Freedom of Speech and “Cancel Culture”

On Tuesday 7th July 2020, an open letter was published in Harper’s magazine that argued that because of so-called “cancel culture”, freedom of speech and the right to openly debate ideas, is under significant threat in Western society. The letter was co-signed by 150 prominent writers, journalists and academics, with the most famous name being Harry Potter-writer J. K. Rowling. Here is an excerpt from the letter:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted… 

We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes…

The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.

How Tolerant is our Society?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “tolerance” as “the willingness to accept or tolerate someone or something, especially opinions or behaviour that you may not agree with, or people who are not like you”. Tolerance has been one of the major drivers behind campaigns for equality and peace down the centuries. To co-exist peacefully and amicably in a diverse and equal society is aspiration held by most (at least in principle). And to this end, I think modern Western society does have some reasons to celebrate. Through the toil and sacrifice of campaigners and activists, many dividing walls between societal groups have been torn down or at least dented. However, in recent years, especially around issues of social justice and identity politics, we have seen dividing walls re-erected, ironically, in the name of “tolerance”.

Time and again, groups have sought to engage with those who disagree with them, not through discussion or debate, but by attempting to silence their opponents. This is usually through either insulting them in submission, or by literally silencing their communication avenues, such as via no-platforming or social media blocking. But tolerance is not tolerance if you only tolerate people who agree with you! And both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of this.

The Intolerance of Conservatives

The last decade has seen political sea-changes in the UK and USA, as right-wing parties, personalities, and causes have gained somewhat surprising popularity. President Donald Trump is a cartoonishly extreme example of right-wing “cancel culture”; every few days there seems to be a new video of Trump or his spokespeople yelling “fake news” at journalists who try to ask probing questions, rather than engaging with the debates and issues at hand. On a more sober level, many right-wing campaigners and commentators now all-too-easily reach for the insults of “snowflake” or “liberal-elite” rather than engage with the arguments of their left-wing counterparts. And after the EU referendum in the UK, Brexit-supporting advocates applied a similar strategy as “re-moaner” became common parlance.

Cancel culture has also disconcertingly impacted academia. In October 2009, the UK government’s chief drug advisor Prof. David Nutt published an in-depth analysis in the Lancet journal, on the relative harms of recreational drugs. He concluded that several drugs including cannabis and LSD were actually safer to consume than alcohol. However, his conclusions caused furore among politicians, and he was promptly sacked from his advisory role and labelled by the then Home Secretary Alan Johnson as a “campaigner against government policy”.

The Intolerance of Liberals

However, the political left are also guilty of intolerance. Recent years have seen the mighty rise of several liberal “woke” campaigns around social justice issues such as feminism, race, sexuality and transgenderism. These campaigns have been permeated with “cancel culture”, as advocates have publicly sought to silence not only those who disagree with them, but also those who accidently slip from tightrope of acceptable vernacular.

J. K. Rowling is a classic recent example of this. In a series of tweets on 6th June 2020, Rowling argued that as a feminist, she opposed the deconstruction of binary gender. Twitter went into abuse-saturated meltdown, with many labelling Rowling as a “Trans-exclusionary Radical Feminist” or “TERF”. Or take the example of actor Benedict Cumberbatch. In January 2015, in an American TV interview, Cumberbatch expressed his desire to have more actors from ethnic minority backgrounds in Hollywood. However, he accidentally referred to “people of colour” as “coloured people”. The public fury was explosive, and the “Cumberbatch race row” hit international headline news. In a swift public statement, Cumberbatch announced “I’m devastated to have caused offence by using this outmoded terminology. I offer my sincere apologies. I make no excuse for my being an idiot and know the damage is done.”

Academia has also been hit by left-wing cancel culture. In December 2015, Prof. Kenneth Zucker, who was psychologist-in-chief at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and who helped to write the DSM-V criteria for gender dysphoria, was suddenly fired amidst activist uproar. The anger was, in part, over a Swedish study published in the journal Zucker edited, that found substantially elevated rates of suicide among transgender adults, even after they had undergone reassignment therapies. Activists demanded that the study’s conclusions were retracted, which Zucker refused. This led to him being attacked by protesters and the Canadian government shutting down his clinic.

And on a personal level, the observant among you may have noticed that I have had to restart my blog under a different URL. This was because an article I published earlier this year (now taken down) apparently violated Facebook’s “community standards”, and so the whole of my old blog was blocked by Facebook and Instagram (including in private messages!).

Are We Losing the Right to Freedom of Speech?

I do not agree with many of the views held by the afore mentioned individuals. And I am not going to comment here on the content of the controversies discussed. However, providing that people are abiding by laws prohibiting hate-speech and incitement of violence, I would want to defend to the hilt everyone’s right to freedom of speech, regardless of their views.

And is not to say that detestable, offensive, or even disagreeable opinions should go unchallenged- far from it. To quote the late Christian philosopher Ravi Zacharias “people are equal, but ideas are not”. We should dissect, deconstruct and demolish ideas that are not right and good. If we disagree with an individual or cause, we should engage in argument and debate, not abuse and cancel culture.

In my opinion, the growing cancel culture on both sides of the political aisle is deeply concerning. The co-signatories of the Harper’s letter claim that “As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.” I think the threat to writers is just the tip of the iceberg. We need writers to be able to experiment with ideas and imagine possibilities. We need politicians to be able to openly debate and scrutinise ideologies. We need journalists to be able to independently report facts and events even if they make for disconcerting viewing. We need scientists, medics and researchers to be able to follow the evidence where it leads, even if their conclusions rub up against the views of the masses. And we need everyone in society to be able to explore, wrestling with, discuss and debate controversial thoughts and ideas, without constant fear of being cancelled, abused or fired. Society needs freedom of speech. Without it, we would lose so much of what we hold dear.

To quote the George Orwell line engraved on the outside of the BBC News studios: “If Liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”