This is true; as Zaid Jilani wrote recently, “If it were harder for employers to fire people for frivolous reasons, Americans would have less reason to fear that expressing their views might cost them their livelihoods.” But it seems strange to me to argue that in the absence of better labor law, the left is justified in taking advantage of precarity to punish people for political disagreements.
None of this is an argument for a totally laissez-faire approach to speech; some ideas should be stigmatized.
I recently spoke to Wasow about the reaction to Shor tweeting his paper. “Much of what we call ‘cancel culture’ is just culture,” he said. “Culture has boundaries. Every community has boundaries. Those boundaries are always shifting. In the age of the internet, they move faster, and therefore where those boundaries are is less clear and less stable, and it makes it easier for people to cross those lines.”
But it’s a problem when the range of proscribed speech is so wide that the rules are hard to even explain to those not steeped in left-wing mores.
Writing in the 1990s, at a time when feminists like Catharine MacKinnon sought to curtail free speech in the name of equality, the great left-libertarian Ellen Willis described how progressive movements sow the seeds of their own destruction when they become censorious. It’s impossible, Willis wrote, “to censor the speech of the dominant without stifling debate among all social groups and reinforcing orthodoxy within left movements. Under such conditions a movement can neither integrate new ideas nor build support based on genuine transformations of consciousness rather than guilt or fear of ostracism.”
It’s not always easy to draw a clear line between what Willis described as “reinforcing orthodoxy” and agitating to make language and society more democratic and inclusive. As Nicholas Grossman pointed out in Arc Digital, most signatories to the Letter probably agree that it’s a good thing that the casual use of racist and homophobic slurs is no longer socially acceptable. “But those changes came about through private sanction, social pressure and cultural change, driven by activists and younger generations,” he wrote.
Willis reminds us that when these changes were happening, the right denounced them as violations of free expression. Of the conservative campaign against political correctness in the 1990s, she wrote, “Predictably, their valid critique of left authoritarianism has segued all too smoothly into a campaign of moral intimidation,” one “aimed at demonizing egalitarian ideas, per se, as repressive.”