The worst cartoon in the world
Leftists have a poor understanding of the nature of power
There is a terrible cartoon which frequently finds its way into online political discourse. It is from xkcd and it looks like this.
You’ll typically see this in the wild being posted by left-liberal types when someone is kicked off Twitter, or fired, or has an event cancelled.
Take David Shor, a data analyst who worked for a consulting firm. During the wave of protests following the killing of George Floyd, Shor tweeted a recently-published study showing that non-violent civil rights protests in the 1960s were much more politically effective than violent ones. Twitter users pushed back against this entirely innocuous tweet accurately representing some interesting research; he was fired. Still, I guess the people listening thought he was an asshole, and they were showing him the door.
The cartoon is bad for many, many reasons, which are helpfully dissected here, but the Shor example illustrates one of the key problems with it; it represents an incredibly narrow view of free speech. If the government can’t arrest you, everything else is just dandy. It’s consequences culture. Shor was free to tweet, Twitter users were free to demand he be sacked, his firm were free to chuck him. No foul. Right?
Obviously we need to think a bit more broadly about free speech here, not just in the context of governmental suppression but also societal. This isn’t a new idea; John Stuart Mill well understood that speech can be restricted by the state but also by society, and he was clear that both are harmful. The following is from On Liberty:
“When society is itself the tyrant - society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it - its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them”
In a way, it isn’t surprising that left-liberals are so willing to view the only threat to free speech as the government. There is currently precious little danger to left-liberal values and beliefs coming from societal censorship; on the contrary, it can be handy as a weapon to quash dissent. This explains why conservatives are so animated by cancel culture; right-wing opinions will be on the wrong end of social ostracism. The left takes its immense cultural heft for granted and thinks the only game in town is political power because it keeps losing at the ballot box. The right is the exact opposite; conservatives continue to win elections and fulminate that cultural mores continue to shift against them in any case.
But self-professed leftists defending this “consequence culture” is truly baffling. Why would anyone even vaguely left-leaning want to support a culture where workers being sacked on the basis of their thoughts is seen as an equitable outcome? This is handing huge power to employers. And moving away from labour relations, who is likely to benefit from setting social censorship as a principle? The rich and powerful, or the poor and powerless? How can any leftist encourage a dynamic which pushes more power towards the powerful, and which tilts the balance away from workers and towards employers?
This is surely working against leftist goals and principles, and, as the ACLU notes, similar methods have historically targeted the left explicitly:
“When private individuals or groups organize boycotts against stores that sell magazines of which they disapprove, their actions are protected by the First Amendment, although they can become dangerous in the extreme. Private pressure groups, not the government, promulgated and enforced the infamous Hollywood blacklists during the McCarthy period. But these private censorship campaigns are best countered by groups and individuals speaking out and organizing in defense of the threatened expression.”
“Consequence culture” is rendered even more vexing because its edges are so fuzzy. There is no clear set of rules for anyone to understand whether they have committed a transgression or not.
Utilities worker Emmanuel Cafferty was driving home from a long shift when another driver goaded him into making the “okay” gesture with his hand; later, his boss called to say that there was a photo circulating on social media of him making a white supremacist gesture. Cafferty had no idea that’s what the gesture meant, but he lost his job anyway. David Shor couldn’t have expected to be fired for his tweet. The parameters are never defined. Punishments are capricious, random, and traumatising. A culture where nobody knows which consequences are appropriate and likely to occur for any given behaviour feels very unjust.
Is speech free in any meaningful sense if the consequence of being on the wrong side of an issue could be a concerted attempt to destroy your life? The effects of “consequence culture” aren’t always visible; many will shy away from speaking their mind on an issue for fear of unemployment or ostracism.
Leftists supporting this kind of thing only do so because they think nothing bad will ever happen to them, as they’re on “the right side of history”. But in fact it often does anyway; the recent demented purity spiral amongst medieval historians involved people all broadly committed to the idea of social justice.
So it was rather interesting to observe the response when Elon Musk popped up last month with a plan to buy Twitter, the social media home for left-liberals. The reaction was, as is often the case on the cursed bird app, insane levels of outrage. Jameela Jamil announced she was leaving the platform, fearing Musk’s commitment to free speech.
Twitter will probably struggle on without Jamil’s tweets, but whatever happened to a private company being able to do what it wants? Was it ok for Twitter to show people the door when it was owned by a different billionaire? Shouldn’t Musk be able to buy Twitter and run it as he sees fit? He doesn’t have to listen to your bullshit, or host you while you share it, right, xkcd?
The reaction to Musk is just another example of how left-liberals have a really shonky conception of how power operates; in particular, they are completely (and possibly wilfully) blind to power when they are wielding it. There are definitely reasons to criticise Musk from a left-wing perspective, top of the list being his treatment of trade unionists. And there are critiques that can be made of Twitter’s ownership model. If Twitter really is “the de facto public town square”, as Musk apparently believes, why should the rules be set for hundreds of millions of users worldwide by a billionaire living in Texas? If Twitter is an important online public space, is it incongruous for it to be held in private hands? How governments can best deal with social media - a private enterprise delivering a social good - is very much an open question. But hyperventilating over one billionaire buying Twitter from another billionaire is a bizarre place for the left to have reached; surely it is the base which is important here, not the superstructure.
And the freak-out about Musk buying Twitter shows that nobody was ever really that committed to the logic behind that xkcd cartoon in the first place; as soon as it seemed that Musk would be in charge of showing people the door, that analysis was dropped. As Sam Ashworth-Hayes notes, people posting the xkcd cartoon would never dream of defending it if they found themselves on the other side:
“If a church congregation threatens a teen with ostracization for supporting gay rights, then they aren’t infringing on their rights to believe as they will; they’re merely showing them the door. If your employer fires you for attending a black lives matter rally, then this isn’t curtailment of your freedom of expression; it’s consequences for your behaviour”
The left should understand that whilst it may hold the cultural levers today, that may not be true tomorrow; something that Musk’s mooted Twitter purchase may have woken them up to.
There are certain sub-cultures on Twitter where prominent users order others to block dissenters, to not read articles which challenge their beliefs. They will often throw slurs about ideological enemies which they will not be able to justify. The objective is to make it socially punitive for people to engage with opposing ideas, to turn an open forum into a closed loop of ideological uniformity. The behaviour is cult-like but it is also hugely societally damaging; it undermines the idea of a shared community and it sacrifices the free exchange of ideas for conformity and polarisation.
Permitting speech to be free not just from governmental restrictions but also from societal censorship is important. Hearing alternative viewpoints allows us to be challenged, to think about other opinions, question ourselves, find common ground, making for a more pluralistic and less divided society. We need to allow for the possibility that we might not be right about everything all the time, but also it is a debt we have to our community, to listen to one another openly and honestly.
Maybe we can choose to not show people the door.
On top of everything else, this whole discourse is frustratingly Americanised. That XKCD cartoon is just laying out the inplications of the (outdated, written in a time when only governments had the power to censor) First Amendment.
I think you're reading too much into the original comic. It doesn't comment on whether the "showing you the door" is good or bad, it's just saying that when the following example takes place:-
a) Mr X is invited as a guest on a radio show,
b) Mr X says something which the majority of the listeners of the radio show think is terrible,
c) Mr X is uninvited from the radio show,
d) Mr X asks about his RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH
that Mr X's speech isn't protected under the first amendment.
It certainly doesn't say that you should be fired from your job for a tweet or a misunderstanding.