Cancel culture is antidiscourse

When it comes to using employment as an instrument of enforcing political conformity, our friends on the left are suddenly partisans of the free market set to outdo Milton Friedman. “If having a busboy who once liked a Trump tweet working at Bob’s Café is bad for business, then too bad for the busboy. He doesn’t have a right to be free of consequences!” To continue the comparison above, Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell anticipated that line of argument back in the 1920s, when he wrote: “The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate, not because the Jews it admits are of bad character, but because they drive away the Gentiles.” It’s just business, you see — nothing personal. You don’t have a right to a place at Harvard or to a job at Bob’s Café. It does not take a great deal of intellectual sophistication to simultaneously understand that 1. Harvard and other private institutions should enjoy the right to admit whom they like according to their own criteria and that 2. such discretion can be used in evil ways.

What we have here is what is sometimes known as the “motte and bailey” stratagem. A motte-and-bailey castle consists of a relatively open courtyard (the bailey) and a fortified tower (the motte). The bailey is the desirable land, where life is lived and economic activity undertaken; the motte is a narrow and uncomfortable fortification that exists only because the bailey is difficult to defend from attack. The motte-and-bailey strategy of argument consists of intentionally conflating an unobjectionable position (the easily defended motte) with the indefensible one the speaker actually seeks to maintain (the bailey). The partisans of cancel culture desire to use the threat of job loss and other sanctions to bully Washington Post columnists and Starbucks baristas into social and political conformism and thereby effectively win arguments by preventing their ever taking place to begin with, but that is a difficult position to defend, and so they insist that they are merely advocates of speech — that they, indeed, are the true friends of free speech, and that those who criticize them as suffocating the culture of open communication are the real enemies of free speech.