Most conflicts and disagreements about politics and the world boil down to boring, technical differences in tedious methodological details, if you care to dig far enough.
The great economic ideas of the 20th century led to vastly different policy prescriptions for governments to manage the economy because it held at its root different methodological assumptions about how consumers and voters behaved in markets and politics. Despite the veneer of “scientific objectivity” that is invoked by both the Left and the Right in raging contemporary public policy debates, measurements of poverty rates, carbon emissions, or income inequalities all eventually come down to different assumptions that researchers and academics subjectively pick in order to carry out their measurements.
The “cancel culture” phenomenon is no different. Define it one way, and wide swathes of people participating in it would be guilty. Define it slightly different, and you absolve whole political groups of any moral wrongdoing.
For instance, the political Right (and the moderate centre) generally defines cancel culture as the absence of persuasion, free speech and rational argumentation. The quintessential example of cancel culture then, is an outraged mob that eschews all of the above, and whose sole motive is to to punish and ostracise their victim through the methods of social coercion i.e., pressuring your employers to fire you and the wider public to ostracise you, blocking you from speaking publicly, etc.
If this definition was left unchallenged, much of the mainstream political Left would cede the higher moral ground to its opponents on the Right and stand guilty of engaging in illiberal methods, even if its pursuit of justice sought noble ends. Therefore, the Left has tended to insist on defining cancel culture as simply another form of “criticism” under the wider umbrella of speech. This way, Leftists mobilising on social media platforms to drown out alleged racists and bigots would amount to nothing more than the standard fare of “free speech” that has existed for all of history, and those on the Right are simply bickering about what has always been done before.
Who has it right?
In a March 19th op-ed published on Singapore’s premier blog for anti-PAP intelligentsia, Professor Cherian George of NTU fame penned an incisive commentary on the debate around cancel culture in Singapore. I have a few bones to pick with this piece (to come later), but it is valuable in the way it helps to unpack much of the disagreement around the definition of “cancel culture”.
George’s nutshell argument is this: Cancel culture is surely imported to the shores of Singapore by now, and an all-around threat to all who cherish the spirit of free inquiry and criticism (note that he does not deny that this a new phenomenon as some radical progressives do). But local detractors of cancel culture — typically of the pro-PAP conservative ilk — face an internal contradiction when they complain about the excesses of radical social justice activists to silence offensive speech, while simultaneously throwing the full weight of their support behind the Singapore state when it silences its political critics.
Therefore, if PAP supporters really claim to be against cancel culture, then it is hypocritical to advocate or turn a blind eye when the powers that be are deployed to silence — or cancel — Singaporeans.
George is right on the dot that there is little philosophical difference between the way PAP clamps down on their political opponents and what is popularly understood as “cancel culture” today. (The only reason state silencing does not invoke frequent, public outrage as “cancel culture” does today, is because the historical precedent of governments clamping down on dissidents has been the norm for all of human civilization.) In practice, the only thing that differentiates state silencing and cancel culture is its method. The former is performed through the formal legal apparatus of the state, while the latter through the informal organisation of an online mob with the aid of social media platforms.
However, what unites both state silencing and cancel culture is a philosophical strand of illiberalism that contravenes the value of free speech and inquiry. Quashing opposing views depends not on marshaling a stronger and cogent argument that is more persuasive, or defeating your opponent’s views, and changing the minds of spectators. It depends on forcibly silencing your opponents through physical and/or social coercion.
When a local online mob organised against veteran social media star Xiaxue in July 2020 to spam, harass and shame her clients into disassociation, the mob no longer was partaking in the spirit of critical culture and persuasion. Even if the mob was right that their victim was bigoted, the element of persuasion was sorely absent. They were no longer seeking to correct (you’re wrong, here’s why), but to punish and intimidate (shut up, or else). This retributive quest marks a departure from classical liberal values that characterise open discussion and an invitation to inquiry.
Similarly, when governments deploy the use of legislation to stamp out dissenting views, especially since states are monopolistic and wield disproportionate power, the coercive element and threat of losing one’s livelihood and reputation represents a marked difference from engaging political opponents in debate, argument and persuasion, bearing very little difference to “cancel culture”.
Is it “cancel culture” when governments do it?
One likely counterargument is to try and justify state silencing under the rubric of a democratic mandate. Cancel culture is unjustified when online netizens engage in it, because that is an unhinged mob “taking matters into their own hands”. But when governments do it in the name of “preserving national security and social unity”, that’s all well and proper under the proverbial Hobbesian social contract.
This argument is unconvincing for two reasons.
- Firstly, even if we can agree that state intervention is necessary for speech that poses perceptibly grave threats to human life (e.g. false alarms of fire, instigations of racial riots, terrorism, pseudo-scientific lies about the COVID-19 virus), it is hard to morally justify much of the existing silencing that the PAP government routinely does, such as the thwarting of teen climate “protestors”, the use of POFMA to rebut statistical claims by Opposition politicians, or the broader maintenance of a panoply of media laws (such as the Newspaper Printing & Presses Act, Broadcasting Act, Films Act, just to name a few) that enables the Singapore state’s censorship regime to emphasise and curtail topics into a curated Overton window.
- Secondly, trying to justify state action under the rationale of a “democratic mandate” only makes sense if the state is actually acting in accordance to the preferences of voters. Yet, public choice economics has long taught us that democratic politics is a terrible organisational mode of decision-making that fails to capture voter’s preferences. Why? Electoral outcomes and public policy rarely reflect voters’ actual preferences for the simple reason that most voters vote strategically, rather than rationally i.e., what their actual preferences reflect.
For example, in Singapore’s 2020 General Elections, even pro-PAP Singaporeans whom were satisfied with the government’s performance in the past five years and their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, were vocal about their strategy to vote against the incumbent so as to keep them on their toes and from growing too complacent. Workers’ Party Member of Parliament Jamus Lim, who soared from anonymity into a parliamentary seat famously argued in the televised debates his party’s intent to deny the incumbent a blank cheque.
Not only do voters vote strategically, they also vote for all types of misinformed reasons. A wealth of political science research (see Bryan Caplan, Ilya Somin and Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels) shows that not only are most voters politically uninformed, but that they also cast votes across bundles of policies where they lack the academic expertise to assess.
What public choice economics teaches us is that depending on how the rules of political elections are structured, voting results merely reflect an aggregate of strategic voting decisions, rather than specific rational preferences. Therefore, all we can say from electoral outcomes is that as a whole, 60% of Singaporean voters prefer the rule of the PAP over any other Opposition party. But it is patently illogical to go one step further and infer specific voter preferences from electoral outcomes (the PAP won the largest vote share, therefore most Singaporeans approve of X), as many political pundits and journalists are prone to do. To try and attribute everything the state does as emerging from “the will of the people” is lazy thinking and nonsensical analysis.
To translate all this into the context of Singapore, arguing that state silencing is justified “because the people voted the PAP in” is to claim that most voters would be in favour of such silencing, but it is not at all clear that would be the case. It is hardly a stretch of imagination to think that most PAP voters vote the way they do because the incumbent government continues to deliver on the “bread and butter” issues, and could care less about the so-called culture wars. Moreover, even in their support for the government, most PAP voters and loving Singaporeans themselves express scepticism and reluctance about the hard-handed ways of the state, a major sentiment that paved the way for ex-Prime-Minister Goh Chok Tong’s major consultative reforms of the 1990’s and 2000’s toward a more “consultative and compassionate government”.
In short, George is certainly right that state “cancel culture” is real, and although many local vocal critics of cancel culture do not perceive it the same way, it bears little difference from the popular form of canceling today.
Downplaying cancel culture
George’s thoughtful op-ed however, is not without its flaws. As is all-too-common of most progressive commentaries on the topic, it drastically downplays the regressive threat by attributing cancel culture to a “form of peaceful collective action” that still has “little material impact” in Singapore. Surely this cannot be true. There is nothing remotely “peaceful” about an online mob’s attempt to publicly shame, and coerce one into unemployment and isolated silence.
Similarly, journalist Kirsten Han, a consistent and vocal critic of the Singaporean establishment is guilty of the same charge elsewhere. In her article, she downplays this impending threat by subtly avoiding the more pertinent question of “Is cancel culture right/wrong?” while pivoting full-on into the somewhat irrelevant question of “Is cancel culture really that big of a deal in Singapore?”
Yet, it is the first question that matters, because that answer paves the way for politically and socially-conscious Singaporeans who are interested in having good-faith and constructive discussions to dissect and address what we may find good or bad about cancel culture.
Han and George may very well be right that cancel culture is not a big deal in Singapore (yet). But whether or not the impact of it is significant at present is besides the point. Given the abundance of regressive examples in the Western media, anyone who cares about liberal values (as I think free speech advocates like Han and George certainly do) should already be critical of this ascending movement and the inquisition mentality that accompanies the cavalier use of regressive tactics.
Progressive proponents of cancel culture tactics try to justify the aggressive blocking of hateful speech on the grounds that society’s most vulnerable be protected from suffering the hurt and grief of being offended. This is a dangerous and totalitarian idea, couched in feel-good rhetoric.
As the American libertarian Jonathan Rauch argues, such a no-offence society would also mean a no-knowledge society, where bigoted views are stomped into hiding to fester, rather than airing it out and morally combating it. That is not a real cure, but a temporary and short-sighted band-aid. Suppressing bigotry and hateful speech, in many ways, does more harm than good to minorities.
An honest conversation on cancel culture
I follow Singapore’s conversations on cancel culture closely and honest interlocutors like Bertha Henson who are willing to question their own political supporters and risk losing followers are an unfortunate rarity. Though cancel culture seems to be a war over the rules of what society considers permissible “speech”, most commentators I come across are not serious about defending free speech, and are more interested in defending their own political tribes and “owning” the other side.
If Singaporeans in the so-called culture wars were really serious about the liberal values of free speech, we would see more participants in these conversations do two things.
First, the pro-PAP crowd would question more vigorously the way the PAP’s media laws are applied, and how it runs counter to the climate of free speech that they claim to care about and which Leftist cancel culture threatens. They must reject the idea that “however the PAP persecutes speech is justified”, and that would mean taking a principled stance and speaking up against the state for their political opponents, even when it is politically inconvenient to do so.
Secondly, the Opposition crowd who bears the heaviest brunt of state censorship and purports to be for free speech, need to turn inward and be more critical of its radical wing that supports and perpetuate the regressive trend of cancel culture, where the practices of doxxing, deplatforming, mass reporting, petition-signing, and boycotting are utilised to coercively silence and shout down their targets, rather than for purposes of persuasion and argument.
Both sides would fundamentally need to eschew political hooliganism and revisit the actual principles they purport to defend and advocate. What is the likelihood of that? I’m not holding my breath.
Donovan Choy is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Adam Smith Center Singapore. He is co-author of the book Liberalism Unveiled: Forging a New Third Way in Singapore, a classical liberal analysis of Singapore’s policy discourse.