November 26, 2019
By Trevor Bratton
When comedian Dave Chappelle’s recent “Sticks and Stones” Netflix special became the target of critics who decried its offensive jokes and unabashed remarks, it was just one of latest in a long line of examples of how “cancel culture” is growing in America. Even former President Barack Obama has taken note, recently speaking out against the trend toward judging other people as a way to effect societal change. As President Obama said, this trend isn’t activism—but it is encroaching on our First Amendment rights and our collective and individual liberties.
“Cancel culture” stems from a sense of groupthink and a rejection of discomfort: Rather than listening and respectfully debating viewpoints different from their own, many people choose to shut down or “cancel” those who would dare espouse those views. The heightened attempt to censor viewpoints does not have the effect of reducing violence. In fact, censorship often leads to the opposite; an exacerbation of the very view or action it intends to stop.
Take a look at colleges and universities across the country: There are countless stories of speakers being shouted down by students. And as Goldwater Institute Senior Fellow Jonathan Butcher pointed out earlier this year, many students are on board with this approach: A recent Knight Foundation survey of college students found that more than half of respondents—51 percent—say it is “always” or “sometimes” appropriate to shout down a speaker or “prevent them from talking,” while another 16 percent say it is “always” or “sometimes” acceptable to use violence to “stop a speech protest or rally.”
Free exchange of ideas—even controversial ones—discourages violence in democratic societies. In other words, those societies where parties are able to express themselves, free speech is associated with less violence. What does this mean for America? Attempts to “cancel” the views of opponents does not lead to a better society; instead, it leads to a figurative taking of arms by the accused. The Goldwater Institute’s campus free speech model legislation—which has inspired laws that have been passed in several states—is designed to protect that free exchange of ideas and take speech-related violence on campus seriously. (You can read more about our campus free speech work at restorefreespeech.com.)
Cancel culture affords vocal populations, as small as they may be, to silence the views of a competing viewpoint. What these groups often dismiss, however, is that this silence may be in the future applied to them. Cancel culture is easy when you’re not the one being canceled. And as American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Lee Rowland admits, free speech is messy, but abandoning it may mean “hate speech” is anything contrived to be hated by government or by the majority—a risky outcome.
Democracy is founded on the notion that we fight for everyone else’s right to speak freely, so long as that speech is not deliberately misleading or libelous. But with the recent trend toward cancel culture, we have chosen not to defend democratic principles, but instead mute everyone with whom we disagree. It’s a bad move for all Americans, to be sure.
Trevor Bratton is a Policy Analyst at the Goldwater Institute.