American liberty has always started with freedom of the mind. The Founders had the foresight to compose the First Amendment, which proffers unique protections to expressions emanating from unfettered thought. In this oh-so progressive era, freedom of speech is under assault, and the world’s most creative culture is in danger of falling victim to the so-called cancel culture. Fortunately, the rebellion has begun.
When rules governing moral rectitude are written and then rewritten before the ink dries, murmurings are bound to point out the unfairness of yesterday’s saint being scourged as today’s sinner. Icons of influence numbering beyond a hundred have raised the volume on the spreading displeasure by publishing a July 7 letter in Harper’s magazine upholding the tradition of open debate. Moreover, it rejects the trendy obsession with heaping shame on individuals who refuse to endorse the tweet of the day, and in its most virulent form, with attempting to ruin their lives.
A diverse assemblage of signatories, including such intellectuals as “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling, feminism pioneer Gloria Steinem and CNN host Fareed Zakaria, delivered a warning against the mounting pressure of ideological conformity upon the nation’s cultural institutions: “The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”
To be sure, included are obligatory arrows aimed at President Trump who, together with foreign “forces of illiberalism,” is tarred as a threat to democracy. A few signers, such as writers Jenny Boylan and Malcolm Gladwell, must have assumed the letter’s gratuitous attack on the president befitted an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” strategy that would save them from the angry countervailing mob. When they, too, were thrown into the cancellation cauldron, they wilted and apologized for daring to disagree.
The point of those brave enough to stand by their words is well-taken. Americans from coast to coast have suffered from a sort of values vertigo triggered by the coronavirus death in their communities. And then they awoke one day to find an unfamiliar race-based orthodoxy blaring across the media landscape and marking the boundaries of acceptable speech and thought.
Now, “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) is spoken as if an incantation meant to ward off an evil fate. More likely, failing to do so could subject an individual to a wellness-cancelling beatdown. And many a TV viewer has watched a video of a forlorn teenager sobbing that she hates her parents because they refuse to utter those three weighty words. Instead, she moans, they insist that “all lives matter.”
Such was a belief held by virtually all Americans of sound mind just a few months ago. It is now, apparently, an unspeakable obscenity. The former dean of nursing for the University of Massachusetts-Lowell found this out recently — the hard way. Dr. Leslie Neal-Boylan was apparently fired for writing an email that contained the words, “everyone’s life matters.” Woe to the helpless patient whose life is in the hands of a medical professional opposed to that statement.
CNN News anchor Don Lemon has added a new dimension to discussions of acceptable morality by claiming that “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t mean “Black lives matter.” When former NFL player Terry Crews contended during a recent interview that “all Black lives matter” as he lamented a spike in Black-on-Black murder, Mr. Lemon countered, “So the Black Lives Matter movement is about police brutality and injustice in that manner, not about what’s happening in Black neighborhoods.”
The flipside of the BLM movement is a campaign to expunge something called “white privilege.” Toward that goal, Seattle sponsored a mandatory training program in June for White employees titled “Interrupting Internalized Racial Superiority and Whiteness.” Among topics for instruction were “Practicing self-talk that affirms our complicity in racism. Racism is not our fault but we are responsible.” No longer is the aim a color-blind society, but to dehumanize a race.
Censoring expression is at odds with the spirit of the First Amendment. If a hundred free thinkers are bold enough to condemn the new cancel-culture orthodoxy, hundreds of millions can turn the tide and preserve the practice of respectful debate. It’s at the heart of “the land of the free and home of the brave.”