On cancel culture

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A tenet of the liberal standpoint is freedom of speech and ideas – that debate with reasoned arguments is essential to progress and democratic participation. This seems to be a view that is being tested with what many call the “culture wars” of the moment, centred around racism (historic and current), as well as trans rights.

The charge is that activists on various sides look to deny people with opposing views the opportunity to express them. From pressuring institutions to cancel speakers, to hounding the opposition off Twitter, impassioned campaigners are trying to redraw the boundaries of what is acceptable and “up for debate”, and what is beyond discussion.

As liberals, where is that line drawn? And, further, is it OK for that line to be moved with the prevailing culture?

My gut reaction to debate being closed down is that it is unhealthy to do so when looking at the overall benefit to society. A free market of ideas is what helps us get to a better place, to make progress. But it’s only fair to test that – what would I feel uncomfortable about encouraging a debate about? Can I imagine allowing, as an extreme example, a pro/anti debate on paedophilia on a University campus?

To be honest, I can’t. To allow the suggestion that both sides would have a 50/50 split of credence would not seem reasonable. My criteria here isn’t the law (it should be perfectly acceptable to argue something should be legal), it’s the severity of disgust and opposition to the ‘motion’ I feel. Is this a good basis for trying to deny someone avenues to talk about their point of view?

Maybe the reason for not wanting a discussion like that is that the ‘correct’ view is already settled, and an extraordinary claim to the contrary would require extraordinary evidence to open it back up for debate. That in order to put something like “does racism exist today?” up for debate requires massive, new evidence from a very, very believable source – much like settled scientific matters (for me to attend a flat earth debate would take some incredible new discovery, for example).

The challenge, however, is to make sure anyone claiming a debate is already ‘settled’ is correct in that assumption, and that there’s consensus.

One thing is for sure. The internet has opened up many more people to the idea of taking a position on different issues, and then sharing that opinion with the world. But I’m not sure everyone has been equally encouraged to develop their position with reason and an open mind, rather than skipping the detail and jumping straight to short bursts of opinion on social networks.

With a little more focus on testing one’s own argument with honesty, and a genuine attempt to listen and consider opposing viewpoints, maybe the heat will start to go from these debates, and society will evolve from the current “culture war” that is saddening quite a few of us.

* Matt Harwood is a member of the Liberal Democrats.

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  • John Hefford 16th Jul '20 - 10:19am

    Sometimes debate has to be shut down to prevent damage to property and danger to others. It’s not a liberal approach, but it carries less risk than providing a platform to offensive views; which is a lot easier than dealing with the problems should a speaker or an audience member get hurt, or paying for the repair and clean-up operations after a protest.

    However, in a perfect liberal world, there would be no banned debates; and no banned speakers. It’s important to recognise that all view points are valid, even offensive ones. After all, why should I give any credence to your beliefs if you ostracise me for mine? But not all activists are liberals, and not all activists have any interest in changing the opinions of others. By drowning out the voices of their opponents, their interest is in denying the opportunity of the audience from using their own reason, and in conforming with the activists own ideologies.

  • Andrew Tampion 16th Jul '20 - 12:38pm

    Like Martin I think that paedophilia is a bad example. Looking at Wikipedia many European Countries have 15 as the age of consent. Germany has 14 (with the proviso that some over 21 who takes advantage of a 14 or 15 year old commits a crime). If I wanted to argue that we should lower our age of consent laws to match Germany am I arguing for paedophilia?
    Either you believe in freedom of speech or you don’t.

  • We need to start by asking a couple of things. How do people really behave, and then why do people behave like this.
    On what people actually do in terms of forming opinions there is substantial evidence that people form opinions quickly then look for evidence that supports that opinion. One example is that people who have just bought a new car look at adverts for that car, and tend to ignore others.
    To look at at the why in the present world we can look at the internet. The providers of YouTube, for example, use algorithms to decide what to suggest to us to watch. The algorithm has the list of what we view, and for most people those tend to be things that follow their views. Thus the process is reinforced by the algorithm so that we all tend to think that our own prejudices, or our own interests , are more widely shared than they actually are.
    It might be tempting to say that the only answer is to try to change that way people think. But of course we do that now. It is called the education system.
    We have simple binary concepts like right and wrong. We use this concept a lot, even in sport for example where team games, and winning and losing are key concepts. In debating we have two sides, and look for people to put forward something and people to oppose it.
    Perhaps we need to encourage co-operation rather than competition. In fact I believe this is essential if we are to change the direction we are going in as humankind, and to find a way of working together to ensure that we have the future on our planet that most say they want.

  • There is no doubt that the purpose of the cancel culture is to shut down alternative views. It is censorship and denial of freedom of speech.

    It is just the latest in a series of ridiculous and immature demands such as “no platforming”. I doubt if these trends will be welcomed by any sane people but what concerns me is the growing frequency and intensity of such events and the apparent encouragement shown by the irresponsible media response.

  • Jenny Barnes 16th Jul '20 - 2:36pm

    Many of the people complaining about “cancel culture” are complaining about it in opinion pieces in the mainstream media. They don’t look very silenced to me.

  • Jonathan Coulter 16th Jul '20 - 3:07pm

    This is an important topic where we Lib Dems must get our own house in order. There are certainly areas where debate seems completely nonsensical, e.g. whether racism exists. The trouble is that the ‘cancel culture’ is sometimes causing debate to be severely restricted in areas where it is badly needed, and in favour of a dominant media narrative. In my recent post on the new LibDem POLICY LAB, I draw attention to a case where our party leadership has unfortunately aligned itself with biased and evidence-lite reporting by the news media. This is the same news media the party has been seeking to reform through its support for Justice Leveson’s recommendations, raising a question as to the consistency of the party’s stance. Please go there and express your views.

  • What cancel culture actually leads to is networks of self contained communities of opinions cancelling each other. The Left and the Right have their own versions of it. It’s all bubble thinking, a product of confirmation bias and an illusion of wider shared values. The social media is said to form a global connections that open people up to new perspectives, but most of the time what it actually does is connect people who already agree with each other because that’s what they looking for. Seek and ye shall find, as they say

  • The problem with the “cancel culture” debate is knowing what we actually mean by “cancel culture”.

    Personally I don’t believe there is such a thing, but that doesn’t stop it being used against us.

    I’d like examples of where people think “cancel culture” has been an issue for concern and what sensible measures would have improved the situation.

    Unfortunately it feels like yet another moral panic egged on by the conservative right, how do we respond?

  • @ Andrew T

    Andrew, what an interesting comment. I read it slowly, several times. I have never seen so many contradicting phrases contained within four short sentences. Well done!

  • James Belchamber 16th Jul '20 - 10:42pm

    “Cancel Culture” is the right-wing fetishisation of (mainly young) people attempting to collectively hold their peers and their celebrities to a higher standard. In so much as there is a culture, it is of accountability for what you say and what you do – and a responsibility to your community and wider society.

    It’s a response to the lax accountability of earlier years, where the likes of Jimmy Saville prowled hospitals to coax children back to his private suite in plain sight, and bigotry was openly accepted as part of our wider discourse.

    There are, of course, errors of judgement – and people that take it too far, which can easily be condemned. But largely the problem is that people have lost the privilege of avoiding accountability, and they’re angry about it.

    (Only the people that had this privilege to begin with, mind)

  • The Right spend a lot of time thinking up ways to win the political argument, despite having a dreadful case. They are the very rich, determined to perpetuate inequality and keep everybody else down. That is, of course, a terrible position to defend, but that is what the Right need to do. So they seek to shift the political battlefield to more favourable territory. That means persuading people to debate something else, something distracting, where the Right can create and exploit ambiguity.

    A brilliant way to do this is to invent a portentous phrase which sounds terribly wise, but can in fact mean whatever you want it to mean. Then you start an argument about your portentous phrase, and turn it into a millstone to hang around the necks of the Left and the Centre.

    “Politically correct” was the first such phrase. What it means is “You, the Left, are in fact calling us Rightists out because of the gross injustices we promote. We, the Right, will pretend otherwise. We will claim that you are just being stuck-up intellectual snobs when you denounce things like slavery, inequity, racism, etcetera. Of course, we won’t put it as baldly as that, because that would get us rumbled. Instead we will invent “political correctness”, which conveys the same slurs, but does so in a muddied kind of way, which will sucker people into thinking we have a point.”

    “Virtue signalling” was the next Right attack phrase. Basically that means “You are not denouncing our wickedness because we are truly wicked, oh no! You are denouncing our wickedness for devious reasons – You just want to look good! It follows that you, who condemn our wicked behaviour, are worse than we are, because of your (supposedly) bad motives!”

    And now we have “cancel culture”. This one means “When you refuse to let us use hate speech, or tell unchallenged lies, you are offending against freedom of speech! So, once again, we can paint you Lefties as the villains. Even better, if we look hard enough, we can also find a few genuine examples of unreasonable intolerance, which we can hold up as proof that we are talking sense. Hey presto, “cancel culture” is a real thing, because we on the Right can show the evidence!

    Don’t be fooled by Right wing propaganda.

  • Cancel culture exists and has recently exploded.

    It is where debates are shut down and people lose their jobs or status due to holding the wrong opinion rather than actually offending anyone. Examples include Laurence Fox who questioned whether the medias treatment of Meghan Markle was racist as alleged and JK Rowling who waded into some argument about transgender issues that I cant make head or tail of.

    And it also includes the removing statues of long dead people who lived at a time of different norms and standards.

    As an ideology it is almost diametrically opposed to liberal values of free speech individual rights and critical debate. In terms of electoral politics it is very damaging to the left and centre and a gift to the right.

    That said I do accept that discrimination still exists in society (but less than in previous years) and there has always been a backlash of “political correctness gone mad” against any attempt to tackle such discrimination.

    So where exactly should the line be drawn?

    I would suggest some tests e.g

    Was there an intention to be derogatory or belittle individual people due to their identity?

    Would an ordinary reasonable person be highly offended rather than a particularly sensitive person?

    Is there an element of coercion or threat to people?

    Has it been accepted for a long time that such positions are unacceptable rather than a recent fad?

  • I find it deeply depressing that a fair number of people in this party apparently believe that the best way to settle an argument is to silence those who express opposing views, whether by literally deleting their comments on forums such as this, by putting their livelihood at risk or by abusing them – which most people find deeply disturbing when it is conducted by a host of anonymous abusers.

    Owen Jones, in today’s Guardian, nicely expresses the mindset that one group in society can and should DEMAND that another accepts and adopts their beliefs and values:
    “On issues ranging from LGBTQ and women’s rights to anti-racism and immigration, younger people are attempting to communicate their moral values on social media to the older generation who dominate the commanding heights of the nation’s media. This is at the root of the “culture war” or “cancel culture”: demands that the values of the nation’s institutions are alighted with the worldview of the under-40s have provoked a moral panic”. (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/16/right-power-victim-britain-media-no-10-millennials-twitter).

    The idea that peoples’ moral outlooks can be changed by reason and persuasion – by appealing to their hearts and minds – seems to have fallen by the wayside.

    All too often (as in that article), this goes alongside the assertion that all the supposed victims of “cancel culture” are powerful and influential right-wingers. Of course, that is all part of the “culture war” psychology of them versus us.

    Joe Otten identifies a key problem with establishing a framework for what can and cannot be allowed in public discourse: if we are to impose rules, we have to be sure that those rules do not rely on assumptions that may be highly subjective and open to reasonable challenge.

    That problem applies to most Marco’s suggested tests, in particular, “Do not be offensive”. You can’t get much more subjective than that.

    And, if a viewpoint has been suppressed for generations, is that really sufficient to justify it being suppressed in future? After all, it wasn’t so long ago that criticising the monarch, or indeed the Empire, was considered utterly beyond the pale.

  • David Garlick 17th Jul '20 - 10:24am

    Free speech is essential and not negotiable. I have a problem with Forum and social media users who cannot identify themselves. (honestly that is)

  • I wasn’t saying don’t be offensive I think you misinterpreted what I was saying.

    I am saying that almost everyone thinks that the line has to be drawn somewhere eg hate speech can be censored.

    However the point of the above tests is to demonstrate that most of the speech that this “cancel culture” currently deems to be discriminatory is not actually problematic.

  • Perhaps a better way to engage with this is to set out what the appropriate responses to someone expressing views you don’t like are.

    I would have hoped that most people would have agreed (though from the comments above and in other places I’m not so sure) that the unacceptable category would have included:
    1) Actual criminal acts (violence or property damage);
    2) Threatening criminal activity;
    3) Advocating criminal activity against someone;
    4) Demanding other are not allowed to attend an event based upon your feelings when you are perfectly able to not engage with said event;
    5) Bothering 3rd parties who are not the person who expressed the view regarding the situation;
    6) Lying about the person/deliberately misrepresenting them (encouraging others to spread lies/misrepresent);
    7) Using unrelated platforms to try and discuss the issue (if you get in a squabble with someone on Twitter don’t go and find them on a knitting forum to bombard them);
    8) Offence archaeology, digging up matters from years back to find something to be offended by.

    Some responses that are reasonable to engage in:
    9) Arguing the issue under dispute with them;
    10) Accurately representing their position and providing counter points;
    11) Saying you don’t like them;
    12) Saying you don’t think other people should like them;
    13) Saying you aren’t going to shop at the company that employs them if they are in a senior role.

    Now there are some grey areas that sit between, for example when the CEO of Mozilla was forced out in 2014 because in 2008 he had donated to an anti-gay marriage campaign group 6 years earlier, at a time of the donation when many of the prominent supporters of gay marriage in 2014 were also publicly opposed.

    Also, the question of public platforms and banning’s is grey as well but some don’t seem to be willing to acknowledge this either.

    What is more concerning is the number of people who used to object a couple of years back to people who used to complain about actions 9-13 are now ok with actions from 1-8, when all that seems to be different is the target of the behaviour.

  • Good to sound Liberal views expressed in both the article and most of the comments.
    Free speech is so fundamental to Liberals and the “Cancel-Culture” poses an existential threat to our Party from within. Eradicating it should be our top priority: Something we should require of our new leader.
    For those like Andrew T. who are not sure what it is, there was also a relevant article in the NY Times yesterday –


  • “Cancel culture exists and has recently exploded. It is where debates are shut down and people lose their jobs or status due to holding the wrong opinion rather than actually offending anyone. Examples include Laurence Fox who questioned whether the medias treatment of Meghan Markle was racist as alleged…”

    Er, that is a grossly sanitised description of what Fox actually said. Below is a transcript provided by the Metro.

    “Laurence denied this was the case, calling Britain ‘the most tolerant, lovely country in Europe’, and adding: ‘It’s so easy to throw the card of racism at everybody and it’s really starting to get boring now. The audience member replied: ‘What worries me about your comment is, you are a white privileged male who has no experience in this’ – at which point Laurence hit back, saying: ‘I can’t help what I am, I was born like this, it’s an immutable characteristic so to call me a white privileged male is to be racist, you’re being racist.’ ”


    “Cancel culture” is a generic term of abuse which is used to make a poor argument look better than it is. It is blatantly clear that Fox was not just making an arguable point as to whether Meghan Markle might justly be criticised by a non-racist. He was wallowing in white supremacism, a fact which the “cancel culture” slur attempts to conceal, in order to win an argument by dishonest means.

  • @ John Payne: thanks for that very interesting New York Times link.

  • James Belchamber

    “It’s a response to the lax accountability of earlier years, where the likes of Jimmy Saville…”

    If you think that you are looking to apply a grad narrative to a phenomenon which doesn’t deserve it.

    The behaviours that cause cancel culture have been around far longer than anything you attach causation too. It is driven by some of the aspects of human psychology we don’t like to acknowledge and that given a massive boost by social media (and the media’s obsession with Twitter).

    The number of people who engage in piling in for the dopamine hit of attacking the “other side” are significantly higher than those who are like Daryl Davis.

  • @ John Payne Thanks for the article. I tend to agree with David Allen and James Belchamber.


    1-3 are clear and objective and 6 is ethically wrong but in practice also subjective.

    Surely 4 is fine? If someone invited a holocaust denier to conference it would be okay to demand the invitation be withdrawn.

    5 makes sense if that person is associated with the “other body”. If Ed Davey does something it is fair that it impacts the reputation of the party as a whole.

    7 and 8 seem purely subjective.

    What are people’s opinions on Jared O’Mara? I remember reading that Nick Clegg was made aware of some of his social media history but chose not to make an issue of it. Of course we lost the seat to O’Mara and then his history was revealed and he turned out to be a poor MP. Was Nick Clegg being a good Liberal in not trying to “cancel” O’Mara?

  • Andrew T

    Yes, I am happy with 4. If someone is a holocaust denier but a skilled doctor I would have no issue with them presenting medical research at a conference to share the understanding of the field, stupid views in one area don’t seem relevant to another. At what point do we stop, do we ban people who deny the moon landings? If you are talking about a history conference, I can’t see this extreme example ever occurring, however there may be less extreme examples apologists for some other regime, not outright denial of atrocities but perhaps someone who tries to excuse elements of them. In that case, assuming the organisers are knowingly inviting them to speak on the topic, it gives the bad opinions the airing to allow them to be challenged. I’m far more worried about ideas being spread in a format where they are not known and challenged.

    As for 5, are you so sure you want to set your test at “associated” a party leader can make sense, if we are talking about their current views being completely at odds with the party. But what about a random employee? A mid manager? Perhaps expressing a view such as “trans-women aren’t real women?” How are the complaints normally communicated? Bombarding some junior employees (they are always the firms point of contact in comms) lie the receptionist or the teenager they have managing the social media with angry messages? Actually a fair amount of this behaviour when committed in the UK could actually be criminal under the PHA 1997, but then you get into enforcement, how about a mob screaming at a politicians children? We see these things and apparently it has become acceptable to too many.

    7 is subjective, to an extent. But there are easy “ok” methods and then some grey and some clearly unreasonable. If someone says something on facebook you disagree with, respond on Facebook. The idea of going to find them on Linkedin, seems grey but still like the person doing it is a weirdo who needs to reexamine their life. But if they are also on some local network (there have been a few different sorts of these in places I have lived), if you don’t live in the area don’t turn up to bother someone there.

  • Andrew T
    8 is slightly subjective (as I pointed out with the Mozilla example, I see the actions of OK cupid as unreasonable) but recently the head of communications at Boeing was forced to resign over an article written in 1987, expressing views he no longer holds (as you may expect most of us will have changed views over three decades).
    I’m not proposing a law here but a a standard by which behaviour can be judge, there will be subjective interpretations of any high level principal, but right now we have a principal of “provided the target is the other side, anything goes.” There is also the case for relying on the expectation of those who wish to rely on the protection of certain principals need to abide by them.

    Regarding Jared O’Mara, I don’t know the details but actually it speaks highly of Clegg that he sees the passage of time as a reason to bring up historic statements. Some of the posts appear to have been 14 years old and the most recent confirmed 7 years. There is some grey there but the more important question is did they represent his views at the time? If you pick one example and say you use it to keep a bad person out, equally you may keep someone good out (and potentially discourage many more from even considering it).

    These are all examples where it is one person and the opponent is the amorphous mob of social media folks and journalists. There is a question over whether top apply this (or more importantly if you can) in a 1 on 1 confrontation.

    When dealing with principals, there is always the question of do you hold people to the standard they hold others and this is also a grey area. I don’t know how O’Mara’s campaign behaved, but you could make a case in a combative situation like an election that if you wish others to abide by certain principals you have to yourself, if you get in the gutter and start throwing waste around you should perhaps expect it to be thrown back. I would say the same could be said when certain journalists dig up something on someone from decades earlier, they then presumably are ok with the same being done to them (also the editor who agrees to publish).

  • John Littler 18th Jul '20 - 7:42pm

    I am not aware of the LibDems going much down this restrictive speech route, but many seems to believe that we are doing so. Where’s the clarity any more?

  • Sometimes we need provocative points of view. Teenagers may provoke their parents with outlandish statements and arguments, basically to learn from their parents how to counter them. Having infuriated their parents, they then adopt their parents’ view when arguing with friends!

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