Classically speaking, freedom of speech refers to freedom from state censorship. There are three distinct questions that the current debate over “free speech” runs together in a sloppy fashion: is the state engaging in acts of censorship? Are social sanctions against speech or beliefs too harsh? Is our media ecosystem sufficiently open? Failure to disentangle these questions has resulted in the current abysmal state of the conversation.
What is cancel culture? Why has the free speech debate resurfaced with such fury?
00:07 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.
00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:10 Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is Adam Gurri. He is Founder and Editor‐in‐Chief of Liberal Currents, we’re discussing an article he recently wrote called Censorship, Social Sanctions and Access to Audiences. Welcome back to Free Thoughts Adam.
00:23 Adam Gurri: Thank you for having me.
00:25 Aaron Ross Powell: Why is free speech suddenly such a topic of debate?
00:30 Adam Gurri: Well, I think it flares up every so often. In my lifetime, it sort of ties back to the whole political correctness debate, and there’s been different incarnations of that rising and falling over the years. This one is tied to what’s now called cancel culture, what a few years ago was called call‐out culture, but it’s essentially specifically the online mob phenomenon where people get outraged about some specific figure, and as a result, they get fired or perhaps even Twitter gets talked into banning them from the platform. This also gets tied to some of the campus activism though I feel like somehow that’s been less talked about lately than the social media stuff. But the campus activism where they’re trying to get speakers literally cancel their visits, their lecture visits cancelled to a particular university. Because of the partisan environment we’re in right now, there’s a lot of very energetic debate on each side about the merits of this, which I think could probably be detached from the actual actors. Many of the people who are justifying saying this is alright or not to worry about are not themselves people who are engaging in cancelling. So there’s sort of a high level intellectual debate going on at the same time.
02:05 Trevor Burrus: Do you think something about maybe the media environment… Well, I don’t even mean just the media environment, but in the last 20 years, and especially in the last 10 years, we’ve had social media go on the rise and the ability for people to find outlets and niche media, and the whole schism of our media environment, do you think it’s possible that some of that is fueling this sort of resurgent of various free speech concerns that you highlighted in your article?
02:34 Adam Gurri: Yeah, I think there’s a couple of things. Most of which are tied to the big platforms. I think in the first wave of the web, the niches were the main driver of online behaviour, so we all sort of fell into our different sub‐communities essentially, and the sub‐communities still exist, but the massive social media platforms, and you could also throw Google into this in the way that it stitched together the web, obviously from much earlier on through its search products. All the sub‐communities still exist, but they’re thrown together in this big common space, so they’ve differentiated themselves from each other, they’re thrown together and they essentially start going at it in the middle. So I think that’s a big part of it as well.
03:33 Aaron Ross Powell: Your article is effectively a argument for why the argument that we’re all in Michigan right now is not as fruitful as it could be. So what do you see is wrong with the current free speech debates, I guess writ large, across all of the places that they seem to be happening?
03:54 Adam Gurri: Yeah, I think, especially in America, because of the First Amendment and the culture around it, free speech is just such a transcendental ideal, almost sacred… There’s almost sacred status, and so we try and lump a lot of different concerns under that label, which I don’t think is very helpful, and it’s certainly not how it works in the actual law. So what I wanted to do… I think in sort of hot take dynamics where you’re mostly just trying to get attention, there’s actually an incentive to lump too many things together, because let’s guarantee to both get the people who agree with you to say, “Ha ha, we’re discrediting a bunch of other things too for the other side,” and also to get a bunch of angry people saying, “Wait, wait, no, no, you’re lumping some good things in with the bad and that’s not fair.” And that gets a lot of attention.
04:49 Adam Gurri: So what I wanted to do was to un‐bundle some of the things that get bundled in, and specifically I wanted to talk about just things I could deal with structurally. One of the criticisms I received for the piece was that there’s some other more cultural things that I didn’t touch on, which I think is a fair criticism, but just thinking structurally, the original early liberal concern with free speech was about state censorship, but there are other concerns that are fine, John Stuart Mill, very concerned with social sanctions and conformism, so I talked a bit about social sanctions as well, and how that interacts with Freedom of Association because I don’t think anyone actually would defend a general freedom from social sanctions, I think even JS Mill had a very targeted thing in mind. And lastly, I wanted to talk about something implicit and that people like I think Scott Alexander have talked about a little more explicitly, but it’s sort of the technological and social structure of… That make it possible to access audiences just as a normal individual. So how open the media system is, is the way I phrased it.
06:01 Trevor Burrus: The access to audiences portion was interesting because it’s something that was a predominant concern, what I dealt with a lot more around the time of the Citizens United decision, which is a campaign finance decision about corporate expenditures in elections, but the argument always behind the campaign finance one was ultimately that some people have more of an access to a voice. So it’s not just that government is supposed to obey the First Amendment and not restrict your speech. So if you have a podium and a speaker’s park, they can’t take away your podium, but then also should be concerned with whether or not other people have podiums and that that changes everything. Is there something that we should be concerned with if we’re liberals?
06:45 Adam Gurri: So from taking it from the online perspective, I used to be very idealistic about the whole idea of the long tail, and just saying, this is when I was like 20 years old or something, just thinking, “We can just get rid of the head or the tail. [chuckle] And let’s just all have our own little micro‐communities, and that’s gonna be the most creative and egalitarian way of structuring the media environment.” So I was very active in the blogosphere. And you felt like even if you were relatively small fry there, everyone sort of was talking to everyone else. But with reading more up on it, the way that audiences actually work in practice is when you get something like the Internet, there’s actually more skew, and that’s partly because of how big the head gets. Because now Harry Potter, for example, can be the largest book franchise plus media franchise in history, because it can be a global phenomenon that’s read around the world.
08:01 Adam Gurri: And that’s not just the Internet, obviously, that’s globalization at large. The interconnection can create bigger blockbusters than ever, which makes the head or the tail bigger. But the other aspect is the longer you make the long tail, the more you get a lot of people with a teeny‐tiny number of audiences at the same time that you’re getting blockbusters with the biggest audiences ever. To use Tyler Cowen’s phrase, “When you’re looking at the actual audiences, it’s always gonna be more of an averages over situation.” The network scientists have looked into this and demonstrated it pretty thoroughly.
08:48 Trevor Burrus: So we should be concerned?
08:50 Adam Gurri: We should be. But I still… So on the one hand we… So yes, we should be concerned, I think so. Because we don’t want to get into a situation where just a handful of big platforms dominate the conversation, which was obviously less the case now, even with as big as our blockbusters can be, as it was mid‐century with the big three networks and a few national newspapers that everyone read and things like that. But I sort of had trouble getting at how you… What’s the ideal here? What are we actually trying to accomplish? And I think it runs into exactly what you probably ran into with the Citizens United stuff, which is that… Well, Citizens United, which everyone talks about, is a terrible case. But it was specifically criticizing a powerful person, Hillary Clinton, right? [chuckle] So do we really wanna hamstring people from criticizing powerful people just because the ones that are criticizing them are also powerful? So what are the means of approaching this? And my feeling was this idea of sort of thinking probabilistically about just a normal person who doesn’t have an audience, a pre‐existing audience really, what are their odds of getting one, of getting an audience?
10:18 Adam Gurri: And under certain media environments, it’s much lower than others. And that has a lot to do with just barriers to entry, for one thing. In a broadcast environment, it takes a massive capital investment in order to get your foot in the door. They only have so many hours of the day for so many stations, so only so many people are gonna get heard. But on the Internet, that barrier doesn’t exist, that doesn’t mean that you’re gonna get heard. But there’s a really good Scott Alexander post from a couple of years back where he asked, “Can someone be both popular and silenced?” And his answer was not necessarily yes to being silenced, but yes that people could absolutely… A huge amount of social sanctions could be rained down on a person to try and silence them even though they are actually massively popular, is the way that I would, I guess, rephrase his point. But the thing that stuck with me is he said there was a lot of talk in the ‘90s and the early 2000s about the Internet making things censorship‐proof and we focused a lot on how that failed, but we’ve sort of stopped talking about how successful that really was, it was very successful.
11:39 Aaron Ross Powell: But even there, if we’re talking about access, it seems like the access was moving… There’s two different ways we could think about it. So if we go back 100 years or 50 years, and if you wanted to get an audience, you needed a lot of upfront capital, because you either had to figure out how to print and distribute your own newspaper or set up your own radio station or set up your own television station; that was outside of the reach of almost everybody. The alternative was mimeographing your zines and mailing them out, but you were never gonna get a large audience that way.
12:17 Adam Gurri: Right.
12:18 Aaron Ross Powell: And so the… But the material you needed to do that, if you had the capital, then the materials you needed to do that, the printing presses or whatever, you could buy those, and then you could use those under your own control. Now, what we’ve seen since the rise of the blogosphere and then social media is, the upfront capital costs of getting distribution to effectively the entire world or at least enabling the entire world to see your stuff if they want to has dropped to close to zero. So back when it was the blogosphere, you could set up a blogger account, and it didn’t cost you anything, and then your blog could be read by everybody. But the materials that you need to do it are now platforms, they’re Twitter or Blogger or WordPress. And yes, some people can install them on their own servers and do all of that, but that’s outside of the reach of… That has other costs in terms of knowledge and expenses that aren’t there. So the zero‐cost one depends now on gatekeepers in the way that it didn’t used to.
13:27 Aaron Ross Powell: And so it feels like we could think of it as access has increased but you’re now more at the mercy of the platforms. That if Blogger decided they don’t like you anymore they can kick you off, and it’s very hard to find that audience again. Or if Twitter decides they don’t like you anymore they can kick you off and it’s hard to find that audience again. And I wonder if this is where some of the worries when people… We gripe that people misapply the term censorship, that censorship is something the state does. And when Twitter kicks you off it’s not censorship it’s a private entity deciding not to associate with you anymore, and that’s fine and we support that ability, but it feels closer to censorship because these platforms are so large and the audience is overwhelmingly only there that if you get kicked off it feels like being shoved out the door of the country, you’ve been exiled. And so it looks more like censorship. So is there a tension there in terms of openness?
14:29 Adam Gurri: Yeah, I think so. I think probably less than that makes it sound like. I feel like there’s a potential threat. And then maybe that’s easy for me to say because I know that, especially in the last couple of years, like YouTube and Twitter and Facebook have more actively pushed out certain categories of content producers. But for the most part, I think, if we’re thinking mostly in terms of normal people who do not yet have audiences at all the situation is overwhelmingly optimistic compared to any other time. There is a tension though. Audiences are super concentrated in these platforms. I don’t think gatekeeper is quite the right word for what they are though, because gatekeeper implies that the door is closed and they have to open it to let you in and that was the actual broadcast and traditional publishing situation. Whereas this it’s more like… It’s come one, come all and then they decide whether they kick you off the island. Which is a different kind of threat but no less a threat, I think. I don’t agree with those who would like Facebook and Twitter to be more actively policing acceptable points of view. I’m not too worried about where it is at this stage. I’m more just in principle, in favour of the old decentralized model. But the old decentralized model, I think, was not as good at offering potential audiences to people as this one. So I do think it’s a tension that’s hard to tease out.
16:29 Trevor Burrus: It’s interesting you brought up this. ‘Cause you said they have expanded some of the content that they’ve clamped down on and nothing that I say or even want to say, I think, would cause me to be banned from one of these platforms. But if you try and imagine yourself… I could just say all the opinions that I have now become completely forbidden by Twitter because everything switches and the Libertarianism is suddenly considered to be inherently racist, which a lot of people think that anyway and Twitter starts just banning free market rhetoric and things like this. Then my opinion might change. It’s kind of hard… Or my feelings about it. I could say, “They’re allowed to ban me, but I think this is stupid.” But then you get this problem where you start thinking substantively.
17:16 Trevor Burrus: You’re mad perceivably that you got banned but you also believe that your ideas should be heard to make the world a better place and now they’re actually pulling these levers to make sure that people can’t hear about these ideas. And that’s what I always… I find it interesting whether or not you can take an ideologue who complains about being banned from Twitter and separate their complaints from the substance of what they believe that they think other people should believe in and I can see how that would be concerning to someone and I don’t wanna be on the other side of that, provided my beliefs just don’t change and they’re just run‐of‐the‐mill Libertarianism. And again, there, the question is, would we then stand up and say, “Something needs to be done about this.”
17:58 Adam Gurri: Yeah. So I think part of free speech is you can turn around and say “Twitter is being completely ridiculous and they should stop doing this.” Right? Or it’s being morally unconscionable by cutting out these legitimate voices. I also think we shouldn’t exaggerate the extent to which the audiences are only here… Are only in the platforms. There is still a large media ecosystem beyond them. Obviously they go there and they try and pump up views. But like Fox News… To just list a few. Fox News, and MSNBC, and The New York Times, and National Review, and The Federalist… All of these places with a wide variety of ideologies that they cater to have audiences. Some of them have managed to build their audiences primarily through social media.
19:03 Adam Gurri: Others are older and have built them otherwise but still make use of social media. But I think if the platforms got together as a cartel and cut these off tomorrow… First of all I think there would still be people on the platforms talking about the fact that it was cut off. And that would be extremely hard to police at scale. And second of all, I think that, that would not kill those businesses outright. I think it would be hard. I also think initially, it might serve as marketing for them as tends to happen. Like Milo Yiannopoulos had this dynamic for a while where every time Twitter banned him it sort of increased his brand rather than diminished it. And he really only was toppled once his financial backers decided he wasn’t worth it anymore. But obviously not everyone has financial backers in the first place. So the fact that he could afford to do that and leverage it that way.
20:09 Adam Gurri: But that’s how the market works, right? So, a lot of these… It’s hard to tease out what the actual risks are because these platforms get used to build up businesses, media businesses, which then have their own audiences, even though they’re still relying on the platform. The extent to which they could persist with those audiences if they lost the platform, or leverage the hostility of the platform in order to build up even more audiences perhaps is an open question. And we’ve only seen a limited number of cases. And since many of the cases that Twitter or YouTube have gone after have been like The Daily Stormer or something that’s fairly straightforwardly white nationalist, that is even now still such a niche that if it hurts them, it’s unsurprising, ’cause they were on the smaller end of the tail relative to the Fox News. And frankly, I’m not sorry that they would be hurt.
21:14 Trevor Burrus: Well, it’s interesting that you described one version there. If we do imagine Twitter and social media companies becoming more censorious of what are even quite mainstream views, which I don’t think is wildly implausible, but then everyone kinda goes and takes their ball to their own court and starts playing their own game, as we’ve seen happen on… As the websites you’ve listed. So, you only read the Federalist and National Review. You only watch MSNBC, which of course is where we are. Seems to me that that could be part of the problem. Because when you are walled off in your own little idea bubble, you have a very difficult time understanding why people hold other viewpoints because you simply don’t actually encounter them. And so, you start… What I have seen in my life, especially if you can’t pay your finance, you start postulating other reasons they hold these viewpoints that are based not in reason but in nefarious influences of things like the NRA or corporations or Fox News or whatever. And then that kind of causes the censorious impulse to rise again. And you say, well, shutting down Fox News or One America News Network, they’re just liars. So, it would be for the public good to shut down Fox News. And maybe that’s something we should be concerned with too, that we go too much into our own little teams.
22:37 Adam Gurri: Yeah, it’s hard, because I don’t think mere exposure is enough or has necessarily been predictably helpful. I think there’s a number of studies that show that a lot of the people who behave the way that you just described, which is definitely something that many people do, aren’t necessarily not exposed to… Like a lot of people who are avid Federalist readers or whatever actually will go and read the New York Times and whoever, and still interpret them in a hostile way, let’s say. The fact that they get exposure just means that they’ve sort of learned the moves that people will make in the argument game, but they just see it as that game, and they know they’ve already decided which side they’re on. And they just use the exposure as sort of material for amping up their attack on it. I don’t know if I’m describing it very well, but do you get what I mean? Sometimes exposure just sort of…
23:46 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, they go to the New York Times to be angry at it. Yeah. That’s why they go.
23:48 Adam Gurri: Exactly. Exactly. So to give a maybe eccentric example, in 2014, I was writing about the neo‐reactionaries. And the reason I was doing this is because all of a sudden people were talking about them within my network. I was kind of uncomfortable with this fact ’cause I didn’t really like them but I wanted to go and see what was up with them. And I wrote about them. Essentially, I wrote a criticism. But in getting to learn about them, what I found interesting was Curtis Yarvin who went by Mencius Moldbug at the time, he didn’t want the 15 minutes of fame that they were getting at that moment. He pretty much ghosted as soon as they started getting popular. And what happened really was there was a sub‐community, a fairly small one with some pretty objectionable views, but also pretty harmless because they were just a little sub‐community that as Twitter in particular got bigger, but also like Gawker was around back then, there was a very particular sort of media dynamic that was developing where they were going around and digging up sub‐communities like that to say, look at this huge scary threat that exists.
25:15 Adam Gurri: Essentially, when they were just a sub‐community, they were more or less harmless. They were happy with one another. It was fine, in my opinion, as a pluralist. But once we all got sort of stitched together, actually, it became extremely toxic. There was one guy in particular who I… ’cause I talked to many of them to write this piece. There was one guy who had completely crazy ideas. I mean, he was a monarchist, among other things, but it was actually a fairly reasonable person to talk to when I wrote the piece. And by the end of the year, after sort of going all in on the culture war aspect of it as it became more as it gained more mainstream attention, he was a complete nutbag. He went off a complete cliff. Possibly, there are just other psychological reasons for that. But my take away from that was that there are some things that are okay when sort of concentrated in small sub‐communities that aren’t bothering anyone, that when we all become part of a much larger public conversation, just become completely toxic for everyone involved including the critics of this whole sub‐culture. But even for the people themselves, they become worse versions of themselves.
26:34 Aaron Ross Powell: You mentioned the New York Times and other publications, and they have been in the news lately as part of this debate because, particularly conservative writers have been leaving them, either because they say they were forced out or because they felt it had become too toxic for them to be there because their colleagues didn’t want them there, and so on. And this gets brought up as an example of, I guess, the restricting sphere of socially acceptable speech, that… The sphere of acceptable speech is narrowing. And I’ve often wondered if that’s sticking to the media environment right now, because this is… This might be a different question if we talk about college campuses. But sticking to the media environment, I wonder if that’s really the case or if it’s that a lot of publications that… A lot of large publications that for a long time paid lip service to ideological diversity, like The Times would have its handful of token conservative writers, or The Post would have its handful of token conservative writers, have opted to become more ideologically aligned, the way that most other publications are. You run Liberal Currents which has its ideological view, which is fine, it has a perspective, and Trevor and I work for the Cato Institute, which is an organisation that exists to advance a particular set of views.
28:00 Aaron Ross Powell: That doesn’t seem to be a problem, but there does seem to be an objection to win the New York Times or similar publications do it, and it gets framed as, “They’re de‐platforming these people, they’re shutting down their speech.” But, it seems like it’s just moving elsewhere, I was… I checked… So Andrew Sullivan was all over a couple of weeks ago, because he publicly left New York Magazine basically on the grounds that he was being cancelled, it was no longer a friendly place to his viewpoint, and this was held up as free speech being curtailed, but he moved to Substack, the paid newsletter platform, which I’ll just say, the conspiracy theorist in me wonders if Substack is behind cancel culture, [laughter] because they’re cashing in and all these people coming to them.
28:45 Adam Gurri: Them and Patreon.
28:47 Aaron Ross Powell: Yes, but according to Substack, he’s now the number five top paid publication, and it doesn’t give exact numbers, but it says he has thousands of subscribers paying him $5 a month. So he’s doing pretty okay. He certainly has an audience and a platform. So, are we seeing a shrinking, a curtailing of speech, or are we simply seeing publications saying, “No, we’d like to have our perspective maybe more than we did in the past?” And, if that’s the case, is that something that should worry us? Should we be bothered that the New York Times is maybe slightly less ideologically diverse than it used to be?
29:24 Adam Gurri: I’m not bothered, but I’ve also never been a New York times guy. I never… I’ve always been very cynical about the role in our country that the New York Times has claimed the mantle of. I’ve somewhat softened on that I guess. It’s not like I love the idea of returning to an era of partisan presses necessarily, but I don’t think… I think you have to take the bigger view, and that’s what I’m talking about with the open media ecosystem idea, and you summarize well. Substack is good… It’s good to get more players. Of course Substack… If Substack is successful, it threatens to simply replicate the same concern as Facebook and Twitter, and even Patreon. I know Patreon has thrown out people that they found unacceptable, though fairly modestly compared to the other ones, I think. Though obviously, the more of these platforms you get, the better, the less likely that they’re all going to band together and ban the same people. But yeah, effectively right now, Andrew Sullivan can leave and immediately be making money on Substack. Bari Weiss has a ton of places that she can go. I don’t know what happened to James Bennet, everyone talked about him for a hot second, but I’m not actually sure where he’s ended up lately. It might be actually harder to be an editor, I don’t know.
31:06 Trevor Burrus: Well, aside from cancelling people, due to what Aaron said, being, “We are the New York Times and we have decided we want to have this ideology,” we have this aspect of… You mentioned cancel culture and shaming, which, I think you rightly point out, it probably is hard to imagine anyone who doesn’t think that it shouldn’t ever happen, especially the libertarian response and the liberal response, the best remedy to speech is more speech, and if someone says something offensive, you would like to know who the offensive person is, and then you can shame them in some way. But, is it also the case that this goes too far, or should we just be generally for this kind of firing, shamings, blacklisting that has been going on recently?
31:57 Adam Gurri: Yeah, it’s hard to answer that categorically. My personal feeling about the drama at the New York Times is that I simply don’t care for those specific examples. I’m interested in, and I think as your client pointed this out, a specific dynamic which is… That it’s not actually that the New York Times organizationally has decided they wanna be a certain way, it’s actually that the young journalists, and just individual journalists on their staff have individual brands of their own on social media. Essentially, by getting hired by New York Times, you get the by‐line, you get to… You get the association on various social media that you’re the person who wrote it, you get to build your own individual audience that way. That then gets to be used as leverage to influence internal New York Times policy. So what happened in the New York Times case wasn’t that the owner or the editorial team decided, “We’re gonna go in this direction now,” it was that a bunch of specific journalists applied pressure through social media and through internal Slack channels and things like that. That, I don’t how I…
33:22 Adam Gurri: I’m of two minds about that. On the one hand, that’s good, because it actually limits the downside of these things. Journalists build their individual audiences, and that means that if they end up on the wrong end of social sanctioning of this kind, or firing, the cushion… There’s a cushion to their fall, because they can say to any other publication, “I’ve got this built‐in audience”. And there’s very few… Turning an audience into paying opportunity, if you have an actual audience of any scale, of reasonable scale, that is not a difficult problem to solve. But as for how we should feel about this in general, it’s really hard, I think you have to get into the substance, the substantive values and say was it a good or not case this time. It’s hard to avoid that. I think, in my piece, I try and talk about how you think about this structurally. And I honestly don’t know how I feel about at will employment versus for cause, forcing people to fire for a cause, I see the trade‐offs there. When I think probably some limited protections, some minimal protections are probably a good idea in principle, but it’s not something that I feel expert enough on to…
34:43 Trevor Burrus: Yeah. But it seems as you… On the case by case basis, as you said, it’s… The best I’ve been able to come up with is the sort of infamous one, probably about five years ago now, the “has Justine landed yet?” incident.
34:56 Adam Gurri: Oh, gosh. Yeah, that was bad.
35:00 Trevor Burrus: Where she made a poor joke, but was mobbed and fired. And the question of whether or not what you said or did was a pattern of behaviour, or just a slip of the tongue, ’cause people do that. And we’re now prepared to possibly fire people for a slip of the tongue, as opposed to be like, “no, that person is actually a racist.” Rather than, “They made an off‐color joke and didn’t think through their actions.” I think that’s the best I can do, but of course that doesn’t get you… That still keeps you on a case by case basis.
35:27 Adam Gurri: So a good friend of mine who I won’t name, ’cause she doesn’t like a lot of public attention, said that… And who’s actually very sympathetic to a lot of the values of this sort of like lefty cancel culture people in terms of talking about gender issues and racism. But has experienced herself some fairly toxic aspects of that culture, said that what she really doesn’t like isn’t any of the structural things I outlined in the piece, but it’s the culture of lacking any kind of mercy or sense of the possibility of redemption. Just sort of… She herself is a prison evolutionist. So for her, it’s all part of a piece of a cultural punitiveness, which cuts across ideological lines, especially in America. Just the solution to… So the solution to income inequality is you lower the… You punish the rich for their… You’re more punitive towards the rich. The solution towards rape culture is harsher laws about how accused rapists are tried, standards of evidence and such to make it easier to convict them.
36:51 Adam Gurri: The way to… And then translate into these, a lot of these incidents. A lot of what’s really disagreeable about these incidents is this just seems like a lack of thinking about the human element. And the Justine case is an extreme case, I think, where it was just someone who thought she was talking to her friends. ‘Cause it was before a lot of people really realised that literally anything on Twitter can go viral, no matter how small a fry you are. And she was just joking with her friends and it got… She got essentially crucified for it.
37:32 Aaron Ross Powell: I wonder how much of this is a temporary bad situation, because of an overestimation of how much Twitter is real life. So you mentioned, earlier on our conversation, you mentioned the kind of, you hunt down, you find these little weird groups and then you, as like a reporter or whatever, you find these weird groups that are saying awful things and you make a big story out of it, and bring them into the conversation. And Twitter, Twitter makes the accessibility, global communication much more accessible. You can find what people are saying, you can pile on to people. And we had a month ago on the show, we had Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke on to talk about their book on grandstanding. And a lot of the concerns we’re talking about right now are often grandstanding. Like people use Twitter and get fired up and it’s less about… They don’t see the human element, because they’re not thinking about Justine, they’re thinking about the fun of tweeting, and retweeting, and making fun of, and all of that.
38:40 Aaron Ross Powell: But that… A lot of this cancel culture, or a lot of the real abuses that we see of people getting fired from their jobs, blacklisted because they said something… Maybe it was off color, they shouldn’t have said it, but it’s not the kind of thing that we think like the proper degree of justice is that they are now unemployable. That maybe what it is, is that employers have been overreacting to Twitter mobs. And so I’m thinking of just, I think this last week, Trader Joe’s… Basically, there was a Twitter mob about Trader Joe’s naming of some of their products. And Trader Joe’s put out a statement that said like, “Look, we don’t really care. What we care about is our customers. We measure this based on sales and customer satisfaction. Our customers love these products, they are satisfied with them. If that changes, then we’ll change, but we don’t really care what you’re saying on Twitter.” And Twitter erupted, but it felt… The eruption felt almost like a calling of Twitter’s bluff.
39:44 Aaron Ross Powell: And so I wonder if the way out of this is for employers to say like, “Look, you guys can rage about our person as much as you want on Twitter, but it doesn’t actually affect us as an employer, because most of the world is not on Twitter. Most of our customers are not on Twitter, most people will have never heard of this Twitter dust‐up. And so we can just ignore it, you can be mad at our employee all you want to, but it’s not gonna hurt us and it’ll blow over. And so maybe what we’re seeing as a restriction on free speech and the culture is just people taking Twitter too seriously.
40:18 Adam Gurri: Yeah, I’m sort of curious what goes on in current PR department, communications departments in colleges these days, and more importantly, PR agencies and practices on the ground. ’cause it feels to me like company PR still is stuck 50 years ago or something, when you just sort of act… The way you just acted… You said nothing or did as little as possible until things reached some degree of exposure and then you took some… You tried to do some small… Basically, like, things had to reach a certain scale before they were considered a PR disaster, and once they reached that scale, then you start letting heads roll in order to feed the crowds or whatever. Calm things down. And I don’t think PR has really adapted to the current situation, but I couldn’t say how it will. It could be that just for always they’ll be willing to throw… There’s always gonna be some employees and some products that don’t cost much to eat, and the uncertainty around what the effect of a PR blow is for a given case is such that some companies, some percent of the time are always gonna just fire someone in order to appease whoever it might be that’s causing a dust up.
41:58 Adam Gurri: It could be they get better at sort of estimating risk based on how much it’s actually being talked about on Twitter or who’s talking about it based on how big their followers are or how much the reach of the conversation is. And that might be a factor, but it seems like there’s always gonna be… As long as the platforms exist, there’s always going to be some cases where companies are gonna react the way that we see them react to cancel culture, just because they find it to be in their interest to do so.
42:35 Trevor Burrus: What do you think a more healthy debate about free speech looks like? It seems like there’s a lot of talking past each other, so what does a healthy debate look like?
42:47 Adam Gurri: I think they just read my piece and everything’s great. No, trying to think about what actually is a reasonable social sanction for the case. So I link in a piece to our digital article about that incident with the woman and her dog who said that she was too… Called the cops and said, “There’s an African‐American man threatening me” or something, and something like 50 people called the rescue that she got the dog from in order to report it, and the rescue pulled… Took the dog back. And the piece was like, “Look, what this woman did was awful and basically she was implicitly threatening to get this guy killed. If anyone deserved to be canceled, it was this woman, but okay, how many people is enough?” was her point. When five people have called the employer or the rescue, is that enough? Is 50 people enough?
43:50 Adam Gurri: And I think, on the one hand, my criticism of that comment is that those 50 people don’t necessarily know how many other people have done it. When something… 50 people in the scheme of a story that’s gone viral is a vanishingly small fraction of the audience, and so it’s hard to get to a situation where if you’re getting that much intense attention for a story of that kind, you’re gonna get less than 50 people taking some action like that. So structurally, that’s my criticism, but in terms of what’s healthy, I actually like her point in terms of if you yourself are thinking of taking some action like that, thinking to yourself, “Okay, but am I the only one who’s gonna be doing this and is this really the most important thing to be doing to be advancing the cause of racial justice in this country?” Absolutely not.
44:49 Adam Gurri: And I think that’s one of the… So to… Riding a roundabout way to answer your question, the first… I think people should think structurally as much as possible where they can. So answering the question about racial justice, ultimately punishing that woman is not going to solve the racial problems of this country. There’s no one thing that’s going to fix them, but probably getting rid of qualified immunity is gonna help. Probably there are… Tackling disenfranchisement in highly African‐American communities can help, just generally doing things to stop the hard edges of the system from coming into contact with African‐Americans and empowering African‐Americans to make themselves listened to by people in power are things that will actually make a difference versus going after some specific person that’s gonna make you feel good about yourself and will maybe send the message that this is a bad thing to do, but might just send the message that it’s a bad thing to get caught doing. You know what I’m saying? There are bigger things in play for the matter at hand, or the thing you’re concerned about. So yeah, just a healthier way of thinking of what action we should actually be taking that’s going to actually… That’s gonna make a substantive difference.
46:23 Aaron Ross Powell: Given the current state of the debate, the issues that we’re seeing, the cancel culture such as it is, we’ve discussed the reactions of students and faculty on campuses and so on. And going way back to the beginning of the conversation, when you said “These issues tend to come and go”, and I too remember the politically correct 90s and the best‐selling politically incorrect bedtime stories book that spoofed it and so on. Are you worried about the future of free speech, freedom of expression, and access to the broader conversation? Or do you think that we’re still on the right track or at least can get back on it?
47:18 Adam Gurri: In terms of access to audiences, I’m really not concerned. I think there are some… The platforms thing is a difficult problem, but by and large, I think for now they’ve been a net positive, a huge net positive in fact, to giving the common person access to potential audiences. So I’m not really concerned about that one, and I think that in as much as the platforms start actively policing, they just encourage alternatives to get built, which isn’t that hard to do. So even if Substack tomorrow becomes… Starts policing, there’s absolutely nothing interesting or original about what either Facebook, Twitter or Substack do. The technology is very simple and easy. Anyone could make an alternative, so I’m not as worried about that aspect. Freedom of speech, I think is just always under… It’s obviously much… We’re freer now than we were 50 years ago in terms of freedom of speech, in terms of state censorship specifically, but it’s constantly being tested. It’s constantly being pushed up back on… I start out by listing just a few examples, there’s SESTA-FOSTA, which is extensively about trafficking, but could very obviously be used to censor websites. Obviously, there are those federal forces that have been unleashed in Portland and have been threatened elsewhere.
48:55 Adam Gurri: Noah Berlatsky had an interesting piece with us where he argued that the biggest free speech issue is the freedom of speech of groups like the incarcerated who, if they were to criticize their condition, if they were to speak out openly about their conditions, would threaten… They’d be threatened with reprisals. And shortly after he made that point, I read a book by Alexander Keyssar, where he gave an example of in Massachusetts in the 90s, I think, some prisoners formed a pack and in response to that… At that point prisoners still had voting rights in Massachusetts, in response to the media issue that blew up around that organising the Massachusetts government disenfranchised prisoners in the state. So obviously that wasn’t a case where they were censored per se, but that to me was a clear example of, if you’re in that vulnerable position, both because you’re literally in a prison and you have a warden who can beat you up, but also because you’re socially disrespected, you’re at low status on the totem pole, and therefore, the public is more concerned by you exercising influence than by actual state censorship being imposed upon you. Those are cases, I think, that’s still with us today, very much so, especially since so many states still don’t let their even ex‐incarcerated vote in some situations. So I still think free speech is something we need to fight for pretty hard.
50:53 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us in Apple Podcast or in your favourite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.