Cancel culture: A threat to freedom of expression?

Spurred on by social media, cancel culture is gaining ground. In its name, works, opinions and even people are cancelled. Its advocates contend that it is a way of giving a voice to overlooked minorities and of limiting unacceptable opinions and actions. Critics, on the other hand, warn of the danger it poses to freedom of expression. Nine voices from the worlds of culture, academia and philosophy give their opinion on this phenomenon, including two testimonies from first-hand experience.

At first glance, cancel is a peculiar term. It stems from English, since what is now known as cancel culture began in the United States, which is still exporting its practices to the rest of the world. Cancelling comes from the verb to cancel, which means to call off, drop or make void. Historically, appointments or concerts were cancelled, but now people are cancelled too. In recent years, this neologism has crept into our lives, largely due to the power of social media.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes cancel culture as “the removal (“canceling”) of support for individuals and their work due to an opinion or action on their part deemed objectionable to the parties “calling” them out.” Social media, the source adds, is the first step in “magnifying public knowledge of the perceived offense”, from where the cancel campaign spreads. This campaign can take “different forms”, including pressure on the target of cancel culture to suspend public appearances or, in the case of companies or bodies, the organisation of boycotts. Wikipedia explains that the term cancel culture came into use in 2015, although this form of intervention was already prevalent in the early stages of Nazism in Germany. As anthropologist Silvia Carrasco points out, “the first thing fascists do is cancel”, so it is not surprising that its origins lie there. However, as the philosopher Norbert Bilbeny also points out, cancelling is a practice that is repeated, and takes different forms throughout history. Supporters of cancel culture argue that it is a means of empowering minorities, a way for the less powerful to demand accountability when justice fails. They also see it as a means to bring about social change and exercise the legitimate right to criticise and question.

For critics, however, such questioning runs the risk of turning into harassment. They point out that cancelling leads to bullying, and can incite violence and threats worse than the original offence that prompted it. It can turn the internet into an uncontrolled courtroom, fostering intolerance and exclusion of those opposed to certain ideas, rather than bringing social change. Is cancelling acceptable, because some things are considered unacceptable, or is it a form of censorship? Faced with cancellation, is a debate of ideas possible? Does cancellation have an ideology? Should we invariably separate the artist from their work? These are some of the questions addressed by the nine participants in the debate.

Gonzalo Torné 
Author of the essay La cancelación y sus enemigos [Cancellation and Its Enemies] (Anagrama)

Censorship has always existed, whether exercised by the state, the church or academia. What is new is that there has been a proliferation of criticism coming from below: millions of people can now express their opinion on any artistic, social or political phenomenon thanks to a new medium: the internet. I see this as an “emancipation of audiences” or a multiplication of critical points of view.

And, yes, there is a cancel culture, but also in the other direction: people who occupy prestigious spaces of opinion – a newspaper platform or a television talk show – use the term to dismantle its effects. They appear as victims because they are subjected to a public appraisal of their work or their discourse. Those who used to have a monopoly on opinion are now questioned by individuals or minorities, however organised they may be.

To soften these criticisms coming from below, they have turned cancel culture into an ideological smokescreen. You will hardly ever see people complaining about it refer to the deprivation of the right to laugh at authority, to the gagging law or to insults to the Crown.

Should we separate the author from the play? If Shakespeare had been a cannibal, I wouldn’t care, because the texts are already mine, they are really important to me. But if I don’t like a contemporary author, I won’t read them. Everyone has to make their own rules. We seem to be looking for someone to tell us what to think.

© Pilar Liberal © Pilar Liberal

Gregorio Luri
Writer, philosopher and teacher

I am somewhat perplexed by the need to curtail other people’s freedom of expression. Victimhood has acquired a hitherto unthinkable status; the world is becoming populated by “offended people”. What is known as victimology theory holds sway: if you don’t present yourself as a victim, you don’t seem to have dignity.

Are there things that are inadmissible? I, for example, am disgusted by Holocaust deniers, but it seems to me that you have to respond to them with arguments, not by covering their mouths. Even if I find what they say despicable, I think we should engage in discussion and respond. What’s more, when a society shields itself from hearing dissenting opinions, it stops itself from strengthening its own arguments.

I think it is awfully serious that, in universities, restrictions are being placed on freedom of expression. The most opposing ideas, I repeat, must be discussed. But sometimes, what happens is that, confronted with the blatant nonsense uttered by some people, we are not in a position to argue. In other words, we are not in a position to defend what appears to be obvious. Therefore, if Wokeism helps us to provide arguments that support our evidence, what we believe in, then so be it.

But, for me, the most important issue isn’t Wokeism, but the fact that we all have internalised censorship, i.e. limits on what can be said. This internalisation of limits is the problem. Cancel culture leads us to engage in self-censorship.

© Frank Díaz © Frank Díaz

Marta Pontnou
Image consultant, writer and columnist

I don’t think that cancelling is a fad, or that it is more left-wing, but rather that we are now more aware of things that are damaging. For this reason, when asked if we need to cancel certain ideas, behaviours or opinions, I believe we do. I don’t accept the argument that “the artist must separate themselves from their work”, especially when it comes to racist, homophobic or sexist behaviour. Another thing would be humour, but when we talk about great works and great artists, we should be able to review them. Each person can have whatever ideas they wish, but when they are expressed and the author becomes a public figure, a point of reference, we should be able to cancel them if need be.

Improper behaviour must have consequences. You can’t walk into an office and say “you’re fat, I dislike you, you disgusting dyke” and carry on doing your job, without expecting any consequences. If we translate that to the artistic world, it’s the same thing. You can’t be accused of being an abuser or a harasser, like Plácido Domingo, and have people come to your show and give you a standing ovation. Because behind that triumph is someone who feels they are a victim of harassment or abuse. Another clear example for me is Woody Allen: there are many versions, but in my opinion, what he did was an abuse of power towards someone 36 years younger than him.

Giving them awards and letting them perform is whitewashing their behaviour. Whereas, if we cancel them, if we create an opinion about what that person has done, we are saying that actions have consequences and that you cannot say and do whatever you want just because you are an artist. So I agree with cancellation.

 © Guillaume Houzeaux © Guillaume Houzeaux

Carmen Domingo
Philologist and essayist, author of Cancelado. El nuevo Macartismo [Cancelled. The New McCarthyism]

Legislation is already in place for inadmissible behaviour, like hate crimes or racism. But a debate of ideas is needed, but the postmodern left stands in its way. And the right also cancels. Partly because we have handed it to them on a plate: if you burn books by the feminist Amelia Valcárcel, as is happening, how can Ron DeSantis not ban LGTBI books? There is the discourse claiming the moral superiority of the left, but it is absurd: nobody has moral superiority.

Cancellation cannot be regulated. You can regulate crimes, but if you want to regulate cancellation, you are regulating freedom of expression.

And no, the whole cancellation debate is not focused on trans. There are many other issues. Take the case of the victim, for example, which is very powerful. How can you say something bad about a victim? The right wing has adhered to this strategy very well, when, for example, Isabel Díaz Ayuso was questioned over favouritism towards her brother, she played the victim (“They’re picking on a woman…”) and the matter was forgotten. She is an example of someone with power who used victimhood to defend herself. Donald Trump does so too and, partly for that reason, he can’t be kicked off Twitter.

What you do have to do is raise awareness that he’s a liar and that he does outrageous things, but cancelling him… doesn’t work. What works is raising awareness.

 © Miquel González de la Fuente © Miquel González de la Fuente

Luis Solano
Editor, founder of Libros del Asteroide

The upside of the recent cancel culture is that the idea that certain abuses should not be tolerated, and that they should be reported if they occur, has taken root in society. Nevertheless, a democratic and mature society should have the tools to identify unacceptable behaviour and victims should be able to report it. Turning complaints into public finger-pointing and bring about the cancellation of certain individuals does not strike me as the most democratic behaviour.

Whilst it was more in response to commercial interests, the case of the writer Roald Dahl and the attempt to rewrite some of his books to remove certain expressions was particularly interesting. Such actions infantilise the reader by assuming that they are not capable of reading critically. Evil, pain, injustice and discrimination are central to the human experience. Deleting them from our portrayal of reality will not make them cease to exist. Judging past behaviour on the basis of today’s values is simplistic, as well as naïve. Before casting any stones, we should reflect on how future generations will judge us. That is not to say that we cannot interpret the past. The question should not be whether we cancel; take Picasso for example. The question is how we explain his figure and also understand that human existence is complex and that one can be a genius and, at the same time, a nasty piece of work.

Juana Gallego
Journalist, writer and lecturer at the UAB

I am wholly against cancel culture. I myself have been the victim of a group of students who claimed – without knowing what I was going to talk about – that what I raised in class could not be discussed. And in response to my answer: “Why shouldn’t we be able to discuss concepts that are not yet established, such as the queer doctrine of gender identity”, I was cancelled by the university itself. Not only in the classroom, but also in the master’s degree that I set up. The question of cancellation is a matter of concern, especially at university, because it has traditionally been the arena for debating ideas. Now there are students for whom the mere discussion of their ideas is considered “an attack”. There is also the argument that anything that makes students uncomfortable can make the classroom not a “safe space” and therefore cannot even be addressed. That absolutely spells the death of critical thinking.

Another of the woke movement’s arguments, which warns us to be wary of positions that may offend certain groups, is that they are acting in defence of minorities. Yet what I see is that some minorities are imposing their thinking.

Can cancellation be regulated? I would say that the only restriction on academic freedom are those questions that are scientifically and historically irrefutable. Like that the earth is round or that six million Jews were exterminated. It is also very different to cancel someone for what they think as opposed to what they have done. In the cases of sexual harassment or abuse that spurred the #MeToo movement, we would be talking about crimes and that is different. It’s not cancelling for the sake of it: it’s about getting justice for people who have had a lot of power.

© Frank Díaz © Frank Díaz

Anna Manso
Writer and columnist

When I first heard the term “cancel culture” I thought: “What are they talking about?” I understood it to be the usual story: when someone does or says something improper, some people propose a boycott. There have been boycotts of brands, of people and of countries! And nobody talked about cancelling. So I think there is no such thing as a cancel culture. There is a legitimate right to criticise and question (harassment would be another thing) within absolute freedom of expression. Some people exercise this right from a position of power and others, from grassroots level, through Twitter campaigns. I see this as a way for minorities to make their voices heard.

How can we talk about a cancel culture when there have been cases of white men engaging in criminal behaviour, especially towards women, and nothing has happened to them? Woody Allen is still making films. And Plácido Domingo is still singing. In my opinion, if we are talking about crimes, for a man not to go back to work, even if his art is marvellous, I think that’s ideal.

As for children’s books and political correctness, I don’t think it’s at all right that Roald Dahl should be rewritten or that a school should remove all traditional fairy tales from its library. If this were to become widespread, there would be no reading at all! Children must not be infantilised; they must be given arguments so that they understand the context. There will be new books; those of us who write today have a responsibility to embrace this new sensibility.

Silvia Carrasco
Professor of Anthropology at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

I coordinated research that was published in 2022 under the title La coeducación secuestrada [Hijacked Co-education] (Octaedro), which was a critique of the pervasiveness of transgender ideas in education. Its presentation was repeatedly boycotted due to threats from trans activists. Nor were we able to present another book in Barcelona, Nadie nace en un cuerpo equivocado [Nobody Is Born in the Wrong Body], by José Errasti and Marino Pérez; the bookshop had to close and the Mossos [local police] escorted us. The university is plastered with graffiti calling me a transphobe and there have been groups of students trying to have my book removed from the library and to prevent us lecturers who have been labelled transphobic from giving classes.

We have been put under unbearable pressure, and what hurts the most? The media’s absolute silence. There is a hegemonic line of single thinking and this is a totally undemocratic situation.

I have published a book, a report. If you don’t like it, nobody is compelled to buy it. You can write a critical article, but can’t you let people speak and even criticise? The first thing fascists do is cancel: decide who can and who cannot speak. And freely expressing opinions is the first democratic principle. Let us remember Voltaire: “I disapprove with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. He said this in the 18th century and we are in the 21st century. Minorities do not need to behave undemocratically to assert themselves; there are sufficient means for them to make demands and to raise objections.

Norbert Bilbeny
Philosopher and writer, Professor of Ethics at the University of Barcelona

Cancelling is a practice that has been repeated throughout history. Erasing what is not liked or is not appropriate has always been the norm. The groups in power – or aspiring to power – tend to cancel what they are not interested in so that it is not taken into account. It has happened in both reactionary and progressive insurrections. There is no ideology on the political spectrum that can be said to cancel out more than any other: they all do!

If things that are considered unacceptable are said, they should obviously not be celebrated, but they should not be ignored either: because things that are unacceptable should be remembered, not ignored. In both the admissible and the inadmissible, there is always a need for debate: the knowledge and acknowledgement of what happened. If we fail to do so and turn a blind eye, we are going against knowledge and culture, which – lest we forget – is the result of cultivation, of cultivating oneself...

In my opinion, cancelling firstly implies a sectarian attitude: “It doesn’t interest me, I don’t like it, it’s alien to me... Out!” Secondly, uncertainty of the reason to put things in their right place. And finally, something that is typical of our times, it involves feeling guilty or, on the contrary, feeling like a victim.There is both blaming and victimisation in cancelling: we did harm or we were harmed. It is the law of the pendulum that makes us go on to cancel.

Obviously, there were slave traders in Catalonia, but now there are those who, as grandchildren or great-grandchildren of slave traders, feel guilty or are blamed. In this case, I think that reparation, compensation for the wrongs committed, is appropriate. But this is not cancellation; it is recognition and reparation.

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