Free speech is classified as a human right, the right to speak or write an opinion without obstruction from people acting outside the law or from the law itself. Access to free speech is defined and enshrined in laws and constitutions of many countries and in international conventions to which governments have obligated themselves. The right to free speech is, of course, manipulated as a political tool by governments, both by those who are opposed to free speech and by those who present themselves as choosing to allow it.
The concept of access to free speech is misunderstood purposefully by some politically motivated activists. Free speech, as a right, does not include insistence that anyone listens. The right to be heard is not the right to be listened to. Walking away, switching off the radio, blocking on twitter or sticking fingers in ears while singing “la la la” are acts that do not attack the right to free speech. Free speech does not preclude a response; there exists an concomitant right to respond although, equally, that response does not have to be listened to.
Free speech is, or should be, regulated by basic civilised behaviour. The right to free speech does not include the right to utter threats of or encouragement of violence, streams of abuse, blatant lies or statements expressing or informed by prejudices against groups of people.
In the UK, restrictions on free speech exist but the suppression of free speech is entirely divorced from how it is depicted by bloviating right-wing grifters who claim, from regular slots on national radio, in columns in national newspapers, on blue tick twitter accounts or on national TV news programmes, that their views are being suppressed, silenced, censored and cancelled. Their protestations are, indubitably, fallacious and a tactic of their grift but also a tool to lever more airtime, column inches and platforms. Desired platforms include unfettered access to educational premises to present speeches and seminars and partake in debates.
To acquire their desired platforms right-wing activists issue threats of law changes and legal action to coerce places of education into forcing specific views upon their students and staff. Former Universities Minister Jo Johnson created Office For Students (OfS) as a government quango to pressurise universities into providing public space for extreme and absurd philosophies and rhetoric, and he added a threat of a law change that would allow fines to be imposed on non-compliant universities. Such a law has yet to be created. Johnson’s first choice to be the face of OfS, the perennially disgraced Toby Young (who was swiftly jettisoned after complaints from everyone), created The Free Speech Union (FSU) that will focus on civil claims against universities and other public institutions that resist pressure to yes-platform perpetrators of extremism and nonsense.
Both OfS and FSU seek to impose upon an audience. They want to force people to listen. They aim to use the law to prohibit people from not listening. They were created to counter the reluctance to yes-platform far-right speakers, peddlers of disinformation and time-wasters. OfS and FSU, and all their ilk, abuse the concept of free speech.
Evolution and dismemberment of language, of the meanings of words, are features of political discourse. Social media hastens the (de-)evolution process. A complaint made predominantly by right-wing screaming heads is they object to being “cancelled” when their opinions receive due response.
cancelled adj. Subjected to sustained and erudite criticism that obliterates a political view, normally applied to far-right screaming heads after their vacuous arguments were destroyed
The complainants also object to being ignored.
Their access to free speech is not cancelled by retorts nor by indifference to their opinions. Their new definition of “cancelled” and accompanying invention of “cancel culture” aim to stop evisceration of their polemics and to denigrate informed critics.
cancel culture n. Deceptive phrase used by far-right screaming heads to describe obliteration of their political views conducted by opponents with greater knowledge, more adept deductive reasoning and fuller consistency
Complainants against the evil intent of “cancel culture” choose to ignore the screeching contradiction of them bellowing their support for free speech while denying a response to what they say.
Evgeny Lebedev, son of former KGB spy and Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev and recent recipient of a peerage as a thank you for his newspapers’ assistance for the Tories in general election campaigns, claimed in Lebedev in Mail he accepted a peerage because he places “real value” on “freedom of speech and freedom of expression.” Unfamiliar with the skill of subtlety, Lebedev juxtaposed his self-aggrandisement about free speech with a verbally violent reaction to the free speech of critics.
“A new wave of McCarthyism has emerged, with trials by the social media mob followed by denouncements and confessions, which resemble the 1930s Stalinist show trials.”
He added a second contradiction via a pseudo-emotional plea to the Guardian to stop mentioning that he was born in Russia – “if you replace the word ‘Russian’ in these articles with the word ‘Jew’, I hope you will see my point.” That is, he wanted to cancel the Guardian’s comments. (Earlier in the article Lebedev boasted that he felt “great pride in becoming the first Russian peer.”) His pompous whinges praised free speech but opposed criticism of it. He objected to attempts to shut down opinions but pleaded with a newspaper to modify its language.
Tory MP Joy Morrissey issued a (probably non-factual) statement bemoaning how conservative school pupils’ political opinions were cancelled.
“Yesterday, three young constituents told me they can no longer express their political views to teachers and have to hide their conservative opinion at school.”
The “three young constituents,” if they existed, would be dissuaded from expressing a political view to a teacher only if what they said was offensive or else wholly out of context of a lesson in progress. Without doubt, hiding “their conservative opinion at school” meant not being able to say something deliberately provocative and disruptive without retorts. Morrissey would like to cancel the right of people to respond to the alleged “three young constituents.”
Writers, academics and professional commentators signed an open letter for Harper’s Magazine – A Letter on Justice and Open Debate – intended (though not presented as such) as justification to restrict the force and effect of radical revolutionary political developments.
“Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands,  wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”
“As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second.”
The letter’s support for dampening effects on political change was presented as an emotional diatribe against cancel culture.
“The free exchange of  ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. [There is] 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.”
Absent from the letter’s complaint about “constricted exchange of ideas” was acknowledgement that most ideas expressed by professional opinionators are the hundreth repetition of an easily debunked pile of tripe that had been eviscerated many times previously and, thus, another simple analytical destruction of it is a waste of time and energy.
The “vogue for public shaming and ostracism” is an acceptable and necessary strategy to deal with the worst professional trolls and screaming heads. A rabid, ranting, rabble-rousing ejaculator of bile, hatred, prejudices and fabrication deserves no respect for her- or himself or for the views expressed.
The effect of cancelling on some professionals included, according to the letter, “editors fired for running controversial pieces and the heads of organizations ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.” Without doubt, “controversial” and “clumsy” were euphemisms for racist, antisemitic, homophobic or misogynistic.
The letter’s assertion that “the restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation” was correct as an isolated statement but the people who are the alleged victims of cancel culture discussed in the letter are not “those who lack power,” and people without power are the targets of those whose free speech was defended in it. The letter was not an argument against cancel culture; it was defence of the right of professional and state voices to spout purposefully inaccurate provocative comments as part of their grifts and it was an argument to prevent their targets being able to respond how they wish.
Recommended reading on Harper’s Magazine letter
In ‘Cancel Culture’ Is How the Powerful Play Victim Jessica Valenti showed how some of the examples of cancel culture that Harper’s letter referred to were valid objections to appalling behaviour and she observed that some of the signatories were keen practitioners of cancelling others for political reasons.
“The only speech these powerful people seem to care about is their own: They want to be able to say whatever they want without consequence and to paint themselves as the victims even as they wield more institutional and systemic power than anyone criticizing them. Facing consequences for what you say and do is not a free speech violation. And there’s nothing new or brave about signing a letter that characterizes criticism of the powerful as dangerous.”
In Harper’s letter on free speech annotated Mic Wright explained that the letter’s purpose was to ask for restrictions on access to free speech for the non-powerful in order to protect the right of the powerful to proceed without censure, criticism or retort.
“This all reads like people who don’t like getting shouted at when other people, with smaller platforms, do not appreciate the things they write or broadcast.”
“It seems to me that the key vector of intolerance is newspaper columnists and established writers honking on that they are censored, usually in a national newspaper or august magazine like Harper’s.”
“This is a cry by people with the platform and money to say awful things, a wail that they might have to answer for things they say rather than simply blast them into the world before reviewing the devastation.”
He pointed out that challenges to powerful voices are heard more often than they used to be and the powerful don’t like that: “We do not live in an age of censorship. We live in an age of abundant speech. It’s simply that people now get challenged more frequently and loudly when they say awful things.”
In Dorset Eye on Harper’s letter the author noted the hypocrisy and alterior motive of many of the signatories.
“The reality is that many of those who signed are utter hypocrites, who have shown precisely zero commitment to free speech, either in their words or in their deeds. Further, the intent of many them in signing the letter is the very reverse of their professed goal: they want to stifle free speech, not protect it.”
“The truth is that many of those who signed the letter are defending not free speech but their right to continue dominating the public square – and their right to do so without being held accountable.”
The author noted how access to social media for the public reduced advantages for the powerful and the professional in political discourse.
“They [right-wing and centre] care about protecting free speech only in so far as it allows them to continue dominating the public space with their views – something they were only too used to until a few years ago, before social media started to level the playing field a little.”
“In those days [pre-social media] only those who held approved opinions were ever given a media platform from which to present those opinions. That was the real cancel culture.”
The key point in the Dorset Eye blog was that all of the bleating about cancel culture from established voices was an attempt to silence dissenting radical views: “Attacks on the new ‘cancel culture’ are simply another front in the establishment’s efforts to limit speech by the left.”
Billy Bragg’s analysis of cancel culture in ‘Cancel culture’ doesn’t stifle debate, but it does challenge the old order noted that “the main thrust of their [Harper’s letter’s signatories] argument was a howl of anguish from a group that has suddenly found its views no longer treated with reverence.”
He gave a superb précis of signatories’ intent and their fears when faced with the success of grassroots organisation and solidarity.
“Many of those who attached their names to the letter are longstanding cultural arbiters, who, in the past, would only have had to fear the disapproval of their peers. Social media has burst their bubble and they now find that anyone with a Twitter account can challenge their opinions. The letter was their demand for a safe space.”
“The ability of middle-aged gatekeepers to control the agenda has been usurped by a new generation of activists who can spread information through their own networks, allowing them to challenge narratives promoted by the status quo. The great progressive movements of the 21st century have sprung from these networks: Black Lives Matter; #MeToo; Extinction Rebellion. What they have in common is a demand for accountability.”
Bragg said “a demand for accountability” was a response to the “mutation” of liberty, and access to free speech, into “impunity.” Many of the signatories and supporters of Harper’s letter are defenders of the impunity of authority rather than the liberty of people.
In The ‘cancel culture’ war is really about old elites losing power in the social media age Nesrine Malik said, in reference to Harper’s letter and to other complaints about cancel culture,
“what is really unfolding here is a cohort of established influencers grappling with the fact they are losing control over how their work is received. Something old, constantly threatened and triggered by something new.”
“Among the alleged cancellers are also those who, until recently, had no means of chiming into conversations about their own fates, and still don’t have the platforms or access to shape such conversations. It is natural that they find a collective activist home on the internet.”
The usefulness of social media as a tool of political expression, organisation and solidarity was bound to cause discomfort for the powerful. On “liberal panic” about how “new forces [social media, independent media, populist politics] are just the latest way political narratives are being wrested away from traditional actors” Malik observed that “narcissism” and “parochialism” of liberals leads them to “conclude [wrongly] that the main problem is an assault on free expression by a very particular angry mob of a certain political persuasion” and “it merely serves to expose the self-absorption of parts of the intellectual elite.”
The five writers quoted above recognised the intrinsic con of Harper’s letter. The protestations in it against cancel culture were calculated misdirection and a reversal of reality. Its real intent was to stifle radicalism and to protect the powerful and their opinions and ideology from criticism.
Support for the intent, both stated and undeclared intent of the letter was supplied eagerly by the usual grifters. In Cohen on Harper’s letter Nick Cohen battled “leftist authoritarianism.”
“Their [letter’s signatories] point was that many live in fear of campaigns to destroy them if they don’t mouth the right opinions.”
As the Dorset Eye blog, Nesrine Malik and Billy Bragg showed (above) the powerful’s dominance of visible political views diminished due to the use of social media by the public; Cohen pitied the victims of that welcome realignment.
He said, correctly, that “people without access to lawyers and influential friends suffer the most [from cancellation].” However, such people are not those whom Cohen defended regarding Harper’s letter. People without lawyers, influential friends and money are the people who use social media and public organisation to battle against people and institutions who do have those tools. Cancelling cancellation, which was the aim of the letter and was Cohen’s stance, suits the wealthiest and the most well-connected.
Dramatic complaints about cancel culture are one tactic in the industry of protection of political perspectives that support the status quo of elitist capitalism. In the world of social media – one of the battlegrounds between impunity and cancellation – this tactic is ultimately unsuccessful because that arena is not controlled by an elite. The latter bleat about online mobs when they mean informed, knowledgeable and lucid arguments from a large number of people. In an emotional treatise in 2018 centrist influencer Rafael Behr despaired at “twitter poison” and was distraught because “twitter appears to give broadly equal value to every tweet.”
Censorship of social media
Loss of control of prevailing narrative is a constant fear for political and media establishment. Complaints about cancel culture are part of a campaign of censorship and the main target is social media. This campaign never declares itself honestly. It describes its objectives as a reaction to something distinct from the ability of people to organise and communicate effectively and independently.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick blamed social media as the primary cause of violent crime and radicalisation toward terrorism.
“There’s definitely something about the impact of social media in terms of people being able to go from slightly angry with each other to ‘fight’ very quickly. [Social media] makes it harder for people to cool down. I’m sure it does rev people up.”
GCHQ Director Jeremy Fleming used the threat of terrorism as justification for suppression of online activism. At CyberUK18 convention in 2018 he claimed “hostile states, terrorists and criminals are emboldened and assisted by technology” and “you only have to examine the investment some states are making in the development and use of cyber tools to disrupt, steal, and intimidate.”
To counter the online activities of Fleming’s “hostile states” GCHQ “has pioneered the development and use of offensive cyber techniques. And by that I mean taking action online that has direct real world impact. We may look to deny service, disrupt a specific on-line activity, deter an individual or a group, or perhaps even destroy equipment and networks.”
He admitted “disruption” by GCHQ as described above was already happening but he was delighted that law was strengthened “last year with the passing of the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA).” IPA legalised surveillance of the public’s online activities and communications and allowed hacking of devices. As Phoebe Braithwaite noted in Waking up to the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act, “an effective propaganda campaign painted the IP Bill as counter-terrorism legislation, when in fact only 1% of interceptions in 2015 under its predecessor RIPA were used for counter-terrorism.” The real intent of IPA is to harass political activists as a means of stifling their activities and deterring them from organisation.
As chair of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport parliamentary committee Tory MP Damien Collins created The Declaration, signed by a handful of governments of other countries, to assist governments with the “protection of representative democracy in regard to the internet.”
According to Collins “the democratic world order is suffering a crisis of trust from the growth of disinformation [online]” and his solution is
“to create a system of global internet governance that can serve to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of generations to come, based on established codes of conduct for agencies working for nation states.”
Although presented as a liberal defence of democracy, The Declaration was a clear statement of intent to quell online activism.
In late 2017 Tory lord Paul Bew published Intimidation in Public Life report commissioned by Theresa May. He claimed intimidation of members of parliament and other political figures had increased due to social media and he concluded that new laws were needed to combat it.
“The rise of social media has been the most significant factor accelerating the prevalence of intimidatory behaviour in recent years.”
“A new electoral offence of intimidating Parliamentary candidates and party campaigners during an election should be considered.”
His report over-stated and misconstrued “abuse of politicians,” it focussed on social media while absolving mainstream media, and it failed to address the abject dishonesty and conmanship of politicians.
Bew’s proposals for changes to the law included removal of the right to vote.
“Electoral law can overlap with and complement the criminal law, such that offences with criminal sanctions can also involve sanctions under electoral law. These sanctions are specific to the election process, such as being barred from voting for a certain period, or removal from the electoral register.”
Changes to the law have yet to be made (August 2020).
Continuous exponential increase of the success of online organisation and dissemination of information and analysis is the reason why defenders of established power seek new methods of control of social media and, to justify that control, new methods of misrepresentation of social media activity.
Real cancellation is enacted by governments, police, courts and employers and, in the form of omission, by TV, radio and newspapers.
Real cancellation is libel law; defamation of character legal action; reputation management; police misuse of bail conditions against uncharged activists and police misuse of Public Order Act; persecution of whistle-blowers; injunctions to prevent newspapers reporting facts; restricted access for independent journalists to politicians’ press briefings; closed court proceedings. Extreme cancellation of political actions includes indefinite detention without charge – Julian Assange, and execution – Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Politician Salma Yaqoob summed up the reality of what cancellation doesn’t and does mean in a response to Murdoch hack Janice Turner’s evocation of George Orwell’s fictional society.
“Why do these highly paid journalists who boom their opinions via columns in national papers claim they are being silenced?? Mate, it’s people like Assange who dare speak truth to power who are being silenced. As are Kashmiris & Palestinians – literally & virtually being erased.”