Cancel culture letter sparks fierce backlash

Censors and sensibility: The letter demands room for “risk-taking, and even mistakes”.

Is “cancel culture” destroying argument? A letter signed by 150 public figures in defence of freedom of thought has launched a debate about intolerance, privilege, and the right to boycott.

The names on the letter look like a TV interviewer’s dream. Among them are the novelists Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling; the feminist icon Gloria Steinem; the chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov; the psychologist Steven Pinker; the jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Between them, they have a following of millions.

The letter appears in the latest issue of one of America’s oldest magazines, Harper’s. “Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial,” it begins. The signatories welcome calls for greater equality and resistance to right-wing demagogues like Donald Trump. But, they say, “resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion”.

While many have welcomed the letter, others have taken issue with it. Many have pointed out that the right to boycott people and brands you oppose is nothing new – and has been a powerful force for good in society. Mitsubishi, Burma Campaign, De Beers, Fur Trade, and The Body Shop have all been forced to change policy in the past 20 years after successful consumer pressure.

“This isn’t cancel culture. This is consequence culture,” says the writer Alisha Grauso.

So, is cancel culture destroying argument?

Danger zone

No, of course not. People in positions of great authority and influence think they can say what they like and use the defence of free speech. But choosing not to listen to them is a powerful way of expressing disagreement. Of course, powerful people hate – more than almost anything else – not being heard!

Yes. “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class,” says the Harper’s letter.

You Decide

  1. Is there any public figure you would like to boycott? Why?


  1. Think of a book you hated reading. Design a poster warning others not to buy it.

Some People Say...

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

F Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), American novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most agree that the balance of power in universities has shifted. It used to be the case that students could only invite speakers that the governing body approved. That changed as a result of the Free Speech Movement, launched by Californian students in the 1960s. Now, the students are the ones acting as censors and, because they are seen as fee-paying customers, the authorities are reluctant to go against them.
What do we not know?
How the culture of ‘safetyism’ developed. The academics Haidt and Lukianoff believe that it stems from “paranoid parenting”, with adults obsessively protecting children from possible threats – physical to start with, but now emotional too. Their fears have rubbed off on their children, who are increasingly likely to see the world as dangerous. At the same time, political debate has become more polarised and aggressive, making them more nervous about taking part in it.

Word Watch

Margaret Atwood
Canadian novelist, best-known for The Handmaid’s Tale.
Salman Rushdie
British-Indian novelist who had to go into hiding when his book The Satanic Verses was condemned as offensive to Islam by Muslim leaders.
Martin Amis
British novelist whose books include The Rachel Papers and Money. His father, Kingsley Amis, was also a leading novelist.
Gary Kasparov
A Russian who became World Chess Champion at the age of 22. He is a leading critic of President Putin.
Wynton Marsalis
An American musician. He is the only person to have won Grammy Awards for both jazz and classical music in the same year.
Belief which is not open for discussion.
Forcing someone to do something.
Said without proof.
Not real; not authentic.
Stopped; banned.

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