Can we cancel ‘cancel culture’?
‘Cancel culture’ has recently become a ubiquitous term, used widely to describe apparently new assaults on freedom of expression and belief. This seems to go beyond free-speech controversies around no-platforming and involves demands ‘to punish and also banish from the community a respectable opinion’. When Harper’s Magazine published a joint letter from 153 prominent writers, academics and entertainers - across ideologies, ethnicities, religions and sexual preferences - it expressed concern that ‘the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted’.
The letter itself has proven to be hugely controversial, and has led to a vociferous denial that cancel culture even exists. Critics claim that powerful people with large followings are complaining about censorship, when the reality is that newly empowered activists are merely holding them to account, whether it is writer JK Rowling or grime artist Wiley. Nesrine Malik, a Guardian columnist, writes that such well-known figures are not used to having their views challenged and have ‘confused a lack of reverence from people who are able to air their views for the very first time with an attack on their right to free speech’.
Her fellow Guardian columnist, Zoe Williams, says the Harpers letter is a ‘coded attack on marginalised minorities for having the gall to criticise people with power and platforms’. In other words, freedom of speech can’t be freedom from consequences, and when people argue that certain views and opinions make you unfit for a certain job, that’s just more freedom of speech.
But how then do we explain that often those most fearful of being cancelled themselves lack power, especially in the workplace? The Harpers letter was a response to an upsurge of sackings, resignations and public shamings over allegedly harmful words, deeds, opinions, often as a result of ‘institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control… delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments’. Examples abound of employees falling foul of overzealous HR departments for having the ‘wrong’ responses to diversity initiatives. Many ‘ordinary people’, therefore, are understandably fearful of the consequences of not signing up to a range of ‘correct’ views, especially those views associated with Black Lives Matter.
Even the wisdom of debating such issues is now being questioned. Labour MP Nadia Whittome attracted controversy when she tweeted: ‘We must not fetishise “debate” as though debate is itself an innocuous, neutral act. The very act of debate in these cases is an effective rollback of assumed equality and a foot in the door for doubt and hatred.’
What is to be done and how should people respond in such a climate? Is cancel culture leading to greater self-censorship and stifling open debate? Or are we just seeing a new generation who have found their voice? Indeed, some suggest that marginalising unpleasant and offensive people – not doing business with them, not giving them a platform, not employing them in your business – is an entirely reasonable, personal decision. When do such actions become a systematic marginalisation of certain views – and what’s wrong with marginalising repulsive views anyway?
Many seem eager to ‘fight fire with fire’ – calling out the double standards of their opponents in a tit-for-tat round of cancellations – but how can we expect that to lead to a greater range of opinion and debate? Perhaps we need to ask a fundamental question: what does it mean to live in a genuinely tolerant democracy?
Nick Buckley MBE
founder and CEO, Mancunian Way charity; social commentator and activist
partner at a large City consultancy; regular political commentator in the media; founding director; Big Brother Watch; previously elected common councilman, City of London Corporation; author and editor, most recently of Big Brother Watch: The state of civil liberties in modern Britain
director, Academy of Ideas; author, I STILL Find That Offensive!
political and cultural writer; editor, Areo Magazine; co-author (with James Lindsay), Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity - And Why this Harms Everybody (out in September)
school leader and sometime political candidate; frequent face on media outlets covering education and identity politics; currently championing the DefundTheBBC campaign.