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Supreme Court of the United States

To Curb Self-Censorship, We Must Realize How Much We All Dislike It

October 22, 2020

By: Dylan Harrington, Media Communications Intern

All across America, in every sector of society, cancel culture is being felt by people from all walks of life.

According to a recent groundbreaking report by the Cato Institute, 62 percent of Americans admitted that the charged cultural climate in our country has kept them from expressing deeply-held opinions with peers, colleagues, and even family for fear that they will offend, cause discomfort, or worse. In fact, 32 percent of self-censoring Americans claim to do so out of fear of public retaliation that could harm or threaten the security of something they deeply value, like a job, a promotion, or a friendship.

Cancel Culture Is Surging on Both the Left and Right

Since the 2016 presidential election, self-censorship has only become more common. According to that same Cato study, four percent more Americans have begun censoring themselves since President Trump was elected. Investors’ Business Daily concluded that 20 percent of all voters—primarily moderates and independents—don’t want to outwardly express who they support for president in 2020.

The available statistics help explain why this fearful silence is trending.

According to the Cato study, 50 percent of people who identify as “strong liberals” would like to see business executives who are Trump donors fired from their jobs. And the opposite end of the spectrum is mirroring this hostility at levels that don’t lag far behind, as 36 percent of those who identify as “strong conservatives” support firing Biden donors in the same circumstance. Finally, Pew Research suggests that four-in-ten millennials take it a step further, supporting government penalties in certain contexts for individuals who make public statements that others may find offensive.

These opinions are not only growing in reach on both ends of the political spectrum, but also earning outsized attention because they are the loudest. This occurs for the same reason shark attacks generate more buzz than car accidents: Social and traditional media platforms thrive off of novelty, transgression, conflict, and sensationalism. This blend of factors culminates in giving cancel culture the appearance of near ubiquity, and it has a chilling effect on ordinary Americans, resigning them to silence.

Let’s Break Out of Our Prisons of Fearful Silence

Growing concerns about cancel culture aren’t irrational or unwarranted. In fact, they are far from irrational and are quite reasonable.

But no matter how reasonable, those fears are a bane to our national dialogue and prosperity. If we desire to tackle the many looming problems we face, we must first understand two things.

1. Americans of every stripe are censoring their speech at considerable rates.

According to the Cato study, self-censorship has risen 12 percent among those who identify as “strong liberals” in only three years—a faster climb than seen within any other group. But cancellation comes from all sides now: 50 percent of people who identify as “strong liberals” and 36 percent of those who identify as “strong conservatives” have indicated that they will support calls for cancellation. This trend shows that people on both sides of the ideological spectrum increasingly run the risk of being canceled by people who disagree with them.

2. In spite of the above, most Americans still value their freedom to speak over their right to be protected from offensive words.

According to a 2017 Rasmussen poll, 73 percent of Americans agree with renowned French author Voltaire that free speech is worth “defend[ing] to the death,” and only eight percent believe protecting people from being offended is more important than protecting people’s right to freely express themselves. Despite the recent wave of anti-speech sentiment, high statistical support for free speech remains.

There is strength in numbers, and the numbers that we need to curb cancel culture are definitely there. The cure, then, is more “coalitional awareness” among those who want to escape cancel culture’s secret, silent, fearful prison.

Stand with a Majority Coalition for Free Expression

The large majority of us dislike cancel culture’s drawbacks. Heightened awareness of this fact is key to halting this self-censorship contagion. To remove our muzzles, we must act like the majority we really are: People who agree that speech policing causes tangible harm. This majority is large enough to render more respect from its opponents.

Here’s the first step: sign the Philadelphia Statement. The Statement seeks to inspire a growing movement that condemns cancel culture on the basis that, in part:

  • It is antithetical to the kind of culture that we need for our “melting pot” to survive: a culture of civility and respect. Our liberty and our happiness depend upon the maintenance of a culture in which freedom and civility coexist—where people can disagree robustly, even fiercely, yet treat each other as human beings and fellow citizens, not mortal enemies.
  • Its ideas are arbitrary, dangerous, and prone to abuse by the powerful. Cancel culture seeks to shut down opposing viewpoints through social intimidation and, where unchecked, to ultimately impose its views through government censorship—which is antithetical to our country’s free speech ideals. It is also prone to abuse by the politically powerful in order to silence dissenting voices that challenge their power. That is why we should favor openness and allow ideas and beliefs the chance to be assessed on their own merits; and we should trust that bad ideas will be corrected through robust debate—not through censorship.

Celebrated figures such as Prof. Robert George of Princeton University, Ayaan Hirsi Ali of the Hoover Institution, and Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention have already signed the statement to halt the spread of self-censorship across our land.

Lend your voice to the formerly silent majority and stand up to cancel culture; we can only do this together.


Alliance Defending Freedom

Alliance Defending Freedom

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Alliance Defending Freedom advocates for your right to freely live out your faith

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