The ‘Cancellation Continuum’

‘Cancel culture’ seems to have become the topic of the day, with critics lamenting its use to suppress free discussion, and defenders claiming that it is a necessary check on bias and hate speech.

‘De-platforming’ is the most visible form of the ‘cancel culture’ but there are other ways in which public discussion constrains engagement with contentious issues.

‘Cancel culture’ usually refers to the actual cancellation of speech or argument, through de-platforming, resort to legal action or legislative sanction, workplace punishment or dismissal, or, in the extreme, physical threat. In this literal form, cancel culture is still rare in Australia, notwithstanding such examples as the suspension by UQ of student Drew Pavlou, calls for Bettina Arndt to be stripped of her AM, and the Israel Falau fracas. These controversies generate considerable excitement, both from those who insist the ‘cancellations’ are justified, and those who see them as threats to free discussion.

Perhaps though, in noting the relative infrequency of hard-line cancellations in Australia, we should be more aware of the far more frequent, though less visible, way in which softer versions of ‘cancel culture’ pervade public and personal discussion in contemporary Australia. Indeed I suggest that, paradoxically, the employment of the somewhat dramatic phrase ‘cancel culture’ by its critics to express concern about the threat literal cancellation poses to nuance in public discussion, distracts us from its other, more subtle but increasingly common, manifestations, and itself discourages nuance.

It seems to me that it is possible to discern, in institutional, public, and personal discussion, a continuum of responses, from literal cancellation to the genuinely respectful, in how our community deals with the diversity of viewpoints within it. Though not explicit or even conscious, these responses very much shape, and often constrain, debate.

The ‘cancellation continuum’

1: The strongest form of cancellation occurs when an assertion is seen by its opponents as so stupid, reprehensible – and probably dangerous – that literal de-platforming and banning, possibly including legal action, is necessary.

2: More common, though not often openly stated, is the belief that a view is so stupid or reprehensible that it should not be heard and, while formal sanction-based cancellation is not required, that viewpoint should be totally excluded from debate on the issue it relates to.

3: A little less restrictive is the belief that the view should be allowed to be heard in adherence to the principle of free speech, but so lacks merit that it should then be ignored, demonized, or mocked.

4: Less censorious is the attitude that, while an assertion has sufficient legitimacy to be entitled to a hearing, the response should simply be to combat it to confirm that it is stupid or reprehensible, rather than be open to the possibility of finding something of merit in it and exploring it accordingly.

5: The most open response is what might be called the ‘Socratic’ one: as truth or insight is found through respectful engagement with all perspectives, the view should be considered in a genuinely curious and open-minded quest for understanding, insight, and dialogue.

Lest it not already be sufficiently clear let me affirm my unequivocal commitment to the Socratic approach. By that I mean, (to draw on the words of the Heterodox Academy, established by influential American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt to encourage viewpoint diversity in higher education),
an approach in which people come together, humbled by their incomplete knowledge, curious what they can learn from others, able to share their own ideas and perspectives, and eager to think together with nuance, open minds, respect and goodwill — all in service to understanding the complexities of our world more deeply.’

While in an ideal world the Socratic response would be best, and, I suggest, should be the default, response, I do recognize that it would be naive and occasionally risky to propose that without qualification. Almost certainly some views do require less open-minded treatment.

Few would disagree, for example, that a proposal that entailed ‘ethnic cleansing’ would justify response 1, or at best, 2. A suggestion that same-sex relationships be criminalized might in the view of many, justify response 2 or 3. In contrast, however, while (for example) I support same-sex marriage, I would hope that opposition to it would call on response 5, where it could receive serious exploration.

My point in positing this somewhat mechanistic schema is to assert the importance of the Socratic response wherever possible and to invite consideration of the disturbing extent to which, tacitly, less open-minded responses are employed in the community and personal debate. Indeed I would assert that all too rarely is community discussion ‘Socratic’, instead usually defaulting to, at best 4, and too often 2 or 3.

In reacting to a viewpoint, each of us will, usually unconsciously, determine which viewpoint calls on which response on the cancellation continuum. I am urging, instead, conscious reflection, bringing to awareness the extent to which our biases and predispositions, whether derived from conscious political or communal attachments, from the prevailing Zeitgeist, or, as is so often the case – from more visceral emotions, lead us to positions on the ‘cancellation continuum’ that stifle understanding and aggravate our civic and personal discourse.

To bring the Socratic response to debate is, without doubt, more challenging, intellectually and emotionally, than to find comfort in barracking, in seeing the world as an un-nuanced them-and-us, and in operating from our preferred bubble. But if we are to reduce the polarization about which there is so much complaint, and find answers to the complex problems our world faces, it is a challenge we must face.

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Dr Michael Liffman is an Adjunct Associate Professor at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia.

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