The threat to free speech in our culture today is not from government. While there are exceptions, the state is pretty respectful of our free speech rights. The problem is online mobs that seek to punish people for their speech, and the cowards who run corporations who give into the mob and abandon their own employees. Even when we are talking about truly offensive speech, this is bad for the country.
Let’s get this out of the way: We are not talking about criticism for offensive speech. That is a straw man. Someone who says something offensive can expect to be criticized for it. When we speak of Cancel Culture, we mean getting people fired from their jobs for things they said on their own time and away from their workplace. Or even worse, getting someone fired for the speech of someone else.
So the obvious question is this: What are you accomplishing by getting someone fired or denied a contract or economically punished in some other way for speech you do not like? The offensive words have already been spoken or written. Economically punishing someone is vindictiveness, nothing more.
Even if you can eliminate “offensive” speech from places like major social media platforms, you will not be eliminating speech you dislike. What you will do is create speech “ghettos” that encourage bad ideas and ideologies. Putting speech into a ghetto protects those bad ideas from refutation, creates bitterness and sows division. It further Balkanizes our politics and makes both sides less tolerant of opposing ideas.
The accepted way to deal with Cancel Culture on the Right is to never apologize. It is true that an apology is like blood in the water and only encourages the mob. But while it may help individuals in the short run, it is bad for the country in the long run when people who are clearly in the wrong refuse to apologize for bad behavior. If we are going to have good relationships in any context, we have to be willing to admit wrong – and those of us who are wronged must be willing to forgive. It is a two way street!
And here is an important thing to remember: Politics is downstream of culture. Cancel Culture today could easily be “hate speech” laws tomorrow. Today, an online mob might get you fired or send you nasty messages. In a few years, an offensive post on social media could have the police at your door to arrest you. We already see this in Western Europe and Canada, and it would only take five Supreme Court justices to eviscerate the First Amendment. We should not fool ourselves into thinking this is impossible.