Freedom of speech and cancel culture

Unusually, the BBC asked more than one person to deliver the 2022 Reith Lectures. Each focused on one of “four freedoms”. The first lecture, delivered by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and available to stream via BBC Sounds, was excellent (excluding the underwhelming Q&A at the end). The subject was “freedom of speech”. It was a clear plea for people to avoid the temptation of perpetual online outrage that in turn drives “cancellation” and self-censorship. What it didn’t do, however, is provide a convincing model of why such outrage emerges, aside from the simplistic view that people have not evolved to deal with social media.

I thought back to this lecture when I read a post today from Robin Hanson, entitled “Why is everyone so boring?” I find Hanson’s blog quite hit-and-miss. That is not a criticism. I like that he throws all his ideas out there. Some are not so insightful. Others, such as this one, are brilliant. Here he suggests a model as to why much of the world is dull, and explains online outrage in the process:

Either you act boring, so the bandits will ignore you, you act lively, and invite bandit attacks, or you act outraged, and play a bandit yourself.

In the context of the current public debate about J.K. Rowling’s interventions in the debate about the compatibility of women’s rights with trans activism, Hanson adds:

It takes unusual art, allies, and energy, in a word “eliteness”, to survive while choosing lively.

This strikes me as broadly correct, although incomplete. I think there is a subset of “lively” people who essentially adopt extreme views in order to allow “boring” people to follow them and enjoy more lively debate vicariously. Think talk radio hosts, Ash Sarkar, Nigel Farage, Gina Miller, and the endless Twitter ideologues of both left and right. In the end you end up with outrage being commodified, as predicted so poignantly in the Black Mirror episode Fifteen Million Merits.

Some notable institutions have failed to avoid the slide into what Hanson would call “banditry”. That the Oxford Union still claims to be the what Harold Macmillan once described as “the last bastion of free speech” is ludicrous given their consistent cancellation of controversial views. Yet for me the canary in the coalmine is comedy. Comedians surely should be the last bastion of free expression. They operate under the explicit licence of jest. The brilliant aphorism “[i]f you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you,” has been attributed to George Bernard Shaw. So long as outrageous jokes survive, free speech survives. I watch Chappelle, Rock, Gervais, and Carr as much in an act of solidarity as in search of entertainment – and much less in search of outrage.

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