Why cancelling voices we disagree with is not the way we create positive change

Both moves have caused controversy, and have been called a suppression of free speech. Rudd’s daughter Flora Gill, who herself went to Oxford, questioned the decision made by Oxford’s feminist society, saying it was “not how women should treat one another.”

Rudd’s talk was on female empowerment, and getting more women into politics, yet it was – ironically- women who silenced her.

When someone says something you disagree with, what do you do? Do you argue, ask them questions, open up a debate? Or do you ‘cancel’ them? This reflex of our modern age has become pervasive. We have harnessed the power of the internet’s collective fury, to rid ourselves of anything we dislike and now, ‘Cancelling’ has quickly become our response to anything contrary to our worldview. But is it right? And is it necessary? Or is it essentially a form of bullying that potentially poses a threat to freedom of speech?

Last weekend, the issue of cancelling came under the spotlight when a talk by Former Home secretary Amber Rudd, organised by UN Women at Oxford University was cancelled.

The reason? Her handling of the 2018 Windrush scandal where British citizens were wrongly deported to the West Indies by the Home Office. This happened under her watch. Oxford professor Selina Todd, a professor of modern history who focuses on working-class women, also had a talk she was due to give at the Oxford International Women’s Festival cancelled, due to remarks she has made about the transgender community. Both women were ‘no platformed’- basically, a sort of grown-up version of being cancelled.

Selina Todd has denied being transphobic, saying she instead wants a more engaged debate on the issue of sex and gender. But her past comments, and some potentially dodgy retweets of some transphobic groups, have landed her in hot water. She has expressed concern about the removal of ‘single-sex’ spaces and has commented on the impossibility of changing your biological sex. This has made her the target for threats from trans-activists. Pressure from some of these groups led to the cancellation of her talk.

Do I agree with Amber Rudd’s handling of the Windrush scandal- where people living legally in the UK were detained and deported, thanks to an error Rudd made. Err, absolutely not. Do I think a lot of what Selina Todd has to say about the transgender community is misguided and offensive? Hells yeah. Should they have been cancelled?

Here’s where things get tricky…

Should we be cancelling others – literally or metaphorically speaking- just because they don’t share our views? As tempting as it may be, it opens up a huge can of worms- one that can actually impede progress and stop the potential for real change.

Annoyingly, we cannot assume that everyone will – and should- share our opinions. (Wouldn’t it be so much better if everyone agreed??) And in being ignorant of the plurality of voices in our society; even those that are repugnant to our own views, we risk being blindsided by potential threats, we risk not truly understanding the world we live in. We cannot stick our fingers in our ears whenever someone says something we do not like, maybe even hate. We should be engaging with the world, as messy and scary and yes- offensive- as it sometimes is, in order to properly challenge views we disagree with, and challenge and develop our own views.

Because, in refusing to let these people speak, we are not giving ourselves the chance to properly debate them on their beliefs. Perhaps, had Selina Todd spoken out and been robustly, intellectually debated, she would have changed her mind. Perhaps it would have inspired some serious navel-gazing on her part- some enlightenment on certain topics- some real change. Maybe giving Amber Rudd a platform, would have also given those angry at Windrush, the proper stage to air their views; to debate with her.

The horrible and scary fact of this can be that this sometimes means allowing controversial viewpoints the airtime to be challenged- in the hope that, in hearing the views of those who disagree with us, we can at least try and understand their standpoints, even if we still hate what they have to say. If we expect people to listen to us, we must be prepared to listen to things we disagree with too.

There is, of course, a big difference between those whose opinions we dislike, and those actively inciting violence and promoting hate speech. It can be a fine line, a tricky, messy thing to understand, and it is not ever easy to permit people whose opinions we find ugly, to use their voice. But, if we permit Cancel Culture to flourish, what happens when ours are the views that are suddenly unpalatable? Imagine if feminism or LGTBQ+ rights suddenly fell out of fashion again, and we found ourselves unable to speak our minds? What happens if we get cancelled?

Free speech can give free reign to controversial viewpoints, like, for example, the recent deluge of opinions from actor Lawrence Fox. This is uncomfortable at the very least – but free speech is, crucially, what also gives a platform to beautiful, unsung voices. Do I want to listen to Lawrence Fox, running the risk of me throwing things at his head? No. But I also don’t want to live in a world where voices are silenced, just because they are unpopular. Because we run the risk of silencing all voices, when we pick and choose the ones we don’t like.

We are living through some of the most divided times in political history. But cancelling instead of communicating is not how we change hearts and minds. If there is a voice we do not agree with, we should be prepared to defy them with debate, not cancel them. If we just shut people out completely, we will never reach sustainable change, but just further entrench people in polarised camps of opinion.

We have to listen to one another- even if we don’t like what we hear. We cannot challenge beliefs we disagree with if we just silence them. We cannot have our own voice heard if we shut down everyone else’s.

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