Cancel Culture and Freedom of Speech

By Dr. Keith Witt
January 23, 2024

Is there any newscaster, journalist, or politician you dislike enough that you dismiss anything they say?

You are cancelling this person.

Has someone ever made one statement you find so offensive or irritating that you’ve said, “They should resign or be fired!

You are cancelling this person.

Don’t get me wrong! There are lots of voices in the world that are offensive to me and many whom I believe consciously lie and distort facts. But no one is wrong all the time, and I believe we should always discuss or debate anything. When ideas, opinions, or irritating facts are too taboo to even discus, we lose freedom of speech—the first casualty of cancel culture.

There’s a reason that freedom of the press is the first and most important right given to us by the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson said he’d rather have a free press and no government than a government with no free press. Of course, if you’ve cancelled Thomas Jefferson because he owned slaves and cheated on his wife, you don’t have to seriously consider anything he’s said.

Cancel culture is violent.

Reducing someone’s whole profession or character to one comment or offensive action is objectifying another human being, and that generally diminishes us and leads towards violence. If you are offended, tell the other person and, if possible, work it out. If you don’t like someone’s ideas or data sets, look for what’s valid in their approach and engage in a dialectic searching for deeper truths.

Freedom of speech

The Cancelling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott is a brilliant dive into cancel culture and what to do about it. I enjoyed the book immensely as a wonderful exploration of the destructive Shadow of post-modernism.

Lukianoff coauthored The Coddling of the American Mind with Jonathan Haidt, and both are huge first amendment advocates.

Psychotherapy of course requires freedom of speech! This makes the whole dynamic of cancelling super-relevant to me, especially the underlying process of not having to engage with an idea, approach, or data set if you can dismiss (cancel) the speaker for any number of reasons. Lukianoff sees these dismissals coming from distorted thinking that supports not having to take what someone says seriously. Lukianoff calls such thinking, “The perfect rhetorical fortress” for progressives and, “The efficient rhetorical fortress” for conservatives. 

On the other hand…

This movement towards cancel culture is not entirely bad! Evolution is messy, and people need to occupy the post-modern worldview before they can break through into Integral consciousness. Post modernism wants fairness and care. When people self-righteously cancel someone, they believe they are protecting others from harm—a noble motivation. Unfortunately, curtailing free speech for fear of hurting someone’s feelings is a really bad idea in a democracy founded on freedom of speech.

My friend, Jeff Salzman and I consider all of this through the Integral lens in our most recent Shrink and Pundit episode Cancel Culture and Freedom of Speech. You can watch our conversation below, and I hope you enjoy it!

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