If you don’t know the Monty Python skit the title references, here it is.
I’ve written before about the constant right-wing freakouts over cancel culture and self-censorship. Now the New York Times has weighed in (not a direct link), raising the alarm that “Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned … however you define cancel culture, Americans know it exists.”
Fred Clark points out that the same weekend the times published this, Congress passed an anti-lynching bill named for Emmett Till. A teenage black boy, he was murdered for speaking to a white woman. As David Roberts says on Twitter, self-censorship was the norm for everyone but white men for most of our history. ot all white men had that freedom, but blacks, gays, women had considerably less. Women have to watch what they say and how they say it; blacks aren’t supposed to be too angry; gays just shut up and stayed in the closet and so on. The sexual harassment by the former EIC of Christianity Today is a good example: years of bad behavior for which he should have been canceled but wasn’t.
While the time bemoans that “some Americans do not speak freely in everyday situations because of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism,” they don’t offer any examples or specifics; it’s even vaguer than the 2020 Harper’s letter. And without specifics, my reaction is always “bullshit!”
Specifics matter because sometimes shaming and shunning is appropriate; sometimes it isn’t. If someone’s mocked and humiliated because they said they believe in god, or they’re atheist, that’s bad. If they’re shamed and shunned because they advocate killing people who support trans-rights — hey, I’m okay with that. If they’re self-censoring the number of lovers they’ve taken so that people won’t slut-shame them, that’s bad; if they’re self-censoring to stop themselves saying the n-word, self-censorship is a good thing. Harsh criticism is fine if you’re advocating no abortions, even to save the life of the mother, or if you like talking out loud about how hot your female employees are.
Similarly, what does “retaliation” mean? If it’s lynching, sexual assault, threats of rape or violence, then that’s not acceptable, ever. If it’s losing their job, that depends on the specifics. The Christianity Today editor should have lost his gig a lot sooner. I don’t have any sympathy for “apartment Patty” and other harassers either. Other offenses, maybe.
As I’ve said in other posts on this topic, criticism and condemnation are part of the free speech environment the NYT says it’s worried is fading. If someone like Mississippi politician Robert Forster says pro-trans people should all be executed or Kevin Williamson declares women who get abortions should be hung, is the appropriate response, “I respect your views even though I disagree with them?” They absolutely have the right to speak; speaking back to such extreme views requires a little dose of criticism.
A lot of the political feedback I’ve received over the years was bullshit but I haven’t felt my fundamental rights were violated by my getting it. I don’t know why the Times thinks differently.