Why cancel culture will harm us all

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James Knell
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In the last few weeks, the Guardian published a series of articles on ‘cancel culture’ – the phenomenon where people are hounded to apologise for saying or thinking something that is considered unacceptable to politically correct minds.

Two articles caught my eye. The first informs us that social media is “pretty much the only way certain marginalised voices can be heard”, whilst the second states that “Without equality, those in power will use their freedom of expression to abuse and marginalise others”.

They got me thinking. First, on equality: what a depressing view! I know plenty of people who cherish freedom of expression yet don’t feel the need to hurl abuse or cut out people they disagree with.

Secondly, using social media to promote the views and concerns of marginalised groups not covered elsewhere is perfectly sensible. But I wonder why this cannot just be done and that be the end of it? Publish your article or post your tweet or whatever – that’s great! There’s no need to snuff out opposing voices too.  People can make their own minds up.

And this is where we need to be honest: cancel culture is about more than addressing grievances and raising voices. It is actually an attempt to scare people into submission.

This is not about promoting reasoned debate but weaponizing social media by mobs who sense a new power to bring the mighty down.

The no-platforming, physical threats and relentless hounding of Oxford University Professor Selina Todd, a left-wing academic of history, for her views on the protection of women’s spaces and the cancellation of former Home Secretary Amber Rudd by the same university’s Student Union are prominent examples of this new intolerance.

What is really striking about this debate is that the side of common sense is on the defensive against people who are spouting the most toxic hate imaginable. The response has been weak, arguments about the “free exchange of information and ideas” are all well and good but when the author of Harry Potter receives the most vile misogynistic abuse because of her views on gender, aren’t we in need of a slightly stronger potion in response?

Much of the cancel culture phenomenon is sadly of our own doing. Freedom of speech is taken for granted. We never feel the need to defend it until we perceive that it is under attack. This is a problem because those of us who rightly are outraged by cancel culture tend to be on the reactionary back foot.

That is why the history of freedom of speech and expression in Britain should have a stronger place in the national curriculum and for all the recent focus on mental health – why so little attention on the horrific effects that social media shaming can exert on people? Yes even rich and powerful people with whom you may happen to disagree have feelings too.

Earlier this month, a group of 150 writers put their names to an open letter published in Harper’s Magazine. The letter spoke of the “free exchange of information and ideas” and how this constituted “the lifeblood of a liberal society”. The problem is that most ordinary people have never heard of half of these signatories outside the lofty circles of Ivy League academia and broadsheet journalism.

The outrage should have been voiced by journalists here on home turf, at the BBC, by MPs, by business figures. Where were they? I think they were somewhere between fears over job retention and reticence to lose the political capital of jumping onto the bandwagon of fashionable moral righteousness.

Cancel culture is dismissed by the less concerned as in ‘vogue’ – let them vent their frustration, say a few nasty things and eventually it’ll pass. This is missing the point. The more that freedom of speech is chipped away at, bit by bit, the more it is perceived as legitimate to do so and the easier it becomes to paint those who defend free speech as racists, bigots and transphobes.

Cancel culture is an absurd term. It is a dangerous term. It is anti-democratic, and it is anti-free speech. It is a term that ought to be consigned to the dustbin of history. If it is not, the mob will get more power. The power to destroy careers. The power to force people to publicly grovel, to beg for forgiveness. This is not about encouraging equality in public debate; this is a new sadism that must stop now.

Now is the time to speak up and to fight back. 

James Knell

Research Director

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