On cancelling and sincerity

In a recent op-ed, “Should we cancel Aristotle?”, Agnes Callard suggests that “we philosophers,” and by extension, I presume, all members of civil society, “must countenance the possibility of radical disagreement.” But, she observes, what if your intellectual opponent espouses views you regard as not only wrong, but morally and intellectually repugnant? Callard distinguishes literal speech from messaging, where “literal speech employs systematically truth-directed methods of persuasion — argument and evidence” and “messaging exerts some kind of non-rational pressure on its recipient.” While we may be tempted to interpret statements of repugnant views as messaging, Callard says we should resist that temptation. To Callard, the recent dust up over “cancel culture” (see here and here and, well, pretty much the entire internet) is really a problem of “messaging culture,” where more and more speech is interpreted as messaging, and thus seen not worthy of rational engagement. That’s bad, presumably, insofar as we would aim for a rational ideal of rational civic discussion.

To start, I don’t think it’s an erosion of literal interpretation that Callard is worried about. Interpreting an utterance non-literally is to take its content to diverge from the literal meaning of the sentence uttered. By contrast, what Callard is interested in is how we interpret the force of an utterance — whether it is put forward as an assertion, insult, suggestion, and so on. Roughly, to assert is to propose that what you’ve said becomes commonly believed among your interlocutors on the basis of your having said it. But since our beliefs are constrained by our evidence, successful assertions must be backed by evidence and argument (even if only implicitly). As such, one’s interlocutor has a right to ask for the reasons why she should believe what she’s been told. Messaging, which may take many forms, is non-assertoric in this sense, and thus not backed by evidence and argument. Callard is worried that we are hurtling towards a state of discourse in which sincere, genuine, assertions are routinely misinterpreted as messagings, thus undermining the ability to make genuine assertions.

I agree that this would be a bad outcome. I also agree that, perhaps, internet discourse is already fast on its way towards “messaging culture” (for evidence of this, see Lili Loofbourow’s gloomy piece). However, I don’t think that this has anything to do with the issues that have been raised under the banner of “cancel culture.”

Take a list of grievances called out in the now-infamous Harper’s Letter:

  1. “…it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”
  2. “…institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.”
  3. “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.”
  4. “…the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.”

Why, exactly, are these things happening? Callard suggests it’s because all of a sudden a bunch of people (some shapeless Twitter mass?) are interpreting sincere speech to be non-assertions, and then responding in kind with calls to “de-platform” those speakers. That response does make sense when the speech is patently unserious, like when that one guy in your Facebook thread keeps calling people Communists. But, I take it, no one, or at least not many, thinks that this is what is going on with the speech of journalists and academics writing in venues like the New York Times or Philosophical Studies.

So what’s the issue then? The question is whose voices to amplify, to platform, and which positions are deserving of serious discussion. And the answer can’t be everyone’s (or even everyone who is serious) — that’s just not feasible. So, how do we choose? Here, I must confess that I have no idea! But the fact is, we are figuring this out, together, and the process is often as messy and unprincipled as we would expect given that we are solving an immensely complex coordinated action problem in real time.

The current free speech debate is a disagreement about which positions get to count as “fair game” and which don’t, and why — what’s within, and what’s beyond, the pale. Certain free speech purists will proclaim that the only way to decide these (second order) matters is to have an open discourse about them, which means including various first order issues as live (for the time being). After all, the thought goes, a well-functioning marketplace of ideas is the best way to sort out the truth. But against this, I have argued elsewhere that in some cases discursive intolerance (e.g., de-platforming, socially shaming certain kinds of speech) may in fact be the best way to bring about well-functioning marketplace of ideas, and thus defensible on free speech purist grounds.

There is room for disagreement here. When one begins to think seriously about how to work through these issues, it quickly becomes horrendously complicated and fraught. But this much seems clear: there is a real issue here, and it has nothing to do with misinterpreting sincere speech as messaging.

4 thoughts on “On cancelling and sincerity

  1. Great post! This is such an interesting topic. I am of the belief that what is more dangerous than either approach is our tendency toward collectivism. Our herd-mentalities often guide us above all else, and I think cancel culture is largely a result of our primitive desires for short-term, easy solutions to conflict. I agree that the issue is not to do with our misinterpretation of speech as messaging (there is a whole other argument to be made for why truly “sincere” speech cannot exist!), and I think our analysis of the issue ought best to lie in our psychology–the way in which we glom onto ideals matching our own and form herds of complacency in thought. Thanks for sharing this!


  2. Sure. But “socially shaming certain kinds of speech” is one thing; attacking livelihoods and relationships is another.


  3. Cancel culture vs holding people accountable. Is there a difference? Oppressive opinions and ideas that have a logical outcome of disenfranchising entire groups of people, spoken or unspoken wishes for genocide are not equivalent to those aiming for liberty and justice for all. The “free market of ideas” is working just like the free market in cancel culture.


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