A couple of days ago I attended a debate on free speech for the 10th Anniversary of the Contrarian Prize. This prize, founded by Ali Miraj, recognises the independence and courage of British public figures who challenge the status quo. At Bayes, we have hosted the Prize since its inception. The Panel was formed by Michael Crick, Sunetra Gupta, Andre Spicer, Peter Tatchell, and Michael Woodford, and was moderated by Claire Fox.
The debate was about whether it is becoming impossible to be a Contrarian. Almost none of the panellists directly addressed the question—to be sure, many emphasised the chilling effect that some cancellations have on one’s speech. But they did not really address the issue. It might be a little harder to dissent, to be a contrarian, in certain circumstances—for instance, in academia—but is it becoming impossible?
I would answer with a clear no. I don’t think that being a contrarian is becoming impossible. Just some decades ago, the price that one would pay by being a contrarian was much higher—the police could come knocking on your door. And of course in many other countries, this is still the case. And here lies the key issue: it is always the state that can make being a contrarian impossible. This is especially true in countries without a robust protection of free speech: basically any country apart from the US.
That is not to say that a culture hostile to free speech is not harmful for society. I firmly believe free speech is extremely important. And as mentioned earlier, there have been cases, few, to be sure, but sufficient to matter, of academics and public figures “cancelled” for expressing the wrong opinions. Yet I think that by far the most damaging aspect of “cancel culture” is that it makes it easier to legislate against free speech, particularly in countries without robust protections of this right—basically countries other than the US.
A lower appreciation of the importance free speech makes it more likely that the government passes legislation to curtail protests or prosecute “hate speech”. And if you think that cancellations of academics or journalists or public intellectuals—the case of Roger Scruton was really shameful both for the New Statesman journalists and the Tories—are chilling, wait until the Government starts cancelling people. We will miss the times when the worst that could happen was to have a Twitter pile-on.