Witch Finder Boylan: Free Speech and Mass Hysteria

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” —Animal Farm

“In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished.”—Donald Trump, July 3, 2020

“There’s this new, weird sort of fascism of people thinking they know what you can say and what you can’t.” —Ricky Gervais

Here’s the awesome thing about free speech: you don’t have to agree with J.K. Rowling or anybody else to support it. Indeed, the whole point of free speech is that you defend speech with which you disagree—you demand the protection of speech that you find offensive. Defending speech with which you agree is a different thing. We call that an endorsement. It must be terribly embarrassing to sign on to a letter in defense of free speech only to find out that you don’t actually believe in free speech.

Jennifer Boylan signed an open letter defending free speech against cancel culture. Many corporate media outlets and cancellers themselves came out against the letter. Boylan, either not knowing Rowling also signed the letter, or regretting having signed a letter the woke crowd didn’t like (worse, that they believe negates their movement and even the existence of some of their comrades), apologized for signing the letter and condemned it.

Taking a stand: Last week, a group of public figures signed a letter which hit out at 'cancel culture' after JK Rowling (pictured in 2019) was accused of transphobia
J.K. Rowling

Rowling responded with the snarky tweet I shared above. The reference is vaguely to Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, which is a metaphor for the persecution Miller and others faced during the Red Scare of the 1940s, which, like the present mass hysteria, or moral panic, if you will, ruined the lives of people who refused to chant the approved slogans of hysterical anticommunism and betray their comrades and colleagues by giving up their names, i.e. doxxing them.

In other words, cancel culture is a witch hunt and Boylan either didn’t realize she wasn’t a witch or is ashamed of having signed a letter that also featured the signature of a well known witch. Rowling, the real witch, is calling out Boylan, a newly self-appointed witch-finder. Boylan embarrassingly realized who stood where after the fact. 

In case you haven’t been following all this, this witch Rowling apparently has the magical ability to harm people by noting that persons who menstruate have traditionally been called women. She has been speaking out for a while now about what she perceives as the cancelling of women.

Rowling fails to chant the approved slogan, indeed appears to casts spells against it, because she is worried about the cancelling of women by defining them out of existence. Not just in rhetoric, but in law and policy and even science (according to some scientists). Rowling is not alone in this concern and is with her example producing what we call “mutual knowledge.” Mutual knowledge often spells trouble for counter/movements if it catches on.

Rowling is a powerful witch, i.e. difficult to cancel given her status and success. She uses her position to defend the right of others who do not enjoy her level of success to be free from the cancel mob. In other words, she is the leader of a coven of young and less powerful witches. Since she cannot be canceled by destroying her career, the witch finders are trying to make an example of her in order to silence others who can be destroyed.

That very successful people of high status have produced and signed a letter decrying cancel culture has been seen as a disaster by those who desire to change our understanding and practice of free speech and other basic liberties.

I want to be clear: the letter does not state a position on the transgender or any other issue of substance. It is a letter pointing out that in a free society people are not destroyed over an opinion on any matter. It is shameful that a letter like this even has to appear. But it does.

The West is in a struggle over whether its people shall live in one world where universal rights are recognized and protected by open and free institutions and culture, or multiple worlds where reality is subjectively defined by feelings and imagined communities and the resulting warring factions shame and cancel those with whom they disagree.

The present moment is not unlike the religious wars of yesteryear, only one side of this is secular and the other side is comprised of religious-like zealots. Hence the frenzy over the letter. The mob (financed by fractions of the corporate class—don’t think the woke crowd is marginal) believes it is finally canceling Western civilization and the sense that their efforts could be slipping away from them is heightening the mass hysteria. 

Moral panics have their own organic appetites, so I suspect this will get a lot worse before it gets better. Of course, it may kill its host before it’s through.

And speaking of embarrassing, how about this essay by Billy Bragg?

“Outside Broadcasting House in London,” he writes, the BBC has erected a statue to one of its former employees, George Orwell. The author leans forward, hand on hip, as if to make a telling point. Carved into the wall beside him is a quote from the preface of Animal Farm: ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

“It’s a snappy slogan that fits neatly into a tweet, but whenever I walk past this effigy of the English writer that I most admire, it makes me cringe. Surely the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four would understand that people don’t want to hear that 2+2=5?”

No, Bragg, Orwell would want to make sure that people enjoy the right to not have to repeat the lie that 2+2=5.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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