Classical liberalism differs from other political traditions in that it does not offer a vision of what a “good society”, or a “good life”, would look like. Conservatives value tradition, the family, patriotism, the work ethic, and historically (less so nowadays), religion and hierarchy. Progressives value diversity, multiculturalism, inclusivity, tolerance towards minorities, a particular concern for “the underdog”, and an equal sharing of resources.
Liberalism does not have a direct equivalent of that. Liberals do not advocate a specific set of moral values. Instead, they simply argue that people should be free to live their lives according to the values they choose, be they conservative, progressive, some combination of those, or something else entirely – subject only to the constraint that they do not violate anyone else’s rights. Liberals prefer to argue at the meta-level: we talk about what the rules of the game should be, not what we think the players should do, or what the outcome of the game should be.
It is not that liberals have no opinions on such matters: we obviously do, as much as anyone else. But we tend to be more reluctant to talk about our own personal value judgements, because we believe that it would distract from our main message. Liberals have long made a point of not passing judgement on the activities of private individuals and private organisations, as long as they are not violating anyone else’s rights. For us, the important issue is not whether we approve of what this person, or that organisation, is doing, but whether they should have a right to do what they are doing.
This is why liberalism has not been well prepared to deal with the rise of “Cancel Culture” and the “Great Awokening”. Freedom of opinion and freedom of expression are obviously core principles of liberalism, and when those are under attack, liberals must have a robust response. But we have usually thought of “censorship” as something which comes from the government. Censorship is when the state threatens you with prosecution for expressing an opinion. But when a private company refuses to provide you with a platform, or to do business with you, or to employ you, because you express that opinion, then that is not “censorship” in the classical liberal sense. The company never owed you a platform, a contract, or a job, in the first place. They have every right not to give you any of those, regardless of their reasons. Similarly, when consumers choose to boycott you, or when private individuals refuse to talk to you, because of the opinions you express, that is not censorship in the classical liberal sense either. Nobody owes you their custom, their time, their attention, or their company. People have every right to withhold those from you, for whatever reason.
That is the classical liberal conception of free speech (explained better, and more thoroughly, by Jamie Whyte in Why Free Speech Matters). But if that is your starting point – how can you oppose cancel culture? Cancel Culture does not come from the government. It does not involve laws and regulations (or if it does, these are a second-order problem). It is called Cancel Culture – and not cancel legislation – for a reason. There is no law that we can repeal, and no public sector body we can dissolve, if we want to end Cancel Culture.
Cancel Culture is mob culture. What it usually means is that a woke mob whips itself into a frenzy over some deviation from one of their orthodoxies, and then puts pressure on, for example, a university to disinvite a particular speaker, or on a company to sack a particular employee. Since most people seem terrified of the woke mob, these institutions often cave in, and comply with those demands. This increasingly takes the form of pre-emptive obedience. Cancel Culture exists in the public sector, but private companies, universities, charities or sports leagues are just as bad.
Liberals have long pointed out that a free society need not be a libertine, tolerant, anything-goes society. It can be a society with very strict social norms and expectations, not enforced by the police, but by intense social pressure. In a sense, that is what Cancel Culture is. Cancel Culture is not per se incompatible with liberalism. If it is legitimate for, say, a Catholic university to “no-platform” Richard Dawkins, then it is also legitimate for a “woke” university to no-platform an “unwoke” speaker. If it is legitimate for a private company to require its employees to wear business attire, it is also legitimate for them to require its employees to adhere to a woke speech code.
But “legitimate” does not mean “good”. We would not support laws that force people to be polite – it is legitimate to be impolite – but we can still agree that a society in which everyone was rude and horrible to each other would not be a nice place to live.
If liberals want to mount an effective opposition to Cancel Culture, we need to climb down from the lofty heights of the meta-level, and become more judgemental about the behaviours of private organisations and private individuals. A liberal answer to Cancel Culture could be:
“Yes, private organisations have a right to cancel people. We are not calling for any laws or regulations against it. People have a right to join online mobs, and people have a right to cave in to online mobs.
But if you do so – we will judge you for it. We will use the platforms we have to criticise you for it. We will publicly ridicule you for it, and we will defend the people you are trying to cancel. If you don’t cave in to the woke mob, they will give you a hard time – but if you do cave in to the woke mob, we will give you a hard time.”
The latter is admittedly not much of a threat. Liberals do not have anything like the cultural clout that woke outrage-mongers have. The latter can easily mobilise an online mob of hundreds of thousands of people; we can at best mobilise a few dozen nerds. But we can tap into an already forming anti-woke coalition with people from other parts of the ideological spectrum.
Opponents of Cancel Culture often point out that the terminally woke are not representative of the wider population: they are just a very vocal, hyperactive minority. That is true, but it is also missing the point. Vocal minorities often get their way. They usually win out against passive and apathetic majorities. Cancel Culture is a result of this. The fundamental asymmetry is that woke culture warriors tend to be extremely passionate and animated, while most non-woke people just want a quiet life. They may tell a pollster that they think “political correctness has gone too far”, or that “you have to be careful what you can say in public these days”, but they will not do anything about it.
It is therefore entirely rational for private organisations to go along with the demands of the woke mob. They are a minority, but they are the ones who count. Indulging them is not the result of ideological sympathies, but of a sober cost-benefit analysis.
If we want to tackle Cancel Culture, we need to change the incentives. We need to raise the social cost of cancelling, because cancelling is currently too cheap.
But that means that in this case, liberals will not be able to claim to be value-neutral and non-judgemental, concerned only with the rules of the game. We have to become an active player in the game, and pick a side. We need to make clear that some outcomes are bad, even if they are legitimate, and rule-compliant. We must not try to rig the rules of the game in our favour – because that would not just be non-liberal, but anti-liberal – but we should still try to win.