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JK Rowling, Scarlett Johansson, Jodie Comer, Kanye West. All have been ‘cancelled’ – denounced on social media for doing or saying something considered wrong or offensive, often on matters to do with race or gender. And it’s not just celebrities who have been targeted. Senior journalists and academics, as well as ordinary citizens, have lost their jobs amid storms of protest. Some people have pushed back. Earlier this month 150 writers, academics and activists signed an open letter lamenting ‘an intolerance of opposing views [and] a vogue for public shaming and ostracism’, which in its turn provoked an angry backlash.
Classic liberals say this ‘cancel culture’ poses a devastating attack on our liberties. An environment has been created, they contend, where anyone who expresses doubt or divergence from the progressive orthodoxy risks career-destroying attack. Correct thinking on race and identity has become tantamount to a new religion, with adherents competing to be ever more ‘pure’, heretics being publicly shamed and few people brave enough to step out of line. And while cancel culture claims to be about achieving social justice, it actually uses the tactics of the oppressor, privileging one set of voices over another. This cannot be a way to create a fairer world and bring everyone on board.
That is a complete misreading of the situation, argue those on the progressive Left. What we are witnessing is activism by and on behalf of marginalised groups who are seeking to redress the structural inequalities that have historically held them back. Debate isn’t being closed down – the loud protests of those who decry ‘cancel culture’ show that free speech is very much alive and well. The principal critics of this activism are the privileged elites who, while claiming to be defending free speech, can’t tolerate criticism of their own cherished views. Times are changing. Liberals need to recognise that their ideology is tired, and that it is being supplanted by a new one, which gives its followers a moral purpose, a sense of solidarity, and the hope of achieving genuine social change.
Is cancel culture a mob mentality, or a long overdue way of speaking truth to power?
Speakers are subject to change.