Cancel culture breeds cowardice

We must be braver to overcome the tyranny of self-censorship.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Free Speech UK

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Most people are now aware of the pervasiveness of cancel culture. But are we cognisant as to its baleful consequences? What happens to a society in which the intolerant, the censorious and those possessed with passionate intensity dictate words and actions?

The answer is simple, twofold and grim: self-censorship and cowardice.

Last month, Dame Sara Khan, the government’s ‘independent adviser on social cohesion and resilience’, sought to highlight the ‘shockingly widespread nature’ of threats and intimidation in public discourse. A survey carried out by her team found that 76 per cent – over three quarters – of people are self-censoring for fear of what she terms ‘freedom-restricting harassment’.

The results of that government study were echoed at the end of March by another survey, this one carried out by the Free Speech Union (FSU). It found that 62 per cent of UK employees who undergo diversity training at work say they have had to conceal what they really think due to fear of losing their jobs. One person surveyed, a white woman in her late fifties, said: ‘I think everyone is too scared to speak about topics like this anymore and certainly free speech doesn’t exist in my company.’

Most people won’t be surprised by these findings. We’ve read enough stories about people being harassed and hounded for their opinions – sometimes by fellow members of the public, sometimes by the police. They often risk losing their jobs and livelihoods as a consequence. Last month, we heard the case of Kevin Lister, a Swindon maths teacher who was sacked for not using a pupil’s preferred pronouns. Though it is a particularly bad case, Lister’s treatment is not all that unusual. More than a third of those surveyed by the FSU said they had witnessed staff being penalised by their employer for challenging diversity training.

In some of the worst cases, those with dissenting opinions risk more than their careers. A 2017 Times investigation found that 3,300 people were detained by police and questioned in 2016 alone over things they had said on social media. In this climate, self-censorship is a natural, instinctual defence mechanism.

And most of us are guilty of it. We withhold what we actually want to say for fear of the consequences. Even we journalistic commentators, whose job it is to express opinions, can fall foul of the self-censoring impulse. Sometimes the desire for a quiet life prevails, mindful as we are that our own livelihoods are of foremost concern.

Inevitably, this leads to tacit connivance and complicity in acts of obvious cowardice. We saw this in West Yorkshire, in the case of a religious-studies teacher formerly of Batley Grammar School. The teacher has been in hiding for three years now after showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and being hounded out of his position by protests. He is still in hiding, mostly forgotten, after what spiked editor Tom Slater has called one of ‘the most craven capitulations to religious bigotry Britain has seen since the Satanic Verses controversy’.

Cowardice is indeed the order of the day. Just read interviews with or the memoir of comedy writer Graham Linehan, who describes how former colleagues and collaborators dropped or ostracised him once he became associated with the unfashionable gender-critical movement.

With the tyrannical Hate Crime Act, which has now come into force in Scotland, the situation is only set to get worse. Who knows what will unfold in Scotland in the coming weeks and months. Sure, JK Rowling has spoken out against this law. But she can literally afford to. The vast majority won’t put their livelihoods in jeopardy. Reports already suggest there is much confusion as to what can and can’t be said under the new law. I fear many will opt to take the prudent path and keep their mouths shut.

The triumph of reason

In 2002, Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for work that ‘revealed the inadequacy of the most basic assumptions made by economists – that man is a rational being’, as his Daily Telegraph obituary puts it. Kahneman died last month aged 90. In his bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman posited that people are more likely to make decisions through their instinctive, intuitive mind, rather than their logical and rational mind.

In the wider scheme of things, it feels like this conversation is centuries old. After all, wasn’t it Enlightenment thinkers such as Spinoza, Leibniz and Kant who believed that humans were fundamentally rational beings? It was only later that the likes of Nietzsche and Freud dissented, arguing that we are controlled by invisible urges, irrational instincts and base drives.

On a pedestrian level, in the micro-economic sphere, everyone knows that they don’t make entirely rational decisions when they go to the supermarket. What you buy may indeed be informed partly by reason – that is to say, price – but also by what mood is taking you along. (Like me, you might be more inclined to chips, pizza and chocolate when feeling down.) There’s a whole advertising industry built and sustained by the exploitation and manipulation of our irrational drives: our passions, desires, insecurities, values. Television adverts today appeal as much to emotions (and increasingly to ethical values) as they do good value for money.

Whether humans are governed foremost by reason or instinct is an age-old question. While no side can claim definitive victory, one thing remains indisputable: human beings are the only species who can override instinct by employing reason.

Why songs are getting sadder

The lyrics of most popular songs have become gloomier and angrier over the past five decades, a study has found. Researchers from the University of Innsbruck in Austria studied 12,000 English-language songs, finding a ‘downward trend in happiness and brightness and a slight upward trend in sadness’. Meanwhile, ‘the emotion described’ in songs has ‘become more personal’.

This should not surprise us. It tallies with Jonathan Haidt’s thesis of today’s ‘Anxious Generation’. Twentysomethings have been immiserated by smartphones with front-facing cameras and social-media forums that demand constant validation – validation that is seldom forthcoming.

Ours is a culture of narcissism, introspection and neurosis. Constantly worrying what others think of you has always been a guaranteed path to unhappiness. No wonder our songs sound so sad.

Patrick West is a spiked columnist. His latest book, Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times, is published by Societas.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Free Speech UK


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