Canceled by the Cancel Culture

COMMENTARY: Witness a recent incident of liberality and civil conversation undermined by mob rule.

(photo: Lightspring/Shutterstock)

Harper’s magazine has published a letter July 7 in defense of free speech signed by more than 150 public intellectuals, which has already fallen victim to the kind of virtual mob-rule that it decries. Ironically, a number of signatories have asked that their names be removed after either being attacked for having signed or learning the names of other, presumably intolerable, signatories.

The letter itself is a statement of classical liberalism in its pure form: It holds that “free exchange of information and ideas” is “the lifeblood of liberal society,” and worries about a weakening of “norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”

Much of the reaction to the letter, like many of the threats that motivated its authors, has occurred on social media, especially Twitter. A “trans” contributor to the progressive website Vox feels “less safe” because a colleague there signed the letter, which was also signed by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who has — again, intolerably — defended the natural basis of sexual difference. Others, anxious to display their higher level of ideological consciousness, have dismissed the letter as an irrelevant gesture by resentful and privileged intellectuals.

Thus we have come full circle. The revolution of social media, intended to empower more people and democratize public discourse, increasingly resembles a schoolyard populated by gangs shaking down weaker students for their lunch money or cowing them into self-hatred. “Liberalism” looks a lot less liberal. Can it maintain itself under such circumstances?

Among the terms that St. Thomas Aquinas used to describe human relationships were communicatio and conversatio. The former is rooted in the word for “common” or “shared.” To “communicate” is to share, and social life is literally a life of shared institutions, actions, and ideas.

Aristotle, the main source of Aquinas’ political ideas, held that the political community was a community of reason, constituted literally by speech (logos) about the good and bad, advantageous and disadvantageous, just and unjust, which is to say that political life is a life of deliberation and argument. John Courtney Murray (1904-1967), the great Jesuit theologian, made much of this in his 1960 book, We Hold These Truths, identifying political life as “civil conversation” and civilization itself as constituted by argument and dialogue. 

We Hold These Truths landed Murray — amazingly, by today’s standards — on the cover of Time magazine as a Catholic defender of America’s liberal institutions. This may strike some as odd, since at the time the Roman Catholic Church still maintained an “Index of Forbidden Books.” While the Index was abolished in 1966, it is still the case that controversies periodically erupt over invitations and the revocation of invitations to speak by those who argue for positions at odds with the faith in Catholic institutions, especially colleges and universities.

Is it possible to support this kind of “censorship” and yet oppose the “cancel culture” to which the Harper’s letter is a response?

A key theme of Murray’s book was his treatment of pluralism in the United States, which makes the civil conversation complicated in some important ways. Deliberation is most smooth and successful when it proceeds from shared premises, and under the conditions of pluralism, such premises are fewer than one would like.

But within the various faith traditions that make up the American cultural mosaic, some do have strong practices and institutions of deliberation and argument based on their own premises, none more that the Catholic Church. Our creeds and doctrines are the premises for theological arguments, carried out often with great vigor, a heritage of the medieval universities and their practice of formal disputation.

But what happens when there are no such shared premises, when the premises themselves are the subject of deep disagreement among disparate subcultures?

Certainly, the United States does have some shared premises, most importantly the provisions of our Constitution and laws, and at least some of the ideals behind them, most importantly those of the Declaration of Independence, rooted explicitly in the natural law.

The natural law to which Jefferson appealed, was, of course, not exactly the one explained by Aquinas, but there was common ground and, in some ways, the Declaration’s pithy expression of natural rights was needed. The Declaration, understood in continuity with pre-modern notions of the natural law, played a crucial role in the civil rights movement, and continues to play that role in the pro-life movement.

America’s distinctive form of political liberalism is constituted by a vigorous culture of political argument among individuals and groups with a mixture of shared and differing premises. It is complicated, messy, and often frustrating. The Church is and must be free to constitute itself as a community united in one faith and to act on and witness to that faith. Catholics are also citizens, and, therefore, along with adherents of other traditions, party to the conversatio that is American public life.

It is essential to the mission of the Church that its doctrines and practices be authentic, true to revelation and sacred Tradition, and there are norms within the Church to ensure this authenticity by structuring its own internal debates. Catholics need to know that and where they can receive sound teaching. But the United States is not the Church and, as a liberal political society, it is constituted in a different way.

Meanwhile, the vulgar forces making headlines today have adopted practices of intimidation and intolerance at odds with the civil conversation of American life. What these forces don’t seem to understand is that they are now at odds with themselves. They often attack views as intolerant and opposed to pluralism, but their simultaneous drive towards conformity destroys pluralism. What begins in the name of liberation ends in political servility. There is nothing “liberal” about this.

Part of the problem is that public argument itself often falls well short of anything like deliberation on the basis of even the limited common premises of our political tradition. If the first principles of one’s argument are simply revelations about oneself or one’s identity, then it is difficult to see how they could lead to any kind of agreement. But that is often what they are. Here we are arguing (to the extent that we are) about our different selves rather than about our common future.

There is also something unjust about the way the public bullying and shaming takes place. Clearly, there are some views that are intolerable, even in the civic conversation. Neo-Nazis exist in the U.S., and they are free to say what they want, but most people ignore them, and their views are grounds for de facto expulsion from normal political life. This is as it should be. Those views are simply not compatible with our constitutional traditions or even the relatively thin public morality that we have. But the contemporary ideological bullies condemned by the Harper’s letter often aim to expel people for views that were perfectly acceptable a year or two ago, even if the offending opinions have been repudiated. They exercise a kind of retroactive universal jurisdiction over opinion that would never be allowed over actions in a legal system, a kind of ex post facto punishment even of the properly penitent.

The best traditions of political liberalism appeal to its roots in the virtue of liberality, which can also be called generosity. It is a virtue that has always been appreciated by important Catholic thinkers like Murray or the great French philosopher Jacques Maritain. Its witness now constitutes an important contribution to conversatio with our fellow citizens.

V. Bradley Lewis is an associate professor in the

school of philosophy at The Catholic University of America,

and a fellow at the Institute for Human Ecology.