Cancel culture vs. toleration: The consequences of punishing dissent

When we limit the clash of ideas, we ultimately hinder progress for the entire society.

Credit: Анатолий Шаповал via AdobeStock / Big Think
  • Pluralism is the idea that different people, traditions, and beliefs not only can coexist together in the same society but also should coexist together because society benefits from the vibrant workshopping of ideas.
  • Cancel culture is a threat to a liberal society because it seeks to shape the available information rather than seek truth.
  • Practicing toleration for those ideas does not mean merely putting up with them but actually acknowledging the ideas with an open spirit, as Chandran Kukathas, professor at Singapore Management University, says.


"Cancel culture now poses a real threat to intellectual freedom in the United States," Jonathan Rauch, distinguished fellow at the Institute for Humane Studies, writes in Persuasion. Rauch cites a Cato Institute poll that found a third of Americans worry their careers will be harmed if they express their real political opinions. Canceling is different than healthy criticism, Rauch writes, because canceling "is about shaping the information battlefield, not seeking truth; and its intent—or at least its predictable outcome—is to coerce conformity[.]"

And conformity is a death knell for liberalism. In a homogenous society—one in which everyone has roughly the same background, religion, values, and goals—people will generally agree on what it means to be a good person and live a good life. But a key tenet of liberalism is pluralism: the idea that different people, traditions, and beliefs not only can coexist together in the same society but also should coexist together because society benefits from vibrant heterogeneity.

"Liberal thinking really arises out of a reflection on the fact that people disagree substantially about things," Chandran Kukathas, professor at Singapore Management University, says in a Big Think video on pluralism and toleration. "They have different ways of life."

[Cancel culture] is about shaping the information battlefield, not seeking truth; and its intent—or at least its predictable outcome—is to coerce conformity[.]

Throughout history, men and women who've changed the world have been living examples of pluralism—people whose lives and minds were unique products of a diverse, interconnected world. Alexander Hamilton was, as the musical Hamilton says, "a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean" before he came to the colonies. Marie Curie (neé Skłodowska) was the daughter of two Polish teachers, one atheist and one Catholic, and attended an underground university in Warsaw before immigrating to Paris. Sergey Brin was born in the Soviet Union to Jewish parents before his family fled persecution and came to the United States, where Brin co-founded Google.

A pluralistic society nourishes innovation and progress, where diverse people with unique life experiences develop and share ideas. If people stayed in discrete, homogenous communities, how many world-changing lives and ideas would never have existed?

Critics might say: It's one thing to welcome people from diverse backgrounds into your society; it's another to welcome diverse ideas, even if some are offensive or harmful.

But our vibrant, evolving world depends on diverse ideas and cultures. In a homogenous society, ideas and customs can be stagnant for generations. But in a pluralistic society, ideas and customs evolve by being brought into constant contact with alternative ideas and customs. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill writes:

…the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

For humanity to benefit from pluralism—to benefit from the exchange of cultures and the collision of ideas—we must practice toleration. We must respect the rights of our colleagues and neighbors to think and live differently than we do.

When someone practices toleration, Kukathas says, they don't just put up with something but actually acknowledge it "with a kind of open spirit." Intentional, meaningful tolerance includes making an effort to understand others' points of view. We don't have to agree, but we should seek to understand. And, ultimately, we have to tolerate ideas we disagree with if we want to live in a flourishing and peaceful society.

This is what cancel culture robs society of—the healthy and essential practice of toleration, without which pluralism and a peaceful society cannot be sustained.

More From Nicole Yeatman
Related Articles

Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

"Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

"There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

Ancient megalodon shark was even bigger than estimated, finds study

A school lesson leads to more precise measurements of the extinct megalodon shark, one of the largest fish ever.

Credit: Catmando / Adobe Stock.
Surprising Science
  • A new method estimates the ancient megalodon shark was as long as 65 feet.
  • The megalodon was one of the largest fish that ever lived.
  • The new model uses the width of shark teeth to estimate its overall size.
Keep reading Show less

The power of authority: how easily we do what we’re told

Milgram's experiment is rightly famous, but does it show what we think it does?

Credit: MEHDI FEDOUACH via Getty Images
Mind & Brain
  • In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram was sure that good, law-abiding Americans would never be able to follow orders like the Germans in the Holocaust.
  • His experiments proved him spectacularly wrong. They showed just how many of us are willing to do evil if only we're told to by an authority figure.
  • Yet, parts of the experiment were set up in such a way that we should perhaps conclude something a bit more nuanced.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast