Cancel culture is a threat to freedom of speech

INTRODUCTION

Cancel culture is one of the buzzwords of the social-media age. It describes the view that there is a new assault on freedom of expression and belief, beyond traditional free speech controversies like ‘no-platforming’. Cancel culture is a form of boycott where a person who has shared a controversial opinion, expressed an ‘inappropriate’ viewpoint, or whose actions are perceived as offensive, is called out and then ‘cancelled’ for their errant behaviour.

It seems there is an example of a celebrity getting ‘cancelled’ every week. Author JK Rowling, singer Winston Marshall, radio presenter Danny Baker and actors Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson are just a few who have been fired and lost work for expressing their views. But it’s not just limited to the world of celebrity. Harper’s Magazine published a joint letter from a diverse range of 153 prominent writers, including Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, concerned more generally that ‘the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted’ [Ref: Harper’s Magazine].

But plenty of commentators think this is no threat to freedom of expression, arguing call-outs are the natural consequence of voicing prejudiced and bigoted opinions, and those who complain that they are held accountable are the ones really trying to crack down on freedom of speech [Ref: Varsity]. So, does this new culture stifle debate and jeopardise free speech, or is it merely what fair and open debate looks like in the social-media age?

DEBATE IN CONTEXT

Public shaming and moral panic are as old as society itself. The ancient Greeks practiced ostracism, where individuals who destabilised the state could be banished without any charge against them [Ref: Britannica], while Socrates was famously condemned to death for the moral corruption of Athenian youth [Ref: Britannica]. The rest of history, before and after, is littered with similar such events. Modern history has also had its fair share of moral panics, from red scares about communists [Ref: Miller Center], to tabloid crises about emo kids [Ref: Daily Mail], and with them has come sentiment to shut down conversation about subversive ideas.

But some argue there has been a fundamental shift in the nature of public debate since the advent of online social media, which truly threatens free speech and expression. The rapid growth of a trending topic can, in a matter of hours, irreversibly change someone’s life for the worse – often disproportionately to their alleged offence, and free from the due process which constrains official methods of punishing sanctioned behaviour. Such consequences also raise questions about the proper boundaries between public and private spheres, with public consequences such as loss of public standing or employment often following ostensibly private activity, such as posting to a private Facebook page or liking a post on X (formerly Twitter). With the advent of online social media, has there been a significant cultural constriction of how we discuss ideas?

While plenty of attention has gone into the world of celebrity in relation to cancel culture, its reach has gone further. Academics, like Kathleen Stock formerly of the University of Sussex [Ref: Guardian], have resigned from their positions over rows about academic freedom and their public profiles as advocates of certain positions. Along with no-platforming of guest speakers and harassment of staff who espouse unpopular views, this consequence of cancel culture is either seen as preventing challenging debate in the very place where it should be encouraged – the university – or a valid cleansing of the places where new and better ideas about the world are produced.

DOES CANCEL CULTURE EVEN EXIST?

The first argument that cancel culture does not threaten free speech comes from those who deny it exists in the first place. For a start, the ideas of public pressure, as well as a realm of acceptable political debate, are not new. Yes, the method and speed with which these ideas are enforced may have changed with the advent of social media, but the concept is the same. Just because someone is discouraged from saying something for fear of other people not liking it, does not mean they are actually forbidden from saying it.

Free expression is for the brave. If someone needs protecting and mollycoddling from the reaction of the world to what they say, perhaps that is itself an assault on free speech [Ref: The Atlantic]. In other words, one commentator accuses those who fear cancel culture of having ‘a sensitivity that those labelled overly PC are usually accused of indulging in’ [Ref: Varsity].

Meanwhile well-known satirist Armando Iannucci, discussing cancel culture on BBC Newsnight, argues that people’s beliefs and values should be able to stand up to criticism, and that the most censorious people are those who accuse others of doing the cancelling. The real risk, he maintains, is from increasingly controlling authorities who seek to ban behaviours that they find threatening [Ref: BBC Newsnight].

In response to this, however, many would argue that this blatantly ignores what has happened. There are regular reports of people losing their jobs because of a social media witch-hunt over something they said [Ref: The Metro]. Moreover, there are even incidents of the police being called over offensive opinions people have posted on X [Ref: The Verge], showing that cancel culture has pervaded more of public life than just social media.

Some would argue that this is a consequence of the central assumption of cancel culture: that things people say can cause real harm [Ref: New York Times]. This is believed to such an extent that the law has to get involved, leading some to argue that the police spend more time prosecuting people for hurtful things they say rather than dealing with ‘proper’ crime.

ACCOUNTABILITY CULTURE

Some argue that, yes, there is a new culture of calling out others for unacceptable behaviour, but this is a healthy thing in society, a way of holding each other to account [Ref: CNN entertainment]. From this perspective, those calling cancel culture a threat to free speech are being disingenuous. If people can say what they like, surely others are allowed to react how they like. People who shout about cancel culture, from this view, are merely using it as a guise to protect their dangerous and bigoted opinions from scrutiny [Ref: The Hill]. Comedian Shazia Mirza argues that many people who ‘want to say racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic things also want licence to say them – but then they get upset when people respond’ and blame it on cancel culture. In other words, cancel culture is a term used by bigots as a ‘cloak of respectability over the fact they want to be able to say offensive things without consequences’ [Ref: Guardian].

However, those who argue cancel culture is a threat to free speech would accuse this dismissal of being truly sinister. By labelling public censorship as ‘accountability’ they are removing the ability for their own prevailing opinions to be scrutinised as people are discouraged from speaking out against them. This practically shuts down valid cultural debates about how we want to collectively live our lives and avoids the need to justify opinions [Ref: Reason]. As commentator Tomiwa Owolade puts it, ‘to dismiss anyone who expresses [a certain view] as stoking a culture war, to assume that they are doing so simply out of bad faith, is to display a level of arrogance completely contrary to the principles that underpin a plural society’ [Ref: Evening Standard].

But some argue that there has always been an ‘Overton window’ of things that are acceptable to say that shifts over time [Ref: New Statesman]. What we are seeing today, they argue, is a shifting of the realm of acceptable comment for the better, and the people who still want to make prejudiced comments of the past are falsely appealing to democratic ideals in an attempt to show themselves as the victims. For example, plenty of the people who complain about cancel culture today would likely find it abhorrent to have open discussion about Victorian-era eugenic theories because such ideas are now way beyond the realm of acceptability.

So, are those seeking freedom from cancel culture actually seeking freedom from consequence?

HEALTHY DEBATES WE’RE NOT HAVING?

JS Mill, one of the fathers of liberal thought, once claimed: ‘If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.’ [Ref: On Liberty] Those who claim cancel culture is a threat to public debate claim we as a society no longer abide by this principle. This is because the new and dangerous phenomenon of cancel culture has created a ‘climate of fear’ [Ref: spiked] that breaks down constructive discussion by discouraging people with a divergent view, or even the ‘wrong’ mainstream view, from putting their head above the parapet.

On many topics, some claim, cancel culture has created a silent majority who fear the social repercussions of being reprimanded by a loud minority. This inevitably results in a distortion of perceived public opinion, meaning policy and the progression of further public discourse goes in a generally unfavoured direction. To make things worse for everyone, even those who have opinions that are supported by cancel culture are denied the opportunity to have a reasoned and fair argument with their opponents and attempt to win them over. This is bad for free speech and democracy then, not only because a minority of people overrule the majority, but also because a valuable debate that might change the public’s general attitude to something is avoided for fear of social and economic repercussions [Ref: The Atlantic].

CALLING IN RATHER THAN CALLING OUT

To some, the danger of cancel culture is not just about the harm it can do to innocent individuals and the distortion of public debate, but also the reaction from the individual being cancelled. Academic and activist Loretta Ross argues we should be ‘calling in’ rather than ‘calling out’ people with opinions we disagree with [Ref: Slate]. By this, she means having private conversations about uncomfortable topics with care of the other person in mind, rather than theatrical ‘trashing’ [Ref: New York Times] which alienates and further entrenches people in their opinions.

Critics of this view, however, will say we need public accountability for our public comments. If people are only gently criticised in private, this will only embolden bigots to spout more bile, unopposed in the public sphere.

So, do we need to step back from such adversarial online politics and try to build bridges? Or do we accept that with light also comes heat; that some people say things that are deserving of consequences, and that this fact does not constitute some new and dangerous force of ‘cancel culture’?

READINGS

For

Cancel culture is real
Emily Carver Institute of Economic Affairs 16 July 2020

25 times cancel culture was real
spiked 14 July 2020

Why the ideologies behind ‘Woke’ and Cancel Culture are putting our democracy in jeopardy
Thierry Vissol Euronews 15 September 2021

Cancel Culture Is a Threat to Everyone
Alec Greven Institute for Free Speech 22 September 2021

Against

Cancel culture is a myth: nothing can shut us comedians up
Shazia Mirza Guardian 23 December 2021

Cancel Culture Is Not Real—At Least Not in the Way You Think
Sarah Hagi Time 21 November 2021

“Cancel Culture” does not exist
Sarah Manavis The  New Statesman 16 July 2020

‘Cancel Culture’ is just free speech holding others accountable
Jared Schroeder and Jessica Maddox The Hill 11 March 2021

IN DEPTH

On the myth of cancel culture
Amaka Dominic-Udeagbaja Varsity 16 July 2021

Cancel culture is real but it’s not the ‘woke mob’ you should worry about
Arwa Mahdawi Guardian 1 February 2022

It’s time to cancel this talk of ‘cancel culture’
AJ Willingham CNN 7 March 2021

Intolerance is the drug of choice for the ‘tolerant’ in today’s culture wars
Tomiwa Owolade Evening Standard 26 January 2023

Why is Graham Norton defending cancel culture?
Gareth Roberts spiked 12 October 2022

Lizzo could not be more wrong about cancel culture
Lauren Smith spiked 10 January 2023

Graham Norton gets a taste of ‘accountability culture’
Brendan O’Neill spiked 18 October 2022

The “free speech debate” isn’t really about free speech
Zach Beauchamp Vox 22 July 2022

Americans and ‘Cancel Culture’: Where Some See Calls for Accountability, Others See Censorship, Punishment
Pew Research Center 19 May 2021

‘A climate of fear prevents people from speaking out’
spiked 18 December 2020

Yascha Mounk: ‘The Left is rebranding free speech as Right-wing’
Telegraph 19 Nov 2023

The Real Reason Cancel Culture Is So Contentious
Conor Friedersdorf The Atlantic 28 April 2022

The Threat to Free Speech, Beyond ‘Cancel Culture’
Conor Friedersdorf The Atlantic 23 March 2022

Is free speech under threat from ‘cancel culture’? Four writers respond
Nesrine Malik, Jonathan Freedland, Zoe Williams and Samuel Moyn Guardian 8 July 2020

Culture wars: It’s the Right that is trying to cancel free speech
Adam Ramsay openDemocracy 18 December 2021

Cancel culture: what views are Britons afraid to express?
Matthew Smith YouGov 22 December 2021

Cancel culture Definition & Meaning
Merriam-Webster

Why we can’t stop fighting about cancel culture
Aja Romano Vox 25 August 2020

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate
Harper’s Magazine 7 July 2020

How the Politically Unthinkable Can Become Mainstream
Maggie Astor New York Times 26 February 2019

Cancel Culture Fears Stopping Young People Speaking Out On Climate Crisis, Study Finds
Jamie Hailstone Forbes 20 December 2021

Ostracism
Britannica 23 January 2023

Cancel culture isn’t cancelling comedy, it’s improving it
Chloe Laws and Lucy Morgan Glamour Magazine 27 May 2022

Cancel culture killing comedy? What a joke
Rachel Aroesti Guardian 10 August 2021

David Cross on standup comedy and the myth of cancel culture
Sean Illing Vox 19 March 2022

Graham Norton praised for describing cancel culture as accountability
Rachel O’Connor Metro 13 October 2022

What if Instead of Calling People Out, We Called Them In?
Jessica Bennett New York Times 19 November 2020

The real victims of cancel culture
Jason Johnson Slate 8 March 2021

Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee
The Atlantic 11 April 2022

Cancelled
Amia Srinivasan London Review of Books 29 June 2023

Louis CK’s sold-out show at Madison Square Garden proves there’s no such thing as cancel culture
Marc Burrows The Big Issue 30 January 2023

IN THE NEWS

Michigan teacher claims he was fired over pro-Trump tweets
Tamar Lapin New York Post 22 July 2020

Police Spend Too Much Time Investigating ‘Twitter Rows And Hurt Feelings’, Says Liz Truss
Ned Simons HuffPost 27 July 2022

Graham Norton says ‘cancel culture’ is really just accountability
Scottie Andrew CNN 14 October 2022

Cancel culture widely viewed as threat to democracy, freedom
FIRE
31 January 2022

Jordan Peterson Visits Britain’s ‘Strictest’ School, Weeps, Police Called
James Bickerton Newsweek 17 September 2022