Permission to Speak

We live in a world of mutually assured cancellation. Piled-on abuse and career destruction are now standard when dealing with political or intellectual opponents.

I wrote about this on my personal Substack last month. There, I drew on the escalating—and global—war of words and deeds over Israel-Palestine. Finally, conservatives and dissenting liberals had found a way to wound the woke and radical left, and they were proceeding to dish it out in spades. Many lefties, who’d never had to mind their Ps & Qs before, fell to bits quite badly in public. Alternatively—as this activist complains—others simply “refused to speak about Palestine” at all.

Well, that’s what happens if you suspect articulating your views will get you sacked. Welcome to the party, pal (with apologies to Bruce Willis).

However, I need not have drawn upon the hour’s global conflict (Ukraine was unceremoniously sidelined last October). I could have used what was—and in some ways still is—going on at Substack to illustrate the world in which we now live. I watched that controversy as it unfolded.

The contretemps started in November last year with this Atlantic article and then made the rounds of the houses on Substack itself and in other outlets. The essence was this: there are Nazi newsletters on Substack. If the company didn’t at least demonetise them, then multiple writers—some of them popular, bearing Substack’s in-house “bestseller” ticks—would leave. Whether anyone has left yet is unclear, although some people have turned off paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions are, of course, how Substack makes its money.

Without relitigating the minutiae of what took place (and what is probably still unfolding), the logic was depressingly familiar. Nice little newsletter company you’ve got there, Substack. Would be a shame if anything happened to it. People sometimes forget that the ugly fights over which political “side” is perceived to “own” a given social media platform didn’t emerge with Substack. Jack Dorsey’s Twitter went from being “the free speech wing of the free speech party” to an ideologically captured outpost of Woke Inc. Facebook, meanwhile, wound up in protracted fights with national governments over what information could—and could not—be made available on it.

As part of this process, there were multiple attempts from conservatives (and others) to found Twitter and Facebook and YouTube clones, none of which set the world alight. Then—in the wake of Elon Musk’s Twitter acquisition and name-change—lefties engaged in identical behaviour and produced a similar nothingburger. Even the presence and financial clout of Donald Trump (Truth Social, on the right) and Mark Zuckerberg (Threads, on the left) have done little to enhance either company’s bottom line.

Twitter and Substack are both network goods. Network goods tend towards monopoly because the bigger the network, the greater the benefit to being in the network, and the cheaper it is to add each new user. That’s why most people who threaten to leave Muskville never do. Both Twitter/X and Substack enjoy significant first-mover advantage, too, although email marketing is as old as the hills, with many modern outlets resembling even older mail-order publications ranging from Readers’ Digest to xeroxed newsletters by your local tabletop wargaming club.

However, the impulse behind the attempt to bully Substack is the same as that animating the current Israel-Palestine Mutually Assured Cancellation: a given social media platform must be brought to political heel. If it refuses to comply, there’s a campaign to injure it, rather than to debate the issue (any issue). Perhaps this is why, in its first weekly “best of” for 2024, Substack featured my piece. It’s awkward to promote commentary about one’s own firm that looks a bit meta and inside baseball, but it’s okay when an outsider makes a useful analogy.

I’m not sure when destroy the opposition took over from debate the opposition, but it undoubtedly has. Substack is, I think, still vulnerable despite rapid growth, which accounts for its somewhat panicked reaction. “Substack’s argument in response to the Atlantic article was a masterclass in how not to do it,” Stephen Bush observed in The Financial Times. “The best way to defeat these ideas, it claimed, was through scrutiny. Frankly, if scrutiny was going to defeat neo-Nazis or the idea that the Cultural Revolution had some upsides, it would have done so already.”

One thing distinguishing cancellation of the injure and destroy the opposition type from old school beat the opposition with facts and logic approaches is the way it forces the rest of us to rely on the courts to work out who may or may not speak, and what people may or may not speak about.

As part of a wide-ranging column where—as European commentators often do—he pointed out that Communism is as murderously destructive as Nazism and should be seen through similarly jaundiced spectacles, Bush also hewed to the older view that “Substack would have been better off not claiming to be a publisher at all.”

The reality is that it hosts a number of publishers, but Substack itself is a service, a handy bit of infrastructure for sending newsletters. … If Substack were a European or British company, the matter would not even arise: both the European Convention’s Article 11, on freedom of association, and even more explicitly the UK’s 2010 Equality Act, place sharp limitations on the ability of businesses or states to discriminate on the grounds of politics.

This, however, is different from the tradition that’s emerged across the Pond and contributes to the way people in Commonwealth countries view censorship. It’s why I have to spend time explaining to Americans—when, for example, interviewing Maya Forstater and Helen Joyce to take one recent example—that in the UK and even more so Australia, the legal status of any given speech utterance is not dependent on whether its speaker is from the public or private sector, or whether governments or private employers are engaging in speech-policing. Yes, there is still censorship: Bush notes “other ways that British and European law is a colder home to free speech than the US.”

The point, however, is that outside the US, speech prohibitions and restrictions of many kinds are construed as censorship: not just those emanating from government.

That means—to a Brit or Australian—Substack’s putative Nazi-hunters are simply doing a corporate version of the campaigns to get disobliging academics and journalists sacked for mean tweets. So far, they’ve failed and embarrassed themselves, but they will not give up. Similar types—maybe even some of the same people—did not give up on Dorsey’s Twitter, eventually hamstringing his company and turning it into a plaything of the FBI and CDC. They were only stymied when it changed hands. Already, I note, there have been approaches to Stripe, Substack’s payments processor—a common ploy when the public-facing organisation refuses to buckle.

One thing distinguishing cancellation of the injure and destroy the opposition type from old school beat the opposition with facts and logic approaches is the way it forces the rest of us to rely on the courts to work out who may or may not speak, and what people may or may not speak about. Precisely because UK and Australian legislation protect employee speech better than the US First Amendment does—to take only one example—gender-critical folk in those countries go through multiple rounds of litigation every time they get sacked for their views, with no sign of let-up.

Last week, academic criminologist Jo Phoenix won a case of exactly this type against her erstwhile employer, the Open University, which finished up with so much egg on its face it managed to wrap itself in a giant omelette during the course of evidence. You’d think universities would learn from this, but at the time of writing, there are many more “Phoenix” cases coming down the pike. One wonders how many lawsuits need to be lost before they get the message. Mutually Assured Cancellation has become so normalised, and putative censors so emboldened, it seems there must be trials before we can have public debates—even in universities. It wouldn’t surprise me if this happens in the US, too, even though that’s not how your system is supposed to work. Given the enormous, national ruckus about anti-Semitic and pro-Palestine speech across the country, surely the First Amendment case from Hell is lurking in there somewhere.

“Please Your Honour/My Lord, what may I say?”

Public debate via litigation, instead of via … debate. Lawyers enjoy professional flattery as much as anyone, but I’m confident that asking us for permission before you want to say something contentious is above our collective pay grade. Frankly, you’d think this would stop because it’s so bloody expensive: I know how much lawyers charge, I am one. Recall, too, how in the UK and Australia, costs go with the event. That means the Open University picking up most or all of Phoenix’s litigation expenses. Sorry, taxpayers.

Substack’s success is clear evidence there’s an enormous hunger for good quality, long-form writing out there. Lots of writers are doing well with it—for the first time in decades. I’m old enough to remember being told by an ad agency boss—in grand and oracular tones—that people “will not pay for content.” It’s nice to see him proven wrong. However, this literary efflorescence will be short-lived if those determined to destroy Substack based on guilt by association get away with it.

I don’t care that there are Commies and Nazis on Substack. I disagree with Freddie deBoer and Richard Spencer—to cite two famous examples—tout court and think they’re full of drivel. I also give exactly zero shits that they’re both on Substack with bestseller ticks. I mean, I have a bestseller tick—they hand them out to all sorts.

When forming this view, I did wonder if I held it because I’m not Jewish or Ukrainian, making both right and left political extremisms seem more distant. Then I thought, hang on, I’m homosexual. There are loads of people on Substack who bang on about “Globohomo” all the time and I don’t care about them either. Suggest the following to fellow members of the first against the wall club: get over yourselves.

Cancel culture is not only real. It’s pervasive, now part of the developed world’s standard political toolkit. Individuals and corporate entities are in its crosshairs everywhere, depending on who’s sitting closest to the YOU’RE FIRED lever. Meanwhile, the rest of us are coming to depend on the courts to let us know when and how we should speak.