Prominent public figures fear 'cancel culture' is killing freedom of speech

Say the right thing when you speak now, or forever hold your peace: that’s one view of a new front in the 'cancel culture' wars

19 July 2020 - 00:00
150 world-renowned authors and scholars recently penned an open letter discussing how cancel culture was an infringement on the right to freedom of speech.
150 world-renowned authors and scholars recently penned an open letter discussing how cancel culture was an infringement on the right to freedom of speech.
Image: 123RF/lightwise

There's a lot that needs to be cancelled, especially now. Who wouldn't want to cancel 2020. Or Trump. Or loadshedding. But that, unfortunately, can't happen. In fact, does cancel culture exist? The cancelling that so many prominent people are afraid of? And if it does, how big or bigly is it, really? For 150 world-renowned authors and scholars it is big. Huge.

They penned and sent a letter to the literary Harper's Magazine recently discussing how it was an infringement on the ("their") right to freedom of speech. It was signed by cultural icons who included Salman Rushdie, Noam Chomsky, Malcolm Gladwell, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, Gloria Steinem, and author JK Rowling, who many feel the letter was really defending.

The tweet forks have been thrown full force at Rowling lately, with her erstwhile fans arguing that she used her 14.6-million Twitter following to spout transphobic rhetoric. The Harry Potter author published a long blog post last month discussing how sex was determined by biology.

It came after a tweet in which she took umbrage at an article whose headline was: Opinion: Creating a more equal post-Covid-19 world for people who menstruate. Rowling tweeted: "I'm sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?"

She was slammed on Twitter as a Terf (which sounds like a very bad swear word in my part of town) but Wikipidea explains as "an acronym for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. Coined in 2008, the term was originally applied to a minority of feminists espousing sentiments that other feminists consider transphobic, such as the rejection of the assertion that trans women are women."

Rowling thus became the latest victim of "cancel culture" - the term used to describe boycotting public figures or companies when they've grossly offended a sector of the population. In other words, they're now culturally blocked from having a prominent platform and career.

Rowling has been shunned by people who loved her books. What may have sounded like sensible comments to Rowling's feminist generation years ago were completely wrong for her fanbase of 20- to 30-year-olds, who were born and grew up with the Harry Potter series.

What may have sounded like sensible comments to author JK Rowling's feminist generation years ago were completely wrong for her fanbase of 20- to 30-year-olds

To these fans, transgender rights are among the burning human-rights issues we're facing today. Like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, it is morally right and if you are against it, you are de facto a bigot, a misogynist, or a racist. Faced with such force, most targets have decided the only way to handle the backlash is to retreat, and as quickly as possible. Not Rowling, though, perhaps because of her cushioning - she was estimated to be worth more than £1bn (R20bn) at one stage.

Most recently, she was attacked for "liking" a tweet that questioned giving hormone prescriptions for transgender children. She responded angrily: "I've ignored death and rape threats. I'm not going to ignore this."

There are many examples of cancel culture actually working - think about the allegations made against R Kelly when the documentary Surviving R Kelly was released. Or Harvey Weinstein. Woody Allen. Bill Cosby. Roseanne Barr.

And sometimes it does not work. Recently Jodie Comer, the star of Killing Eve (in which she plays Villanelle - an LGBTQIA+ character) was "cancelled" due to unsupported rumours that she is dating a man called James Burke who is rumoured to be a Trump supporter.

Even if Comer is dating Burke, she has never spoken out about supporting his beliefs. Rather, she is a fierce supporter of #BlackLivesMatter.

So it might be true that cancel culture can be dangerous if left untethered. Those 150 authors/scholars/journalists who wrote to Harpers are of the opinion that cancel culture will spread "censoriousness" and lead to "an intolerance of opposing views" and "a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty".

They further write that "this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity".

This caused a huge fuss. Who were they writing about? What were they so vaguely defending?

In fact, 160 other scholars and journalists recently wrote a counter letter on the Objective (an all-volunteer collective for objective journalism) about how those cultural personalities who wrote the Harper's letter were writing from a place of privilege: "In reality, their argument alludes to but does not clearly lay out specific examples, and undermines the very cause they have appointed themselves to uphold.

"In truth, Black, brown, and LGBTQIA+ people - particularly Black and trans people - can now critique elites publicly and hold them accountable socially; this seems to be the letter's greatest concern. What's perhaps even more grating to many of the signatories is that a critique of their long-held views is persuasive."

The Harper's letter was further torn apart for saying that artists need unrestricted freedoms. It said: "As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences."

The 160 Objective countered with: "Under the guise of free speech and free exchange of ideas, the letter appears to be asking for unrestricted freedom to espouse their points of view free from consequence or criticism."

It continued: "There are only so many outlets, and while these individuals have the ability to write in them, they have no intention of sharing that space or acknowledging their role in perpetuating a culture of fear and silence among writers who, for the most part, do not look like the majority of the signatories. When they demand debates, it is on their terms, on their turf."

The Harper letter folks wrote: "The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy."

And Trump, during his speech at Mount Rushmore on July 4, denounced "cancel culture" claiming that the #BlackLivesMatter movement was "openly attacking" the legacy of "every person" on Mount Rushmore.

Oh, the irony.

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