Society is always changing, and so are ideas.
One constant, however, is intolerance for different ideas. That intolerance has left its mark, often in blood, on human history. The current iteration of intolerance, though not quite bloody, is “cancel culture.” This article seeks to demonstrate why it is necessary to debate and tolerate opposing viewpoints without canceling them.
Cancel culture and the path to censorship
The rejection of an individual for having ideas contrary to the mainstream is not a new phenomenon. However, the movement known as “cancel culture” has emerged in recent years, characterized mainly by the anonymity of social media.
Initially, it was “justified” as a way to draw attention to causes such as social justice and environmental preservation, serving as a means to amplify the voices of oppressed groups and compel political action from brands or public figures.
Its operation typically follows a pattern: a social media user witnesses something they consider wrong, records it, and posts it on their account, being careful to tag the employer of the accused and public authorities or other digital influencers who can amplify the message. Within hours, offending posts can be shared thousands of times.
The speed of sharing sometimes prevents the person under attack from defending themselves, and unlike typical internet trolling — which involves coordinated insults and is common in disputes among social media users — cancel culture is an attack on reputation, which threatens the target’s current and future employment and livelihood.
But the problem actually resides less in the direct harm to those canceled, and more in the censorship and culture this intolerance of other ideas could wreak.
Because, despite its justification as protection for oppressed groups, in practice, cancel culture involves imposing ideas, at times without theoretical foundation, aiming to establish what is “right” with callous disregard toward any contradicting argument.
The foundation is not truly in the pursuit of equality, but instead something far more sinister: power.
Tolerance and debate: possible solutions to the clash of ideas
There are various definitions of “tolerance,” but here it will be treated as recognizing the rights of others to express opinions or engage in behaviors different from one’s own, or even diametrically opposed to them.
This is the starting point for dealing with divergent viewpoints. It is not a gift but a skill that can and should be practiced in order to coexist with others.
Voltaire², in his Philosophical Dictionary (1764), states that “We are all hardened in weaknesses and errors; let us forgive each other our follies; it is the first law of nature.”
With this, the author expresses that it is human nature to make mistakes, and therefore, mutual understanding among divergent parties is necessary for peaceful coexistence.
His definition provides examples of intolerance related to religion, including this comical but prophetic observation: “If you have two religions, they will cut each other’s throats; if you have thirty, they will live in peace.”
Likewise, it is not difficult to see how two and only two opposing ideas will repel each other more than many diverse and multiple ideas in the same space. This is because the open space for debate of ideas promotes tolerance, and indeed a multitude of opinions, possibly even encouraging research and studies on the subject at hand.
An environment without those features is bound to descend into absolutism, with no ground between “right” and “wrong.”
To return to Voltaire, his work Treatise on Tolerance (1763) makes tolerance paramount by invoking the Golden Rule: “The great principle […] is this, in every land: ‘Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself.’ “
That rule remains relevant, as the refusal to engage in debate has intensified in recent times under the pretext of protecting those who need a voice and “canceling” those who abuse theirs.
However, it is essential to understand that voices exist at all precisely because of the plurality of opinions, not the imposition of dogma. The way to deal with ideas without canceling or censoring is through tolerance.
The imposition of ideals and the dictatorship of the supposed “righteous” have led to violence throughout human history, but have not resolved differences.
Saint Athanasius³ wrote, “It is an execrable heresy to want to capture, through blows, those we could not capture through reason.” An idea, when coherent and plausible, does not need to be compelled.
Nor does an idea, when reprehensible, need to be canceled. It is through debate that tolerance emerges to guide the exchange of thoughts so that individuals contribute knowledge and perspectives without merely seeking to indoctrinate others.
Free speech will be an important theme at Students For Liberty’s upcoming LibertyCon International.
There, Jaiden Rodriguez, a middle schooler and free speech advocate who stood up to school administrators for his First Amendment right to have a Gadsden flag patch on his backpack, will join Connor Boyack, President of the Libertas Institute and author of the Tuttle Twins book series, to discuss the current state of free speech in America’s schools.
Students For Liberty’s flagship annual event, LibertyCon International will be held in Washington, D.C., on February 2-4, 2024. It promises to be the place for engaging with leading experts and connecting with others who share a dedication to advancing pro-liberty ideas and creating a freer future.
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¹ Friedrich Hayek was one of the leading figures of the Austrian School of Economics, known for promoting the principles of free-market capitalism. He wrote over 130 articles and 25 books on subjects related to economics, psychology, philosophy, politics, anthropology, science, and history.
² François-Marie Arouet, better known by the pseudonym Voltaire, was one of the most important philosophers of the Enlightenment. A defender of individual freedoms and tolerance, he was a major inspiration for the French Revolution. For Voltaire, people should be guaranteed the right to freedom of expression, religious freedom, and political freedom. He was persecuted by the Catholic Church and the French crown for his views.
³ Athanasius, appointed Bishop of Alexandria in 328, was the principal and unwavering defender of the doctrine passed down by the Apostles. Persecuted, he was sent into exile four times.
This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.