Does cancel culture threaten free speech?

Freedom of speech cannot be tampered with because it is in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought…” and “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion…” Therefore everyone has the freedom of speech. Yet the fear of cancel culture has left authors without much room to talk freely, or has it? An article by Alexandra D’Amour talks about cancel culture as a set of critical expectations that lead to growth, “… it’s expected of us to be more aware about the things we say and the way we act.” Eluding to points about how cancel culture doesn’t shut down voices, it forces people to learn. Opposing this article is the letter ‘A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,’ in the letter it says, “As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk-taking, and even mistakes..” Posing the question, does cancel culture threaten free speech, or is it criticism that should be embraced so people can broaden their own opinions? This critical piece analyses the letter published by Harper’s magazine and highlights key argument and statements that were made about cancel culture measuring the strong and weak points to conclude if cancel culture threatens free speech.

The letter, ‘A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,’ can be summarised in its last two lines, “We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.” It was supposed to be looked on as an example of well-respected authors coming together to take a stance on something significant to our modern history. The signatories became the focus, and people began to look past the letter and focus on the controversy that they were causing, as some of the authors/writers who signed the letter had been canceled in the past, which made the letter feel like a defence rather than a stand alone piece. An example of this is J.K Rowling, which was one of the names included in the signatures, escalating the backlash as she was famously known to have been cancelled in late 2019 because of a transphobic tweet.

An article published by The Conversation wrote, “the link the open letter makes between a repressive government and an intolerant society may seem a long bow to draw.” Explaining that the comparison between Twitter backlash and “legal prohibition of speech” is not the same. David Gorski, an American Surgeon and scientist tweeted: “I read the letter. It’s the same old whiny BS about ‘cancel culture’ from privileged people with large audiences complaining about facing criticism and consequences for their speech.” Jennifer Finney an American author and transgender activist signed the letter but later tweeted, “I did not know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well-meaning… the consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.” Two tweets that indirectly reference Rowling’s tweet, proving that the letter is just a way for people like Rowling to defend their wrongdoings.

Moving past the letter, in an article by Alexandra D’Amour, writer at On Our Moon, she addresses how cancel culture should be embraced as a way of learning. At an event in Santa Cruz someone approached D’Amour and said, “I’m afraid that if I say or ask the wrong thing, I’ll… get… cancelled.” D’Amour thought on the statement for a few days and later responded with, “I totally understand… is more important is shifting your relationship with criticism, learn to embrace it… Embracing criticism allows you to be a true ally to people you wish to serve.” The statement proves that once someone is criticised or ‘cancelled’ they should have time to grow and apologise. In a tweet by English actress Jameela Jamil, she says, “Nobody is born perfectly ‘woke'”. Building off the article, growth and learning is a natural way to improve how we think.

The article and tweet take a different point of view from the Harper letter, as it defends anyone that has been cancelled by stating that nobody is perfect. Therefore according to these two women, it is not threatening free speech, but giving opportunities for people to learn and retain new methods of delivering information.

Weighing the arguments of both the open letter, the response from the letter and the article from D’Amour, cancel culture has red-flagged speaking out but it has not cancelled free speech. It has modified how people speak, forcing them to learn about what they are saying, monitoring who it might offend and opening to the idea of ‘wokeness’. Harper’s letter is wrong about cancel culture, “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” Free speech is not constricted, the modern ‘free exchange’ shouldn’t be affecting writers instead it is making them more aware. Gorski’s tweet is correct in every way, “it’s the same old whiny BS…”

Malik, N., Freedland, J., Williams, Z. & Moyn, S. 2020, Jul 08-last update, Is free speech under threat from ‘cancel culture’? Four writers respond [Homepage of Guardian News & Media Limited], [Online].

Readers React: Cancel culture is anti-free speech2021, Mar 27-last update [Homepage of Tribune Publishing Company, LLC], [Online].

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate | Harper’s Magazine (2020). Available at: https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/ (Accessed: 21 March 2022).

Nations, U. (2022) Universal Declaration of Human Rights | United NationsUnited Nations. Available at: https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights (Accessed: 21 March 2022).

JK Rowling slammed for signing cancel culture letter (2020). Available at: https://thenewdaily.com.au/news/2020/07/09/jk-rowling-letter-backlash/ (Accessed: 22 March 2022).

D’amour, A. (2019) Cancel Culture: The Good, The Bad, & Its Impact on Social ChangeOn Our Moon. Available at: https://onourmoon.com/cancel-culture-the-good-the-bad-its-impact-on-social-change/ (Accessed: 21 March 2022).

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