Does “cancel culture” hinder our freedom of speech?

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Over 150 authors, academics and public figures have signed an open letter warning of the threat that online ostracism poses towards free speech. The letter, which was published in Harper’s Bazaar on Tuesday, supported by influential figures such as JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, argues that the current “vogue for public shaming” leads to “restriction of debate”, and that people’s “blinding moral certainty” is stifling discussion. Though the letter applauds the recent fight for racial and social justice, it argues that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted”.

This is not the first time this argument has been made; indeed, a bite back against “cancel culture” – the removal of a person from the public eye after they do something considered problematic – has been brewing for some time. Even Barack Obama weighed in on the issue, citing the “ambiguities” of life and questioning the idea that “being as judgmental as possible” is the best way to incite change. His suggestion that claiming the “woke” moral highground and pointing the finger is not always the most constructive approach mirrors a lot of wider concern. Charlie Brooker’s episode of Black Mirror, Hated in the Nation, makes social media condemnation a literal death sentence, with those pilloried on Twitter receiving the equivalent of a medieval public beheading. Are we going backwards by placing people in a binary of good or evil? After all, as Obama notes, life can be “messy”: it’s not always a black and white issue.

And this is where things get tricky. There is a general consensus that deliberately abusing your power or platform deserves retribution. Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, for instance, was clearly on the wrong side of history; his villification – and nullification – after years of harassment even helped kickstart the #metoo movement. But some cases have proven far more contentious. JK Rowling herself has been embroiled in a lot of controversy after her comments about transgender people, with the author refusing to back down despite the censure of both fans and stars involved in the Harry Potter franchise. Here the issue is not just what is being said, but where it is being said. Influential figures making potentially harmful statements has a much wider impact, and some people’s freedom of speech holds more currency than others. Take Kanye West’s anti-vaccine, anti-abortion presidential bid, for instance, which will be broadcast to his 29.6 million followers.

Undoubtedly, this modern form of virtual exile shuts down conversations. We are all brought up against a backdrop of different beliefs, and taking the time to educate and explain why one’s actions – from making a sexist assumption to using an incorrect pronoun – are problematic could help build rather than burn bridges between those with different views. But it goes both ways, and those in positions of power must be willing to listen, reflect and apologise, or their words could be rallying up the very social media mobs that they are so keen to dispel.

Rosamund Kelby

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