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Updated: Oct 1, 2020

The cancel culture may appear to be a recent phenomenon, but it has been a feature of cultural, political and social debate for decades.

What is the cancel culture?

I would describe the 'cancel culture' as the cancelling of others opinions or points of view in public forums, social media, literature, journalism or in academia. It has become especially prevalent in academia. As writers we like to apply brevity where possible. So, to be precise, the cancel culture is censorship. Nothing more, nothing less. For a more academic description, see the bottom of this post.

The cancel culture is Orwellian in essence and intent: it identifies opinions or attitudes that are considered to be 'unacceptable' to a given power structure at a given time and the individuals who hold those points of view are silenced. It doesn't take a genius to work out that silencing opinion is bad for democracy and free speech - and bad for social cohesion. Humanity has a sordid history when it comes to this kind of thing. If you haven't read or seen it, The Book Thief is an incredible depiction of what happens when social, cultural and political fascists begin to burn books.

One of the first times I learned of this phenomenon was as far back as 2015 - a very different pre-Trump, pre-COVID world to the one we now live in. One of the world's most famous feminist campaigners was booked to speak at Cardiff University in Wales as part of her tour, Women & Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century. To say that Greer is a vocal and outspoken proponent of women's rights would be a sizeable understatement. Her subject mater for her Cardiff University talk - whether or not transwomen are actually real women - led to incredible online abuse and a petition calling on her to be banned because of what students called her, 'misogynistic views towards trans women'. Below is a six-minute clip from the BBC Newsnight program, with Greer explaining why she subsequently withdrew from the Cardiff University debate.

It goes without saying that, if there is one place where an individual should expect to have his or her attitudes challenged, it is university.

It goes without saying that, if there is one place where an individual should expect to have his or her attitudes challenged, it is university.

Whether or not cancel culture even exists is debated however. A 2020 Forbes article about the issue said this:

'Powerful voices on the institutional left claim that there is no such thing as cancel culture. For example, the New York Times columnist Charles Blow, tweets: “Once more THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS CANCEL CULTURE. There is free speech. You can say and do as pls, and others can choose never to deal this [sic] you, your company or your products EVER again. The rich and powerful are just upset that the masses can now organize their dissent.”

If banning books and redefining the meaning of films, cancelling speakers at universities and demonetising individuals on YouTube can be described as 'free speech' then, in my view, we are in troubling times. I believe it is the mark of a mature, civilised and confident pluralistic society to allow all views - no matter how distasteful or offensive to some - to be allowed to be voiced. Indeed, it is the mark of modern mankind: the enlightenment would never have happened if the sensitivities of the majority had been obeyed.

At the time of writing this blog, one of the world's most infamous, celebrated yet controversial scientific and philosophical figures, Richard Dawkins, was cancelled by the Trinity College Historical Society because of views he has previously held about religion. Dawkins is famed as much for his very well known atheism as much as his work as an evolutionary biologist. He is a fascinating character with fascinating views that one may or may not agree with. For somebody of his ilk to be cancelled for fear of making students uncomfortable is an affront to academia.

Read below to see what various academics say about the phenomenon of the 'cancel culture'.

For more on Germaine Greer.


The academics cited on Wikipedia describe cancel culture as follows:

Academic views[edit]

According to the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, call-out culture arises from what they call "safetyism" on college campuses.[10][11] According to Keith Hampton, professor of media studies at Michigan State University, the practice contributes to the polarization of American society, but it does not lead to changes in opinion.[12] Some students are afraid to express unpopular ideas for fear of being called out on social media[13] and may avoid asking questions as a result.[14] Call-out culture's prevalence makes marginalized groups feel "even more hesitant to speak out for what they feel is right".[15] Political scientist Frances E. Lee states that call-out culture leads to self-policing of "wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate" opinions.[16][17]

Some academics proposed alternatives and improvements to cancel culture. Critical multiculturalism[18] professor Anita Bright proposed "calling in" in contrast to "calling out" to bring forward its idea of accountability but in a more "humane, humble, and bridge-building" light.[19] Clinical Counsellor, Anna Richards, who specializes on conflict mediation, says that "learning to analyze our own motivations when offering criticism" helps call-out culture work productively.[20]


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