In 1983, as Apple was about to debut its new Macintosh computer, the company hired English film director Ridley Scott to make what is now one of the most iconic ads in cultural history, “1984.” Taking a page out of George Orwell’s book, the Super Bowl ad was designed as an anti-conformity message, selling the idea that technology empowers individuality and individual thought can change the world.
We see a young woman run through a room full of human drones and heave a hammer through “Big Brother’s” screen as he says, “We have created for the first time in all history a garden of pure ideology, where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests of any contradictory true thoughts.” The world of Orwell’s “1984,” where free thought was replaced with group think, is beginning to feel a lot like the “cancel culture” that now permeates college campuses, social media, major newsrooms and corporate boardrooms, an increasingly alarming environment, driven by a self-defined infallible elite.
But it was another Englishman 125 years earlier, whose essay, “On Liberty,” delivered one of the most important rationales for individualism in what he saw as an inherent conflict between tyranny and liberty that continues today. John Stuart Mill argued that speech gives us the opportunity to listen, to debate and understand differing views and ideas. More, not less, speech leads to rationality and liberty.
In too many venues today, the purpose of political speech isn’t to question and debate ideas but rather to ensure ideological conformity dictated by a cancel culture elite that punishes those with “contradictory true thoughts” because those thoughts are seen as incompatible with what amounts to an absolute belief in the infallibility of their own dogma.
Bari Weiss, a former opinion page editor of The New York Times, is a case in point. She sent shock waves across the ideological spectrum when she issued a blistering indictment of the Times’ oppressive newsroom in her resignation letter.
Weiss hit the newspaper hard.
“Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions.”
Her advice for up-and-coming writers and editors?
“Rule One: Speak your mind at your own peril. Rule Two: Never risk commissioning a story that goes against the narrative. Rule Three: Never believe an editor or publisher who urges you to go against the grain. Eventually, the publisher will cave to the mob, the editor will get fired or reassigned, and you’ll be hung out to dry.”
Her letter raises larger issues. Does true free speech still exist? Or is true free speech only for those who comply with “woke” narratives? And what are the consequences for careers and advancement for those who don’t comply? These questions are being raised in media organizations, but also in workplaces and other settings across the country.
A chilling effect
Public opinion shows that cancel culture is having its intended effect and not just on conservatives. The latest July 16-18 survey by Winning the Issues shows that the concern and potential fear of consequences for not complying with certain narratives is not limited to conservatives, and may be much more broad-based than assumed.
A majority of the electorate (52 percent) identified with the statement that “true free speech and freedom of belief do not exist in this country today because of political correctness and potential consequences such as losing a job for not conforming to beliefs and narratives being promoted by the media, academia and elites.” Only 34 percent agreed that “free speech and freedom of belief exist in this country” and felt free to speak their minds and express their personal beliefs in the workplace and social settings.
Across party and ideology, the only ones who felt free to express their beliefs at work or in social situations were, not surprisingly, liberal Democrats, by a 51 percent to 38 percent margin.
In a 2019 Freedom Forum Institute survey on the First Amendment, almost half the respondents (46 percent) said they were willing to shut down a speaker at a public institution if the appearance would be “likely to offend.” Anyone who values liberty should be concerned that so many Americans are willing to let others restrict their right to free speech and assembly. When one side can effectively stifle the views of the other, that’s not democracy. It’s tyranny. And who gets to decide which thoughts are allowed and which are not? A student mob, the faculty Senate, the university president?
John Stuart Mill must be turning in his grave at the state of free speech today, as we devolve into a cancel culture that validates personal destruction as a means to invalidate an opposing view, rather than arguing the merits of one’s position. When historians criticized the empirical underpinnings of the 1619 Project, they weren’t arguing that Nikole Hannah-Jones didn’t have the right to express her opinion on the origins of the American Revolution. Their issue was with the accuracy of that opinion, and now its assertions are under scrutiny.
What’s alarming is how quickly the cancel culture has taken root throughout society with conservative thought its first casualty, but not likely its last — a fact not lost on a group of mostly liberal writers and academics who sent an open letter to Harper’s on “Justice and Open Debate.”
After the usual bashing of conservative opinion, the progressive activists wrote, “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” Elsewhere they wrote, “We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”
If “On Liberty” was a milestone in the intellectual journey toward freedom and enlightenment, the harsh tenor of today’s political discourse is setting us back on what has never been an easy road.
When a conservative student stays silent in a liberal professor’s classroom rather than risk a grade, we lose ground. When a Chuck Todd announces that those who disagree with his views on climate are no longer welcome on “Meet the Press,” we lose ground. When an opinion piece costs an editor his job for believing that airing opposing views is not only right but necessary to honest political debate, we are entering dangerous territory, the kind Mill and Orwell warned us about.
“To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.” — John Stuart Mill
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.