In an effort to calm the concerns of advertisers and users, Tesla and new Twitter CEO Elon Musk said in an Oct. 27 tweet that the platform would not become a “free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences.” But with the use of racial slurs surging, the introduction of a paid verification process and the potential return of dangerous social and political actors to the platform just days after the ownership change, many are not convinced.
Musk’s $44 billion acquisition of Twitter has reignited the national conversation on free speech and the First Amendment. The dangers that could arise from Twitter’s corporate takeover by the world’s wealthiest individual is not unique. There are scores of media companies owned by other uber-wealthy individuals, including the local paper of the nation’s capital owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos. Conservatives laud Musk as a “free speech absolutist” but blatantly disregard the right of private companies to moderate speech on their platforms and the fact that, like other rights, the First Amendment is not absolute, especially when it restricts other essential rights and can result in instances of violence like last month’s assault of Paul Pelosi.
At the heart of the free speech debate is the controversy surrounding “cancel culture.” The term, like “critical race theory” and “political correctness” before it, has become so unpopular across the political spectrum that Democrats shame themselves for it and Republicans use it to channel political anger in their base. But while “cancel culture” inspires new fear in the hearts and minds of Americans, it is far from a new phenomenon.
Social punishment and sanctions have been with us for thousands of years. The ability to hold others accountable for their actions is the foundation of a free society. The ancient Athenians called it ostracism — the right of the people to expatriate citizens who threatened the stability of their democracy. In the 21st century, that can look like anything from the loss of professional ties to social media restrictions and bans to a gradual removal from public consciousness.
When figures like Trump, Ye and others sow doubt about the results of free and fair elections, incite violence and spread hate, they deserve to be ostracized not only because they do not have a right to the public eye but also because their ideas are legitimately dangerous. Their attempts to prevent this from happening are less rooted in a genuine concern for free speech than in the preservation of fame, evasion of responsibility and a desire to continue harmful behavior. Cancel culture is not an infringement of individual rights but rather the right of the people to express disapproval of individuals with bad or dangerous ideas. Ex-communication from the Christian Church, shunning with the Amish, suspension or expulsion from school and the silent treatment between friends and family members are all forms of the same concept.
Conservatives purport to be staunch opponents of cancel culture but engage in their own forms of it themselves, with conservative cancel culture being arguably much more sinister because of its hypocrisy and substantially more harmful because of its motives. From Republican lawmakers’ attempts to ban books, police curriculum and even censor speech that does not fit in their worldview to their voters’ efforts to boycott “wokeness,” conservative cancel culture is alive and well. Yale Law School made headlines recently when 12 federal judges, led by Trump-appointed judges James Ho and Elizabeth Branch, joined a boycott of YLS graduates for judicial clerkships.
As much as Judge Ho claims he does not want to “cancel Yale,” the fact is, he and his pack of conservative judges have formed the same sort of canceling mob which they profess to deplore. The only difference is that this cancellation punishes students who may not have taken part in part in the protests which triggered the boycott, including the beleaguered conservative graduates who may actually be interested in clerkships with Ho and Branch, and does infinitely more harm to the otherwise-bright futures of talented students than celebrities already at or past their prime forced to take a slightly earlier retirement in the Hollywood hills.
While it is clear from Ho’s past decisions and rhetoric that the boycott is nothing more than a political stunt to position himself as a prospective nominee to the Supreme Court, the University made the right decision to invite him to come speak in January. It demonstrates our sincere commitment to free speech — though at times we falter and strive to improve — because we are not the virtue-signaling, elitist snobs so many on the right believe us to be.
The real problem with cancel culture is not that it restricts free speech or censors people, but that it is an extrajudicial system with no due process protections doling out self-prescribed justice, often in the form of life sentences. Its dangers come from the fact that innocent people can have their lives ruined, and people who have made mistakes in their pasts can never be forgiven. Racism, antisemitism and prejudice of any kind do not deserve debate or tolerance — we know they are simply wrong, and those who hold those views or engage in those behaviors must be brought to justice. But perhaps there is room in a world full of discord and resentment for something more than justice, something each of us hopes to find here at Yale and in our everyday lives: the chance to learn and grow in love and mercy.
So come what may this Election Day, let us dedicate ourselves to a renewed national discourse that seeks learning and understanding rather than division and alienation to better discover good ideas together and allow terrible ones to fall out of favor.
MICHAEL NDUBISI is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact him at email@example.com