Cancel culture is not a youthful rebellion

The older generation fomented this climate of censorship and intolerance. We can’t let them off the hook.

Joanna Williams
Topics Free Speech UK

‘My generation aren’t the bullies. We just defend the weak.’ Journalist Flora Gill (the 29-year-old daughter of former home secretary Amber Rudd, 56) argues that there’s nothing new about cancel culture; it’s just gaining attention – and a snappy label – because it is now being led by young people with Twitter accounts and progressive ideas.

Gill isn’t the only one who thinks all the fuss over cancel culture is just backward Boomers ranting about millennials and Gen Z-ers who finally have an opportunity to get their voices heard and are not prepared to stay silent when they witness discrimination and inequality. Barack Obama has been called out for having ‘a very Boomer view of cancel culture’: ‘old people’ are more upset by online criticism than by injustice, opined his millennial critic. Young people are not snowflakes, is a common retort: they are just cleaning up the mess left by their parents.

Generational warriors want us to believe that young people are leading the charge to the barricades in a modern-day cultural revolution. Old people, meanwhile, just don’t get it. It’s easy to see why they reach this conclusion. It was mainly young people who left lockdown to take part in Black Lives Matter demonstrations. University students honed cancel culture through No Platforming and their demand for safe spaces. There seem to be growing generational divides when it comes to attitudes towards gender and race. Whereas Boomers learnt to judge people by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin, millennials view such colour-blindness as racist. Older feminists are more likely to defend the rights of women while younger people question what it means to be a woman in the first place.

But the idea that cancel culture is the product of overly enthusiastic, politically progressive, social-media-savvy Gen Z-ers flatters young people and lets older people off the hook. Cancel culture is a political – not demographic – phenomenon.

It wasn’t a teenager with a newly created meme to share who, earlier this week, arrested a 12-year-old boy for sending racist messages to footballer Wilfried Zaha. It was Alison Saunders (59) who, as director of public prosecutions, expanded the definition of hate crime and pushed for increased reporting using the hashtag #HateCrimeMatters. It is Robin DiAngelo (63) who promotes the idea that all white people are inherently racist: ‘As a white person, you were born into a racialised hierarchy, the forces of which had been operating in your life before you even took that first breath and every breath since.’ According to DiAngelo, the only way white people can challenge their inherent sense of racial superiority is through overcoming fragility and facing up to a lifetime ‘doing the work’ and ‘getting educated.’

It was Billy Bragg (62) who wrote in the Guardian this weekend that George Orwell’s statement ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’, is ‘not a defence of liberty; it’s a demand for licence, and has become a foundational slogan for those who wilfully misconstrue one for the other’. In universities, it is often lecturers who rush to start petitions denouncing colleagues for holding incorrect views and cheer on student No Platformers. In schools, it is teachers – or Channel 4 television producers – who bring critical-race theory into the classroom and divide pupils according to race before making them undergo unconscious-bias training. Gill praises young people for their belief that ‘the right of transgender people to be protected is as indisputable as the right to sexual or racial equality’. But the heads of influential organisations like Stonewall and Mermaids, and the doctors that run the Tavistock gender clinic for children, are all decidedly middle-aged.

The idea that cancel culture is a youthful rebellion against an aged establishment is a convenient myth. It denies the leading role played by an older generation of activists in sowing the political seeds of censoriousness and intolerance from within institutions. And it paints over the fact that when young people come knocking with demands of their own, they find they are pushing at a door that has been taken off its hinges and replaced by a red carpet welcoming them in.

Caricaturing cancel culture as a generational divide takes it out of the realm of politics and excuses it according to demographics. It suggests that if we just sit around and wait for today’s young activists to grow up a bit, then issues with free expression will resolve themselves. Cancel culture, however, is not an age-related condition but a political counter-revolution led by a new elite who could not get their way at the ballot box and are now pulling rank from within institutions. This means that those of us who want to defend free expression have to do far more than just sit around for a few years.

Joanna Williams is director of the Freedom, Democracy and Victimhood Project at Civitas. Covid Kids: The response of schools to coronavirus is free to download.

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Bastard Man

23rd July 2020 at 9:47 pm

It’s the same old Commie nonsense. It’s so dull and dated. And for full on uncool points, it’s even been co-opted by the corpoliticals. Dull. Dull. DULL.

David J

23rd July 2020 at 7:54 pm

Many remainers and Corbynistas I’ve come across have been hippy-era folk, apparently wishing to relive their younger selves.

And (of course!) they are bedfellows with the university lecturer crowd, who underline the fact that it’s perfectly possible to be highly intelligent, yet mind-numbingly stupid.

XR, BLF, cancel-culture and the rest seem to have attracted much the same demographic.

Dodgy Geezer

21st July 2020 at 11:43 am

I knew that there was something wrong with the 60s generation.

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Milton Thatherton

15th July 2020 at 2:36 pm

Glad to see that independent and heterodox media is starting to figure out that screechers on social media and students on campuses are not the root problem – annoying and incoherent, yes, but they’ve always been with us in some form. The issue is with the institutional decision makers that buckle to their outrageous demands. Surely they must recognize the insanity, that it’s a social pathology emanating from a small minority, and that it’s their duty to say no. So why don’t they? Where are the investigative journalists on this question? We only get corporate doublespeak in the form of press releases as justification.

L Strange

15th July 2020 at 1:21 am

This Flora person is 29, not what I think of when I read or hear “young people”. She’s been an adult for more than a decade.

I’m no old fogey, I’m 37, so one of the oldest Millennials or the youngest Gen X-ers, depending on where you demarcate. At 29 I’d been deployed several times in two theatres of war, married and had fathered the first three of our children (two pregnancies, one a pair of twins). I’d been to every continent, climbed mountains, dived oceans, trekked plains, parachuted from aircraft. I’d cared for and was raising my children, supporting my wife and was involved in our community and our wider family and friends. And I’m not extraordinary. I know many people who can say something similar.

In contrast, we now have swathes of people who take forever to grow up and actually live life – they think that meaning and a useful existence is a matter of activism. Any activism. Perhaps this never-ending self-perception of being a “young person”, a perpetual teen, is part of the current lunacy and it seems to stem from university. I’m sure it wasn’t always this way, but for the past couple of decades or so, the indoctrination inherent in higher ‘education’ also seems to stunt personal growth and retard development.

steve moxon

14th July 2020 at 10:51 pm

Speak for your Leftard buddies in your metropolitan bubble, Joanna.
Most older people stopped being Leftards aeons ago, if they ever were.
I’m in mi 60s and I’ve had nothing but contempt for the posturing Left and its hatred towards ordinary people since I was a teenager.


14th July 2020 at 9:18 pm

People who were young in the 1960’s ( so born in the 1940’s ) have been boring everyone ever since about the protests , the pop festivals and how they were so special. As Britain didn’t join the Vietnam War lots of young men from America and Australia came here to avoid enlistment and we got the benefit of their various musical , acting and writing talents which made London pretty special . While they were having fun millions were dying in China , people still being sent Gulag or psychiatric hospitals in Russia , yet all these people are fervent marxist/maoists who have been working very hard to make the West just as nasty as these countries were then . The directed or in some cases mis-directed ( for some reason BLM keep trying to destroy the statue of an Elk in Portland Oregon)young probably don’t even know what they are destroying or cancelling.

David J

14th July 2020 at 8:26 pm

It reminds me so much of the early days of Corbyn.

Many mature ladies (in particular) I know fell into the honey trap of reliving their glorious political posturings of the 1960s, 70s, 80, born-again as Corbynista.

Mark Beal

14th July 2020 at 7:02 pm

The strange thing about the generational thing is that the young are so ready to blindly accept what they’re told by their elders. It’s not in and of itself a surprise that some people remain wedded to the view of the world they formed in their youth. Jeremy Corbyn’s view of the world hasn’t changed appreciably since the 1970’s, and Bernie Sanders still holds many of the views he no doubt held during the Cuban Missile Crisis – for their inability to alter their opinions as society has changed they are lauded in some circles as “men of principle”.

The question is why very vocal young people believe themselves to be radical when they are in fact the very epitome of conformism. Their elders believe that society is much the same as it was when they were young in the 70’s and 80’s – well they would. But why do young people swallow this drivel? Critical thinking seems to extend to being critical of a particular idea of conservatism that was already a caricature in the 70’s and 80’s, and which now bears no relationship to the how things are. When I was young, my teachers encouraged critical thinking, and I took the idea seriously enough to be critical of them in return. Of course now critical thinking has been replaced with the catechism of Critical Theory, which isn’t the same thing at all.

That the older generation clings to its tenets of faith isn’t surprising – what’s surprising is how docile and unquestioning some young people are.

Tom Joad

14th July 2020 at 6:54 pm

In my opinion boomers and almost-boomers have more common with millenials, than with us – 45-55 old gen X’ers. They share same kind of ideological faith and take-no-prisoners approach. We X’ers are sceptical and cautious between these two fronts who want to go all the way. Of course this can not be generalized but as a loose definition. In my mind’s eye i can see how some boomer’s eyes glow when they see this woke stuff happening. They loved Mao and Stalin when they were young, then the Soviet Union collapsed and that was awful tragedy for them. Now the light is lit up again. We X’ers are now between two generations that see Mao as a great bloke. There’s not much that separates Jeremy Corbyn from millenials, except his age. Relations between generations of course are bit different on each country.

I see a red door and I want it painted black
No colors anymore, I want them to turn black

Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facing up, when your whole world is black

K Tojo

14th July 2020 at 6:33 pm

What I particularly loathe about the Boomer generation is what I call “Rebel Chic” – the idea that if you are not some sort of rebel (with or without a cause) you are just a nobody, a faceless cypher, a spiritless conformist, an unwitting tool of the establishment, a mindless conformist (the list goes on and on) and JUST NOT COOL.

We are now over-subscribed with rebels. They are crowding out everybody else.

Linda Payne

14th July 2020 at 4:40 pm

I’, m 58 and this article is spot on; I remember the labour defeat in 1987 and all my leftie friends bemoaning the fact that ‘people were so stupid’ to let Thatcher in again, this was not just a comment but bordering on hatred. It was at this time that politcal correctness emerged in schools where it evolved through the institutions particularly the NHS. where ‘racism’ became a crime, where the police were branded ‘institutionally racist’, the rise of multiculturalism and Blair’s immigration policy took hold and people were silenced. Well this is where this silence has got us – even that has been taken away (Silence is Violence) now this creed demand complete obedience to their doctrine, you are either with them or against them, my generation stinks

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