This week, a letter signed by 150 leading writers and academics was published in Harper’s magazine. Signatories included authors J.K. Rowling and Margaret Atwood, and various other influential figures. While welcoming the current discussion about racial injustice, it condemned “restriction of debate” and “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism.” It was, in effect, about what has come to be known as cancel culture and “the war on free speech.” It garnered a great deal of attention — this is a respected and well-connected group.
Cancel culture is indeed a genuine and worrying phenomenon. In extreme cases, people are hounded for things they said or wrote much earlier in their life and no longer believe. Jobs have been lost and reputations smashed, and it’s not always the wealthy and powerful who are victims. Nor is forgiveness especially prominent in all this, because, sometimes, when the accused do show genuine remorse, it makes little difference. There can be a mob mentality and a self-regarding hysteria.
I’m certainly opposed to some of the intolerance we’ve seen recently, but freedom of speech is not quite as straightforward as some would have us believe. There’s the “freedom” to speak, and then there is the “ability” to be heard. In other words, those with wealth, power, and privilege haven’t really had to worry about any of this, because easy access to (in some cases, even ownership of) a newspaper or television network does tend to make one’s freedom just a little more significant.
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Some years ago in Toronto, at a major gathering of Canadian evangelicals, a prominent member of the Palestinian Christian community was scheduled to lecture. A devout and experienced man, he always spoke of justice and peace. But the atmosphere at this event was strongly Christian Zionist, backed by misunderstood Biblical eschatology. Even though the speaker was dedicated to building bridges with Israelis, delegates pressurized the organizers, and he was cancelled. I was ashamed and asked some media colleagues for help in reversing this decision. Nobody was willing to do so. More than a decade later, some of those very colleagues are now active in denouncing what they loudly reject as cancel culture.
On a personal level, I had a quite profound conversion of life almost seven years ago. The details aren’t important, but it led to me changing my stance on some, though far from all, controversial issues. I was, understandably, fired from certain conservative publications and broadcasters, but the campaign went much further than that. There was a clear attempt to silence me, even to destroy me. I remember one email in particular, because it arrived the week before Christmas: “It is felt that with the high public profile you have in media and social networking in relation to gay marriage it is felt that we have to part our ways as an organization.”
I had a written list of the confirmed dates I was supposed to work for this broadcaster, had been involved with it for more than a decade, and had never even mentioned the issue of equal marriage on its television show. Yet I was still cancelled — dismissed by a conservative entity for having liberal views. And that has historically been the way. It is only now, when those on the left challenge more traditional ideas about race, sexuality, and politics, that we see such a strong reaction from alleged defenders of free speech. This is about more than just inconsistency or even hypocrisy. It’s about an unwillingness to empathize.
Hyperbole doesn’t help, whatever the source. I returned to university in 2016, after a hiatus of 34 years. Contrary to what I’d read about cults of political correctness, for three years at various colleges at the University of Toronto, I saw the same attitudes and openness that I’d encountered so long ago in Britain. If anything, the students were less entitled and more studious.
Absolute certainty, any certainty, can be a dangerous weapon. A politically and morally healthy society — a politically and morally healthy person, for that matter — asks questions more often than it gives answers. Some people, long impotent, are flexing newly discovered muscles and sometimes hitting too hard and even hitting the wrong targets. But reality cries out to be heard. The status quo has enjoyed virtually unquestioned dominance for centuries, and we will find some sort of balance in due course.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to be trans, of colour, or part of any group that has in so many ways been pushed to the edges of the body politic and the media and corporate worlds. I am, after all, a 61-year-old straight white man. God forbid we lose our sense of humour, our kindness, our humanity. But, at the same time, pray that we can imagine and work for a fairer and better future.