Podcast - Is "cancel culture" really constricting free speech? Professor Katharine Gelber features on ABC Radio National's 'The Minefield'

23 Jul 2020
Is "cancel culture" really constricting free speech?
Professor Katharine Gelber features on ABC Radio National's 'The Minefield' with Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens on 15 July 2020. Listen here.
 
Last week, an open letter appeared online under the auspices of Harper’s Magazine. It was signed by more than 150 renowned authors and academics across the ideological spectrum and from a remarkable range of disciplines: novelists like Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Khaled Khalifa and J.K. Rowling; historians like Sean Wilentz, David Blight and Mia Bay; philosophers and legal theorists like Samuel Moyn, Zephyr Teachout, Drucilla Cornell and Anthony Kronman; public intellectuals and activists like Noam Chomsky, David Frum and Gloria Steinem; political theorists and sociologists like Yascha Mounk, Melvin Rogers, Uday Mehta, Michael Ignatieff and Francis Fukuyama. It’s a list that commands a degree of respect, but it’s immediately difficult to imagine what could get them all "on the same page" — quite literally.

What they collectively raise their voices against is a prevailing "censoriousness", "an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty", which is constricting the "free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society."

While the open letter does not use the term, its signatories are opposing what is often (and derogatively) referred to as "cancel culture". Unsurprisingly, the letter has attracted considerable pushback, and has itself become the topic of vast disagreement. But this, in some ways, sharpens the questions at play: How does liberal democracy manage incommensurable disagreement? Do the moral and political demands for justice and inclusion trump the principles of free expression and open debate? What is the moral status of "opinion"?

 

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