The truth about cancel culture
Freedom of speech is being weaponised; its meaning being twisted into the right of anyone to offend someone else. This has never been the case, especially not within the United Kingdom. Our rights to ‘freedom of expression’ covered by the Human Rights Act, have always come with a caveat.
The law states that this ‘freedom’ is subject to “formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society”. In other words, your freedom of expression, doesn’t prevent consequences arising as a result. These consequences can take a few forms but the catch all term can be heard loud and clear.
It’s the name given to any form of censorship that those on the right of the political sphere might experience, and its traditions lie in a political tactic known as No Platforming. Understanding the history of No Platforming makes this quite an interesting issue. Although it has been heavily adopted by those on the left in the UK, its initial uses in the United States came from a different place entirely.
The use of No Platforming in the United States during the 1940’s, was primarily aimed at limiting the presence of communists and socialist speakers at University campuses. It was adopted in order to limit peoples exposure to ideas that were considered harmful, the exact same reason that UK student unions in the 70’s adopted it to block the spread of far right sentiments.
Since then the ideology has come under fire from groups determined to put their ability to offend, before the rights of those that don’t wish to be offended. Although the issue does still arise on university campuses in the UK, the argument against No Platforming seems to have found its home on social media. Regardless of the issue being called out, racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia; it doesn’t seem long before someone appears to complain about cancel culture.
Those concerned about their loss of ability to share opinions, should perhaps examine the opinions themselves. If an opinion is so inflammatory, so aggravating for enough people to call for your censure; is it an opinion that needs to be shared?
I’m sure there are those that wouldn’t believe me, but I am a supporter of the freedom of expression. I think the ability to debate issues is important, and utterly necessary in a democratic society. That’s not what we’re discussing when we talk about cancel culture however. Opinions that are contentious can be thoroughly debated without issue, but there are a couple of factors that push contentious, into cancellable.
Is the opinion out of alignment with modern values?
Does it create a false narrative that could be harmful to others such as the rights of immigrants, or misinformation about religious groupings?
As well as some notable celebrity examples becoming embroiled in debate about whether or not calls to ‘cancel’ someone equates to censorship of unpopular opinions; the UK government seem determined to get in on the act. The ongoing culture war that’s been brewing through the last two elections, has seen some escalations in terms of approach and policy from the current administration.
From free speech champions, to dictates for the National Trust; it seems that there is less freedom of choice than freedom of expression. Should a group of students be able to petition to have a speaker removed from a university platform?
Absolutely, if the opinion is harmful; the logic of that should be obvious. However, it should also be obvious that the removal of a statue celebrating a problematic figure, doesn’t constitute a removal of history. There is a difference between erasure and choosing not to celebrate something that has cause to be removed.
Surely the more pressing issue should be that an institution designed to preserve the nation’s history, like the National Trust; should be told they’re only allowed to interpret that history in a way that makes our past colonialism palatable.
The urge to whitewash certain aspects of British History is no doubt tempting, especially when nationalist politics have proven to be so successful. In the wake of Brexit, the mandate is clear and if the government wish to maintain it, they have to maintain their appeal to those who believe that the UK can operate alone.
The danger of course when this sort of debate enters the political realm on a policy level, is that it truly does lead to a loss of freedoms. Recently proposed legislation means we could soon find our options to call out injustice being limited.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2019-21 proposed by the government, shows us a sample of how restricted our voices could become. It looks to introduce powers that would give the police a greater level of control over protests in the UK. Seemingly a reaction to a recent increase in protests, the bill describes new powers needed due to ‘changes in the tactics employed by certain protesters’.
The changes the bill introduces would give Police the ability to ‘impose conditions’ on protests that they deem to be ‘noisy enough to cause intimidation or harassment, or serious unease, alarm or distress to bystanders’. The bill also aims to make it easier for to act against ‘unauthorised encampments’, for example those seen regularly at environmental demonstrations and occupy style protests. There is concern that the powers regarding encampments will make it impossible for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities to continue their lifestyle and traditions.
Those concerned about protecting their freedom of expression, need to realise that real cancellation lies at the heart of legislation such as this.