Op-Ed - Big names spark turning point against free speech attacks

AN OPEN letter signed by 150 writers and academics in defence of free speech offers a glimmer of hope that we can put a stop to the anti-democratic so-called cancel culture that has taken root in many corners of society.

The letter in Harper’s Magazine represents overdue acknowledgment from those who have built careers in arts and academia that freedom of speech is being effectively curtailed in these arenas by a culture of public shaming that aims to take away the livelihoods and platforms of those seen to have the wrong views.

It’s not new for prominent people to speak out against cancel culture. Scientists, comedians and feminists have increasingly been calling out the increasing attempts to remove their work, blacklist them from public speaking roles, or even terminate their employment contracts. Unfortunately those who have spoken out have often been derided as bigots, no matter how reasoned their arguments and how many facts they put forward.

The Harper’s letter exposes the misnomer that calling out cancel culture and standing up for freedom of speech is some kind of Right-wing agenda (therefore to be ignored by anyone who doesn’t consider themselves a conservative).

The suggestion that people like Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood and J.K. Rowling have all decided to partake in an alleged Right-wing conspiracy with 150 of their peers is laughable.

The woke Left, however, seemingly remain ignorant of the importance of the letter, arguing that the prominence of the signatories proves that nobody has been cancelled. Yet organisers of the letter have reported that for every person willing to sign there were many more who agreed heartily with the sentiment but were uncomfortable putting their name to it publicly.

That’s hardly surprising when you consider the numerous cases of academics in the US and UK who have been censored or even terminated by their own employers for disagreeing with activist schools of thought on topics including critical race theory or women’s rights to single sex services. Someone as famous, fearless and financially secure as J.K. Rowling is unlikely to be successfully cancelled, which is why it’s important that people like her speak out. The fact Rowling is one of the few women who can’t be cancelled has no doubt contributed to the bombardment of abuse, including threats of rape and violence she’s received in return for her common sense points about sex and women’s rights. Many with lower public profiles and financial security have found their employers use tweets and public statements on controversial topics to dismiss them or warn them if they don’t desist they’ll be out of a job. But free speech shouldn’t be reserved for those who have the resources or the platform to defend themselves.

Compounding this inequity is the deference increasingly demanded to views that ordinary people, on the Left or Right, find absurd and lacking in evidence. You don’t have to be a bigot to recognise the differences between the male and female sexes and understand why women’s sports, single sex change rooms and toilets are important.

The overwhelming majority of the world’s population grew up understanding these concepts.

Equally, it is perfectly reasonable to deplore racism and fight against injustice without subscribing to radical commentaries that label everything from mathematics to bushwalking as symbols of white supremacy. Yet for a person to engage in critique of such radical theories is likely to lead to demands to that person’s employer, publisher, colleagues and friends that they must be disavowed. Sadly, many businesses and institutions give in, seemingly without considering the fact that complaints generated on Twitter are unlikely to be representative of any business’ broader market.

Such actions go well beyond the criticism and debate that are necessary and welcomed in a society with free speech. The potential to be made permanently unemployable to large sections of the corporate or academic world is just as stifling to free speech as the threat of legal consequences.

When corporations, public institutions and government agencies attempt to limit debate on what they perceive as sensitive topics, they undermine the open exchange of ideas which is essential to democracy and risk becoming captured by activist thinking that is completely out of touch with community views.

Those who want to restrict free speech invariably take the view that large swathes of our community are fundamentally hateful and can’t be trusted to express their views. It’s no surprise that such attitudes only serve to increase division in society. Let’s not allow Australia to go down a path of picking and choosing who is able to speak freely.