You know we live in a strange world when classical liberal think tanks, such as the Centre for Independent Studies, are forced to draw comfort from the statements of Noam Chomsky. The left-wing radical was among 150 esteemed artists, authors and public intellectuals who this month signed a letter that condemns ‘cancel culture’ for stifling freedom of expression in journalism, higher education, philanthropy and the arts.
Writing in Harper’s magazine, the ideologically diverse group says: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” They go on to bemoan “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”
As the prominent British historian and columnist Simon Heffer argues in the new CIS Occasional Paper, Moral Terrorism, it is abominable that, effectively, a bunch of blinkered, self-righteous activists are dictating to the rest of us how we should feel about certain issues. Blacklisting people because of what they sincerely feel and believe, and terrifying people into confessing their unorthodox thoughts in the hope they might achieve some sort of redemption, is not how liberal democracies are supposed to work.
This is a matter of grave concern that goes to the heart of liberal society. As Professor Heffer argues, by eroding free speech, the activists seek “not simply to create a certain orthodoxy of view, but to punish those who do not subscribe to that orthodoxy, even to the point of seeking to deny them a livelihood.” What the activists who run the ‘cancel culture’ don’t understand is that you can disagree with them without wishing to obliterate them; though they seem to wish to obliterate their opponents.
To be sure, the trends of illiberal tolerance are more evident in the US (as a recent Wall Street Journal editorial) and Britain (as Prof Heffer makes clear) than here. However, as Peter Kurti explains in a forthcoming CIS research paper, we are kidding ourselves if we think Australia is immune to these disturbing developments. Indeed, there is enough evidence to show that a small but highly vocal and zealous minority here are already using social media and parts of the mainstream media to seek to force their opinions and attitudes on everyone else.
All this is why genuine liberals — from whatever political leaning or creed — have to expose not just the activists’ ignorance and their unreasonableness, but their immense dangerousness. It is not just they invite an extremist response from their opponents. It is that if too many people roll over in front of them, we shall damage liberal democracy irreparably.