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Cancel Culture is Threatening Our Freedoms

Is cancel culture a mob mentality, or a long overdue way of speaking truth to power?

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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 For The Motion

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Author, academic and campaigner on women’s rights

Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University and founder of the AHA Foundation. She served as a Member of the Dutch Parliament from 2003 to 2006. While in Parliament she focused on furthering the integration of non-Western immigrants into Dutch society, and on defending the rights of Muslim women. She has written several books including Infidel (2007), Nomad: from Islam to America, a Personal Journey through the Clash of Civilizations (2010), Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (2015) and The Challenge of Dawa (2017). Her next book Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women's Rights will be published in 2021.

Julie Bindel

Feminist, journalist, author and broadcaster

Feminist, journalist, author and broadcaster. She has been active in the global campaign to end violence towards women and children since 1979 and has written extensively on rape, domestic violence, sexually motivated murder, prostitution and trafficking, child sexual exploitation, stalking, and the rise of religious fundamentalism and its harm to women and girls. She writes regularly for The Guardian, Unherd, The Telegraph and The Sunday Times magazine, and broadcasts from a number of platforms. She was Visiting Journalist at Brunel University (2013 - 2014) and Visiting Researcher at Lincoln University (2014 - 17).  Her latest book is The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth (2017). Feminism for Women: the real route to liberation will be published next year.
Speakers Against The Motion

Kehinde Andrews

Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University and author of The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World

Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, a regular opinion writer for the Guardian and editor of the series ‘Blackness in Britain’. He was part of the team that launched the first Black Studies degree in Europe, is co-chair of the Black Studies Association and Chair of the Harambee Organisation of Black Unity. He is author of Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century and most recently The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World.

Billy Bragg

Singer-songwriter, political campaigner and author

Singer-songwriter and political campaigner for over 35 years. He has had a number one hit single, been the subject of a South Bank Show, appeared onstage at Wembley Stadium and curated Leftfield at Glastonbury. He is the author of three non-fiction books, the second of which, Roots, Radicals and Rockers, was shortlisted for the Penderyn Music Book award and fed into a BBC4 documentary about the skiffle classic Rock Island Line. His most recent book, The Three Dimensions of Freedom, argues that liberty needs to be tempered by equality and accountability.

Jonathan Freedland

Guardian columnist, author and broadcaster

Guardian columnist and former foreign correspondent. He is the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s contemporary history series, The Long View, as well as two podcasts, Politics Weekly America for the Guardian and Unholy, alongside the Israeli journalist Yonit Levi. He is a past winner of an Orwell Prize for journalism. He is the author of twelve books, the latest being The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World.


Speakers are subject to change.