Like a rampaging horde hunting down anyone who dares to speak out is how comedian Rowan Atkinson describes the curse of cancel culture.
This week he called it the “digital equivalent of the medieval mob roaming the streets looking for someone to burn.”
Social media has only fanned this lynch mob attitude against free speech. “It’s important that we’re exposed to a wide spectrum of opinion” says Atkinson, but government can be worryingly susceptible to following the trend for ever tighter censorship. Last year, Scottish SNP Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf proposed a bill against Hate Crime that included comments made in people’s homes. It was the thin edge of a very nasty wedge in which the state would police our most private conversations, with family and friends encouraged to snitch upon our relaxed chats at home. Atkinson spoke out against that too.
A howl of protest forced Yousaf to amend his proposed bill, but the fact remains that Scottish bishops had to object because they feared that having a bible at home might fall foul of possessing “inflammatory material”.
Communication regulator Ofcom has just widened its definition of hate speech to comments likely to “spread, promote or justify hatred” against “gender reassignment” and “political or any other opinion”. In this age of instant protest, it takes only one person to claim offence and anyone can be hauled before the court of public opinion to be named and shamed for merely expressing their opinion. This is especially heinous when a comment is based on scientific fact and yet is still deemed offensive by a vociferous minority.
Harry Potter author JK Rowling faced widespread condemnation for ridiculing the politically correct statement “people who menstruate”.
“I know and love trans-people,” she said, “but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives.” For simply stating a biological fact, she was pilloried, shamefully, by the stars of her own movies and staff at her publishing company.
It was a dark day for the liberal elite and Rowling was right to return her Robert F Kennedy Human Rights Award when Kerry Kennedy criticised her supposed “attacks upon the transgender community”.
Less famous and powerful people face losing their livelihoods and jobs if they dare contradict a prevailing view.
Australian Professor Peter Ridd stepped out of line by questioning his colleagues for falsely claiming that coral reefs were dying because of climate change. He challenged their supposed evidence that the Great Barrier Reef was a victim of ocean warming, but such is the climate change band wagon in the scientific community that he lost his post at James Cook University in the subsequent row.
I’ve seen the coral reefs whose health is contested with my own eyes,” said one brave supporter of Ridd. “They are very much alive. What is dead is academic freedom in Australia.”
Science proceeds by reasoned debate and just because one view challenges a broad consensus that person should not be shut down. Yet it is the very home of such discussion that is most under threat from such intolerance. Universities gave birth to cancel culture by allowing the no-platforming of certain guest speakers whose views diverged from usually left-wing orthodoxy.