Academia’s cancel culture distracts from the right’s free-speech abuses

Why are so many on the identitarian left so quick to reduce differences of opinion to existential threats to marginalised groups, asks Umut Özkırımlı

September 14, 2023
Business couple standing over illuminated desk with cancelled yellow tape in front of them to illustrate Academia’s cancel culture distracts from the right’s free-speech abuses
Source: Getty Images (montage)

“When people often talk about cancel culture, what they mean is people on social media criticising them,” said Guardian writer Owen Jones last month. Such denialism remains the most common response to the growing illiberalism and intolerance of campus activism within the identitarian left.

Cancel culture is a pseudo-crisis, we are told, lacking any real-life consequences for those targeted and invented by a reactionary right that wants to claim the mantle of free speech despite its own cancelling of academics for their pro-Palestine or pro-Black Lives Matter views – not to mention the hysterical anti-Critical Race Theory campaign currently sweeping both sides of the Atlantic.

Indeed, a smaller but highly influential group of academics, intellectuals and activists openly defend the elimination of what they perceive as offensive views, reframing restrictions on academic freedom as a way of dismantling existing power hierarchies.

As a survivor of a short-lived, state-supported cancel campaign, I regard the right’s and left’s denialism as very similar – and equally problematic.

Just browse Academics for Academic Freedom’s “banned” list to see the array of “individuals who have recently been banned from speaking at universities in the UK and Ireland, or faced campaigns to silence them, or sack them for their views”.

Such campaigns have been waged by both left and right, but it is gender-critical feminists such as Kathleen Stock, Jo Phoenix and Alice Sullivan who are most frequently targeted, accounting for 25 of the 60 listed cases since January 2021. Such figures are deplatformed, disinvited and harassed for rejecting leading LGBTQ+ lobby groups’ “no debate” policy on transgender rights.

They are also often accused by identitarians of being “bigots”, “fascists”, even “Nazis”, who threaten the very existence of marginalised communities and who, therefore, are not legitimate conversational partners. “The university isn’t, and shouldn’t be, Hyde Park Corner...It is permissible for disciplinary gatekeepers to exclude cranks and shills from valuable communicative platforms in academic contexts,” writes Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan, without telling us who these gatekeepers are and what confers their authority.

You might argue that the reputational and employment consequences for the cancelled are a small price to pay for a more diverse public sphere that includes the perspectives of marginalised groups. But we need to also keep in mind that power dynamics change, even at the systemic level. It is quite telling that denialists are also the foremost practitioners of cancel culture, leading campaigns against women, feminists, lesbians and other historically disadvantaged groups for raising concerns about certain aspects of trans rights activism, or even the changing definition of the term “woman”. We know, thanks to a survey carried out by Laura Favaro, that what protagonists call “trans-inclusive feminism” is now the dominant position in UK gender studies departments. We also know that Favaro lost her job soon after publishing some of her findings in Times Higher Education.

The fact is that almost all contemporary defenders of cancel culture are themselves public figures, not hapless victims of systemic oppression with no other platform than an anonymous Twitter account. This is obvious in the case of Favaro, an up-and-coming immigrant scholar on a precarious contract who lost all she had within a matter of weeks as a result of a vituperative cancel campaign perpetrated mostly by more senior, tenured academics.

Not that being a senior male academic always helps: it may even be a liability, turning the target into a straw man to be bashed by online outrage mobs – as I learned the hard way when countless lawyers refused to represent me for fear of “cancel-by-association”, while confessing behind closed doors that I was the victim of a carefully planned cancel campaign.

Defenders of cancellation argue that the “cancelled” continue to express their views on other platforms. But finding alternative platforms to exercise the right to free speech, or resuming your career after a hiatus, doesn’t offset the mental, social or financial toll of cancellation attempts. I was lucky to have employers and publishers who believed in due process (at the end of which I was vindicated), but that doesn’t alleviate the pain inflicted on me and my loved ones for several months (all while grieving the loss of our five-year-old son to cancer, a book and film dedicated to whose memory remain cancelled).

We don’t know the exact number of people who are exposed to the chilling effects of cancel culture. But we don’t need to. As Srinivasan reminds us, “the whole point about academic freedom…is to exercise academic expertise in order to discriminate between good and bad ideas, valid and invalid arguments, sound and hare-brained methods”.

The real question is why so many on the identitarian left are so quick to reduce differences of opinion to existential threats to marginalised groups and to seek retribution without due process. This just forecloses discussion on matters of common interest and bolsters the right’s spurious claim to be the defender of free speech.

Umut Özkırımlı is a senior research fellow at IBEI (Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals) and a professor at Blanquerna, Ramon Llull University. He is the author of the recently published Cancelled: The Left Way Back From Woke (Polity, 2023).

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Reader's comments (3)

this is false equivalency and illogic without any evidence. Cancel culture X 2 = nothing
Well said, Umut! Couldn't agree more!
Owen Jones was surely being disingenuous. Cancel Culture can involve people losing their jobs or having their bank accounts closed; or, as might be the case here, unable to find a lawyer to represent them.