the discourse

‘Defending a Free Society’ Requires Radically Changing This One

A man I wish to persuade, but not to cancel. Photo: Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Americans live in a society that warehouses more than 2 million people in penitentiaries rife with state-ordered torture and unpunished sexual abuse; a society that lives off the “essential” labor of workers who have no right to vote, and whom the state reserves the right to deport; a society that allows hundreds of thousands of its people to go homeless, millions of its children to go hungry, and dozens of its Fortune 500 companies to go untaxed; a society that condemned much of its Black population to enslavement for 246 years, Jim Crow rule for a century after that, and underinvestment, underemployment, and overincarceration ever since; a society that abets the war crimes of Islamist autocracies, collectively punishes the populations of adversarial regimes, and undermines global action on an ever-deepening climate crisis that threatens the global poor with mass displacement, if not mass death.

It is also a society where, in my opinion, social media users are often needlessly dickish to people who disagree with them about politics, and sometimes engineer public shamings that occasionally get people unjustly fired.

The fact that mass incarceration, poverty, the U.S. government’s backing of brutal autocracies, and climate change are all exponentially greater affronts to human freedom than censorious Twitter mobs does not mean that the latter should go uncriticized. But it does mean that, when self-proclaimed “defenders of a free society” treat opposition to “cancel culture” as essential to liberalism — but support for, say, universal health care as peripheral to it — they discredit the values they wish to uphold.

This is my main complaint with monomaniacal “anti-cancel culture” crusaders in general, and the political scientist Yascha Mounk’s Persuasion project, in particular.

Persuasion is, in Mounk’s description, an online community for those who wish “to build a free society in which all individuals get to pursue a meaningful life irrespective of who they are,” “believe in the importance of the social practice of persuasion, and are determined to defend free speech and free inquiry against all its enemies,” and “seek to persuade, rather than to mock or troll, those who disagree with us.”

Which sounds nice! I, for one, would certainly like to build a free society where everyone has a meaningful life. And if doing that requires cutting back on trolling troglodytes — I mean, uh, conservatives of goodwill — so be it.

And Mounk’s description of his project has other ingratiating aspects, such as its acknowledgement that the authoritarian right is the “primary threat to liberal democracy” today — and concession that his own ideological bedfellows on the center left bear some responsibility for the present climate of democratic disaffection, as they’ve failed to produce “convincing answers to pressing political questions, including the persistent disparities of race and class.”

Unfortunately, though, the dominant note of Mounk’s project is not actually critical introspection, but ideological chauvinism. Throughout his writing about and for Persuasion, Mounk uses the phrases “defenders of the free society,” and “those of us who are committed to a free society,” as synonyms for liberal-minded moderates.

In an essay titled, “The Purpose of Persuasion,” Mounk casts his project as an attempt to build a “counter-establishment” institution for “defenders of the free society.” He explains that such an institution only recently became necessary, as “philosophical liberals” had long enjoyed hegemony within the mainstream news media and academy. Now that their influence over the New York Times is waning, however, free-society lovers need to build institutions of their own, just as conservatives did with National Review, and progressives with The Nation, Jacobin, and the Democratic Socialists of America.

Mounk’s premise — that those who occupy the middle ground between reactionary right and radical left are uniquely committed to the values of a “free society” — is a relic of the Cold War, and was highly suspect even then. After all, in that era, the “far left” outpaced Establishment liberals in defending the individual liberties of African-Americans, the freedom of speech of political radicals, and the right of Vietnamese peasants to not be incinerated by American munitions. Nevertheless, there was some logic to Mounk’s taxonomy back when an avowedly illiberal, anti-democratic left boasted legions of adherents and control of an imperial power — rather than dozens of leaflets and control over “Tankie” Twitter, as the authoritarian left does today.

This is not to suggest that there aren’t any illiberal tendencies on the contemporary left; I believe that there are. But there is no sizable progressive constituency arguing for the abolition of liberal democracy. To the contrary, the progressive institutions that Mounk defines his project against are all avowedly committed to the preservation of civil liberties and expansion of democracy. For instance, in just the last four years, the socialist periodical Jacobin has published articles arguing that “censorship used against our enemies will be used against us,” that “free speech is a left-wing value,” and that “conservatives like to claim that leftists are opponents of free speech. But that’s nonsense.” The idea that The Nation is sympathetic to authoritarian leftism, meanwhile, is facially absurd, while the DSA’s commitment to democracy is reflected in both its name and tactics.

Thus, Mounk’s self-described “philosophical liberals” can’t claim a superlative commitment to “the free society” on the basis of their avowed beliefs. And if the mere demonstration of illiberal tendencies is enough to indict a movement’s commitment to individual liberty, then Mounk’s vital center is fatally compromised. Persuasion’s own board of advisers includes a prominent defender of military torture, and multiple apologists for apartheid rule in the West Bank. Meanwhile, during the Obama years, it was not the center-left that most vigorously protested the president’s execution of a U.S. citizen without due process, or the NSA’s affronts to the Fifth Amendment; it was many of the same radicals whom Mounk implicitly charges with illiberalism.

Persuasion is not, therefore, a community distinguished by its exceptionally strong commitment to liberal values as such. Rather, it is distinguished by its exceptionally strong concern with censorious discourse norms in the mainstream media and academy.

Unlike many on the left whom I respect, I think that this is a reasonable thing to be concerned about.

Social media has democratized participation in elite discourse, and its net effect, in my estimation, has been to expand and enrich public debate: A world where a 28-year-old college student can win a hearing for his heterodox economic views at the SEC and Federal Reserve — by self-publishing accessible yet erudite blog posts on monetary policy — strikes me as preferable to the cloistered, gate-kept media environment that facilitated the Iraq War and post-2008 deficit hysteria.

But platforms like Twitter also strongly incentivize conformity within ideological in-groups, and intellectual dishonesty in arguments between them. Seeing a smart, witty person pithily explain how today’s events reaffirmed the righteousness of your political faction, and the accuracy of your worldview, is very satisfying. Taking a break from work to enjoy a quick hit of such affirmation and fellow feeling — only to see someone you thought you could trust tossing stones at your model of the world — is less pleasant. So, affirmers tend to get retweets and dissenters “ratioed” (until the latter accrue new followings of like-minded contrarians, anyway). And once someone has built a following by validating a given faction’s assumptions, they have little more incentive to revise their views in light of new information — or contradict their followers’ prevailing wisdom on some discrete issue — than a right-wing talk-radio host does. None of this is to say that Twitter is devoid of vigorous, intra-left (or intra-right, or intra … Mounk) debate. It’s replete with such arguments. But from my vantage point, it also does appear to engender a lot of groupthink and hostility towards ambiguity. Even in intra-left debates over ostensibly tactical questions — as opposed to ones over end goals or fundamental values — disputing factions are quick to impugn each other’s motives with supreme, psychoanalytic confidence (as though the one true path to progressive change in the adverse and unprecedented media, ecological, and economic conditions of the 21st century is so obvious, only a closeted reactionary could fail to see it).

More troublingly, social media’s tendency towards moralistic groupthink — when combined with the reputational risk aversion of corporate entities, and the hyperexpendability of American workers in general, and those who labor in the shrinking media, publishing, and higher education industries in particular — have gotten a few people unjustly fired and thereby made others more reluctant to express controversial points of view. In publishing, the economic imperative to avoid expressing opinions that might provoke a social media backlash has gained formal expression through “morals clauses” in book contracts. Such provisions give publishers the right to cancel a book’s release if, to take one representative example, an author’s conduct results in “sustained, widespread public condemnation … that materially diminishes the sales potential of the work.” In a world where tweeting an academic study on the relative political efficacy of violent and nonviolent civil-rights protests can trigger “widespread public condemnation,” there is reason to fear that such clauses will stifle the expression of legitimate, non-bigoted opinions.

This is a very cursory and incomplete treatment of my thoughts on areas where critics of “cancel culture” have a point. But my object here is just to say: I think there are worthwhile critiques to make in this space.

Unfortunately, Persuasion’s myopia and hyperbole serve to discredit such critiques. In his essay outlining the community’s purpose, Mounk offers the following account of how the censorious culture of mainstream institutions has muzzled his fellow “philosophical liberals”:

It is difficult to convey just how many amazing writers, journalists, and think-tankers—some young and some old, some relatively obscure and others very famous—have privately told me that they can no longer write in their own voices; that they are counting the days until they get fired; and that they don’t know where to turn if they do. (Astonishingly, a number of them are far enough to the left to have supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries.)

This, to me, is a huge part of the reason why the defenders of the free society have seemed to lack conviction in recent months and years. Feeling, at best, begrudgingly tolerated by the institutions that employ them, they are always on the back foot: writing and speaking with one eye on Twitter, one eye on a hostile editor, and one eye on the attacks being shared on their own company’s Slack channel. 

Mounk frames this as a cultural critique of progressive institutions. But it is also a tacit acknowledgement that true freedom of expression is inextricable from economic security. If Mounk’s liberalism is a universalist project — as opposed to a class one — then it must ask what material conditions are necessary for empowering all people to fully and freely participate in the debates that shape their lives. Preserving the intellectual freedom of incumbent media and academic elites is a worthy endeavor. But building “a free society in which all individuals get to pursue a meaningful life irrespective of who they are” will require a hell of a lot more than that.

The chief suspicion that evangelists for liberal norms confront in progressive circles is that the freedom they wish to maximize is theirs alone. By making opposition to Twitter incivility the litmus test for commitment to “a free society” — while counting advocates of waterboarding, wars of aggression, and upwardly redistributive economic policies among the ranks of freedom’s defenders — Mounk validates such cynicism.

If “philosophical liberals” wish to broaden progressive support for “defending the free society,” they must first commit to radically changing the one we live in.

Realizing Liberal Ideals Requires Radical Change