intent on eradicating any dissent. The zealots champion “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” but prepare to be excluded if you do not believe in systemic racism and other extremist dogma. It’s a catch-22.
In the left’s crusade to capture all of America’s institutions—which happened as Republican lawmakers twiddled their thumbs and preached about the holiness of the free market—the leftist mob has pushed to realign the culture within its censorious, morally arbitrary, and deficient philosophical framework.
The left has flipped the script on what moral standards warrant negative social consequences and put in place material outcomes for conservatives that ought to instead be implemented for legitimately immoral actions. Hence, the left seeks to transform what is socially permissible, and the right must make an attempt to re-align the culture to what they know already is.
Valueless Freedom Messaging
What is behind cancel culture, and why is it wrong? To libertarian thinkers, such as Reason Magazine’s Robby Soave, or some on the neoconservative right like The Dispatch’s David French, the phenomenon is often communicated as an issue of freedom and free speech. So, it goes, the forcible removal of Americans from the public square is wrong predominantly because speech is sacred, not because both free speech should be encouraged and the particular speech under discussion is, in fact, positively good or at least neutral.
“Illiberalism on the left is not confronted and defeated by the right,” French said in a radio interview last year, claiming ordered-liberty conservatives with an interest in the moral direction of the nation are not the right people to take on cancel culture. “It has to be confronted and defeated by small-l liberals on the left, just like illiberalism on the right is not going to be confronted and defeated by left-liberals. It’s got to be taken on by classical liberals on the right.”
French is disastrously wrong. The way to oppose the unreasonable targeting of our fellow Americans is not to merely preach about freedom. Rather, Americans must think deeply, all the way back to defining when it is morally just for someone to face economic and social consequences, and when it is not.
Thinking there were mail-in ballot issues during the 2020 presidential election or that Dr. Anthony Fauci is incompetent is not immoral, and thus, shouldn’t be subject to censorship or cancellation. Nor should someone be canceled by a company that does business with Communist China for a vague Nazi reference that was not antisemitic—see Gina Carano. However, a person making clearly antisemitic remarks against Jewish people that also present a conflict of interest with her occupation should face professional consequences—such as Emily Wilder.
Indeed, speech is important. It also true that the types of speech being quashed by Big Tech are mostly not types such as obscenity, defamation, perjury, blackmail, incitement to imminent lawless action, and so on that are unprotected by the First Amendment. French may be correct that much speech triggering cancelation is legal, but he misses the point by not focusing on the necessity of establishing societal standards for appropriate and inappropriate speech.
By not putting this to the forefront, conservatives abandon our societal common good in favor of establishing a common preference for atomized freedom. Freedom is only valuable if it accompanies a moral order sufficient to ensure not only inalienable rights are protected but also that society does not blackball those who say perfectly appropriate things.
Instead of using the First Amendment as the sole rationale for why cancel culture hurts our society, conservatives can do much better. The situation warrants further deliberation about what public behaviors we Americans believe are necessary to ensure a just nation.
Repercussions Based On Morals
The right would be better off by first reinforcing the actions that warrant someone facing such life consequences as those accompanying the typical cancellation. Off the bat, this of course includes pedophilic behavior, publicly threatening to murder the president, urging violence motivated by racism, and so on. People who do or say things that are objectively wrong, not necessarily out of our nation’s morally bankrupt and leftist-run culture, should face appropriate consequences for such actions.
The problem with cancel culture is not only that legal speech is being censored or resulting in unfair outcomes for individuals, but more pertinently that legitimate and ethical values and ideas are subject to unjust social punishment. Whereas social penalties such as firing or losing positions of authority are warranted for the above examples, the left has organized and is enforcing a framework that results in people being canceled for not accepting their false ideologies. Cancel culture, in other words, is essentially a tool for enforcing immoral and false leftist ideology. That’s what’s wrong with it, not only that it chills people’s free speech.
To adequately fight such dogma, the free speech argument is a weak hill to stand on. Americans can at a minimum begin to fight its impracticality by recognizing (a) the standards are not being administered in a way that honors our human dignity and (b) the left’s immoral standards—such as promoting the killing of the unborn, preaching America’s systemic racism, flirting with a terrorist group that attacks Jewish people, refusing to disavow riots that destroyed businesses and took lives—are worth fighting, repudiating and, yes, canceling. It would not be unjust for those vocally espousing such ideas to be financially affected in some respect.
If the other side declares ideological war on American values, including on objective truth and goodness, how could it possibly be appropriate for the right to merely discuss free speech and not why particular speech is not only moral, or at a minimum not immoral?
In a Fox News “Primetime” monologue last week, Federalist Publisher Ben Domenech noted how institutions other than government have corrupted America. “I’ve been exhorting you to wake up to what’s going on at the country,” Domenech said. “It’s happening right in front of us and it’s troubling and demands a response from all of us who recognize the need to restore self-government. Taking it on in small ways and confronting hypocrisy, and returning power back to where it belongs—the people–is our mission now.”
As Domenech described, elites have embraced a dangerous ideology and coordinated to overtake virtually all American institutions. This has led to unrest and the evil application of power. This power includes punishing Americans for completely moral, and appropriate views, simply because the left has dedicated itself to undermining truth and justice.
Cancel culture is harmful to America’s social fabric, and it unravels the country. But the question of how to counteract it goes far deeper than the question of legal or illegal speech.
It boils down to a question of where and how we derive our principles, a question of what morals ought to dictate our world. The left’s flatly immoral ideology should not.