Artillery Row

Ah, persecuting people over speech is bad now?

Yesterday’s censors are today’s free speech champions

Hot emotions that followed the Hamas attack on Israel have had some unfortunate censorious consequences. Michael Eisen, editor of the journal eLife, has been fired for praising an Onion article with the headline “Dying Gazans Criticized For Not Using Last Words To Condemn Hamas”. A top agent has stepped down from her position on the board of the Creative Arts Agency after describing the Israeli response as “genocide”. Steve Bell has been let go from the Guardian for a cartoon some considered antisemitic. 

Now liberals and conservatives who have spent years beating the anti-“cancel culture” drum are under fire for their supposed hypocrisy. We are “the biggest hypocrites going,” insists Matt Zarb-Cousins, for example.

Well, I can’t speak for everyone but I don’t think I am. I’ve called Professor Eisen’s dismissal “an embarrassing decision … cowardly or hysterical”. I’ve written that Steve Bell didn’t deserve to be fired (for that cartoon, anyway — I would have fired him for being painfully unfunny but that’s a different matter). I’ve even defended Greta Thunberg after people claimed that her emotional support octopus was an antisemitic reference. 

I don’t think I am alone in this. A lot of other liberals and conservatives have defended Professor Eisen, for example, too. Granted, almost everybody has their limits. It should be remembered that as illegitimate as some of the censoriousness has been, it has emerged in the context of a lot of outright praise for terrorism. Those of us who have opposed cancel culture have in general opposed people being sacked for most kinds of speech rather than all kinds of speech, and I’m not going to run to an academic’s defence if they get fired for saying that the slaughter of civilians was the best birthday present they had received in years. 

But I still think the “hypocrites” talking point is overheated

But I still think the “hypocrites” talking point is overheated. Indeed, it’s unclear how we are supposed to look like the inconsistent ones here. What happened to the jokes about “freeze peach”? What happened to that snarky xkcd cartoon about the right to free speech not meaning anyone else has to “listen to your bullshit”? As Oliver Traldi writes, “I think the bigger hypocrites are the people who have attacked us for years and now expect us to expend a ton of energy and concern hiding them under our wings.” To the extent that we are “hypocrites” at all it is because we have failed to live up to the standards we have set for opposing censoriousness. But leftists never accepted those standards in the first place. 

Professor Eisen, for example, believed that the cultural and professional exclusion of James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule, and also a believer in racial differences in intelligence, should be so total that he lambasted a fellow scientist for toasting Watson on his birthday. Professor Eisen has a history of comments dismissing the very existence of cancel culture. I oppose his firing unreservedly. It is absurd and immoral. But the taste of schadenfreude lingers nonetheless.

McCarthyism is back,” leftists have been protesting. Few of them had as much as a glancingly sympathetic word for Noah Carl, James Damore, Andrew Sabisky, Brendan Eich, Maya Forstater, Roger Scruton, Jason Kilborn, Kate Clanchy, Almut Gadow, Kathleen Stock et cetera ad infinitum. Indeed, many of them were outright celebratory. 

Okay, again, we can discuss individual cases. Everyone has some point at which they think that speech becomes professionally or legally unacceptable — even if, in the latter case, it extends as far as incitement to violence — and we can and should debate whose are correct. But we have not faced even this level of openness and honesty. Instead, we have received a lot of derisive comments about how it is a consequence culture, not a cancel culture. How do those consequences taste?

Yes, a lot of pro-Israel commentators should settle down

Yes, a lot of pro-Israel commentators should settle down. You’ll get no disagreement from me there. Sometimes a toy octopus is just a toy octopus, just like the “okay” hand gesture was not necessarily a sign of white supremacism. A tube driver saying “Free Palestine” is unprofessional, and worthy of some amount of discipline, but it isn’t hate speech

Still, I’m not going to forget everything that happened before this conflict. A lot — though by no means all — of our leftists cousins are dismayed to be the target of attempts to get people fired rather than the architects. Such people are not going to change their minds. Their attitude is that their speech should be permitted, because it is good, and other people’s should be excluded, because it is bad. 

We should not stoop to that level — which, by the way, might even hurt us inasmuch as this rare instance of leftists affronting institutional power would affirm the standards of hypersensitive thought policing. But nor should we allow revisionist history to stand.

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