The public testimonial of Sharon Osbourne last week was abject, if not hysterical. Osbourne, 68, described how she “panicked, felt blindsided, got defensive & allowed my fear & horror” to control her comments. Osbourne had supported Piers Morgan, who stated that he did not believe Meghan Markle. In a tense interview, Osbourne became highly defensive (and rather rude) after Sheryl Underwood asked whether she was defending racism in supporting a friend. Osbourne asked her co-host to explain where Morgan’s criticism was racist and said she felt she was being put into “the electric chair.” Then the power was turned on as the Internet lit up with calls for her firing. After immediate “reflection,” Osbourne repeatedly professed her “deep respect & love for the black community” in saying that she will “continue to learn, listen and do better” in the future. The important thing was that she hoped to have a future. Despite the apology, she is now under investigation by CBS and she has been declared “on hiatus” from the show.
The exchange between Osbourne and Underwood could have served a productive purpose in exploring the continuing difficulty in discussing race. That however is becoming increasingly rare, if not impossible. While many call for a national discussion of race, these controversies show how any frank discussion comes at considerable risk. I did not agree with Morgan’s comment in saying that everything Markle said was a lie and thought Osbourne reacted poorly to being asked about concerns over racism. Thus, I have no problem with the criticism of either Osbourne or Morgan. However, if we are going to have a discussion about race, it has to occur without the threat of being summarily cancelled.
A Harvard-Harris poll showed recently that 64 percent of Americans now view cancel culture as threatening basic freedoms. Yet, that view has not impacted the media or these campaigns. The public overwhelmingly sees the threat to free speech and oppose it. However, free speech requires some breathing space. These cancelling campaigns have only grown with the support of major corporations and the media.
The panic expressed by Osbourne is that she would join the ranks of the banished, a media version of the “desaparecidos” or “disappeared ones.” In today’s hair-triggered cancel culture, celebrities and media figures can be vanished in a single media cycle if tagged on the Internet as racist or reactionary. Such status can result in being banned from social media, boycotted from television, and barred from publications. An array of politicians, writers and professors have openly called for the blacklisting of those with opposing views to prevent others from hearing or reading their views.
The issue came up this week on CNN when host Don Lemon attacked Sen. Tim Scott (R., S.C.) for his denouncing “woke supremacy” as analogous to white supremacy. Scott, who is black, was responding to MSNBC host Joy Reid dismissing his role as simply “to provide the patina of diversity.” It was an insulting racist trope that would have been widely denounced if it were not used against a black Republican or conservative. There is a legitimate objection to Scott’s analogy given the bloody history of white supremacy in the United States. However, Lemon’s attack deflected any need to address Reid’s own outrageous attack on Scott on the basis of his race. Again, there were valuable issues to discuss on both sides of the controversy with both the original insult and the analogy but no discussion actually occurred.
What was striking however was Lemon’s insistence that he had never seen “a woke supremacist denying anybody … a job or education.” If so, he has not looked very hard. Across the country, campaigns have sought to isolate and stigmatize anyone with opposing views. Professors effectively disappear. They are not invited to conference. Their publications are barred through effective blacklisting and they are unable to find alternative schools since administrators do not want to deal with any protests. They vanish.
Osbourne’s self-described panic attack is a common response to those forced to the edge of this abyss. Take Winston Marshall, the banjoist for the band Mumford & Sons. Marshall begged for forgiveness for his “blindspots” and offenses. He promised to enter a period of seclusion and introspection to consider how his actions could be “viewed as approvals of hateful, divisive behaviour.” His offense? He congratulated conservative journalist Andrew Ngo on his new book “Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy” and calling Ngo a “brave man.” Ngo was attacked and injured by Antifa supporters in covering protests. It is of course possible to criticize Antifa and still support racial and social reforms. Antifa is a movement based on pronounced anti-free speech principles. Even those of us who opposed efforts to declare Antifa a terrorist organization have denounced the movement for a long history of violence and speech intolerance.
The fear of being cancelled is palpable among professors and students. Many have watched in silence as their colleagues have been subjected to such campaigns with devastating impacts on their careers. Once tagged, professors find it difficult to secure new academic positions or publications. Recently, student governments have moved to impeach fellow student leaders and bar conservative groups. Few students or professors want to risk such public humiliation even if they can successfully fight sanctions or terminations. By cancelling or marginalizing one professor or student, these campaigns silence 1000 others who think “but for the grace of God go I.”
There are real issues of racism and other issues that warrant a national debate, but there seems little room for anything other than a diatribe. To even question a claim of racism or raise countervailing issues is done at great personal and professional risk in our current environment.
For free speech advocates, it is called the “chilling effect.” The Supreme Court in cases like Lamont v. Postmaster General (1965) have ruled against not just the direct regulation of speech but acts that create “inhibitions” on speech. Today, many anti-free speech advocates emphasize that the First Amendment only applies to the government and thus they are free to pursue a wide array of private censorship and campaigns of harassment to silent opposing viewpoints. However, the First Amendment is not the only or exclusive measure of free speech.
Indeed, the line between public and private censorship is being rapidly erased as Democratic members pressure Big Tech and media companiesto censor conservative media while threatening possible retaliatory actions. One of the most vocal voices for censorship is Senator Richard Blumenthal (D., NY) who has badgered Big Tech for greater speech controls. Blumenthal challenged CEOs that they appeared to be “backsliding or retrenching, that you are failing to take action against dangerous disinformation.” Accordingly, he demanded more “robust content modification” – the new euphemism for censorship.
Free speech is in a free fall in the United States from an unprecedented alliance of governmental, private, academic, and media sources. Those targeted may have as little as one news cycle to seek abject forgiveness before joining the ranks of the disappeared ones. The panic from figures like Osbourne and Marshall shows the reality of today’s digital “desaparecidos.”