Free speech on Campus: Language Policing and The Rise of Cancel Culture | Thomas Graham
Thomas Graham is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.
A few years ago, the thought that a hundred typed characters on social media could have such a ruinous impact on a persons’ life seemed absurd and illogical. Yet now free speech and tolerance, the cornerstones of liberal democracies, appear to be in retreat. We must ask whether these two principles are still able to facilitate peaceful co-existence within our heterogeneous societies. We must also question what contemporary ‘cancel culture’ means for the preservation of history and campuses as places of learning. The prognosis thus far is not good.
Universities, online communities and workplaces, once places for debate and exchange of ideas, have been transformed into more hostile environments through ‘cancel culture.’ This term refers to the punitive and unforgiving conduct of those particularly on the extreme political left, who attempt to silence individuals with divergent views on issues such as gender, race and sexuality. The consequences of disagreeing with the ‘woke’ mob are not light, as many have had to withdraw from social media completely and in the most severe cases were forced to quit their jobs. Such vitriol has led to serious implications for university campuses, as it generates an atmosphere where university students feel increasingly reluctant to voice and therefore develop their opinions.
A 2019 study by King’s College London revealed the damage caused by ‘cancel culture’ towards freedom of expression. The research found that 1 in 4 UK students are scared to express their political views openly, with a concerning jump to 59% among students who hold conservative views. Furthermore, the restrictions of dissenting (and even mainstream) voices on campus not only affects students, as lecturers and researchers have also become the latest targets of attacks on freedom of speech. One of the most recent examples of ‘cancel culture’ in academia is the case of Professor Kathleen Stock, who was forced to leave her post at the University of Sussex after ‘reputation trashing from colleagues’ and harassment from students.
Stocks’ ‘crime’, to be treated in this manner was to hold views orthogonal to ‘woke norms’ on gender identification. Her gender-critical branch of feminist urges more research on whether self-identifying female trans individuals, with male genitalia, should be able to occupy the same spaces as biological women. Stock raises an evidence-based argument concerning the safety and well-being of women, and as an academic, expected those who disagree to debate her with facts. She was, however, met with disgraceful displays of intolerance and saw no alternative but to leave her position at the University of Sussex.
It is clear that the policing of language and thought is detrimental to contemporary campus culture. Yet, it is not only the present which is being actively policed. There are ongoing efforts to undermine and re-write British history. For example, Bristol saw the toppling of the Edward Colston statue by Black Lives Matter protestors. The group attempted to justify the act by citing that Colston’s role in the slave trade, and the failure of several petitions to get the statue removed. These two points are factually correct, yet in themselves do not justify the manner of the statue’s removal. The toppling was a clear example of mob rule, resulting in vandalism. Those who live in the UK can only be thankful that most matters are not ‘resolved’ in this way. Yet, increasingly fringe activists view disregarding democratic norms and private property as the primary method of accomplishing their narrow political agendas.
Since the statue was brought down, the name Colston has quickly disappeared from locations around Bristol. ‘Colston Tower’ has been renamed ‘Beacon Tower’, ‘The Colston Arms’ has covered its sign with a banner, announcing plans for a name change, and the ‘Colston House’ was rebranded ‘Johnson House’ (not after the current Prime Minister, of course). A powerful quote from Orwell’s ‘1984’ signals where such alterations to the past lead:
‘Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.
The parallels that can be drawn are frightening. The prevailing narrative among the ‘woke’ indicates a belief that not only can history be erased, but also changed by force. Of course, no sane individual would argue, today, that the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its participants should be glorified, but it is naïve to pretend that history did not happen. History, especially its darkest moments, exists to help humanity navigate through the present to build a better future, and this can only be done when we are aware of and exposed to mistakes committed in the past. Hence, wokeness, by imposing a singular view of history, enables its greatest distortions by negating historical fact.
Lastly, it is worth noting that social media only adds fuel to the woke activists’ fire, broadcasting fringe views to potentially millions of individuals and giving the false impression that such views are widely accepted. This magnification of the political extremes and erosion of the liberal centre should serve as a warning against the central tenants of cancel culture.
In short, to guard against the language policing taking root across university campuses, and prevent both the good, and bad elements of British history from being suppressed, there must be a concerted, evidence-based push back against the fringe views behind cancel culture. This is a vital first step to restoring free speech and tolerance as the cornerstones of liberal democracies.