Many conservatives have commented on the new corporate speech regime in recent years. But few have paid attention to how liberals view it. Most are dimly aware that the regime is being enforced by younger leftists (who have received their instructions from university professors), and most are aware that older liberals are uncomfortable with the new speech codes. But few have examined what these older liberals actually think is taking place.
Financial Times features writer Henry Mance has done us a great service in laying out what he thinks of the new cancel culture. In some ways, his article “The new rules on what we can say in the office” represents the consensus view among older liberals. For that reason, it is worth examining in some detail.
Mance believes that we are having a debate over free speech like the one we had in the 1990s, and that the cure is yet more incantations about the “open society.” He rightly highlights the fact that employers have long held the right to fire their employees over expressing controversial opinions publicly. He also correctly points out that the notion of total free speech is an illusion, and that there are always a series of taboos in place in society at any given moment in time. In this regard, he is more reasonable than many of the free speech absolutists on the right. But beyond this, he does not seem to understand what is taking place in our societies.
Mance compares today’s corporate cancel culture to the case of British Council employee Angela Gibbons, who in 2016 commented on a Facebook photo of the three-year-old Prince George. She wrote: “White privilege. That cheeky grin is the (already locked-in) innate knowledge that he is Royal, rich, advantaged and will never know *any* difficulties or hardships in life.” Shortly thereafter she was fired from her position on the British Council.
Several things stand out about this case. First, Gibbons’s target was a child and she seemed to imbue a child’s smile with sinister motives. Many people found this repulsive and nasty and thought it reflected poorly on Gibbons’s character. Second, the child in question was a member of the royal family. The head of the royal family, being the head of state, was ultimately Gibbons’s employer. Third, and most important, the outrage at Gibbons was wholly organic; it did not come from some shady department within the British Council, it came from public backlash.
Mance does not seem to realize that there are major differences between Gibbons’s case and today’s cancellations. Notice the irony in his title: “The new rules on what we can say in the office.” He explicitly notes that there are rules, handed down by a rule maker—typically the Human Resources department. But there were no formal rules in Gibbons’s case, and the informal rules that led to her firing were wholly different in nature. These rules implicitly assumed that if you work for the British state you should not show disrespect toward the head of state; and you should certainly not make nasty comments about the head of state’s close relatives simply for being her relatives. This is already the case in the corporate sector: Only an idiot would use Facebook to attack the CEO’s grandchild for being his grandchild.
That no formal rules were needed in Gibbons’s case was reflective of the fact that most right-thinking people saw her actions as out of line. Polls show that 62 percent of the British public support the authority of the monarch; only 22 percent are actively opposed. This is not the case with the new speech regime, which imposes the ideology of a small minority on the majority and appears to feed on terror. Consider that recent polls have shown that 61 percent of Americans are scared to express their opinions at work. The only people that are largely unbothered about sharing their opinions are left-wing liberals, a relatively small percent of the population.
The difference between a totalitarian speech regime and an organic speech regime is that the former must impose its rules through institutions that the majority of people see as alien, while the latter relies on implicit consensus. This is why totalitarian speech regimes tend to metastasize and gradually erode interpersonal trust and trust in society itself, whereas organic speech regimes do not. Free speech absolutists on both the left and the right have long attacked organic speech regimes; as Plato noted long ago, such libertarian impulses never give rise to freedom but always generate a tyrannical backlash.
For Mance, the Gibbons incident is the same as what is going on in the corporations today. He just thinks that his “side is winning.” Yet this is obviously not what is going on. Liberals like Mance have been attempting for years to hollow out organic speech regimes and undermine sovereign authority. As they succeeded, leftist censors entered the fray and started to build totalitarian institutions throughout our society. Since the leftists hold many of the same cultural opinions as the liberals, the liberals went along for the ride. Now they have started getting nervous. But like Pandora’s Box, the revolution is not easily shut once opened. And so the liberal response is to pretend to themselves that one organic speech regime is being replaced with another.
Liberals ultimately operate on a plane of concepts where everything is equivalent, and the only authority is one that mediates between different individuals as individuals. When they are confronted by an authority figure with any positive content, they simply cannot understand it. They cannot distinguish between a benevolent authority figure and a malevolent one because they assume that authority itself is malevolent. Deep down, a well-formed liberal would have a hard time distinguishing between a De Gaulle, a Salazar, and a Mao. This informs how they view the new speech regime, as the latest in a long list of hated authority figures. They are wrong. This is something wholly different. And they will soon have to learn to make distinctions the hard way.
John William O'Sullivan writes from Dublin, Ireland.
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