Headlines since the start of 2020 have varied widely and dramatically, but many have revealed a disturbing, common component: Americans neither understand the right to free speech, nor embody a culture that prioritizes the principles behind it.
Due to COVID-19, the public square has been packed into online forums like never before. Given the lack of normal distractions, Americans are participating more in online discourse. That’s a good thing. We need an educated and engaged populace, and there’s certainly been no shortage of important topics to discuss of late.
This brings a heightened attention to our words, which once coupled with the internet’s perfect memory, has led to a boom in the cancel culture undercurrent with everyone from reality stars to editors of The New York Times being pulled under. At times, the public outrage has at least made sense, such as in the case of Amy Cooper, who lied to police and falsely reported an innocent black man as a threat.
Other times, it has ventured into the absurd, like the ridiculous outrage targeting Oklahoma State University head football coach, Mike Gundy, who found himself in hot water simply for wearing a One America News Network t-shirt while fishing. A Twitter mob even attacked the pizza company Dominoes merely for having thanked White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany for a tweet praising their pizza years ago.
Public figures aren’t the only targets of this surge in "cancel culture," either. The historic film Gone with the Wind was removed from HBO Max’s platform for its sympathetic depictions of slavery and the Confederacy. Meanwhile, protesters are tearing down statues en masse – prompting many comparisons to George Orwell’s 1984 and the warnings it offered on the erasure of culture and the banning of words. Claims of censorship abound and hysterics are reaching an all-time high with many Americans believing the right to free speech has eroded.
Cancel culture is a really terrible phenomenon that leaves no room for education, growth, or true accountability. It merely creates more victims and hardens the hearts of those who might be convinced to a cause otherwise.
Think about it: Do you think someone who is actually a racist is less likely to become one because the internet removes their ability to earn a living? It’s highly unlikely, and if anything, the animosity they face will only push them to double-down. But as awful and counterproductive as I find these trends, the events described here do not actually violate the Constitutional right to free speech, nor do they amount to official government censorship.
The right to free speech exists solely between an individual and their government. You do not have a right to say whatever you want free from any repercussions or consequences, and it is here that large swaths of the population seem to be confused. Similarly, a company or even a city government choosing not to promote certain content does not rise to the level of censorship. You can still obtain the product elsewhere and will face no legal punishment for obtaining them.
But there is still plenty of cause for concern. A culture that expects its government to uphold the right to free speech must meticulously uphold a culture of open speech and rigorous debate. In this, we certainly have seen an erosion of our values.
"I detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," is a bedrock quote from a Voltaire biography that should encapsulate Americans’ stance on speech. It once did. A country that cancels people instead of educating them, and that shouts down instead of engaging in discourse is one in which the right to free speech will feel hollow. You may not be persecuted by the government for your speech, but you’ll be silenced from exercising your right all the same. This climate breeds resentment, retaliation, and rarely produces desirable results. It also distracts from real threats to free speech.
Recently, the First Amendment has come under fire from both sides of the aisle. President Trump, angered by Twitter – a private company – placing a warnings on his tweets, has sought to revoke Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in retaliation. This law, passed by Congress in 1996, protects websites from being held responsible for what internet users may say on their platforms and is largely credited with enabling the modern internet. He’s been joined in his quest by other big government advocates such as US Senator Josh Hawley (R, MO) and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. This actually is a very serious threat to free speech.
One thing is clear. If politics flows downstream from culture, we need to treat the waters society is swimming in with some pretty strong chemicals — because right now, it’s toxic.