Social Affairs

Does ‘cancel culture’ infringe on freedom of speech?

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The government seems to think ‘cancel culture’ infringes on freedom of speech. The Department for Education’s amendments to the September curriculum places this issue as a forefront in the relationships and sex education (RSE) module, indiscriminately condemning it as a ‘form of bullying’ and an infringement on freedom of speech.

In the last year, ‘cancel culture’ has been increasingly apparent, the phenomenon of social media has allowed identities of people to be revealed almost instantly, ‘Twitter do your thing’, being a trending hashtag to expose anonymous racists or harassers. Many have lost their jobs; companies react quickly to controversy online and do not hesitate to fire expandable staff, however, the new guidelines fail to view the issue objectively and not from the perspective of those who have been ‘cancelled’.

Celebrities campaigning against ‘cancel culture’ include J.K Rowling, who after having made a string of transphobic and exclusionary comments on social media faced an incredible backlash from fans and nonadmirers alike. Rowling has over 14 million followers online, her platform is targeted at young adults, many of whom will be struggling with gender identity themselves, and therefore to use it in such a harmful way poses a larger question of political sensitivity. 

Her latest book, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, sparked even more outrage from the LGBT community, as it is about a cisgender serial killer impersonating a woman in an attempt to pursue young girls. In the case of J.K Rowling, ‘cancel culture’ has emphasised the need for better role models in support of the transgender community, to use such a large platform for hatred is simply not acceptable anymore, and as conservative ideology comes under more fire, does this infringe on freedom of speech?

The problem of this rhetoric, used again and again by traditional politicians and the Department of Education, is that condemning ‘cancel culture’ can also be seen as a form of suppression. The public should be allowed to withdraw support from celebrities they deem inappropriate or offensive, and corporate executives can react to backlash as they see fit. ‘Cancel culture’ highlights the microaggressions that permeate our society today, holding people accountable to political insensitivity and racism. It should no longer be acceptable to spread an ideology that sparks violence and prejudice.

However, ‘cancel culture’ in itself does tend to exacerbate and exaggerate viewpoints, taking them out of context and then manipulating them. J. K Rowling’s intention was undoubtedly clear and left no room for misinterpretation, however many cases seem to have been spun out of proportion. Harald Uhlig, for example, a university professor at the University of Chicago, was fired from his position after expressing his distaste for the ‘defund the police’ movement.

Although many people would disagree with the sentiment presented in his Twitter post, no prejudice is directly presented and there leaves room for whether or not the post was politically incorrect. There seems to be a limit in the effectiveness of ‘cancel culture’ to deal with sensitive issues, however, referring to protestors as a ‘mob’ and disregarding the offence many people felt seems to be a common concept in the conservative response.

Essentially, ‘cancel culture’ isn’t as dangerous and detrimental as many politicians have sensationalised it to be. General social sensitivity and political correctness should be an ideal our society looks towards, defending prejudiced celebrities on the internet is ultimately less important than dealing with microaggression and discrimination faced by minorities, and although in some cases there has been misuse of the ‘cancel power’, for the most part, the movement has brought political issues into the limelight.

In the modern-day, freedom of speech is less literal than one might think. In a free country, it should be prioritised that opinions should be expressed, but not opinions that spread hatred and spark violence in more radical groups of people. Teaching children to treat each other with respect is a fundamental part of the ‘British ideal’, however, disregarding discrimination and focusing on the ‘bullying’ of the oppressor seems a hypocritical and ineffective way to deal with prejudice in society.

Cover image: Narih Lee via Wikimedia Commons. Image was cropped. Licence here.

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