Cancel Culture and Freedom in Learning

By silencing the arguments that defy popular and liberal opinions, the cancel culture is actually curbing freedom in learning – a fundamental keystone of liberalism.

Exposing oneself to differing views is an important part of learning. Literature on argumentation, rhetoric and dialectic, from ancient Greek philosophy to modern scientific thought, emphasizes the significance of logical dialogue between opposing views. This helps parties to arrive at a rational conclusion or better solution possibly. As a result of logical reasoning and genuine discussion, the evolution of any subject matter accounts for the advancement in human knowledge.

Despite this, opposing views are frequently not accepted, let alone understood, especially if they tend to attack the personal opinions of self. Examples that illustrate intolerance and even hostility towards others, who hold a different perspective than the former, are not hard to find. This is particularly true for social media platforms.

Usually, a public one-to-one heated conversation on social media does not signify much damage, as it simply reveals the conceptual standing of both individuals. The case becomes entirely different, however, when one considers a many-to-one verbal combat, fuelled by animosity and impatience at the end of the majority. This exchange attempts to cancel the lonely participant, not only in the arena of that particular argument, but also in other spheres of life. The rampant increase in these cases over social media constitutes the cancel culture.

Cancel culture has enabled people, especially “minority groups”, to speak up against powerful people, racist and sexist comedians, white supremacists, and even corporations. Perhaps it is a reflection of, and an ad interim alternative to, the existing justice culture, which fails to hold powerful people accountable. Cancel culture, however, has also preyed on the innocents. In this article, we will discuss how the cancel culture might affect discussion and learning.

The popular opinions in modern societies are mostly based on liberal standards. By silencing the arguments that defy popular opinion, the cancel culture is actually negating the keystone of liberalism, which is, inter alia, freedom in learning.

Cancel culture in the academy?

Pippa Norris, a comparative political scientist, broadly describes cancel culture as the “attempts to ostracize someone for violating social norms.” She discusses the existence and impacts of cancel culture in the academic realm. Many critics argue that the “liberal hegemony” in modern societies’ academia is creating an environment of intolerance for the more conservative or right-wing people. This results in curbing the minorities’ opinions and even brainwashing students into toeing the liberal line for the sake of “ideological conformity”.

Joanna Williams, a senior academic and the author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity, asserts that instead of ideological conformity, a university should be a sanctuary of “intellectual conflict”. Learning requires students to confront complex and opposing views, so they are challenged, intellectually and emotionally, to think beyond themselves. On account of restraining ideological and intellectual diversity, lack of academic freedom can even be “detrimental for scientific progress.”

Some theories regard the liberal hegemony as the foremost factor causing the emergence of cancel culture. Other than undermining those who hold dissenting views, the cancel culture is creating disincentives for self-expression, producing fear of being canceled in the hearts of contrarians.

Is cancel culture liberal or illiberal?

Cancel culture is an academic, social and political phenomenon. Where it is hindering freedom in academic life, it is also deterring discussion on social and political matters.

Cato Institute’s survey shows that 62% of people in the USA overall agree that the “political climate these days” keeps them from expressing their views openly. The fear of facing rigorous backlash prevents many from properly exercising their right to free speech.

Here, the spiral of silence theory comes into play, which says that the prevalent popular opinion either encourages or discourages self-expression, depending on which side the individual belongs to.

The cancel culture almost appears to be an opportunistic platform for those who hold socially and politically accepted beliefs, which are mostly defined by liberalists in modern societies. It is actively discouraging unpopular opinion, condemning anyone who dares to speak against or violate the standard norms.

Freedom in learning and cancel culture

Friedrich Hegel, a renowned German philosopher, presented his dialectical method, which is also applied to logical argumentation.

According to him, there is a moment of understanding at first, called the thesis. This gives birth to another concept, the anti-thesis, which is diametrically opposed to the first. When these terminal concepts meet, they go through “a process of self-sublation,” where both concepts unify, fuse, and evolve. The result is a synthesis, which signifies a new concept, derived from the encounter of two opposing concepts.

For Hegel, aufheben (self-sublation) had twofold meaning: “to cancel and to preserve at the same time.” That is, the opposing concepts pass into one another to become a new understanding altogether. By applying Hegel’s Dialectic to real-life discussions, the importance of dialogue between differing views is revealed.

Logical discussion, which is essentially the moment when opposing views encounter, is a stepping stone to reach a better understanding. Rather than allowing opposing views to convene, so they can cancel and preserve each other and evolve into a developed idea, the cancel culture is cancelling the meeting of opposing views altogether. Lack of discussion causes hindrance to the development of new ideas, and hence, learning.

An inclusive culture

The cancel culture contains in itself the characteristics of exclusivism, attempting to drive out views that defy popular opinion. To create a culture conducive to fruitful learning, values of inclusivism are needed, that acknowledge opposing views and encourage logical discussion.

We do not propose widespread prevalence of uncontrolled and unchecked discussion on all platforms, which might give way for hate speech, condemnation and prejudice, but of a more tolerant attitude towards those with a different viewpoint.

The views presented in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Effective Thoughts.

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