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Cancel Culture and the Republican Concept of Liberty

In June, an opinion piece published in the New York Times by Senator Tom Cotton arguing for federal troops to rein in the protests in Minneapolis sparked a political firestorm. The piece led to the firing of the editor in charge and a rare corrective from the op-ed department. The Times’s institutional response is now a familiar pattern in recent months. It reflects a wider cultural phenomenon, whereby those who espouse controversial or hateful opinions (either in the past or the present) can be punished by affiliated institutions.

Cancel culture refers to the practice of pressuring institutions in the hopes that they punish a member with a controversial public profile. At the start of the #MeToo era, the targets of cancellation were often figures that had conducted themselves in morally reprehensible or inappropriate ways. Since then, however, the targets of cancellation have broadened significantly to include those who espouse controversial views. In this arena, cancel culture abandons debate and argumentation in favor of an institutional sanction. The essence of cancel culture lies herein: a form of resistance directed not at speaker’s words, but at the power behind them. It operates outside both law and discourse—the typical bounds of liberal politics.

This extra-discursive, seemingly illiberal mode of resistance can be looked at in two ways. The first is empirical: to what degree does speech cause harm? In the Tom Cotton op-ed controversy, the progressive camp argued that Cotton’s words would “no doubt encourage more violence” onto protestors in Minneapolis. If so, an extra-discursive response may seem more warranted. Old school liberals, and those sympathetic to them, pointed out that the connection between Cotton’s words and violence was not obvious. At the very least, it required accepting premises that were open to doubt, such as the fact that local law enforcement will always provide better safety than federal ones, or that shows of force always backfire. But even if everyone were to agree that Cotton’s words were harmful, there is a separate, normative question to resolve: How should we weigh the effects of harmful speech against the value of free speech?

Unlike the empirical question, the normative one involves a conflict of values. Empirical questions can be resolved through the methods of social science, but normative questions cannot. Moreover, the cancel culture debate is more than a typical value conflict: It is one where the values at stake underpin the respective thought systems; free speech advocates see themselves as defenders of liberty, the touchstone of an open, liberal society, while the anti-racists fight in the name of social justice, the lifeblood of progressive politics. Wittgenstein once called such disagreements “deep disagreements,” referring to differences that involve commitments each of which are fundamental to one’s worldview. From a sociological perspective, deep disagreements resemble religious conflicts. Participants locked in deep disagreement are doomed to talk past each other because the very condition for mutual understanding—a common language—does not exist.

If the cancel culture debate is framed as such—a choice between the incommensurable values of liberty or justice—then a resolution is precluded almost by definition. By contrast, if the debate can be grounded in a shared vocabulary, one that speaks, in part, to the moral discontents of each side, then it might move onto a more productive terrain. Ordinary disagreements are less futile than their “deep” counterparts. Consider the economists’ dispute about how best to grow the economy. Since the Great Depression and the 2008 financial crisis, economists have made significant progress on this question in part because they share a fundamental premise: that growing the economy is a good thing. A common political language can achieve something similar in the cancel culture debate: It can shift the disagreement away from the likes of a religious confrontation into one resembling the economists’ dispute.

My aim here is limited in scope, however: there is no way to exaggerate the moral chasm between progressives and free speech advocates. Nevertheless, an attractive, well-articulated middle position might provide some foot traffic between what has now become two orthogonal, and deeply entrenched worldviews.

The language of liberty, timeless and eloquent, provides the basis for this common political language. But political philosophers distinguish between two concepts of liberty critical to our present moment. The liberty drawn from the liberal tradition, known as liberty as non-interference, construes freedom as the absence of obstacles to one’s actions and choices. In the free speech debate, therefore, liberty as non-interference highlights the dangers of not being able to speak your mind in the face of outside resistance. Censorship—from institutional penalties to platform bans to social ostracization—is the primary enemy of a liberty as non-interreference.

The republican concept of liberty describes a different situation. Though the obstruction of choice was an important part, early republican thinkers from Machiavelli to Rousseau were also concerned with the dangers of power imbalances (a concern shared by many left-leaning progressives). Consequently, they devised a political theory centered around freedom as the antithesis of power or liberty as non-domination. To be free in the republican sense is not just to avoid interference – though this is an important component – but to be free from the arbitrary rule of another. Suppose that you are a monarch’s favorite servant. Under liberty as non-interference, you are ostensibly free. So long as the monarch supplies you with food, clothes, and anything that you might desire, you are not impeded in your actions. But you do not enjoy any liberty as non-domination. Because the resources you enjoy are conditional on the caprice of a monarch, you are reduced to her beck and call, forced to bootlick for your continued survival. Republican freedom refers to a general situation of dependency more than a specific episode of interference. It is, in short, the ability to live one’s life without the need of anyone else’s consent.

Republican liberty has multiple consequences for the cancel culture debate. First, in order to safeguard liberty as non-domination, the freedom to speak your mind must be paired with something else: an equal access to speaking opportunities. The conventional liberal explanation for why free speech is valuable comes from J.S. Mill’s theory that truth arises from a “marketplace” of ideas, where arguments are freely exchanged and openly debated. Yet this argument assumes, if only implicitly, that the stage upon which ideas are shared is equally accessible to all. Without an attention to the unequal power that backs certain kinds of rhetoric, individuals can be dominated even in an environment with perfect liberty as non-interference. Imagine, for example, a public square where only a privileged few have access to a megaphone at the center. Unequal platforms can distort the truth and prevent the proper functioning of the liberal “marketplace.” The modern media landscape looks similar to the megaphone metaphor, where conditions of platform inequality are the norm and not the exception. In this context, freedom as non-domination requires both 1) the freedom to speak one’s mind and 2) the freedom to be heard on equal terms.

But this brings us to a second conclusion. Republicans would not readily endorse the tactics of cancel culture as a remedy. When equal opportunities to speak do not exist, as is often the case in our society, “cancellation” simply substitutes one form of domination for another: It resolves the second problem at the price of the first. The more precise solution is to first exhaust options that satisfy both conditions. Republicans thus propose equalizing power not by cancelling our enemies but by mobilizing and elevating the voices of our allies. Harmful ideas should be combated by an organized, mass response that maintains the liberal distinction of speakers and their words, while unabashedly employing a variety of counter-platforms to elevate one’s communicative power above the opposition. Especially in the age of digital media, countering speech with more vociferous speech is a readily available option without resorting to the double-edged tactic of cancellation.

There is a third conclusion. Some progressives suggest that the problem of cancel culture is an illusion. “There is no such thing as cancel culture” writes the New York Times columnist Charles Blow, because those in power are never directly prohibited from speaking even when confronted with institutional sanctions. On this view, free speech continues to exist unchallenged. But this idea of freedom is, again, narrow in scope. A culture that pressures institutions to sanction speakers based on unwelcome ideas may not always or even rarely end in a direct censorship of speech. On this view, a speaker’s liberty as non-interference is not always violated in a cancel culture society. But the culture poses a major problem for liberty as non-domination. Just as the servant to a benevolent monarch remains irrevocably chained to the whims of an external other, a culture that threatens a person’s job security based on an arbitrary or inconsistent standard of moral righteousness produces a dependency similar in quality to the condition of the servant. It is the culture of fear, not any specific episode of censorship that constitutes the antithesis of republican freedom.

The concept of liberty that underpins the free speech debate is more versatile than we might think—and now is the time to reframe it. More than the liberal tradition’s emphasis on the freedom to speak our minds, the republican tradition highlights the importance of equal access to speaking opportunities. While this allies republicans with one aspect of the progressive agenda, it also provides a reason to dismiss cancel culture as a viable political tactic. Under liberty as non-domination, the culture of silence that cancellation might engender is as objectionable as any direct form of censorship. The solution is to equalize speaking opportunities not through the cancellation of opponents, but through the organized elevation of historically marginalized voices. More than any other political concept available today, republican liberty speaks directly to the moral issues underpinning both sides of the culture wars. It provides a coherent political framework that can bring the cancel culture debate into new, productive terrain. In this world, politics may no longer be a zero-sum game, for the safeguarding of liberty as non-domination was—as many republicans recognized—the best means of protecting both liberty and justice.


Chang Che is a master’s student in Political Theory at Oxford. You can read more from him on his website and you can follow him on Twitter @changxche.


  1. A strange article. Why the idea that cancellation shuld be repalced by a movement to allow the marginalsied a bigger voice is ‘‘republican’’ is beyond me.

    Also the problem now is that those who oppose the cancellers are the marginalised voices, not the people the cancellers say they are protecting. Can you imagine the left agreeing to hear more marginalsed voices if those voices don’t agree with the cancellers?

    Qui, destruet illos qui se destruant

  2. The problem is not that historically marginalised voices do not have to opportunity to speak. They do. Many young people are shocked to find out that only 2% of the UK population is LGB, although this figure is higher for those between 16 and 24, at 4.1%. Where there has been a complete deficit of speech, until really quite recently, is the extent to which diverse voices have been tokenised into the mainstream, with experiences which the general public might find quite disturbing, brushed to the side or unheard.

    The tragedy is that although the young have now been given a voice, they haven’t been given a toolset that allows their voices to gain prominence over others. This is where the contention of ideas and the skills of debate is so important in forming potent voices, able to convey and persuade. Lived experience is essential for a writer to draw upon, but it insufficient to create the level of internal dialogue and underlying meaning within a text to make for commercially saleable material.

    For that you need to challenge platitudes, overcome standard objections without resorting to bad faith arguments and really test your ideas to see whether they can withstand the destruction of forceful refutation. This is where the narrative ultimately fails, because although narrative can be powerful and has a natural tendency to persuade where even empirical evidence fails- one still has to pass the hurdle of suspension of disbelief, and avoid the desire to lecture at all costs. Illustration always works best when one shows, rather than tells.

    Young people feel naturally aggrieved when there ideas are dismissed or easily contested. They naturally tend to feel that the opposition is acting on the basis of their own interest or political motivation and arguing in bad faith. The problem stems from their professors failing to convey all the preceding steps, and the necessary skills entailed with each step, that led up the current cultural moment. Sometimes they even going so far as to be antagonistic towards earlier modes of thinking, if they themselves weren’t exposed to the methodology.

    This chart sums it up best:

    In the current zeitgeist it is entirely necessary to learn the amber and orange stages of development, in order to graduate to later stages- otherwise your arguments and ideas will fall on deaf ears.

    An example of this, in practice, relates to systemic racism in hiring. If one simply says that there is systemic racism in hiring, many will see this as a threat to meritocracy. But if instead one first sets the premise by explaining that the evidence shows that almost all discrimination in hiring operates through in-group preference, rather than out-group hostility, then most will find this quite reasonable. The more educated (and also the ones you need to persuade), will be familiar with the concept of homophily.

    The mistake that the modern Left makes is always framing the conversation in terms of confrontation- as though life were a battle between good and bad people. This is facile method doomed to failure, for the simple reason that the majority of the population will never go to university- and of those who do, at least a third will have secret reservations (even within the much vaunted intersectional alliance), which will often only ever find expression in the ballot box.

    The real argument for the free expression of ideas in the modern era, is that it naturally lends itself to the purpose of empowering individuals from the very marginalised groups who so desperately need an audience and whose voices have been neglected for so long. By testing, refining and honing ideas against the whetstone of empirical evidence voices can be strengthened and arguments can achieve ascendancy. Reading Shakespeare was a pivotal experience in Maya Angelou’s formation as a poet- there are doubtless countless other examples within the Western canon, which can be utilised as a gymnasium for new thinkers and revolutionary ideas.

  3. “an opinion piece published in the New York Times by Senator Tom Cotton arguing for federal troops to reign in the protests”

    Really? To rein in “protests”? Was that what it said?

    I don’t have it in front of me, but my recollection is that the op-ed took pains to distinguish between right-protected protests and unlawful rioting.

    Am I wrong or does this article start off with a bit of historical revision?

  4. In an amazing piece of writing by James Lindsay, he lays out very clearly why cancel culture is here to stay. Yes that Lindsay, of the grievance studies hoax. He’s the one who took a chapter from Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler, substituted “men” for “Jews” and got it published in a peer-reviewed feminist scientific journal. It is an extensively sourced masterpiece. He actually read all of the politically extreme literature - critical theory, feminist radicalism, queer theory, neo-Marxism, the Frankfurt School and so on - and boiled it down.

    What he found was that the left doesn’t debate, and it can’t. Arriving at truth through debate is an Enlightenment value, Enlightenment values are racist and resulted in slavery and genocide, therefore debating only reinforces inequality. “Woke” ideology is actually an internally sound idea system that has as its goal the complete destruction of Enlightenment thought.

    “There are a number of points within Critical Social Justice Theory that would see having a debate or conversation with people of opposing views as unacceptable, and they all combine to create a mindset where that wouldn’t be something that adherents to the Theory are likely or even willing to do in general. This reticence, if not unwillingness, to converse with anyone who disagrees actually has a few pretty deep reasons behind it, and they’re interrelated but not quite the same. They combine, however, to produce the first thing everyone needs to understand about this ideology: it is a complete worldview with its own ethics, epistemology, and morality, and theirs is not the same worldview the rest of us use. Theirs is, very much in particular, not liberal. In fact, theirs advances itself rather parasitically or virally by depending upon us to play the liberal game while taking advantage of its openings. That’s not the same thing as being willing to play the liberal game themselves, however, including to have thoughtful dialogue with people who oppose them and their view of the world. Conversation and debate are part of our game, and they are not part of their game.”

    It’s an outstanding essay. Please read it, then share it on all your social media platforms. This needs to become common knowledge. These cancel culture people don’t do facts and logic, you either agree with them or you must be destroyed. This is not a joke or an exaggeration.

    Just a couple of hours ago I saw this story which fits nicely and provides more evidence that the left rejects Enlightenment values like debate. UK Labour MP: “We must not fetishise “debate” as though debate is itself an innocuous, neutral act. The very act of debate in these cases is an effective rollback of assumed equality and a foot in the door for doubt and hatred.”

  5. Yes, Cotton was very clear about separating rioters and protesters, for example here:

    Some elites have excused this orgy of violence in the spirit of radical chic, calling it an understandable response to the wrongful death of George Floyd. Those excuses are built on a revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters. A majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants.

    [bold mine]
    And he was very clear on providing examples of when bringing in troops was done before, for example here:

    For instance, during the 1950s and 1960s, Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson called out the military to disperse mobs that prevented school desegregation or threatened innocent lives and property. This happened in my own state. Gov. Orval Faubus, a racist Democrat, mobilized our National Guard in 1957 to obstruct desegregation at Little Rock Central High School. President Eisenhower federalized the Guard and called in the 101st Airborne in response. The failure to do so, he said, “would be tantamount to acquiescence in anarchy.”

    What to me is truly interesting is the way modern liberals are actually perfectly happy to allow innocent people’s lives and livelihoods to be taken away to gratify their needs to make their own lives feel worthwhile.

  6. I think we do a disservice to the truth when we take the arguments of the Woke at face value, like the author does. They know exactly what Cotton meant. It is just a cat and mouse game this conflating peaceful protests with violent mobs. Democrats are just encouraging the mobs like this. They are not blind or ignorant of the violence. In the end, they just do not want to allow the opposition like Cotton to have a say in their paper. The justifications for censorship they provide are not serious and they are not meant to be taken seriously either.

  7. I agree, but the issue for me is that the average Wokie or bobo “centrist” isn’t cynical, just wilfully stupid. How many times have you been confronted by comments along the lines of “Trump called Hondurans animals” or “Trump’s Islamophobic travel ban” or “Sandmann aggressed against Native Americans”, especially by those who should know better? I’m constantly surprised that there are people who consider the NYT and similar as reputable sources.

    Look at how false stories like “Cotton wants to invade our cities” propagate and then root in the left-liberal mind. Those at the top of the food chain may perfectly aware of the falseness of their work, but those at the bottom will take that false interpretation as gospel and won’t question the interpretation. Sooner rather than later the actual specifics evaporate because those wanting to believe and belong never task themselves with challenging a narrative. Which leaves only the residue–a sense of shared truth with other believers.

    BTW, I’m out ofl ikes, so here’s one for you @JWombacher :heart: and a :heart: for @Heike as well, New Discourses is definitely worth a read.

  8. The enemies of liberty are not interested in “justice.” Their cardinal value is equality. Equality is not justice. Their primary objective is power. Their primary purpose for power is plunder.

    They are not interested in fine distinctions of political theory. It is customary for intellectuals to believe that to “reframe” the theory is the way to solve a problem. The problem we have is not a subtle misunderstanding of words and concepts.

  9. According to the author: “Especially in the age of digital media, countering speech with more vociferous speech is a readily available option without resorting to the double-edged tactic of cancellation.”

    No, Google warps debate. Most sites do not allow comments. If you put your name to a controversial view, you are a visible target.

    Also, if I may, the author’s reference to “historically marginalized voices” makes me suspect the dude is on the side of social justice, and writing with a forked tongue and a hidden agenda. Maybe, to paraphrase Wittgenstein (since he named dropped that dude for intellectual cred) he wants to keep the fly in the fly bottle. We get told we shouldn’t adopt cancel culture in response to the Left’s use of it. Actually, we kind of have to. I don’t mean running amok or hunting down left wing versions of “Karen”, I just mean we need to call illegal immigrants “illegal immigrants” (who are greatly separate from legal immigrants) and not allow them in a country. We have every right to want woke hucksters who occupy seats of power to be removed from seats of power. I mean, come on, I’ll defend someone’s right to say an opinion I don’t agree with, but I’m sure as hell not going to defend someone’s self-imagined right to make decisions that are ruinous to me. Also, this middle ground shit can get annoying. If someone says the earth is flat, and someone says it’s round, compromising and saying it’s square is not the “solution”.

  10. I’m fighting communists and their allies. I’ll stand with the truth, not in the middle.

  11. Remember, they have already declared war. They are burning Bibles, flags, culture and history – and people, like you, will be next.

    They hate and want to abolish everything you think is normal – including maths and the police.

    The thing we are up against has a history of this behaviour, starting in earnest in Russia just over a 100 year ago – blink of an eye in historical terms. It’s the same enemy in different clothes. It never went away. The second ( arguably first ) most powerful country in the world has its symbol on its national flag.

    It’s ok to fight back. It doesn’t make you the same as them.

  12. “How should we weigh the effects of harmful speech against the value of free speech?
    “Unlike the empirical question, the normative one involves a conflict of values.”

    This is a false question. With the exceptions of inciting violence, defamation or defrauding through lying, speech is neither violence or harmful. Epitaphs, insults and other gratuitous remarks say more about the lack of intelligence and couth of the speaker. There is no freedom from insults or right not to hear insults.

    “…free speech advocates see themselves as defenders of liberty, the touchstone of an open, liberal society, while the anti-racists fight in the name of social justice,…”

    Racism is irrelevant to free speech. One can be a free speech advocate, one can even advocate protecting racist speech without being a racist. The notion that speech leading to hurt feelings should be restricted is too subjective and incompatible with free speech. The free speech restrictionists are merely using racism, sexism homophobia ect…as a shield to cover their desire to abolish speech they don’t wish to hear. In other words I must cancel your speech because your speech cancels my arguments.

    “If the cancel culture debate is framed as such—a choice between the incommensurable values of liberty or justice—then a resolution is precluded almost by definition.”

    Alleged justice that seeks to restrict liberty is tyranny in disguise. Social justice is advocacy for subjective standards and treatment with elites deciding who is favored and who is not.

    “there is no way to exaggerate the moral chasm between progressives and free speech advocates.”

    Language has become dishonest. This not a chasm between progressives and free speech advocates. It is a chasm between restricted speech advocates and free speech advocates. Just like abortion is not between pro-choice and pro-life advocates but rather between pro-abortion and anti-abortion advocates.

  13. The realist hope is many of the young people will grow out of it as they mature. It is the older people who infuriate me. I have lost patience with the older people driving this. The hate ideologues, the institutional executives, the money bags----it is a despicable, venal bunch.

  14. The person who wrote this is a student. I am sure he is sincere I am sure that he romanticizes himself as a valiant soldier of the resistance fighting the evil empire. The problem he fails to recognize is that he IS the evil empire. The cultural elite controls academia, education, the media, big tech and big money. Today, they are the establishment. Today conservatives are the oppressed group

    Our young man has a point, although is is not the one he thinks he does, The cultural elite dominates social discourse and it is their voices that are responsible for the canceling of conservative ones, But that does not mean that they care about marginalized minority communities. 81% of the black community, according to Gallup, supports maintaining police levels or increasing them. When does that marginalized voice find its way into the NYT? They failed to report it. Nothing from CNN either. African Americans have the highest percentage of church attendance of any ethnic group in the U.S. Did the NYT ask them how they feel about radicals burning bibles? NYT and CNN both ignore the huge increases in shootings of children in black communities following the George Floyd protests

    This is a revolution of the the top down. It is a power grab by the privileged among us. All of the virtue signalling in the world will not change this fact Sooner, rather than later, minorities in the U.S. will recognize this. Our young student is simply one more earnest useful idiot. He may grow out of it as he learns that Asians are the newest outgroup- actively discriminated against at many elite institutions and in New York magnet schools

  15. And here is the result

    Two highly paid graduates from the most prestigious law schools in the country arrested for throwing molotov cocktails at police vehicles.

    And of course NPR defends them

    They are part of the cultural elite. They are NPR’s people. They are not marginalized minorities. They are among the most privileged in the country. They committed terrorism because they assumed they would get away with it. They may still get away with it. I am sure that their defense will be handled pro-bono by other members of the elite. No one cares about the cops they might have killed

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