Cancel culture is a threat to freedom of speech

updated 2024

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?

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Western museums should repatriate cultural artefacts

updated 2024

INTRODUCTION

In January 2023 it was revealed that the British Museum has been in talks with Greek officials about returning some of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece on loan in a ‘cultural exchange’ for other ancient artefacts. Legal ownership of the marbles would, however, remain with the British Museum [Ref: Daily Mail]. 

The news reopened debate about what should happen to the Marbles and other artefacts removed from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin in the early nineteenth century. Former cabinet minister Lord David Frost wrote in response: ‘My view is that it is time for a grand gesture. Only the government can make it. It is to offer to return the marbles as a one-off gift from this country to Greece, as part of a new wider Anglo-Greek partnership.’ [Ref: Telegraph]

But William Atkinson, the assistant editor of Conservative Home, argued that the loan offer by the British Museum’s chair, George Osborne, ‘should horrify not only his fellow Tories, but anyone with even a passing interest in history. It would be an act of vandalism, based on spurious historical and legal arguments, that would fatally undermine a world-leading museum.’ [Ref: CapX] He cites historian David Abulafia’s argument that the British Museum is ‘one of a select number of what might be called Great Universal Museums’, ‘embrac[ing] the history of all the world’s civilisations’ [Ref: The Telegraph]. Abulafia argues that this allows visitors to experience the Marbles not just in the context of Greek history but informed by, and in the presence of, all the world’s civilisations.

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Corporate sponsorship is good for the arts

updated 2024

INTRODUCTION

In December 2023, the British Museum announced a new £50m partnership with BP, six months after the end of their previous sponsorship deal was hailed by climate protesters as a ‘seismic shift’ [Ref: Culture Unstained]. Climate groups immediately announced plans to protest it and pursue legal action to block the deal, while reports emerged of ‘strong personal disagreement’ among trustees [Ref: Museums Association]. This follows a decade of campaigning for major arts institutions to divest from fossil fuels [Ref: BP or not BP?]: in 2019, a trustee of the British Museum resigned in protest against the Museum’s relationship with BP [Ref: LRB blog]. In 2016, BP ended its 26-year sponsorship of Tate Galleries, as well as its 34-year sponsorship of the Edinburgh International Festival, with suggestions that the possibility of controversy influenced the move [Ref: Guardian]. 

The Sackler name is another high-profile example of the push in recent years for arts institutions to reject funding from bodies deemed ethically questionable. In February 2019, the American photographer Nan Goldin threatened to boycott the UK’s National Portrait Gallery if it accepted a £1m donation from the Sackler fund, which was deemed controversial given the Sackler family’s connection to the opioid epidemic in the US [Ref: Guardian]. Numerous arts institutions have since stopped accepting Sackler funding including the Tate [Ref: Guardian], the Louvre [Ref: Art Newspaper] and the V&A [Ref: Guardian]. 

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Healthcare workers should not be allowed to strike

2023

INTRODUCTION

With the UK economy in the doldrums and following a period when inflation significantly outpaced wage growth, a wave of industrial action has hit the UK. While many strikes have been in industries accustomed to industrial action, there have also been strikes in essential healthcare roles like nurses, ambulance crews and doctors. This has been divisive, triggering some to accuse healthcare workers of neglecting their duty of care for their patients and jeopardising the already overstrained National Health Service.

In reaction to the upheaval caused by this fresh phase of striking, the government has put forward a bill to further curb the right to strike and ensure, by law, minimum levels of service [Ref: UK Government]. This has been heralded by some as a saver of the public’s time (in the case of transport, communications and postal strikes) and protector of many lives (in the case of healthcare strikes). On the other hand, opponents argue this takes away the fundamental democratic right to withdraw one’s labour, as well as ignoring the fact that minimum levels of service are already maintained during healthcare strikes.

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DM Berlin: Healthcare workers should not be allowed to strike

2023

INTRODUCTION

As a new recession begins to take effect and inflation has outpaced wage growth, a wave of industrial action has hit the UK, Germany and other European countries. While many strikes have been in industries accustomed to industrial action, there have also been strikes in essential healthcare roles like nurses, ambulance crews and doctors. This has been divisive, triggering some to accuse healthcare workers of neglecting their duty of care for their patients and jeopardising already overstrained health services. In Germany, for example, health workers in the Verdi trade union staged a two-day strike in March 2023. [Ref: The Local Germany]

In reaction to the upheaval caused by this fresh phase of striking, the UK government has put forward a bill to further curb the right to strike and ensure, by law, minimum levels of service [Ref: UK Government]. This has been heralded by some as a saver of the public’s time (in the case of transport, communications and postal strikes) and protector of many lives (in the case of healthcare strikes). On the other hand, opponents argue this takes away the fundamental democratic right to withdraw one’s labour, as well as ignoring the fact that minimum levels of service are already maintained during healthcare strikes. In Germany, there are certain legal guidelines in place concerning who is allowed to strike and under what conditions [Ref: Artz.de]. But even where there is legal guidance, a number of ethical questions remain [Ref: BDI.de].

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DM Berlin: The German government should legalise commercial surrogacy

2023

INTRODUCTION

Commercial surrogacy is when a woman gets pregnant with another person’s child in exchange for payment from the child’s genetic parents. This is often because the wanting parents are biologically incapable of safely gestating a child themselves. But, in many cases, time-starved, wealthy individuals choose to have a surrogate rather than putting life on pause with pregnancy. Some countries like the UK [Ref: UK Government] and the Netherlands [Ref: Government of the Netherlands] allow altruistic surrogacy, where the surrogate acts out of kindness, being paid no more than their living expenses. However, Germany’s ‘Embryonenschutzgesetz’ [Ref: ESchG] forbids all forms of surrogacy.

But surrogacy as a paid service has been brought back to public awareness by various high-profile celebrities in the USA, such as Elton John, Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, Rebel Wilson and Jimmy Fallon [Ref: People]. This has led to debate around whether commercial surrogacy should be opened up as an option in other countries.

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The UK Government Should Legalise Commercial Surrogacy

2023

INTRODUCTION

Commercial surrogacy is when a woman gets pregnant with another person’s child in exchange for payment from the child’s genetic parents. This is often because the wanting parents are biologically incapable of safely gestating a child themselves. But, in many cases, time-starved, wealthy individuals choose to have a surrogate rather than putting life on pause with pregnancy. Since the 1985 Surrogacy Arrangements Act [Ref: UK Government], this practice has been illegal in the UK, with only altruistic surrogacy (no more payment than expenses) being allowed.

But surrogacy as a paid service has been brought back to public awareness by various high-profile celebrities in the USA, such as Elton John, Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, Rebel Wilson and Jimmy Fallon [Ref: People]. This has led to debate around whether commercial surrogacy should be opened up as an option in the UK.

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Billionaires owning media companies is bad for democracy

2023

INTRODUCTION

Since Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter in October 2022, further fuel has been added to the debate over the influence of rich media owners on democracy. A self-described ‘free-speech absolutist’, Musk has promised to protect the ‘de facto public town square’ [Ref: Guardian] that Twitter has become. Some have argued this helps support democracy, as free speech is one of its foundational principles. But critics point to Musk’s subsequent acts of censorship [Ref: Guardian] on Twitter as evidence that billionaires can’t be trusted with absolute control of the means through which we receive or consume information about society.

Musk isn’t the only billionaire who has recently added a media company to his portfolio. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and another one of the richest people in the world, purchased the Washington Post in 2013 [Ref: Washington Post] and Marc Benioff bought Time in 2018 [Ref: New York Times]. Some commentators worry that this trend gives disproportionate political power to the super-rich elite, distorting democracy away from the interests of the people. But others dismiss this, pointing out that legacy media has historically been in the hands of the very wealthy. Moreover, they argue that a free media within a free market is essential to democracy and that without today’s billionaire interventions, the shrinking journalism industry would be on its way to oblivion [Ref: Time].

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We should accept the risk inherent in contact sports

2022

INTRODUCTION

In December 2020, a group of ex-professional and semi-professional rugby players – including World Cup-winning Steve Thompson, former Wales captain Ryan Jones and former All Blacks prop Carl Hayman – sent a pre-action letter to World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union, suing them for failing to take protective action against the risks caused by concussion [Ref: BBC Sport]. Two years later and the case is destined to go to the courts, a settlement having not been reached [Ref: Guardian]. It is the first legal move of its kind in world rugby, with some comparing it to the class action against the NFL in 2011, where 20,000 retired players accused the league of not warning about, and hiding, brain injuries associated with the sport [Ref: NFL Concussion Settlement]. 

Many of the over 180 players who have come forward so far have been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease or motor neurone disease. CTE was the disease discovered post-mortem by Dr Bennet Omalu in American football player Mike Webster [Ref: BBC Sport]. The disease gained public attention following the 2012 suicide of NFL player Junior Seau, who was posthumously found to be a sufferer of the disease [Ref: NPR].

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Unhealthy lifestyles are not the business of government

updated 2022

INTRODUCTION

Since the Covid pandemic, the battle against obesity and unhealthy lifestyles has been more ferocious than ever. Lifestyle factors were found to have a huge influence over how vulnerable people are to hospitalisation and death if infected with Covid-19 [Ref: Office for National Statistics], and after his own brush with death, Boris Johnson announced new plans for rules and regulations to encourage a healthier way of living [Ref: Guardian]. These included widening the existing sugary drinks tax, toughening up packaging rules, introducing a pre-9pm ban on adverts for food high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) and a ban on special offer promotions of HFSS food in supermarkets [Ref: UK Government].

However, during her short reign as prime minister, Liz Truss threatened to reverse the sugar tax and get rid of plans to further regulate the public’s eating habits, despite calls from healthcare professionals to continue with Johnson’s programme [Ref: Sustain]. Now with intermittent-fasting, ‘slimline’ [Ref: Evening Standard] Rishi Sunak taking the reins as prime minister, there is thought to be a shift back to more government intervention. This flip-flopping between stances by successive leaders shows a clear divide between those who think the state ought to intervene to combat obesity and unhealthy lifestyles and critics who argue such policies are unnecessary, illiberal and doomed to fail.

Attempts to regulate the public’s bad habits are nothing new, such as the medieval banning of football [Ref: Bleacher Report] or the American prohibition of alcohol in the early twentieth century [Ref: Thought]. The more recent trend in regulation however, started with tobacco. Since the discovery of the health risks associated with smoking became apparent in the 1950s, legislation has been put in place to reduce it. This process has accelerated in the past 20 years so, with higher taxes, public smoking bans and rules for advertising and packaging [Ref: UK Government]. Should the way that governments have tackled smoking be a template for wider issues of health?

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