Cancel culture

Is it possible, in the internet age, to “re-establish the bare minimum rules of political disagreement”, asked Douglas Murray on UnHerd. The latest developments “at the front line of the culture wars” would suggest not. Last week, 150 writers and thinkers signed an open letter in the US magazine Harper’s; they included many from the centre-left – Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling, Gloria Steinem – but also, for instance, the Leftist polemicist Noam Chomsky, and George W. Bush’s speechwriter David Frum. The contents were “anodyne”: the letter was a boilerplate defence of free speech. It spoke of “the free exchange of information and ideas” constituting “the lifeblood of a liberal society”. It went on to criticise the “vogue for public shaming and ostracism” and stated: “We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.” The furious response it generated confirmed its necessity: it was immediately denounced widely on Twitter, and on the “illiberal Left”. Some of the signatories were themselves soon publicly recanting.

The letter was cast as an attack on “cancel culture”, said Billy Bragg in The Guardian – on public opinions, writings and works of art being patrolled by an army of intolerant left-wingers, who reject anyone with whom they disagree. But it’s more accurate to see it as a “howl of anguish” from a group of old, mostly white liberals, whose views are no longer treated with reverence. Many of them are “long-standing cultural arbiters” who in the past only feared the disapproval of their peers. Today, “social media has burst their bubble and they find that anyone with a Twitter account can challenge their opinions”. Quite right too. Free speech is crucial, but must be tempered by “equality and accountability”. Cancel culture sounds like “a terrifying wave of intolerance”, said Flora Gill in The Sunday Times, like something from Nazi Germany. It’s not. Everyone draws a line about what is acceptable speech. Many people of my generation – I’m 29 – believe that racism, misogyny and transphobia are unacceptable. All we’re saying is: “if you act in a way we find reprehensible, we won’t give you our custom; we won’t buy your products, be your fans”.

Be honest, said Janice Turner in The Times. This goes far beyond, say, the boycotting of Rowling over her stance on trans rights. Today a very large number of people are losing their livelihoods because they have uttered what counts as “WrongSpeak”: authors dumped by their agents; feminist academics no-platformed; editors sacked for publishing articles. In the end, we live in a parliamentary democracy, said Tanya Gold in The Daily Telegraph. This requires persuasion, not cancellation. “The removal of your enemy does not remove your enemy’s idea.” It stays there, until it is rebutted. “If it is not rebutted, it will never leave. Look for it at election time. It will still be there.”