This is a speech I delivered for a ‘Living Freedom’ debate called ‘Should We Cancel ‘Cancel Culture’?’ held online on Sunday 8th November 2020. Participants were largely young people in India as it was organised in conjunction with Global Youth India.
SHOULD WE CANCEL ‘CANCEL CULTURE’?
When I sit down to write about a way of thinking that seems alien to me, I often try to recall whether I have ever held that idea myself. So I am going to have to make a confession. I think that had ‘cancel culture’ been around back when I was an undergraduate, I fear that I may have been one of those driving it forward. Way back in 1989, in one of my first lectures as a history undergraduate, my lecturer was a fairly pompous young man, in a tweed jacket and if I’m honest, he was someone I found quite intimidating. Studying history was difficult, I was out of my depth and I was struggling to figure out exactly what work I should be doing to get better at it. I think the lecture must have been about early English colonialism, I can’t be sure, but what I definitely remember is that I heard him use the term ‘savages’ to refer to the people being colonised. And so as I left the lecture theatre, I said to some of my fellow students, ‘I can’t believe he said that, I can’t believe he used the word ‘savages’. Notably, I didn’t go to the lecturer to find out why he had used the term, because that would probably have diluted the frisson of offence I was enjoying. And that thrill of the feeling of ‘offence’ was not a negative feeling, it wasn’t about feeling hurt, it was something I happily embraced because it created a flash of certainty. In the midst of my confusions about history, I thought I had understood something. Not about history or even about this man’s abilities as a historian, but it was as if something had been revealed to me about this man as a person and about my place, relative to him, in a moral universe. I was not pursuing intellectual curiosity but I was looking to short-circuit the proper process of learning, to reassure myself that I was ‘right’ not in an intellectual, reasoned sense, but that I was right in a personal sense of who I was, that I was higher up a moralised political hierarchy, in my estimation. I might not be the intellectual equal of this man, but I was his superior in moral worthiness.
Now thankfully, back in 1989, there was no twitter or facebook or instagram, there was not even email and I don’t know that I had even heard of the internet. I wasn’t well connected enough to know any journalists and there were no mobile phones and only one landline telephone for which we had to queue. If we wanted to speak to our professors, we had to knock on their office doors and 8 times out of ten, they were not there. Students were not asked to provide feedback to or about their professors. So thankfully, my outrage fizzled out and it was of no consequence beyond my own continued ignorance.
Nobody talked about cancelling anybody back then. So let’s think about how we use the word ‘cancel’: The Covid lockdowns have brought about a lot of ‘cancelling’:
We might cancel an event, a wedding perhaps, – it will not take place.
We might cancel our flights for a foreign holiday, or we might cancel rather than renew our subscription to netflix, now that we have watched everything on it already. These are the ways we use the word ‘cancel’ in everyday life.
But I want to argue that what the rather trivial-sounding ‘cancel culture’ does is something much more serious. It partially or totally negates the existence of an actual human individual. In this it is much more similar to the way we might talk in physics of one force ‘cancelling out’ or negating another.
This is the brutal reality of cancel culture. And I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the logical outcome of ‘cancel culture’ is what we saw in France two weeks ago with the barbaric beheading of the schoolteacher Samuel Paty. We won’t know for certain, because he was shot dead, but his killer, Abdullakh Anzorov, presumably felt so offended by the existence of some ink on some paper, that he was justified in cutting off a man’s head in broad daylight, in close proximity to the school in which he had been trying to teach about the issue of freedom of speech.
Now, there is plenty of debate about ‘cancel culture’ and more often than not it is attributed negative rather than positive connotations, both President Trump and President Obama have been explicitly critical of ‘cancel culture’. But my worry is that we are failing to persuade a younger generation that cancel culture has to be resisted wherever it appears, however serious or trivial. Celebrities or schoolteachers.
I was talking with some university students and recent graduates in the UK recently and they said the term ‘free speech’ is a turn-off for people their age, that it is has negative connotations of gratuitously offensive behaviour, or is usually talked about by people with unusually certain or politically dodgy opinions. Freedom of speech is something that younger people have come to be suspicious of. These were young people who were keen advocates of free speech, but even they seemed reluctant to discuss the significance of the murder of Samuel Paty and even more worrying to me, was that it was almost as though it had failed to shock them.
This tells me that the cancellers have already succeeded to a large extent in what they set out to do – to dampen the desire to explore ideas, to create a reluctance to freely express oneself.
One of things you will hear very often in the UK is ‘oh, you can’t say anything any more’, and this is most often said with an air of resignation, usually by older people who have a sense that there has been a powerful and irresistible culture shift away from a time when we were more free to say what we think, that the parameters of acceptable speech were then more expansive.
Some people say there is no such thing as ‘cancel culture’, that it’s a myth created to allow bigoted people to cast themselves as victims and to continue to spread their hate-filled ideas and prejudice.
Or people say that ‘cancel culture’ is merely a way for the powerless to ‘punch up’ in the only way they can, by ‘calling out’, boycotting or exposing the abuse of power by the powerful.
Sometimes people argue that ‘cancel culture’ doesn’t really cancel anyone – because the market place of ideas is infinite and people who are shamed out of one place can still be heard in another.
And sometimes they argue that ‘cancel culture’ is all about the exercise of freedom of speech – that the so-called cancellers are merely countering the views of others in the public square.
But there’s something about the way in which cancel culture goes for individuals that makes my stomach clench. Because it alway does single out individuals. And it often launches the most extraordinarily destructive attacks on people by identifying them as part of a larger force or problem.
So for example, back in 2015, the Nobel Prize winning biochemist Professor Tim Hunt addressed a conference of science journalists in Seoul, Korea. As he nervously addressed his audience, he said:
‘Let me tell you about my trouble with girls… three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.’
Someone in the audience took offence, tweeted out the remark, said it was typical of the sexism and misogyny women face in science, and within days the Professor was forced to resign from his university in London and from the European Research Council. This was a man who has contributed to our understanding of how cells divide, to how life itself comes about and who had worked for years researching the growth of cancerous tumours. Now, as a speaker he may have messed up, failed to judge his audience, but he was honestly, in good faith trying to connect with the people in the room and to emphasise the importance of science and the pursuit of truth. When he was eventually allowed to explain himself, he said:
“I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me and it’s very disruptive to the science because it’s terribly important that in a lab people are on a level playing field.” “I found that these emotional entanglements made life very difficult.” “I’m really, really sorry I caused any offence, that’s awful. I certainly didn’t mean that. I just meant to be honest, actually.” “It’s terribly important that you can criticise people’s ideas without criticising them and if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth.”
He went on:
“I am finished,” “I had hoped to do a lot more to help promote science in this country and in Europe, but I cannot see how that can happen. I have become toxic.”
Now Professor Hunt did not literally lose his life in a biological sense, he is still alive. But he did lose his life in a truly human sense – his public standing, his reputation, his ability to continue working within the community he helped to create, his freedom to do the thing that made him truly unique. He has now moved to Japan, to work there, and while I am sure Okinawa is perfectly lovely, I can’t help thinking that a man in his late seventies might have preferred to work out his days closer to home, free from public humiliation, enjoying the fruits of his labours and seeing his former students, many of them women he had mentored, pursue his work.
Cancel culture doesn’t just condemn the words, it condemns the speaker, and by implication the thinker, it seeks to banish not just the word but the person who uses it from public life, to deny them their place in the public square. It is the most de-humanising of forces because it casts individuals out of the human community, severs their social bonds and diminishes their social existence. It says, in the most remarkably cavalier way, that neither the mind nor the body of this non-person has a place in our community any more.
And this, I daresay is what was in the mind of the murderer who beheaded Samuel Paty. He didn’t think that Samuel Paty’s body could be tolerated alive, because his mind had been applied to the task of teaching his pupils that it is possible to debate the merits of freedom of speech and ironically, of tolerance.
So I don’t think the difference between 1989 and today can primarily be explained by the lack of technology back then. I think that back in 1989, if I had complained to the history department about my lecturer’s use of the word ‘savages’ I would probably have been given another lecture on the need to understand history properly, the need to engage with the specificities of the period under consideration in an adult fashion and told to read more books so that I could tell the difference between the 18th and the late twentieth century.
Today, the university managers would be more like to apologise to me for my upset and to censure the lecturer. What I am suggesting is the impulse to make an issue of words rather than to interrogate ideas has been around for quite a long time but what has really allowed this to take hold is the cringing cowardice shown towards those who, like the 19 year old me, seek to avoid the discussion of ideas by taking issue with language and with the individual who speaks. It is this that has allowed cancel culture to take off. We have allowed the claim that ‘“I am offended” to acquire the highest social and moral value , and in-so-doing, we have sacrifice the vital freedom of the individual to share their thoughts with others, in order to connect, to communicate and to build human relationships. So in conclusion, we cannot simply ‘cancel’ cancel culture, we need to to actively challenge it with a whole new set of arguments which value freedom of speech above the value of being offended.