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Speech bans and ‘cancel culture’ put democracy at risk

Alexander Gorlach / DW Share:
Bari Weiss. twitter/bariweiss

When, despite all efforts, a meeting cannot be avoided, the encounters seem to be of the third kind: One side accuses the other of spreading “fake news” whereupon the other “cancels” those who have just attacked them.

Among those who cry “fake news” are the ones who allege that leftists, a cosmopolitan elite and the media are restructuring society. It is  also the war cry, for example, of supporters of US President Donald Trump when they claim that the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax from the Democrats and thus not true, but “fake”.

On the flip side, those who are the target of such claims draw a sharp dividing line between themselves and the others. They rigorously define words, their meaning and the contexts in which they are allowed to be spoken, so that anyone deviating from these definitions is ostracised in much the same way as people were excommunicated from the church in the Middle Ages.

Tim Hunt, a British Nobel laureate in medicine, had a taste of this in 2015, after he put his foot in it with something he said. Hunt told a conference that women scientists in laboratories “…fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry.” All his apologies for this stupid statement were to no avail. He was forced to return various honours and lost an honorary professorship. One lapse and Hunt was “canceled”, along with his life’s work.

In a climate of social tension like this, it is no surprise that even in a country such as the US, which is known for its extreme veneration of free speech, people are tired of this fight. A 2018 study showed that people in the Republican camp were sick of the perceived bans on their speech, saw them as attacks on their own identities and did not want to accept them anymore.

In the leftist, liberal spectrum, people said they could no longer keep up with and use the new, politically correct terms that their colleagues came up with every day.

Recently, intellectuals and authors of worldwide renown, such as the authors Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling and the linguist Noam Chomsky, signed an open letter sharply criticising the liberal spectrum and its eagerness to cancel. The letter was partly a reaction to the resignation of a conservative opinion editor at The New York Times, Bari Weiss.

Weiss, who was expressly hired by the paper after Donald Trump’s election to ensure the publication of opinions considered controversial by the liberal spectrum, left the job after three years precisely because she had been kept from implementing this mandate.

A society in which there are wide-ranging bans on speech and where tongues are ruled by fear will in the end cease to be a democracy. But how is it possible to return to an atmosphere of constructive debate in the US, Britain, Germany and elsewhere?

First of all, it must be once more laid out what facts are. Since ancient times, we have differentiated between “doxa” opinion, and “episteme” knowledge. Facts, the basis of knowledge, lead to different opinions. An opinion, however, does not lead to in-depth knowledge.

But empirical facts alone do not solve any problems. Every study in the social sciences, no matter how accurate the methodology it uses, ends with the question of what the facts it has gathered mean.

Here, there have always been different approaches and points of view – and there have to be, too. Acknowledging this requires what our ancestors would have called humility: healthy self-assessment with the realisation that we cannot know everything and thus have to listen to other people’s opinions.

Discourse is the mediation between the different possible interpretations of facts. And because facts are not opinion, these different possibilities of interpretation have their limits. Anyone moving beyond these limits is no longer playing according to the rules of discourse. Everyone has a right to his or her opinion, but this does not automatically mean that every opinion that is voiced is true.

It is not the person conveying the opinion that speaks for its truth, but the logical and verbal power with which the facts are presented, interpreted and evaluated.


Alexander Gorlach is a senior fellow with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a senior research associate at the Religion & International Studies Institute at Cambridge University.

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