Cancel culture and the limits of free speech

I’m currently boycotting Twitter in support of the antisemitism protests. If you’re not up with the Twitters basically some grime artist called Wiley (how do these people become famous without me ever hearing of them) had a full-on rant about Jewish people and Twitter took way too long to take down his account. I know not tweeting for 48 hours is the armchairiest of armchair activism, but it’s something. Maybe.

But it’s been a bit of a relief not being on there. It seems like every day there’s some moral controversy about someone who’s worked with someone else when they were cancelled, or whether cancelling itself is a good idea or not. The argument is that everyone has a right to free speech. The opposing argument is that no-one can expect to say what they like without consequences. Actually, the challenges of working through these moral quagmires is part of the reason I’m on there. It’s a constant test of where the right course lies, and where I want to position myself ethically. And it’s not always as easy to spot where the line is as it was with Wiley (the grime guy not the publisher).

But positioning myself ethically all the time is tiring, so I’ve been trying to encapsulate what I described in a tweet as a moral quagmire into a few key aphorisms because that makes it way simpler for me. I thought I’d share them.

I’d been thinking about it a bit more because in the recent Buffy episode of Pedagodzilla there was much idolising of the work of Joss Whedon. We didn’t once address the revelations about his alleged history of being emotionally abusive towards women. I was fully expecting some flak for this, but it hasn’t yet emerged.

It’s also cropped up because of the letter by JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie etc condemning cancel culture. I also read this article which details the struggles to get a documentary made about Martina Navratilova made because of a couple of cancel culture incidents.

More personally for me, within the comics industry there’s been a kerfuffle because Dynamite Comics recently contributed to and then publicised a variant cover for a comic published by the leader of the Comicsgate movement. For anyone not keeping up Comicsgate is a group of people who oppose what they see as a political agenda forced onto comics by liberal progressives. So “forced diversity” such as non-white characters being introduced, and gay couples, within comics when their ethnicity or sexuality isn’t relevant to the plot. Their position is that they just want good storytelling without having homosexuality forced down their throat. In isolation, the argument about not sidelining storytelling with political agendas sounds like a reasonable one. Very few people like authors using their platform as an opportunity to push politics, because they’re exploiting their relationship with their audience to fulfil their own personal ends. Where the argument falls down, of course, is that not including non-white or LGBT characters is just as political a decision. CGers just don’t see that as a political choice in the same way that fish don’t see water – it’s the norm that they’re used to so that it seems neutral to them. Also being white and straight predominantly means they want to see themselves, and only themselves, reflected in what they read.

Also what CGers fail to recognise is that comics have always had a liberal progressive agenda. If you look at the characters in the MCU for example, 90% of the characters were created by second generation Jewish, Irish or Ukrainian immigrants. Hang on, I will check that. To be precise: 80% of the title characters (and all of the title characters if you exclude the movies that are set off-world) were created by offspring of Jewish, Irish or Ukrainian immigrants. Superheroes are the wish-fulfilment fantasies of the oppressed and disenfranchised who wanted something to stand against the inequities of this world. And have been read for 80 years by geeks who felt the same.

But the CGers feel they are the oppressed now. Oppressed by the influx of non-white, non-male, non-straight people into what they see as their world, not realising it never really was.

Aphorism 1: Just because you’re not getting your own way, doesn’t mean people are out to get you.

But on a larger scale this is how a lot of mainstream culture sees itself. We can no longer say what we think, is the complaint, without being cancelled, or losing our jobs. We’ve lost our freedom of speech.

And freedom of speech is a tricky one. What should be the limits on what you can say?

Well, actually we have a pretty useful law on how freedom of speech works. You can say what you like as long as it doesn’t affect someone else’s fundamental human rights. What’s also cool is that there is no protection because your opinion is a deeply held religious belief. For example, the legal response to someone who feels they can be homophobic because their religion says it’s evil is “nope, the law’s right, your religion’s wrong. STFU.” Which is the correct response.

Freedom of speech is a tricky one. I may have said that already. I remember recently on the twitters a famous TV mathematician was accusing Noam Chomsky of being antisemitic because he was defending someone’s right to publish a book denying the holocaust happened. This is a huge reach, The Chomsk’s statements are more those of being a hardcore free-speecher. Anything goes. I recognise the validity of the argument – if you stop people from saying stuff you don’t like, then what happens when someone stops you from saying stuff they don’t like?

Aphorism 2: Agreeing with someone’s right to say something doesn’t mean you agree with what they say.

This was a tricky one for me, because I was firmly committed to the idea of free speech. Some background: I was one of the Thatcher generation – in my first teaching job Section 28 came in, which meant I could get fired if I promoted homosexuality as a valid lifestyle. Of course, the kids like to get their teachers into trouble by asking them outright what they thought.  I said it was as valid as straight relationships. Because it is. No-one ever fired me. We also had Mary Whitehouse and her bunch of thugs who liked to ban things because they were fucked up evil people. No other reason. And we had Salman Rushdie and the Satanic Verses. More fucked up evil people. All points at which freedom of speech had to be defended at any cost.

But on the other hand. Holocaust denial. Wtf? How do you balance those two opposing principles?

My answer.  Actually: I don’t agree with free speech.

Aphorism 3: You do not automatically have a right to express an opinion.

Earning the right to express an opinion takes work. You have to check your facts. You have to work out your argument. It has to make sense. Spreading misinformation is a bad thing. I disagree with Chomsky on this one (but aphorism 2 – that doesn’t make him antisemitic). You shouldn’t publish or sell books on holocaust denial because it’s not true. The holocaust did happen. You want to prove it didn’t that’s going to take a lot of work – an impossible amount of work. Similarly, you don’t have a right to say that vaccines cause autism, the Earth is flat, evolution didn’t happen, God exists. None of those things are true. I figure the mythical stuff is ok as long as it’s presented as myth, under the “let’s pretend” category, as the reality or not of God stands outside proof or disproof (see the previous post about ontology). But either you ban all lies or you ban none. Ethics have to be consistently applied or they don’t really work as ethics.

But … what about the grey areas? Ones where people are wading in with facts and figures on both sides? Aren’t there some areas where we need to have a debate? Rowling’s fears of trans women invading women’s safe spaces seem to be genuinely felt and shared with other women, even though there’s no evidence for them being a threat. Should she be banned from saying those things? Well her fears are real, so probably not. But, claiming that transsexuality isn’t real so obviously lacks even a glinner of a connection with reality, then I would say you don’t have a right to express those claims. It’s not about as subjective a thing as feelings. It’s about facts.

That’s not to say you have to allow them to be said on social media or printed in newspapers. The letter about cancel culture complains about censorship. But refusing to print your books, or removing you from a newspaper column, because people don’t like what you said isn’t suppressing free speech. You can still write a blog, or self-publish, you know, like regular people do. If someone rounded up all your self-published books and burnt them, or put you in prison for writing a blog, or speaking the truth then that’s censorship. And that’s going on in many many parts of the world. All that’s happening to the Rowlings and their ilk is that they’re losing their privileged position of having a more magnified voice.

Aphorism 4: Burning books is censorship. Refusing to print them is just removing your privilege. Get a grip.

So, is it OK to cancel people? Yes. If someone is going to say stuff that’s untrue, they need to be stopped from saying it. If they’re going to say stuff that people don’t like, or may harm people’s feelings, those people have a right not to buy their stuff, or encourage others not to buy their stuff, or refuse to work with you any more. Although no-one has a right to threaten anyone for what they’ve said. That’s psychopathic.

But it’s a response that’s best used judiciously.

Going back to the ComicsGate scenario. I’ve read comics for 50 years. I’ve never read a huge amount at a time though, and my interest has waxed and waned over the years. At the moment, I read about 8 titles. 6 of those are Dynamite Comics because they are the ones that seem to best embody the pulp sf of REH and ERB. The other two are DC. And those are both by Tom King. So you can see the degree to which I admire the key players.

So when Dynamite publicised their support for the Comicsgate title it was a bit of a dilemma. In the conversations around it I found out some other gross things about other writers I admire. People were refusing to buy any more titles. I never cancelled my orders. The head of Dynamite then changed his mind, and his response was that he hadn’t realised there would be such a kick back against the move.

People didn’t believe him. He must have realised that people would be outraged.

Directly after that Tom King complained that DC had hired an artist – Jae Lee – to do one of the covers to his new title because he’d been working with the CGers. Jae Lee got lots of online harassment. King then apologised because he’d talked with Lee and discovered Lee didn’t even know what CG was. He’d been hired to do some work. He’d done it. That was it. No political allegiance implied. Or even known.

I get it. I get the mistake that Tom King (like I said, a writer whose work is keeping me into comics) made, and the anti-Dynamiters. I recognise the frisson of pleasure at outwoking someone else – I felt it when I told my elder stepson that Warren Ellis was cancelled. You feel like you’re one step ahead of others, you can claw a little bit of moral highground for a while, which might stand you at a bit of an advantage the next time you fuck up. But it’s an illusion of moral superiority.

Because here’s the reality:

Aphorism 5: Keeping up with who’s a dick and who isn’t is a niche hobby. Always bear that in mind when dealing with people who don’t know or don’t care.

It’s a lot of work keeping track. Some people don’t want to put the time or effort in. Some people avoid it because it’s too much of a distraction or too damaging to their mental health, or their enjoyment of their culture. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because someone’s reading Rowling they’re transphobic, or working with ComicsGate people they don’t care about online harassment of women, or waxing lyrical about Buffy that they don’t care about domestic abuse. Maybe they don’t know because they haven’t kept up. Maybe they do know and they continue to read the work because it has such a deep value to them they want to continue to connect to it. Maybe they’re working with them because they need the work, or the break, or because actually they have a personal connection to the person because there’s another side to them we don’t see. Although with most of these people it’s difficult to see there could be.

I personally would probably not start to read something by someone if I knew they were a fascist, or a racist, or an abuser, or transphobic. But if I’ve already engaged with their work, and learnt to love it before finding that out, then for me it’s too late to give it up. So I’ll probably not start on the Harry Potter stuff, or Buffy, because there’s other TV shows and books I can read instead. But I’m not going to stop the Cthulhu Mythos bingeing, or listening to Magma, or re-reading Astonishing X-Men, because I only became aware of the dodginess of their creators after I got into them. I’ll certainly not be part of the guilt-by-association lobby. If Julie Comer wants to have a relationship with a right-wing asshole (and she might not be anyway) that’s her choice. If Jae Lee does some work for a sexist abusive person, but that work itself isn’t sexist or abusive, then that’s ok too.

Aphorism 6: Judge people by what they do, not what the people they hang out with, or work with, or sleep with, do.

Finally, the element that seems most egregious in the various things I’ve read is the treatment of Navratilova for being pilloried and unfairly accused of transphobia, simply for questioning the position of trans women in women’s sports. Someone who’s stood up for trans rights being wrongly labelled for one statement. Social media isn’t a great platform for nuanced arguments. Even the most intelligent of people can sound like a right Dawk when they’ve cut their arguments down to 280 characters. I’d be uncomfortable discussing anything like this with fewer than 2617 words. Yet one poorly phrased sentence, or one question, and there’s a contingent of people who will let loose. And like I said, I get it, because finding someone to despise can feel good, and dumping on them is enjoyable. This is predominantly why people bully others, which seems to get missed out of when discussing how to combat bullying in schools. Bullies bully because they enjoy it. The point at which something makes you feel good is the point at which you need to question your motives.

Aphorism 7: Political positions are represented by a lifetime of work. Not 280 characters.

Oh and that previous sentence should be there too.

Aphorism 8: The point at which something makes you feel good is the point at which you need to question your motives.


For now.


Ontology, Epistemology, Positivism, Interpretivism and Belief

Ontology epistemology positivism interpretivism

Ontology – degrees of reality

Ontology is the discussion around what is real or not real – and also – if something is real how do we classify it? So we could do the Father Ted thing of having a list on the wall of real and not real and adding to them, but there’s a seven-point scale Richard Dawkins came up with on where to put ideas about how real things are. He meant it specifically for talking about god, because he seems to be particularly obsessed with that, but I think it helps to apply it to anything.

So on this scale we have at 1 stuff that 100% absolutely exists.

The problem is that we can’t know with 100% confidence that anything exists. I don’t know that you exist, or this table exists, or even I exist. It could just be data that’s being pumped into my senses, and my thoughts might actually just be thoughts that make me think I’m alive, like Cat says to Rimmer in Red Dwarf 13. And at the other end we can’t know for 100% that something doesn’t exist. So we don’t have any evidence for unicorns, god, the tooth fairy, star wars existing. But absence of proof isn’t proof of absence. There might actually be a god, He might even be exactly as one of the various religions describes Him. Or Her. Or Star Wars could really have happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

So although we have a seven point scale, really we’re just looking at a scale that runs from 6 to 2. Like a grading system, it’s out of 100 but in reality we only give marks between 20 and 90.

So when we say something is real, we’re really looking at stuff around the 2 mark. “True” is just a shorthand for “this is the explanation that best fits our observations for the time being”. Everything that we say is “true” is really just an operating assumption. So you, me, the Big Bang, dark matter, the standard model, they’re all around the 2 mark, some maybe slightly higher, some maybe slightly lower. But we can’t get through the day constantly bearing in mind things might not exist. I’m going to assume you exist and get on with things, although occasionally it’s worth remembering what we’re experiencing is only a 2 not a 1. Same at the other end. We don’t have to worry all the time about what god might think, or try and use the force to open doors. Chances are those things aren’t real, so it’d be wrong to rely on them.

Right in the middle at 4 we have the things that ontologically we’re totally unsure about. It’s completely 50/50. Then just above that, we have the stuff that’s around 3. So maybe we’re leaning towards it being true, but there’s still some doubt. So, superstring theory for example. Multiple universes. Then on the other side there are all the things at 5, so unlikely but the jury’s still out. Like, I don’t know, the Illuminati or something.

Ontology – categorising reality

If we’re looking for an example of an ontological argument about how to categorise reality a familiar example would be taxonomies of living things. When people first started categorising living things they went by what they looked like, so feathers make you one type of thing, scales make you another. It’s a system based on morphology. As scientists have mapped more and more genomes though, they can see how closely related things are to other things, they can work out at what point in evolution they diverged. Everything that’s descended from a particular organism is called a clade. If you look at cladistics rather than morphology, birds and crocodiles are more closely related to each other than crocodiles are to lizards, so grouping the crocodiles and lizards together, but excluding birds makes no sense. It’s paraphyletic. So now birds are classified as a type of reptile. It’s also why there’s no such thing as a fish. You can’t group them all together sensibly in a way that includes all “fish” but excludes all “non-fish”. Cladistically. Obviously if you’re adopting the old system of looking at what they look like, then you can.

Ontologicial questions about how to organise things then runs throughout our perception of reality, it can actually alter how we view reality. “This is part of this, but not part of that” can sometimes be absolutely crucial. Linnaeus may have been really keen on labelling plants and opisthokonts (ie fungi and animals) and that might have helped us understand the natural world, but he was well shite when it came to categorising humans, for example. He also obliterated indigenous people’s names for things when he did so, which may have changed how we perceive Western academia’s relationship to them.

But perception is more the domain of the next bit.

Epistemology – positivism

What gets you closer to the truth (or not) is a question of epistemology. So ontology is what’s real or not, epistemology is the approach by which we determine what’s real or not. There’s basically three types of epistemology. Finding things out by measuring things, finding things out by interpreting things, and making things up. So that’s positivism, interpretivism and belief.

So first off positivism. The positivist approach is to just look at things you can measure with instruments. The idea is that this is objectively getting at the truth by looking at numbers on dials, or scans, or whatever, what’s called sometimes instrumental reality. Positivism is the cornerstone of the scientific method, which works like this:

  1. you have these theories about how the world works.
  2. You test them with your experiments.
  3. The results match your theory so you think you’ve got to the truth.
  4. Then you carry on doing experiments until one of them doesn’t match the theory, so you need a better theory.
  5. When you’ve come up with a few theories you then do more experiments to confirm which one is the best. That becomes the new truth.
  6. And then you start the whole cycle again.

People are pretty bullish about positivism because it’s been really effective at working out what’s actually going on.

There are problems with the approach though. One is that people sometimes forget nothing scores above a 2. They mistake their current best guess for what’s actually happening. It’s the best way to get closest to the truth, true. But you never quite get there. Like Zeno’s arrow.

The other problem is that sometimes the experiments give the wrong results. So for instance you fire neutrinos through the Earth and find out they’re travelling faster than light, but then later figure out that there’s a loose cable that has thrown off your timing. Or maybe it’s your analysis that’s wrong, like the dead fish experiment in neuroscience. If you do a brain scan you can see effects that look like there’s a causal relationship between showing someone pictures and the reaction in the brain, but you also get a reaction if you plug in a dead salmon at the other end. You need to account for random fluctuations.

Then there’s a lot of cultural bias. So for example, if you’re testing a theory, the one that gets the most funding is the one propounded by the most eminent of scientists, and they’re often old white guys. If there’s other theories, they can get held back for a while. Usually until all of that generation of old white guys are dead. You can see the social effects on the progress of science.

The thing is though, that the process is self-correcting for social bias. If a theory doesn’t work, you’ll have lots of people doing experiments in all parts of the world, and coming up with theories and eventually one will look better than the rest to most people, and that’s the one that generally gets adopted. You get a consensus irrespective of culture. At the boundaries there’s contention, but in the main body of science there isn’t – the main body is more or less everything that happens after the first 10-35 seconds after the big bang up to now, everything bigger than a quark, anything smaller than the observable universe. This main core of science is the same for everyone, no matter where they are and has been contributed to and tested by cultures on every continent on the planet. The cultural bias doesn’t change the overall direction, it just slows it down.

Epistemology – interpretivism

The other approach is interpretivism. Interpretivism is more subjective, in that it’s interpreting what’s going on. You might not have anything you can actually measure with an instrument, so you need to ask a lot of people a lot of questions. This is a bit more systematic than a bunch of anecdotes, in that the idea is that you ask a large representative sample of people, and aren’t selective about which responses you look at. The criticism is that it’s still just a collection of opinions and it’s not reliable enough. As Roosta would say, you can’t scratch a window with it. Interpretivists would argue that positivism is so culturally biased that everything is interpretivist, which is just fashionable nonsense. Obviously if thousands of people from all over the world do an experiment and get the same result, which confirms the generally accepted theory, that’s not open to interpretation. To claim it is just seems like an inferiority complex on behalf of the interpretivists. Where the real strength of interpretivism is, is that it’s producing something like a version of the truth that can be useful where positivism couldn’t get you anything. Anything to do with how people behave socially has to be interpretivist, because people are way, way more complicated than cosmology. You can’t put them in a laboratory and see how they perform in the real world, because once they’re in a lab they’re not in the real world any more. So all you can get is a mass of opinions to interpret. But that’s OK because it’s better than the alternative. Which is nothing.

And there’s a huge number of interpretivist approaches, feminist, postcolonialist, Marxist, basically anything with an ist on the end. They’re all a valid way of approaching the world to some extent, as long as they can accommodate all the data observed and are precise about what their limits are. The mistake is calling them theories. That’s a positivist word. There’s nothing predictive about interpretivist approaches. You can’t say “in this and this situation with people, this will happen”. It’s too complex. And vague. What you’ve actually got with interpretivist approaches are different narratives, or lenses, through which to describe what’s going on. As Jitse said in a previous episode of Pedagodzilla, all models are wrong, some models are useful. The important thing is not can we prove it, but is it reproducible enough, and generalisable enough, and explain enough of the observations to be useful?

Epistemology – belief

Finally, we have making things up as an approach. There’s a lot of in-built elements to the way minds work that mean we tend to look for patterns that aren’t there – which is called apophenia. We recognise simple messages rather than complex ones. When we make connections in our heads that make particular sense to us we get a dopamine hit. That leads to aberrant salience, things get connected that shouldn’t get connected. So for example, there’s a lot of intricate stuff about crystal healing and resonance, which makes no sense physically, but sounds good as a story. There’s no scientific rationale behind it at all, but it works as a placebo because it sounds plausible to people who skipped physics in school.

One thing positivism and interpretivism are bad at is creating the sort of stories that have emotional truth for people. You can’t all get together and have a good time based on the standard model, or the general theory of relativity. The myths that we create hold communities together. They bring people comfort. So if you’ve moved to a new place and you’re wondering what church to join, for example, someone coming along and saying well you have no evidence for your faith so why bother? is completely the wrong epistemology. We talked about Buffy as if the show was real in a previous episode.  It would be completely out of place to continually remind everyone it’s not real while we’re doing that. I’ve used the phrase “science needs to stay up its own end” before, which I don’t think people would get unless they grew up on a working-class housing estate in the 60s. Basically, those spaces could be very territorial. You learnt where your patch was, and if you strayed into someone else’s you get told to stay up your own end. Too many epistemologies try and muscle in on someone else’s patch. Lots of epistemologies are dying out because of competition from other worldviews because of just this sort of intrusion – it’s called epistemicide. That seems like a bad idea because we’re losing other ways of perceiving the world. Colonialists need to stay up their own end.

But … the problem also works the other way when you start using your beliefs to make decisions about real things. So if you’re looking for a response to covid-19 you need to use a positivist approach and do clinical trials to find out what will work, and what won’t, you don’t just tell people you’re protected by the blood of Jesus. That’s a category error. Or you’re deciding whether gay people should be able to adopt. You can’t use a positivist epistemology (because there’s no instrument that can measure that) or a belief-based one (because it’s way too important to base it on something someone made up). You need to look in between at interpretivist approaches and gather data about what people’s experiences are about children of gay parents. And as it turns out, there’s no major difference. To insist on something being your way because you read it in a book somewhere is simply bizarre. I don’t need to do a routine on that because Patton Oswalt has already done that.

Critical realism and ontological hygiene

So what’s the proper epistemological approach? Well one of the things I learnt from physics is where you’ve got a binary choice, the answer is nearly always both are right. So is light a wave or a particle? It’s both. Same’s true here. I’m really suspicious of people who say “I’m a positivist” or “I’m an interpretivist”. Neither are appropriate all the time. There’s an epistemological approach called pragmatism, or realism, sometimes critical realism. It’s about adopting the correct epistemology for the domain that you’re looking at. So you have a physical science or chemistry or medicine, you have to take a positivist approach, you measure things and look at the numbers, and that gives you something ontologically that scores a 2 or maybe a 3 (or is disproved down to a 6). Or you’re looking at how people think or behave. You need interpretivism, because there’s no laws that predict how people behave, and that’s only going to be a 3 at best. That’s not as good as a 2, but it doesn’t have to be to be useful. Just let it go. At the other end you have all the stuff that has no evidence for it at all. But that’s ok too, science can stay up its own end. And as anything you can make up is ontologically a 6 and never a 7 that gives you a lot of wriggle room. “You know it’s possible God, or Severus Snape, or the Dalai Lama does exist, and believing that makes me feel happy, so I’m going to believe it.” The problem is when you start misapplying the made-up stuff to make decision about real things. Even then, I guess as long as your actions don’t harm someone else, feel free. But if someone else is going to be affected, you need enough evidence to score a 2 or a 3 on the ontological scale, or you’re being a complete dick.

It’s all about being aware of  where things are on the ontological spectrum and using them appropriately – what’s called ontological hygiene. Maintaining that ontological hygiene, and being able to switch between the different epistemologies, is where liminality comes in, but that’s another episode.

Edited 16.12.21 when writing the companion piece in the Pedagodzilla book I realised I’d switched Dawkins’s scale round.