“Justice”, “Open Debate” and “cancel culture” – all foreshadowed by ancient history

In our increasingly intolerant society, it’s encouraging to see at least some writers, creative artists and educators take a stand against censorship and de-platforming in all its forms.  An open letter signed by well over a hundred notable figures seeks to alert us to that danger.  Here’s a lengthy excerpt.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted … censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. 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. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. 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. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.

There’s more at the link.

The list of signatories, from both the left and the right of the political aisle, is impressive, including Noam Chomsky, J. K. Rowling and Salman Rushdie.  Amusingly (and tellingly), some of the signatories did not know that others would be appearing, and demanded that their own names be withdrawn after seeing them in company with those whose views they oppose.  I daresay they’re afraid of being tarred with the same brush – or is that overly censorious of me?  On the other hand, as Hot Air observes, “What may be most noteworthy about this letter is how few people signed it compared to the number of people who are currently embracing BLM and identity politics.”

It occurs to me that we’re seeing, on both extremes of the political aisle but particularly among the progressive Left, a return to primitive superstition:  a belief that by saying and/or doing the right things, in the right sequence, and rejecting every alternative, things can be made to go the way they’re “supposed” to go.  I can only compare it to the attitude of Xerxes, emperor of Persia, during his great invasion of Greece in 480-479 BC.  As Herodotus describes events:

[7.33] Xerxes … made preparations to advance to Abydos, where the bridge across the Hellespont from Asia to Europe was lately finished. …

[7.34] … When, therefore, the channel had been bridged successfully, it happened that a great storm arising broke the whole work to pieces, and destroyed all that had been done.

[7.35] So when Xerxes heard of it he was full of wrath, and straightway gave orders that the Hellespont should receive three hundred lashes, and that a pair of fetters should be cast into it. Nay, I have even heard it said that he bade the branders take their irons and therewith brand the Hellespont. It is certain that he commanded those who scourged the waters to utter, as they lashed them, these barbarian and wicked words: “Thou bitter water, thy lord lays on thee this punishment because thou hast wronged him without a cause, having suffered no evil at his hands. Verily King Xerxes will cross thee, whether thou wilt or no. Well dost thou deserve that no man should honor thee with sacrifice; for thou art of a truth a treacherous and unsavory river.” While the sea was thus punished by his orders, he likewise commanded that the overseers of the work should lose their heads.

[7.36] Then they, whose business it was, executed the unpleasing task laid upon them; and other master-builders were set over the work …

Again, more at the link.

I imagine the fate of the bridge-builders’ predecessors must have concentrated wonderfully the minds of their successors!  Isn’t that just like today’s “cancel culture”?  “Look what happened to these others!  If you don’t want to share their fate, do what you’re supposed to do – or else!”

I therefore propose that every time we come across censoriousness and “cancel culture” at work, we refer to them as “flogging the Hellespont”.  They’ve got about as much chance of changing reality, after all!  At the very least we can have a good laugh at their pompous fatuity;  and who knows?  Others may be puzzled enough at the reference to look it up for themselves, and learn something.

Xerxes as literary anti-model.  Who’d have thunk it?

(“Grammar!  Spelling!  Vocabulary!  SEETHE!  Off with his keyboard!”)

31 comments

  1. Perhaps a noble gesture – but I would NOT have signed this letter. In the very first paragraph appears this line: “The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy.”

    Please. None of the actual attacks on free speech, those with real consequences other than “hurt feelz” have originated in the Oval Office. (Note – I do not include leaking classified information to the press as “free speech.”)

    1. Further, that says to me, “So let’s stifle Donald Trump, cuz he says things we don’t like!”

      Nope, I wouldn’t have signed it either. A noble gesture, covered in dung.

    2. Yup. If they hadn’t lost me with that slam against Donald Trump in the first paragraph, this bit in the second paragraph would have done the trick:

      “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right…”

      Sorry, but I don’t have a whole lot of interest in supporting people who carefully spell out at the beginning that they blame me for the problems their own movement has created.

      1. I wouldn’t sign it either.

        However, I do give the letter writers minor points in their favor.

        The “comments” about Trump and the “right wing” are likely “bows” to the kook-balls that they are attempting to reach.

        IE The people who really need to take this letter to heart. 😦

        1. But y’all are super moderate. Not radical right by any reasonable definition. 🙂

          Realizing that one should never concede anything to the hard left is only as far right as center-left.

    3. And of course the anti-Trump bit doesn’t placate the Woke cultists, who are just outraged that anybody, especially a celebrity, dares to disagree with them.

  2. Lashing the Hellespont…

    Xerxes had a slave army to keep in line, and a superstitious one. Sending men to flog the ocean seems insane, unless that was the sane thing to do to keep that army under his thumb. “The boss told us to flog the ocean because it pissed him off, imagine what he’ll do to -you-.

    In like vein, the CBC this week is running video of two skinny girls who went after some #BLM idiots in Winnipeg. Said idiots were harassing them as they drove by, lying down in the street and similar, and shouting “white vampires!” at the car. I expect there was some bottle throwing that didn’t get mentioned. Because there is always bottle throwing.

    So the girls went after them with hockey sticks. It’s Canada right? Proper chastisement for being lippy here is a couple of smacks upside the head, maybe a hearty punch in the face. Honor is served, they get back in the car and drive away.

    That’s normal. You start something in Winnipeg, you mess with somebody’s car, somebody will sort you out.

    CBC of course is calling for a nation wide manhunt to bring these two racists to justice. Full-length news segment on the horrifying racist attack on innocent protesters just trying to get along in horrible racist racist racist Canada. Did I mention racists?

    Two girls taking on four shit disturbers, one of whom was a guy about double their size. Total damage, bruises. National news. Uh huh.

    Otherwise known as lashing the Hellespont.

    Same reason too. Gotta keep the slaves in line. Don’t you dare go after those assholes throwing bottles at your car, redneck! Or there will be a nation wide manhunt for -you-.

    Long term, I expect this will work out about as well for the CBC as it did for Xerxes.

    1. Funny how those blocking the way with their ‘protests’ don’t consider that they are coercing other people into doing their will. The moment you impede another person on their lawful way, your protest is no longer peaceful, even if you haven’t yet thrown a rock.

      So more power to those who refused to be coerced and took back their lawful space. Hooray for hockey sticks!

      1. No, no, apparently that’s the whole point – you can’t convince people by reason and logic. They have to suffer before they’ll realize your Cause is Just.

        I can’t think of anything less likely to convince people about something being Just, but what do I know, I use logic – I must be part of the oppressors!

          1. *Facepalms* Yeah, I know, it still seems so… petty, malicious, and stupid. Which is Alinsky all over.

            It just seems so obvious to me that if you have to make someone miserable to agree with you, maybe you don’t have a good argument.

            I have to keep reminding myself that people don’t think logically unless they’re taught to do so – and our public schools have avoided that as much as possible.

          2. Making people miserable so they blame those in charge who failed to keep them comfy only works with limited media access, no cell phone cameras, and local governments belonging to the party meant to take the blame.

            Take the classic airport toilet disruption protest. Story as I heard it was that the toilets were vandalized such that all the toilets in the airport quit working at once right when people were deplaning and needing to go.

            But that was back when “authorities” would be blamed for not keeping everything running well and no one could *instantly* point out who was at fault for it all.

            “Look what you made me do!” doesn’t really work when everyone can see what you did.

      2. “Funny how those blocking the way with their ‘protests’ don’t consider that they are coercing other people into doing their will.”

        Yes, the Left generally has re-defined a few things recently.

        “Violence” is anything said by a non-Leftist. The spoken word, mind you.

        “Non-violent” is anything done by Leftists short of putting policemen in the hospital. So screaming into your face with a megaphone, blocking, that stupid pigeon-chest shoving thing they do, tripping, shoulder checking, throwing “milkshakes”, bending the bodywork on your car, all of that is perfectly okay.

        Therefore, under the new definition blocking traffic and screaming invective is “non-violent” whereas yelling back at them out the window is “violence” and they are justified in using force to protect themselves from it.

        Making the Hockey Stick Girls public enemy number one.

        Personally, I’m for de-funding the CBC’s multi-billion dollar budget and giving me a tax cut. Canada would be a better place without those media vampires.

        1. Gee, officer, I was just standing here at the corner, cleaning my fingernails with my knife, and this idiot came running around the corner and into my knife 27 times!

    2. The Vancouver police went looking for someone who left tire marks on a cross walk that had been painted with a rainbow.

      1. Yes, I saw that one. Another great example, the Horsemen chasing some random kid in a riced-out Honda Civic for doing a burnout on paint. Because that’s never happened before.

        Too bad the kid didn’t have a positraction differential, is all I can say. ~:D

  3. One can reasonably ask “What is going on?”

    It is not PC to question the right of a segment of academics to act as agents of ‘blacks’, and to use the authority derived from that representation to demand policy accommodations in response to past injustices. Well, also alleging current injustices, but the current injustices are murkier, even if a lot of people simply concede that point.

    Are there any white academics who are fairly acting as agents of whites in the academic debates? If there were, one would expect arguments like ‘one third of all black males are felons, maybe the original behavior is the problem’ to be raised more often in academic circles. Now, one third of all black males is 4% of males, so that number could be heavily inflated if white or mixed race felons find it convenient to identify as black. And Shaun King suggests that /I/ could identify as black, if I simply kept my hair cut really short.

    If white academics are such terrible agents for whites, why should a subset of black academics be effective agents for blacks?

    Furthermore, do African-American Studies programs promote white superiority? Studying one topic often prevents studying another. If the best black minds in academia are studying African-American studies, they are not studying more lucrative topics. This would result black academics performing worse than white academics. If the worst black minds in academia are studying African-American studies, then they would produce worse policy recommendations than simply leaving things up to black voters or white voters. We would expect worse policy outcomes from those jurisdictions which follow those recommendations. Which would probably correlate with liberal Democrat voter heavy jurisdictions, and potentially with black residents; thus a different chain of causes to create an appearance of white superiority.

    Ensuring that no one is naive enough to call the emperor naked does not garb the emperor.

  4. The letter might have done some actual good if it had been done 2 or 3 years ago. But now, the ‘cancel culture’ incubated on campus has moved out into the larger society, and its further propagation is in the hands of popular-culture figures…celebrities, Hollywood types, athletes…who don’t know who all these people are and don’t care what they think or say

    The virus has escaped the lab; Frankenstein’s monster is beyond the control of its creators…choose your own analogy.

    1. Sown the wind, will reap the whirlwind. 😛

      With the ‘laws’ of warfare being flagrantly violated, only reprisal can suffice to potentially restore a consensus of more limited warfare.

  5. The entire letter is infested with lines amounting to “Listen, we all know it’s those Evil, Stupid, INNATELY BADWRONGSINFUL Conservatives who are responsible for this! Liberals have only very, very recently started! And it’s only ever wrong when a liberal does it to another liberal, HMMPH!”

    Too many disclaimers like that. Too little actual open-mindedness. Too little actual diversity of thought. Too little, too late.

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