If cancel culture is bad, why can’t academics speak up for Palestine?

Why are advocates for free speech over gender issues so silent when it comes to the right to speak out in support of Palestine, asks Maryam Aldossari 

November 22, 2023
Pro-Palestine demonstration, Nijmegen, Netherlands, November
Source: Getty Images
Pro-Palestine demonstration, Nijmegen, Netherlands, November

In recent times, a strong call for freedom of speech has echoed through academia, offering hope to scholars who have been marginalised or have lost their jobs due to what were deemed controversial opinions. However, many of those who have argued for such freedom, on both the political left and right, have taken a very different view when it comes to the rights of academics to express solidarity with Palestine.

In the wake of the tragic events of 7 October, several major UK newspapers that had previously been vocal in their opposition to supposed cancel culture in academia launched what can only be described as a witch-hunt against academics who attempted to contextualise what occurred within the broader narrative of a historical occupation, branding them “pro-Hamas” and antisemitic. Some journalists went as far as to contact universities directly in a concerted effort to bully these academics into silence. And while some universities have stood firm in defence of their faculty’s right to free expression, others have succumbed to the external pressures, threatening investigations against faculty members merely for expressing solidarity with Palestinians on personal social media accounts.

Such expressions have also exposed academics to a relentless tide of abuse – not only from external critics, but also from their own academic peers. Other colleagues stayed conspicuously silent as all this played out, and those included many proponents of gender-critical ideology, who have vocally championed their own free speech in the face of efforts to shut them down and damage their own careers.

This inconsistency betrays a selective approach to free speech, driven by an increasingly fashionable stance against “wokeness” – a pejorative label with which Palestinian solidarity, alongside the transgender rights movement, has been tarred. It reveals an inclination to silence rather than engage with challenging perspectives: an inclination that is every bit as troubling when it comes from the right as when it comes from the left.

Selectively advocating for free speech according to the political issue under discussion is not only hypocritical and unacceptable coming from former UK home secretary Suella Braverman, the outspoken enemy of “wokeness” who, controversially and unsuccessfully, leaned on the police to ban a pro-Palestine march earlier this month, before she was sacked by prime minister Rishi Sunak; it is also hypocritical and unacceptable from academics who complain that the threat of being cancelled is stifling academic debate.

No one who cheered when the government passed the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill earlier this year should now be applauding a minister’s bullying of UK Research and Innovation to shut down its equality advisory body over allegedly “extremist” social media posts on the Israel-Gaza conflict by some of the committee’s members. Everyone should be chilled by the recent revelation that the UK government compiled secret dossiers on academics’ social media activity, targeting those supporting transgender rights, Black Lives Matter and, most recently, Palestine. Such measures are not isolated but indicate a broader trend of governmental overreach that threatens the bedrock of intellectual freedom and open dialogue.

It is also a profound irony that those in the vanguard of academic research and advocacy around decolonisation and equality, who have dedicated their careers to exposing and challenging the deep-seated disparities of our societies, now choose silence in the face of Palestine's plight. How can this be squared with their vociferous resolve to dismantle systems of oppression and extend solidarity to the oppressed? I understand that some decolonisation advocates might also fear being labelled antisemitic and pro-terrorist, but they ought to have more faith in their conviction – and their ability to articulate – that it is not.

This failure to back up fine words with action is more than a personal failing, of course. It is an institutional one, too. How can Western universities claim to champion the ideals of decolonisation while remaining entwined – in terms of investments and research ties – with the defence and security industries, whose activities often perpetuate the very conditions these institutions purport to oppose?

But that should not overshadow the personal failings. How do those who study and teach the complexities of the Middle East reconcile their inaction with the realities on the ground? How can we expect future generations to take seriously the research and teachings of those who claim to embrace progressive values but who stand silent in the face of injustice? And, ultimately, what is the value of academic enquiry if it retreats into the comfort of abstraction and silence rather than make a stand?

These are the questions that must be confronted if academia is to retain any semblance of integrity in its pursuit of truth and justice.

Maryam Aldossari is a senior lecturer in human resource management and organisation studies at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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Reader's comments (6)

Can't speak up? Maryam Aldossari and her ilk are able to spread heinous misinformation about Israel (I checked her Twitter, it is full of that sort of thing) without holding Hamas responsible in the slightest for the state of the Palestinian people, but then they complain that they are being stifled, while we have seen for years that posting a tweet that doesn't toe the political correctness line gets people fired?
Your opinion. And you are free to express it. But Dr. Aldossari is correct. The UN and other organisations have identified Israel as an apartheid state under a strict definition. The Israel Defence Force propaganda throughout their bombing of Gaza and resulting deaths have been ludicrous. There is your misinformation. Other voices are needed and we can't pick and choose who those voices are.
I didn't say anything about the IDF in my post, so how could that be 'my misinformation'? I'm not saying I agree with everything Israel does either, but I'm not blind enough to say that all the blame for the situation falls on them, when there is Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the rest of the long arm of Iran and co. I can also spend a few minutes googling something before I take it as truth and post it. Nor did I say to pick and choose who we listen to. I'm just saying its hypocritical, with all the platforms people like Dr. Aldossari can freely post on with no repurcussions, to claim people with those opinions are being silenced, when the last few years have shown us how the twitter mob actually silences people when they want to.
I’m afraid you have painted yourself into the same corner as Dr Aldossari - you called her out for not mentioning Hamas in her critique and then you were called out for not mentioning IDF in your critique of her.
The author included criticism against Israeli policies (e.g. occupation) in the article; I didn't need to. Besides, I wasn't the one writing the article - I was pointing out what was missing.
This is an interesting moment of self-reflection for all of us; I.e. the pre-existing lens with which we approach information. The author does not directly criticise Israeli policies (a quick semantic analysis highlights the word occupation was not used, while the Oct. 7th events were classified as tragic). She is however, directly criticising British academia, British media and British governmental institutions. Why not directly engage with what Dr Aldossari is actually talking about?