Hardly a day passes without someone being forced out of an institution for saying the wrong thing. Reputations are left in tatters as social media plays the role of judge, jury and executioner. And yet, some still continue to argue cancel culture is a myth. The latest casualty is San Francisco art museum curator Gary Garrells.
His crime? To tell his staff that he will continue to exhibit work by white male artists. From there, the case follows the usual pattern. A group of employees at the firm accuse Mr Garrells of racism, a petition is circulated demanding he lose his position and the individual under fire promptly resigns.
Some argue that this is how things should work. Free speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences, so goes the often-parroted line. But when expressing mainstream opinion carries the risk of losing your livelihood, there is a serious problem.
Take the case of children’s author Gillian Philip, who was sacked by her publisher after posting the hashtag #IStandWithJKRowling. Or the late Sir Roger Scruton, who was swiftly removed from his role as a government adviser, just hours after misquotations were spread like wildfire across Twitter.
Cancel culture is real and what’s more troubling is the extent to which ordinary people self-censor their views for fear of personal consequences, within our public institutions, corporations and throughout the education system and academia.
A poll last year by Policy Exchange found that only four in ten Leave-supporting undergraduate students would feel comfortable espousing that view in class, while a recent survey of workers in the arts and culture sector found that eight out of ten believe those who share controversial opinions risk being “professionally ostracised”.
“Progressives” argue that this is fair game. Flora Gill, daughter of former home secretary Amber Rudd, used her latest column for the Times to deny outright the existence of “cancel culture”. In her view, millennials are not bullying but are in fact seeking to protect “the weak” from harmful speech.
What makes her the arbiter of harmful speech, I do not know. But the crucial point she fails to recognise is the importance of free speech for those without power. Freedom of expression gives all individuals the right and protection to make their voices heard. Whether one approves of that speech should be irrelevant.
As John Stuart Mill wrote: If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had power, would be justified in silencing mankind.
In a diverse society, there will always exist opinions we don’t like. We can either choose to clamp down on free speech to the extent that we avoid any possibility of offending anyone. Or, we can accept that in a pluralist society, the freedom to offend is a prerequisite for meaningful debate and, indeed, progress.
While the current cultural orthodoxy may lay in Flora Gill’s favour, this may not always be the case. Just as the mob turned on Gary Garrells, those who deny the existence of cancel culture may find that it is their speech next on the chopping block.