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Few terms have been so hotly debated in recent months – both in Germany and abroad – as ‘cancel culture’. Cancel culture describes the public ostracism of people who have attracted attention for their controversial views. It often consists of exposing them in public and demanding they lose their jobs or public positions – perhaps even their banishment from polite society.
Many dismiss the idea that large numbers of people are being ‘cancelled’ – or otherwise facing repercussions – for their views. Others suggest that what many call ‘being cancelled’ is simply marginalised groups challenging dangerous prejudice. They argue that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences.
However, others are concerned that talk of cancel culture captures a widespread curtailment of free expression and a rejection of debate and discussion in favour of simply removing those with views we disagree with from public life. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the term exists only as an Anglicism and originally came to Europe from the USA. Is it a dangerous attempt to import the American ‘culture wars’ to Germany – or a useful term for understanding the narrowing of public debate?
Many critics insist that cancel culture is a contradiction in terms. It seems only to be used when prominent people – like the writer Uwe Tellkamp or the cabaret artists Lisa Eckhart and Dieter Nuh – face criticisms. Successful individuals are hardly ‘cancelled’ – indeed, many end up with newspaper articles detailing their experiences. However, others suggest that such cases are simply the tip of the iceberg, and the real danger of cancel culture is the corrosive effect it has on ordinary citizens who might lack the means to defend themselves.
For critics of this trend, the dangers of cancel culture are sometimes plain for all to see. In the UK, for example, the philosopher Kathleen Stock has become subject to an ongoing campaign of threats and intimidation – both online and in person by masked ‘activists’ – for her views about sex and gender. Such cases have become common enough that several academics are now represented by the UK’s Free Speech Union (FSU), a growing organisation dedicated to providing legal and political backing to those at risk of losing their jobs or reputations because of their views. Many, however, dismiss these cases and accuse the FSU of stoking a culture war.
Those who warn of the consequences of cancel culture point to the results of a survey conducted by the Allensbach Institute in June 2021, which found that less than half of Germans still believe that they can freely express their political opinion. But could it be that too many who harbour controversial ideas simply lack the courage to stand by their convictions? Critics of the term ‘cancel culture’ see the danger not so much in the restriction of free speech, but rather in a ruthless and aggressive culture of intimidation directed against minorities. Those who attack our open, democratic society, they say, forfeit their right to freedom of expression.
What is to be done? Does cancel culture lead to self-censorship and stifling of open debate? Or is it just a matter of protecting society? Perhaps excluding unpleasant and offensive people is the only sensible response to hate? At what point do such measures become a systematic exclusion of certain views – and what is wrong with marginalising repugnant views in the first place?
Professor Dr Oleg Dik
professor, urban sociology and theology, Tabor Protestant University; lecturer, sociology of religion, Humboldt University
Dr Jan Macvarish
education and events director, Free Speech Union; visiting research fellow, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies; author, Neuroparenting: the expert invasion of family life
author, Cancel Culture: Democracy in Gefahr; journalist, Die Achse des Guten and Novo Argumente
partnerships manager, Academy of Ideas