The Dangerous Myth of 'Cancel Culture'
You wouldn't know it from reading the opinion pages of most national newspapers, but we are living in a golden age for free speech
Speech has never been freer than it is right now. It has literally never been easier for someone to have their say and to make their opinions heard. Anyone with an internet connection and a mobile phone can broadcast their opinions to hundreds, or thousands of people, without even leaving the comfort of their home. And while some legal and societal limitations do surround the use of our free speech (as they always have) in practice most people are able to say pretty much what they want, pretty much all of the time.
And yet, as our individual voices have become louder, so too have the complaints from some about their own ‘free speech’ supposedly being ‘cancelled’.
Yet when you actually dig into what this ‘cancellation’ entails, it almost never involves the actual suppression of someone’s free speech. Instead it almost always involves one person feeling uncomfortable about other people using their own free speech to counter theirs.
You can see this clearly in the now settled career path provided for columnists and commentators supposedly ostracised from public life for their views. These supposedly persecuted individuals have become a popular feature of most mainstream publications in recent years. Indeed in modern Britain there is no surer route to late-career success than getting ‘cancelled’ by people who disagree with you.
This career path allows people whose particular views have become stale, outdated, or plain unpopular at their current employers, to reinvent themselves as free speech martyrs, before picking up even more lucrative gigs at the Telegraph or GB News, where they continue to express their ‘cancelled’ opinions, while featuring as edgy outcast figures in double-page spread features in The Sunday Times.
When you stop to think about it, this is quite a remarkable phenomenon. When a once-popular chef suddenly finds his supply of customers drying up, he isn’t able to reinvent himself as a victim of ‘cancel culture’ with a lucrative television career on the side. He either has to bring his own dishes up to modern standards, or find a new job.
Yet whether you’re a fading broadsheet columnist who wants to write more columns about disliking trans people, or a former lads mag editor who enjoys shouting at drag queens in pubs, the ‘cancel culture’ swindle offers exactly the sort of second wind to otherwise dying careers, that simply doesn’t exist in other industries.
But while this boom industry is providing much-needed employment for some, it is not in any way evidence of free speech being limited. In fact it is evidence of the complete opposite. Despite all of the complaints about ‘cancel culture’, it has never been harder in practice to actually get yourself genuinely cancelled in the UK. When you live in a country that has made a former columnist best-known for writing bigoted columns about homosexuals, women, and black people, as their actual prime minister, then the idea of ‘cancel culture’ ceases to have any identifiable meaning.
Of course if this were all it amounted to then it wouldn’t really matter. However, the cancel culture swindle is also starting to have a real world negative impact. The alarming recent rise of far-right protests against asylum seekers, drag queens, ‘15 minute cities’, and much else besides, is undoubtedly related to the growing platforms provided for these views at places like GB News and elsewhere. Far-right and other fringe conspiracy theorists, who in previous eras would have had to keep their tedious opinions to themselves, or repeat them at fixed intervals among a vanishingly small number of fellow travellers, are now seeing their views endorsed on a daily basis on national television and online.
The paradox here is that as the number of outlets for people’s free speech has exploded, so too have the cries of ‘censorship’ among those taking advantage of that explosion. Never before has it been so easy for people to exercise their free speech and yet never before have we heard so much complaining about supposed limitations being placed upon it.
Of course the big irony is that while so much bandwidth is spent on complaining about these illusory threats to free speech, the actual ongoing threats to free speech are largely ignored. So while newspaper columns and TV news programmes are filled with debates about columnists being ‘cancelled’ the ongoing threats of the actual government bringing in new laws against protests, and restrictions on the right to strike, pass without barely a comment.
Similarly, while endless column inches are wasted on the phenomenon of celebrities having their feelings mildly wounded by pushback on social media, the wider structural problem of most major media outlets being owned by a vanishingly small number of people with incredibly similar views, is barely mentioned.
Like most revolutions, the free speech revolution has both its upsides and its downsides and right now civil society is testing the limits of both of these.
Yet whatever those limits turn out to be, the idea that we are all somehow victims of a growing ‘cancel culture’ is the most dangerous myth widely believed in today.
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