Cancel Culture: Nothing To See Here?

Piers Benn argues that cancel culture is real and it matters

Is there such a thing as “cancel culture”? If so, should we worry about it? Many people, including respected politicians, journalists, academics, and the National Union of Students, appear to think there is no such thing: what is known by this name is merely a fantasy of right-wingers who want to moan about long-overdue challenges to their world view and the power they wield over the powerless. On this view, “cancel culture” is a moral panic based on a few anecdotes about powerful individuals being rightly challenged; the reality is that marginalised voices are now being heard (even if not nearly enough) and a bunch of racists, misogynists and transphobes are enraged at seeing their entitlements called into question.

At least, this is how the left often responds when it is criticised for participating in boycotts and cancellation. Of course, there is also the reverse phenomenon of progressives being cancelled by the right, which I suspect is more widespread in the world at large than the other way around. This was almost certainly the case in the recent past, when the people trying to silence writers and artists were often conservative Christians. One of the most notorious examples during the last fifty years was Mary Whitehouse’s successful private prosecution of Gay News in 1977, for publishing a homo-erotic poem featuring Christ. Her zealous resort to law landed the editor with a suspended prison sentence for blasphemous libel. But in more recent times, and especially in the world of academia, the cancellations increasingly come from an entirely different quarter.

But what is cancel culture supposed to be? Rather than get bogged down in terminological wrangles (which are easily used to distract us), let us think of quite familiar phenomena: the attempted or successful trashing of livelihoods and reputations because of what the people targeted have said; campaigns of abuse and vilification; defamation; social media pile-ons, boycotts, shunning and shaming.

Both good and bad people can be cancelled. Some very bad people might deserve it, to some extent. But many decent, truth-seeking individuals have found themselves at the receiving end of it. This ugly phenomenon typically generates vitriolic, confused and incoherent arguments, absurd factual claims, baseless imputation of bad motives, character assassination, a host of informal fallacies (such as the ad hominem, the companion-in-guilt, and irrelevance). Often, it seems to arise from narcissism. On social media, people chase followers, likes and retweets because they want to be part of, and be admired by an “in” group, and one way to do this is to be part of a set that heaps abuse upon an “out” group.

It is obvious that all this is going on. But it is important to look at the more respectable arguments of those who deny the problem, because although their view is wide of the mark, there are kernels of truth in some of it.

There are two main ways to deny that there is anything to worry about, at least when it comes to the targeting of individuals of whom the critics disapprove. One is to deny that the behaviour in question really amounts to “cancelling”. The other is to deny that there is anything wrong with it – the individuals in question really should be called out or be made to shut up.

“Nothing to see here”

Take the first line of defence, concentrating on the times when the “cancelling” involves trying to prevent people from expressing their opinions. The defence takes various forms: there has only been a legitimate boycott; no one has a right to be asked to address an audience or have their opinions published; the real complaint only amounts to resentment at opposition, or the exercise of free expression by the marginalised. There is nothing (it is said) remotely hostile to free expression in any of this. Boycotts have long been a vital tool of democratic protest, and no one (such as J. K. Rowling, who was widely seen as a target of cancel culture in 2020) has any right that entails that people should buy their products or listen to what they say. Even the classical champion of free speech, J. S, Mill, said would-be listeners had a right to stop their ears. Finally, a trope doing the rounds claims that “no one should expect to speak without consequences.” In other words, if people get “cancelled” they have asked for it. It is ironic that the people who make this claim are probably horrified by victim-blaming in other contexts.

If we are to defend a presumption of freedom of expression (and freedom of enquiry, which is impossible to disentangle from free speech) we need to recognise the kernels of truth in these lines of defence. This is important, partly so that we do not protest at every “cancellation” on the blanket ground that it is an unjustifiable breach of someone’s freedom (some breaches are justified, such as when there is incitement to violence) and partly so we can be alert to the sophistical ways these defences are used to justify genuinely wrongful assaults on free expression or enquiry.

So let us concede the following things. It is true that there is usually no general right to be invited to address audiences. It is true that boycotts do not, per se, infringe people’s right to put their products on the market. It is true that some complaints about free speech being denied amount to resentment at vocal, angry opposition to what is said. It is also likely that the free expression issue is sometimes used as a smokescreen for dubious agendas – this is a charge sometimes made against the British government, which has been accused of stoking up the free speech problem in universities as an excuse to reduce funding, to hide its own attempts to limit academic freedom, and to distract us from its corruption and incompetence.

But these things should not obscure the fact that there really are unjustifiable limitations, or attempted limitations on free speech, including on British campuses. In December 2020, the London-based think tank Civitas (which some will dismiss as “right-wing”, but let that pass) published a report detailing some disturbing cases, and pointed out that:

89% of universities have a policy on bullying and harassment in which speech can be curbed, for example, by claims to personal offence, unwanted conduct, or conduct which is reported as ‘insulting…’Harassment policies in universities can stifle students in their discourse, including through the perceived [my italics] ‘intrusive questioning’ of a person’s life, insulting jokes, patronising language, or unwanted conduct or perceived offensive environments. Overall, 68 universities (50%) had harassment policies placing over 100 levels of practical restrictions on free speech. (p. 5).

We might ask why, given that there is already copious legislation against potentially harmful speech, universities need to devise additional policies, but this has been normal for so long that we tend not to notice it. However, if these policies do not substantially add to existing laws (such as the Public Order Act 1986, The Communications Act 2003 and the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006) then perhaps we need not worry too much. What is more worrying is the drift towards further censorship and especially self-censorship, ostensibly justified by these codes.

No doubt there are people with dubious agendas who like to crank up a few anecdotes of overreach against free expression (or enquiry) to paint the overall picture in catastrophic terms. However, while the situation is not entirely bad – many controversial opinions are allowed to be aired – a few very bad cases should be enough to make us worry. The Civitas report details several examples from the UK, of varying severity. However, two especially worrying ones, not covered in the report, should wake us up. One concerns the summary dismissal of a Junior Research Fellow at St. Edmund’s College Cambridge, Noah Carl, in 2018. The other is the case of Kathleen Stock, who has recently resigned from her post as Professor of Philosophy at Sussex University, due to the pressures placed on her by vitriolic and menacing protests.

Noah Carl takes an academic interest in the genetics of intelligence. The very subject sounds alarm bells for many people, even though most cognitive psychologists have no doubt that there are substantial genetic influences on intelligence. But what appears to have sealed his fate is his opinion that researchers should be able to discuss the possibility that if there are average differences in specific cognitive abilities between different racial groups, genetic factors could be part of the explanation. He did not actually make this claim but thought it should not be out of bounds. This was enough to spark a petition against him, which prompted an internal investigation and eventually a statement from the Master of St. Edmund’s College declaring that:

The panel found that Dr Carl had put a body of work into the public domain that did not comply with established criteria for research ethics and integrity. In any event, it considered that the poor scholarship of this problematic body of Dr Carl’s work, among other things, meant that it fell outside any protection that might otherwise be claimed for academic freedom of speech.

No evidence was produced that his scholarship was “poor” or that his work lacked academic integrity - a charge of academic misconduct would normally be based on evidence of plagiarism or data fabrication. His dismissal was doubtless sparked by a fear that his work might give succour to racists, given the long and appalling history of people trying to use science to support racist ideas. But nothing Carl said suggested that discrimination was ever justified on racial grounds. The case against him was built on guilt by association and the fear that he was defending “race science”. The episode no doubt raises difficult issues: I would certainly worry about someone who was always pushing claims about intelligence differences between populations, because it is the sort of thing that racists do. But the action against Carl and the vagueness of the charges against him reeked of a panicky capitulation to a mob.

The second case is more recent and better known, because it has been splashed all over the news. Kathleen Stock was a Professor of Philosophy at Sussex University until she resigned in late October 2021. In 2018 she started campaigning against a proposed amendment to the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which would have allowed gender self-identification (self-ID) as a woman to be enough to be admitted to spaces reserved for women. Those spaces include prisons, hospital wards, changing rooms and women’s refuges. Stock’s concern is largely about the dangers to women that the proposed reforms could bring. Most obviously, if there were no requirement to provide medical evidence that the new self-ID was prompted by (for example) long-standing, distressing gender dysphoria, there would be little to prevent predatory males from posing as trans women to assault women. There was a rush of furious responses, saying (for example) that trans women were no more dangerous to natal women than anyone else and that any such idea is transphobic. (This is of doubtful relevance: we do not need to believe that most men pose a threat to women to be justified in excluding men from women’ spaces). But Stock subsequently published many articles and eventually a book, Material Girls, arguing that the philosophical basis for “gender theory” – central to which is the notion that any claim to be a man or a woman (or something in between) is made true entirely by an inner feeling of “gender identity” – was fundamentally confused. She also reiterated the scientific consensus that no one can literally change their biological sex, regardless of what we should say about “gender”, a term whose history and multiple ambiguities Stock details with great precision in her book.

Even if she is wrong, her arguments are well-considered, factually rich, and fair-minded. They deserve serious attention in philosophy and gender studies. But as she noticed, what she calls “gender theory” is now orthodox in academic feminism, such that calling it into question is an attack on some of the central assumptions of the discipline, and therefore intolerable to people who have built their careers upon it. Early on in her campaign, she faced frequent accusations of transphobia – now widely identified with any questioning of the received trans orthodoxy, but which (surely) is far better understood as revulsion, fear, or hatred towards trans people. There were attempts to disinvite or “no-platform” her from speaking events. There were protests on the Sussex campus calling for her to be sacked and saying she was making trans people unsafe. Colleagues made her feel unwelcome, and (she says) told lies about her views in lectures. Twitter was full of abuse. In early January 2021, she was awarded an OBE for services to Higher Education, but there soon followed an open letter, signed by many academics, accusing her of harming trans people. Fortunately, within days there was a second open letter, signed by a significantly larger number of academics, supporting her right to contribute her views to an important debate that required careful consideration of all relevant arguments.

Worse was to come in the Autumn of 2021, when protestors wearing balaclavas and letting off flares demanded that she be fired. Posters appeared bearing the same message. One such poster called her a transphobe and demanded her sacking, proclaiming “I am not paying £9,250 for this”. Stickers denouncing her appeared in the women’s toilets on campus. She saw all this when she went into work early in the term, and she immediately took the first train home in a state of distress. The police advised her to stay off the campus and install CCTV at home. Around the same time, the Vice Chancellor of Sussex University issued an unequivocal statement supporting her right to freedom of speech, but the situation had so deteriorated that she resigned about three weeks later, saying, in effect, that the harassment and intimidation had become intolerable and were showing no signs of going away.

We can, of course, imagine someone arguing that the protestors too were exercising their right to free expression: they believed that trans people were being hurt, threatened, and harmed by Stock’s activism. But there is a straightforward and familiar reply to this: it is one thing to protest passionately and using strong language, but another to cause the police to warn of physical danger. It is one thing to argue vigorously, another to resort to abusive slogans. This behaviour, even if Stock really were the transphobe she is portrayed as being, would still amount to “cancelling” as I have described it.

“Cancelling is sometimes right”

This brings us to the second answer to complaints about cancel culture. This would admit that there are attempts to prevent people from expressing their opinions and to attack their reputations, but state openly that when the actual or likely harm is great enough, this is what should be done. This is drawn from the famous “harm principle” advocated by J. S. Mill, though he does not use the term. Mill’s essay On Liberty is the great, oft-cited text in defence of freedom of opinion and discussion, but he allows that liberty may be curtailed if its exercise threatens harm to others. It is plausible to extend the notion of harm beyond physical violence to include other harms of comparable severity.

This captures the case for not allowing Stock to air her views on trans issues. The protestors think her opinions are false, but one can imagine the case being made even if they are true. Transphobia certainly exists, shown in a range of things including odd looks in the street, sneering remarks, discrimination at work, right through to physical assault and murder. If Stock is causally contributing to this, even unintentionally, then a Mill-inspired case can be made for preventing her from airing her opinions on these matters.

However, much must be shown before we get to this point. All kinds of legitimate things can have harmful effects: a TV documentary about an incurable fatal disease might tip someone with that disease to suicide. Failing to lower the speed limit on roads contributes to road deaths. Moreover, Stock not only denounces transphobia unambiguously but argues that the influence of aspects of the trans movement is harmful both to women and even trans people – that is largely why she campaigns. More tellingly, in an interview in The Times, one protestor said that Stock “might invalidate someone’s identity and persona and who they are”. Note the language here – in effect, the complaint is that she has argued against people’s self-conception. This might be hurtful, but it is implausible to suppose it comes under Mill’s harm principle. We should empathise with this kind of hurt, but we should also recognise the culture it comes from, which sanctifies anything one regards as part of who one is and erroneously sees dissent as a serious harm.

Much more can be said. But an academic culture that discourages rigorous, thoughtful questioning around explosive ideas is rife with intellectual dishonesty, however cleverly people defend it. Kathleen Stock has shown unusual courage, honesty, and intellectual rigour. Many academics agree but will not say so. Cancel culture’s most insidious feature is self-censorship. Let us hope that changes.

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Piers Benn teaches philosophy at the University of Roehampton. He is the author of Intellectual Freedom and the Culture Wars (Palgrave, 2021).