The ongoing debate around “Cancel Culture” has become a central pillar in what defines freedom of speech. What is termed “Cancel Culture” once denoted public figures facing widespread criticism for overtly expressing controversial views. In the contemporary age, it carries threatening overtones, conveying an onslaught on free speech due to its far-reaching impact on individual rights and freedom of thought.
Proponents of “Cancel Culture”, or simply Cancel Culturists, regard it as a rightful way to erase unwanted views from the social/political discourse. These unwanted views not only include politically incorrect transgressions, but they go so far as to attack any moral transgression. Moreover, a perpetrator’s moral infractions are highlighted rather than personal circumstances (e.g. mental illness). The stirring quote “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is relevant here. Its relevance is, of course, that it negates the validity of Cancel Culture.
The costs of Freedom of Speech
Freedom of speech has always been a cause worth fighting for. This is a basic human right but, notably, the transaction comes at a great cost. This, conspicuously, makes it the most effective medium for marginalised groups to raise their voices around uncomfortable truths that powerful elite groups often refuse to concede. Conversely, Cancel Culture thrives on making people guilty to such a degree that they relent their right to free expression. Moreover, Cancel Culture silences deserters daring to question the extent to which freedom of speech is important for minority groups. Thus, what emerges is an ethical imperative to see the prevailing Cancel Culture as a detriment to free speech.
Recently, some 150 writers, academics, and activists signed an open letter denouncing the “restriction of debate”. Some of the signatories are facing heavy criticism for comments causing “offence” to extant marginalised groups. Of course, an intention to protect minority groups is a noble endeavour on the part of liberals. Yet, this act of silencing/punishing opposite opinions is uncalled for and risks imperilling minority groups.
The droll and unnecessary act of coddling may have started with demanding the right to silence selective voices. This, nevertheless, eventually ends with clamping down on the freedom of speech of everyone in a vulnerable position. It is unfortunate that the liberal fringe appears to be beguiled by an authoritarian culture intent on subverting independent opinion.
Cancel Culture and marginalised groups
The act of striving for the preservation of human rights by abrogating anyone who dares disagree with moral orthodoxy is producing catastrophic toxicity in the world of social discourse. It runs the risk of creating more restrictions on the freedom of consciousness than on individual freedom. Therefore, for marginalised groups to endorse the curtailment of freedom of speech in the guise of Cancel Culture is to give up their right to express their own opinions on crucial issues they value the most.
Let’s not forget that issues such as George Floyd’s tragic killing in police custody that induced protests, the challenging of police brutality, and the invalidation of several commemorative historical statues are very much part of the recent debate around freedom of speech. Nothing should obfuscate the fact that if it weren’t for freedom of speech, these issues would have long been brushed under the carpet by the very excuse of “being offended”.
There are countries where voicing your opinions can get you killed. These countries are far from espousing secular values. Many people experience the deprivation of their basic human rights, such as LGBT+ rights, freedom of religion, and free speech. All are neither being acknowledged nor implemented.
Rebutting Bad Ideas
Bad ideas can be rebutted, but when a constructive debate is absent we may cede space to bad ideas. This only festers and takes root in the consciousness of certain sections of society. One should never forget that free speech is something that cannot be restrained in a set framework. Uninformed societal biases may play a vital role in shaping the culture in which freedom of speech develops its parameters. Moreover, people tend to manifest values, biases, and assumptions they learned growing up in diverse ways. It would be an exaggeration to assume that all people will or can understand certain social norms in the same way.
Limiting free speech would do little to rid society of most undemocratic and bigoted attitudes. Banning bigotry and hatred will not end bigotry. On the contrary, the mindsets that promote vile ideas, hatred, and prejudice thrive when hiding in more virulent forms. Freedom to open-debate in a constructive environment is essential in educating people. This also become encouraged to counter ideas filled with bigotry and prejudice.
What about people saying harmful things?
Freedom of speech, at times, emboldens some people to say obnoxious, false, or outright appalling things. Yet, free speech protects our right to challenge vile ideas without having to face persecution. Racism, bigotry, and prejudice aren’t merely defined stereotypes. Instead, they’re a language of harmful expression that only victims understand. Perpetrators who perpetuate inhuman attitudes conveniently deny that such a language exists.
Additionally, social media has made people more vulnerable. Social Media Vigilantees feel emboldened behind the screen and seek out those who confirm their bigotry, prejudice, and biases. Racist political movements exploit (with impunity) social media platforms to spew hatred and prejudice against people. This anonymity feeds online bigotry and racism immensely.
This is a battle of ideas that has become an essential part of any democratic set-up, through which many opinions collide so as to overcome bad ideas. Nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill makes a deft point when he says if an opinion is right, people are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth. If people are wrong, “they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error”. In such sensitive times, these self-appointed guardians of political purges should realise something vital. That is, when those fearful of being cancelled decide to avoid constructive dialogues, this runs the risk of shutting down debate altogether.
Such regressive politics has always been antithetical to the types of civil rights movements and types of valuation that protect human rights for all citizens. Civilised discussion is indeed a violable option for achieving progress amidst conflicting parties. Corrections can be made in a civilised manner without subjecting individuals or certain groups to persecution. Weaponising free speech and asserting personal views as absolute is a regressive way to deal with concerning issues. Cancel Culture only deepens the wounds, and constructive healing remains an outcry of ever-aggravating conflict.