Tuesday 13 April 2021
Is cancel culture a way to wrest the mic from the powerful? A means of stifling debate? Or both? Late last year, Suzanne Moore left the Guardian after a letter signed by over 300 staff was sent in protest of the newspaper’s alleged “pattern of publishing transphobic content”. Moore and other guests join us.
Episode 2 in Season One of ThinkIn with James Harding, The Battle For Truth.
- Suzanne Moore, freelance journalist
- Ash Sarkar, contributing editor at Novara Media
- Amber Rudd, former home secretary
- Matt d’Ancona, editor and partner at Tortoise
- Nimo Omer, Tortoise reporter
James Harding: Hello and welcome to a ThinkIn with me, James Harding. Cancel culture – good grief. Cancel culture is a quick way to a long argument. It’s one of those subjects that’s ill-defined and easily seized upon; one that fires up fierce disagreements with little time taken to check the factual details.
Come to think of it, it’s the kind of subject that’s made for a ThinkIn, the open discussion at the heart of our newsroom here at Tortoise. One that’s designed to get to a clearer sense of what to think because, as likely as not, you might already have a strong view about JK Rowling’s tweets about trans women, the Twitter storm it unleashed, and those in the film and publishing industry that refuse to work with her. You might have seen the letter from 150 plus of the literary great and good in Harper’s magazine last year talking about a culture that intimidates freedom of speech and thought. You may well have a view on the defenestration of James Bennet by his own colleagues at the New York Times after the paper ran an op-ed by a US Senator calling for the national guard to be brought out onto the US city streets amid the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.
But a ThinkIn is intended to cut through that. It’s intended to be a forum for civilised disagreement, a place where we can try to figure out what we think of these contested, complicated issues. And in this series of ThinkIns, we’re trying to make sense of the Battle for Truth. We revisit one story in the news to learn what it tells us.
Today, it is, in fact, the new story of a newsroom itself: Suzanne Moore, and the Guardian, cancel culture and the new dynamics of protest.
James Harding: Hello everyone.
Amber Rudd: Hello.
Matt d’Ancona: Hey Amber, how are you?
Amber Rudd: Very well. Thanks. Is that Matt?
Matt d’Ancona: Yes, it is.
Amber Rudd: Hello, Ash.
Ash Sarkar: Heya, how are you?
Matt d’Ancona: Hi Suze!
Suzanne Moore: Hi, everybody.
As you’re gonna hear in this ThinkIn, there are some circles you just can’t square. Cancel culture does wrest the mic from the powerful and as such it is an effective modern tool in the much needed arsenal of dissent and protest. But there is, I think you’ll hear, too great a cost in inhibiting honest debate. It’s born most by those who aren’t in power, by those who most need the rights to freedom of speech. And you’ll hear too that most of the time cancel culture is just a lazy shorthand. It’s not a culture and frankly, people aren’t really being cancelled, but it is still a frontline in the Battle for Truth.
In a moment I’m going to ask my colleague Nimo Omer to just spell out exactly what happened, what were the stepping stones to Suzanne Moore’s leaving the Guardian. And then in a moment, Suzanne Moore is going to join us, so too is Ash Sarkar, who’s a journalist and activist and an editor at Novara media.
Ash Sarkar: Are we allowed to do swearing because I will tidy… I will clean up my act if not.
James Harding: As you know you can’t take Matt d’Ancona anywhere, so yes, of course you’re allowed to, of course you’re allowed to do swearing, preferably generally, rather than at people in particular Ash, but yes.
Amber Rudd, the former British Home Secretary, is here. She is also famous for many other things, not least being cancelled from an event at Oxford university.
James Harding: It is very possible, although not certain, that at 6:30 Amber Rudd has to go and speak at an event at Cambridge University, although on past performance, it could well be that comes six, you discover that you’re free for the rest of the evening.
And my colleague and fellow editor, Matt d’Ancona, who’s the author of Post-truth and the author of the book, Identity, Ignorance and Innovation.
James Harding: Suzanne, of course, you’re here. You could tell us in your own words, what happened at the Guardian, or to use that terrible Oprah phrase, tell us your truth, but I’m going to start by asking my colleague Nimo Omer to give us as close as she can to a dispassionate account of the story. Nimo, what happened at the Guardian?
Nimo Omer: Okay, so I think to really understand what happened with Suzanne Moore, we need to kind of take a step back and look at the larger context of what was going on within the Guardian newsroom for like a few years – since 2018, basically. The Guardian publishes an editorial that addresses the Gender Recognition Act. It basically discusses how the rights of trans people are potentially in collision with cis women’s rights. And they discuss how, effectively, the rights of trans women in the Gender Recognition Act and the changes to it not only stand in opposition to the rights of cis women, but they actually endanger them. And so it was not met well…
James Harding: Within the Guardian or amongst Guardian readers?
Nimo Omer: Within the Guardian. And also just generally within the public. Quickly after, an op-ed is written in the Guardian US that directly addresses this editorial. They say that this editorial is promoting transphobic views and they actually say that it is hindering their journalists: now trans people won’t come forward and talk to them about their stories, why would they want to talk to journalists who work at a newspaper that is putting out transphobic content?
James Harding: That’s the backdrop to Suzanne Moore.
Nimo Omer: The next summer, 2019 two trans employees resigned. Fast forward to March 2020. The column comes out. So in the column, which is titled, ‘women must have the right to organize. We will not be silenced’, and she writes “sex is not a feeling.” What we are seeing here is the collision basically between the discussion about chromosomal sex versus, you know, psychological and social identity. And this really large discussion, this really big discussion is being had within this column. A lot of people are seeing it as being harmful.
Another trans employee resigns, and then the letter is circulated.
James Harding: So 338 people write… it’s not, I mean, I’ve looked at the letter, it’s not directly about Suzanne Moore’s column, although it does raise the disquiet about anti-trans sentiments being published in the Guardian. And then what happens? It’s not that Suzanne Moore is kind of sacked or cancelled. What happens then?
Nimo Omer: Six months later, effectively, Suzanne Moore resigns. It’s really important to note that the CEO and the Editor in Chief of the Guardian backed their decision to publish the column and they backed Suzanne Moore. And they actually also reprimanded the Guardian staff that had signed the letter. So they had said that you are not supposed to go out and publicly attack your colleagues, not on social media, not on email, not in meetings – it’s not acceptable.
James Harding: So the brilliant thing about – Nimo, thank you – the brilliant thing about this is that of course, one of the things you’ve done is shown us that often what’s taken as ‘exhibit A’ of cancel culture, Suzanne Moore leaving the Guardian, was not actually a cancellation at all. But it was, I suppose, an example of how one particular view that was deemed to be unwelcome, unhelpful, it then generates a huge level of opposition and how that opposition can engineer the departure or contribute to the departure of as famed and as well known a columnist as Suzanne, who as it happens is here.
Suzanne I’m alive to the fact that there’s an irony in that we’ve told you a story in a conversation about the battle for truth. Let’s just check first, have we got it more or less true? Do you think that’s a fair account of what happened?
Suzanne Moore: Probably about 95% fair. Yes, I think so. I just disagree that I don’t believe trans identity exists. Of course it exists. I believe it does. That would be the only point of contention there.
James Harding: The reason that we’re focused on it, and I know there are many people who’ve got different views on cancel culture, is it was such a moment, Suzanne, you know, you’ll be too sort of modest to say, but you’re one of the columnists that certainly the left, the feminist left, would prize above all. And the idea of the Guardian losing you is really a significant moment for the paper. And it says something very significant about the culture on the left, the culture amongst progressives, that a letter like that, that was clearly hostile to what you’d written, could be signed by so many colleagues at the paper.
And that’s what I suppose we’re really interested in here, it’s not so much an argument about trans, it’s an argument about freedom to express different points of view around feminism and trans. What do you understand happened?
Suzanne Moore: I agree with you completely that actually a lot of this is not particularly around the trans issue. And some of it is actually just a commercial decision, which was that Guardian America and Guardian Britain have different views on this issue. And there was a lot of pressure from Guardian America – they didn’t like the editorial that was referred to earlier, and Guardian American wants to take the New York Times readers. And to do that, they want what they consider to be younger readers. And I think the shock, the shock of it really was that this argument, obviously it was about something that I had written, but I am not the only woman at the Guardian who felt like that, I had huge internal support.
So it was like this strange dynamic that was going on within the organisation, just as there had been, as you can imagine, over whether the paper supported Jeremy Corbyn and the people who did and the people who didn’t. And I sort of feel that some of this was slightly fallout from that actually because the left, having not just lost but lost so incredibly badly, decides then to really sort of drill down on an issue, which I think really affects a smaller number of people and also is very resolvable. I don’t feel this is a kind of Israel-Palestine, “oh my God, this is going to go on for years”. I think that we are sort of on the same side. Bridges can be built. And I think that the conflict can be sorted out.
What saddens me is that, and all these issues that have sort of broken the left, whether it’s the denial around anti-semitism or this issue on trans, if the left doesn’t talk about these difficult issues and have the fight amongst itself, the right will take it. It’s really important to go to difficult places as a journalist, and it’s really okay to disagree. And what was shocking to me about the letter was, I mean, I worked for the left wing press, I started up on Marxism Today for the Communist Party. I’ve worked with the Mail on Sunday. I have had stand up rows with colleagues, we almost killed each other and sat beside each other the next day. What I hate about this kind of, if we’re going to use the word cancel culture, is that it is done by social media and it is done in this kind of anonymous way. And it’s very performative.
Now I have to keep reading about myself, that “won’t she shut up about being cancelled, she’s got a newspaper column.” I was never cancelled. I was never silenced, but certainly it was made clear to me that, and to many other women on the paper actually, that this view that biological sex was real, was not going to be really backed up by the editors. As a journalist, you do feel that you want… you have your editors’ support when the going gets tough. And that’s… I didn’t feel I had it really. I mean, she took me out for lunch and they all patted me on the head and they didn’t want me to go because obviously that didn’t look good. But at the same time, every time I tried to write anything else around that subject, no one was keen. But the argument, you know, just because you don’t let people, just because you don’t let columnists write what they want to write, the argument doesn’t go away, does it?
James Harding: Suzanne, thank you. I’m going to come back in a sec, but Ash, what do you make of this? And do you understand why… you know I grew up in the newsroom of the FT, the truth is there were a fair few people who also came out of Marxism Today. There were a fair few Marxists on the newsroom floor of the FT and they disagreed, passionately, with almost every op-ed, let alone every column in the FT.
But part of the culture of a newsroom was that it was a place that welcomed unwelcome views. And so what do you make of the response to what Suzanne wrote?
Ash Sarkar: Well, I think we’ve got to also take a step back and examine the framing of our own conversation here. So, for instance, James, you said that really, this isn’t a debate about trans issues, this is a conversation about the culture around feminism and the discussion of the trans issue. Now, how many transgender people are part of this conversation right now? I’m going to go with zero. So that tells you a bit about how we are defining who is being silenced and who isn’t.
Right, there’s a whole group of people who are excluded from this conversation already. So we’re kind of playing into, I think, the turbo marginalisation of the group who are being spoken of, by framing what’s going on here, which is a contested, polarising issue, as itself one of silencing. Because I’m hearing this really generous and nuanced account from Suzanne and I’m thinking, okay, so what happened was that Guardian staffers wrote what looked to me like a very cordial letter, not a hostile one, but one which was impassioned and forthright about the areas of dissent with what they thought was the Guardian editorial line. It didn’t mention Suzanne by name and also you had the support and continuing employment from your editor. To me, that seems like actually a really good way of handling a contested, painful and polarising issue. So I’m unsure about how this gets sucked into a conversation about freedom of speech and the suppression of freedom of speech, because what I’m seeing here is a lot of people exercising their freedom of speech, regardless of whether they’re in a columnist role or not.
One of the things that I saw from a different Guardian columnist as a response to the letter about the Guardian’s editorial line on transgender people was, if you disagree, don’t write a letter, write a column. Well, not all of us are fucking columnists. Some of us do the admin, some of us do the typing, some of us do the photocopying. And I believe that those people are just as entitled to express themselves, to organise politically and to engage with the values and public facing direction of their organisation.
James Harding: And Ash, I suppose, just to understand your point, the issue that you raise about who’s involved in this conversation, who’s involved in all of those broader conversations. I think there’s a question here which is, you can understand, I think no one’s disputing that there are trans people who passionately disagree with what Suzanne Moore wrote and that there are many people who support those trans people passionately disagreeing. The question is whether or not in that disagreement, it should be the case that a newspaper newsroom inhibits someone from writing those things, because a large number of people don’t like them, or don’t agree with them, even if there’s a majority of those people, which in this case it wasn’t, but even if it were, what’s the right or the role of someone to have a very unpopular view and what’s the balance and the trade-offs between the impact of that point of view, and I do take seriously the impact that that point of view has, and the importance of being able to air it?
Ash Sarkar: Culture changes, I think rarely through agreement and often through polarisation, conflict and then winning over the undecideds. That’s how political culture changes. And so I believe quite fiercely in the right to contest how platforms are used and to organise around that.
I think that one of the most useful myths for people in power is to insist that all politics is the polite sharing of opinions. It’s never been about that. It’s always been something of a blood sport. And so how you change that culture is through criticism, it’s through saying, “hey, you know what? Maybe we’ve heard enough about climate denialism for one day” or whatever else it is. And that’s how norms change over time. That’s how norms changed around homophobia, around reporting on the AIDS crisis, around how people talked about people of colour. And that’s not to say, as some people do, which is “here’s the arc of history, you know, hop on or hop off” and you know, you’re going to be shamed for it. It’s saying, well, this is how things moved along. And what I find really strange about the freedom of speech argument is that you can disagree with everything apart from who gets the platform. Which then to me says, well, look, you can express your opinion, but you can never contest your place within the hierarchy.
Who’s at the top of the tree is at the top of the tree with the well-paid contract, and who’s at the bottom tweeting on their break from their gig economy job is at the bottom and those things are fixed. No, I believe passionately in everyone’s rights to participate in this conversation.
James Harding: Ash, I’m going to come back to you in a second, but I want to hear from Amber Rudd. Amber, I’m really aware of, or beginning to become aware of what the problem is here. It’s maybe that there’s now too much information in the world and I can’t figure out what I think, or just that I’m so easily impressed by the last argument that I heard, but I’m suddenly just sort of pendulum swinging one way from one to the next. So now I think to myself, actually just taking on Ash’s point of view, isn’t that perfectly fair? The reason you get bumped from being able to speak at Oxford University, is there are people who understandably disagree with your, or your government’s view, on Windrush and they’re protesting and they’re saying, look, we don’t want you on the stage, we don’t want you to have the microphone. And that’s a version of freedom of expression in much the same way that your ability to stand on that stage and speak into that microphone is a form of freedom of expression.
Amber Rudd: It’s such a lazy way of interpreting freedom of expression. People like me, at least, particularly at that time, don’t need a platform. You know, we can get a platform. I went there to try and have a debate and I knew it was going to be quite interesting. I couldn’t help feeling it was just very cowardly of them and a little bit rude to just cancel at the last minute. I think it was a misjudgment from their point of view. I mean, there’s the practical thing of why bother to invite somebody in order to cancel them five minutes before it starts.
But I also think there’s an issue here for students. I went to listen to extraordinary people who I was never going to agree with when I was at university. The idea of saying, “no, I don’t like this Marxist or conservative politician, therefore having invited them, we’re not going to turn up, we’re going to cancel them.” It seems like something that might happen in an authoritarian country, not a country where we try to encourage freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of access to people.
James Harding: Amber, just to press on this point about hierarchy, isn’t there an issue which is, look for years, politicians have shown up at university campuses and there are a dozen people standing out in the drizzle with placards, shouting things and that’s protest.
And then you go in and you get to have your say in a sort of more convivial, warmer, drier atmosphere. And actually, this is a form of protest that says no, actually standing outside with a placard is not enough. We really want to challenge the hierarchy of power and we found a more effective way of doing it and that’s making life uncomfortable for politicians. As you say, it’s not canceling you. It’s not inhibiting you from having your say in other environments, but it is registering a message.
Amber Rudd: Well for them, it clearly was registering a message and they were forced to write an apology, I think, by the vice chancellor of the university, which basically said, we’re sorry, we didn’t realise you were a racist. So I’m not sure that there was much point to that. I’m not sure that there was much to anything that they did really. If they really wanted to challenge me, it’s no longer just placards outside, they could have come in and we could have had a pretty lively conversation and they might have enjoyed it actually, and we might both have learned something.
James Harding: Matt, what do you make of all this?
Matt d’Ancona: I think it is very nuanced and deserves this kind of nuanced treatment. I think what bothers me is, and this speaks a bit to what Ash was saying, you know, ultimately this comes down to the realm of the say-able. As well as to who gets a platform and the difficulty is that it now seems to be the case that to assert the reality of biological sex and the issues that have arisen because of the reality of biological sex, is to invite the charge of being transphobic.
It’s perfectly possible for biological sex and a self identified notion of gender identity to co-exist. But what you can’t have, in my view, is a situation where it is impossible to talk about biological sex without suddenly being labelled a person of low morals and unacceptable politics. Actually, this is having real world consequences. So, we’re talking about Twitter a lot, Helen Staniland, who’s a software engineer, was banned from Twitter for simply asking if male-bodied people should be allowed to undress in front of women and girls in changing rooms. Now that, to me, is a legitimate question. There are many answers to it, but the idea of just posing that question is enough to get you banned from arguably the most important social media platform in the world is amazing.
James Harding: I’m alive to Ash’s point, which is actually, if you’re going to have a real debate about trans, have a trans person in the room, who’s going to say, okay, here’s my case, but I just want to take a different example, which is, and I know Suzanne is now getting bundled into lots of different people who’ve been left, ousted, departed, cancelled in different ways. But if you take a different example in 2020, if you take the case of James Bennet, who was the op-ed editor at the New York Times, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Tom Cotton, a US Senator, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, unrest in American cities, and a US Senator asks for an armed response on the streets of US cities. And in a way that is similar, but different, to the case of the Guardian, a host of New York Times journalists argue that this opinion should not be voiced as an opinion in the op-ed pages of the New York Times. And it caused so much disquiet amongst New York Times journalists that James Bennet resigns. What do you make within these two great liberal organisations, the Guardian and the New York Times about the sense that the progressive movement has become illiberal in its views?
Matt d’Ancona: Well, what I think it gets down to is the definitional question we haven’t really addressed which is, what is cancel culture? And it is a culture. It is a culture. It is a way of thinking. It is a mode of behavior. It’s a way of approaching the world. And culture shifts and roils and twists and changes its trajectory over time for good and ill.
And there’s absolutely no doubt that we are now shifting from a position where, if you take the end of the cold war, progressives were hugely identified with free speech movements with people like Vaclav Havel, the fights against the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, protection of dissonance in Eastern Europe and elsewhere in the totalitarian and autocratic world, to a position now where there is a predisposition to, if not silence, to drive to the margins views that you don’t like.
And so most debates actually, far too much of the debate is taken up with a kind of audit at the beginning of who’s allowed to take part and often, you know, I’m sorry to mention trans again, but it is the locus classicus, huge numbers of people are told that they have no right to speak on issues which affect them. And it’s really important that.
James Harding: Let’s give ourselves a definition of what we’re talking about. Ash why don’t you go first? When we’re talking about cancel culture, and Suzanne says she wasn’t really cancelled, I get that, what are we talking about? What do you think cancel culture is?
Ash Sarkar: I’ve got three definitions of cancel culture. Definition one: cancel culture is the fastest way of getting on the Today programme. Definition two: a marketplace of ideas is when I tell you to shut up and cancel culture is when you tell me to shut up. And definition three is that cancel culture is a name that is given to informal processes around articulating disapproval of who gets a platform and a prominent role in public life.
James Harding: The marketplace of ideas, you telling me to shut up, me telling you to shut up and disapproval, right, what’s interesting there in both cases, in both of your definitions, no one’s actually being cancelled. You’re telling me to shut up, I’m telling you to shut up. You’re saying you don’t like what I think or say, but it’s a mechanism of disapproval. It’s a mechanism of dislike. It’s not a mechanism, necessarily, of silencing.
Ash Sarkar: Well, so here’s the thing is that I think that something terrible happens to language which has emerged in a kind of lightly ironic way on the internet and then journalists get their hands on it and flog that dead horse.
Cancelling emerged as part of African-American vernacular and it had this kind of lightly ironic content. It was originally used for things like “Taylor Swift is cancelled”, when Kim Kardashian exposed the voice notes. It’s a kind of playful idea that you can cancel people and their careers like you can your Netflix subscription and within that is a kind of awareness that that’s not possible.
There’s an element of spectacle, of, yes, there is a crowd mentality, but in its original use, there was a kind of self-ironising content. And then what happened was, and I do think that this is why journalists shouldn’t be allowed on social media – that’s my most authoritarian opinion – and that’s because they ruin all the good memes and ruin all the good slang. Journalists get a hold of it and suddenly it becomes a term, I think, to load the discussion. So we’re not talking about a debate of who gets to have that prominent role in public life. We’re actually saying that those who are my detractors are already illegitimate because they are trying to cancel me.
James Harding: Amber.
Amber Rudd: I don’t know whether you heard Hillary and Chelsea Clinton on trans issues, it’s such a generational issue, it’s just extraordinary, people who think as Ash does, and people who think, perhaps women particularly who like me, who as Matt put it and Suzanne put it so brilliantly, is that we believe in both the dignity of transgender people and also the biological sex of women. And it’s as though we’ve been told you can’t do both.
And I didn’t really understand that, but my definition is, which is a bit lighthearted, which may be that I’m just not taking it seriously enough, it’s like school used to be when someone gets sent to Coventry. It’s sort of childish response to people not liking their ideas and refusing to debate them. Well, thank goodness we have the confidence to be able to debate them sometimes James.
Ash Sarkar: Sent to Coventry is better than being sent to Jamaica. And I do think that this is relevant actually, it’s about people’s right to articulate disapproval of who gets to have a role in public life. The hostile environment is still a reality. And I do think it’s quite central to this conversation. There’s a level of self-indulgence of all of us who’ve got these big platforms presenting ourselves as somehow hard done by. And separating that conversation away from the impact of what we’ve done with our platforms and what we’ve done with our positions in public life.
And I think when it comes to the hostile environment and Windrush, I find it sticks in my throat a bit that we are having this conversation as though there’s not a legitimate case to be made that after overseeing such a scandalous crime against the human rights of Black British citizens, overseeing their wrongful deportation, that there might not be something legitimate in saying, you know what, maybe you don’t deserve a prominent place in public life. I think there’s a perfectly legitimate argument.
Amber Rudd: Well, Ash, you didn’t have to join this conversation either. Perhaps you should have cancelled me before.
Ash: But –
James Harding: Ash, wait a second. I want to hear from Suzanne.
Suzanne Moore: I’m finding myself in and out of agreement with everything that people are saying. So, you know, I’m not perhaps the monster that people think I am, but I don’t want to be melodramatic here because I know that any woman in public life, and I know Ash and Amber probably have experienced it, I’ve actually had seven years of death threats. My children have been threatened. The police have been involved because of my views on this particular issue. I mean, I’m used to death threats because I’m very, very old. I used to get them from Combat 18 and they used to bother to write letters to me and then phone me up at home and I had a panic button.
So there’s canceling, which is, “oh, let’s just have a jolly old debate.” And then there’s a real attempt to stop you speaking. And for me, the point at which I did go to the police was when they were saying that my 11-year-old needed a good fisting and that they were going to do that. Okay, that could be just some idiot in their bedroom. You never know. You never know, if the police dealt with everything like that they would never do anything else. But there is a real attempt to silence women.
I’m not cancelled because as Ash is pointing out, I have a privileged position in the hierarchy. I own my privilege, but every day I get emails from people who are doctors, nurses, teaching assistants, social workers who want to say certain things who are uncomfortable about things that are happening in their workplace.
Well, they daren’t say it. Those are the people that I feel in some ways are being cancelled, but we never know their names, you know, because they’re just scared that they might be going against, say, the Stonewall advice that is given to most of the public sector for instance, you know, that’s a very powerful lobby group.
So there’s two things – I just, I think there’s sort of this silencing that doesn’t make newspaper headlines but does make people think, “do you know what? I just won’t speak about that thing because it’s too difficult.” But the result of this not listening to what’s really going on, doesn’t make that debate go away. And we saw that with Brexit, you know, not talking about certain things didn’t make them not happen if you see what I mean.
James Harding: And Suzanne, I suppose I sort of asked you about that because I think that, you know, I don’t agree with Ash that the issue is people feeling hard done by about not having their platform, because as you say everyone here, you know, as we’re sitting here on this screen, everyone’s got a way of voicing their point of view and more than ever before, there are ways of figuring out new platforms for voicing your point of view. The question is whether or not there’s less of a candid debate, there’s more inhibition in terms of what people are willing to say.
And even in our newsroom, we’re new and we’re smaller, we’re starting up, but inside our ThinkIns, you’re aware that on certain subjects, people are very nervous and they’re not columnists or politicians. And I just wondered whether or not we’re struggling to deal with something, just picking up on Amber’s point from earlier on, that’s generational or in fact more sort of technology-based which is – Nimo, for example, has grown up with a level of communication online that I just didn’t. And I wonder whether or not we’re struggling, people like you and me Suzanne, just to give an age, just struggling to deal with the fact that certain internet behaviours are moving into the real world and I really appreciate what Ash said about journalists, like me, misunderstanding the sort of where canceling came from.
But I wonder whether we’re also just even more deeply misunderstanding the habits and the personal agency of a generation that is saying, “yeah, you’ve got the right to speak into the microphone and I’ve got the right to switch it off.”
Suzanne Moore: There is some of that. And I mean, I find that the generational stuff is used over and over again, which is also I think, a bit lazy because it’d be fine if I only ever met people who are like my age, who like you James, are struggling with it all.
But I live with a 20 year old, a 30 year old, a two year old. We don’t live in these bubbles. All of us just are much more complicated. That’s what Twitter does, is it just pushes you to sum up something that can’t be summed up and that’s the danger. And I think that the left, on the whole, has been very damaged by Twitter because all the internal arguments have been out there in a way that I think has been useful to the right.
James Harding: Amber, you wanted to come in.
Amber Rudd: Well, I’m just going to say that Suzanne you’re right, that it’s a bit of a lazy and sweeping statement, but on those other elements that you talked about in terms of Brexit and political parties, there is generally a generation divide as well.
It’s not for everybody, but it is – there are strong signals there. But I do think that part of our argument in terms of what happens when you cancel, what happens when you get death threats and stuff, I, of course, I’m also familiar with that, part of that is to do with the ratcheting up of technology, allowing people to create some sort of terrifyingly, angry people who turn from just tweeting you, which is pretty nasty, with some horrific stuff to actually sending you letters, making phone calls. And sometimes turning up.
And I think that the whole social media exchange of people’s views can stir up anger and hatred much faster than we used to see. And that has consequences for people as well and leads to people not wanting to talk about it, like you described. Some of the people are people like nurses and doctors who just don’t want to put their head above the parapet because they don’t want to have people attacking them. And it’s completely understandable.
James Harding: But Nimo, can I just ask you, I just wonder whether you’d pick up on the point that Ash made about the Today programme and journalism, and I’m worried that I am essentially like one of those people from the pre-industrial age about to be run over by a locomotive. I just can’t sort of wrap my head around and making a big fuss around the pace and scale of this, but actually for you and perhaps the way you frame it is: cancel culture is a form of protest, a form of expression that should be as open to you and it should be as much of a right as the freedom of expression to stand on a platform and say, what you think; i.e. this is a storm to tea cup.
Nimo Omer: Ash kind of nailed it in terms of the whole idea of misappropriating words, like internet culture words that, you know, for example, woke is one that I can’t stand anymore that I used to use quite regularly. And I can’t use it anymore because of how often it hits headlines.
And I also want to say that if you want to… if people want to engage in these conversations of what cancel culture is and where it came from and try to understand younger people who, you know, like me who grew up on the internet, then it isn’t that difficult to try and to actually just go and find where these things came from.
It’s not that hard to really understand the nuances, but I feel like people don’t want to. And I think that a lot of this discussion is so polarising because the nuance and the complexity and the greys aren’t as grabby as the headlines. It’s the same as five years ago, “woke SJW campus warriors – they won’t go away and they’re taking our freedom of expression away” and all that kind of stuff. And it’s kind of just the new version of that.
James Harding: All right. Well, I’m feeling sort of more encouraged to step off the railway tracks and watch the locomotive go by with a little bit of excitement. I appreciate that by some kind of brilliant irony, that actually in about four or five minutes, Amber Rudd has to go.
This is the opposite, Amber, of storming off stage and actually a storming on stage. I know that you have to go and actually participate at an event at Cambridge University. So before you do though, because I want to talk in a moment to Ash and Suzanne about the extent to which something is happening inside the left, but I don’t want to let the right get away with it. And I think there’s a tendency at the moment for the right to try and make hay out of the argument of cancel culture, you know, within government. And I’m not asking you to speak for or about the government, but you could look back into the not very distant past and see the right seeking to have a certain conformity, for example, around issues of immigration. And the result of that being, whatever your point of view on the politics of Brexit, very problematic about the way in which immigration wasn’t talked about, then was talked about in British politics. And I wonder whether or not you reflect on versions of conformity, silencing, cancel culture within the right.
Amber Rudd: I think there are advantages on the right where they take a position and hold it, while the left feels much more divided on things like the trans issue, for instance, where Labour politicians during the last general election made a decision not to talk about it because it would just divide people and lose them votes. The right just took a position and held it.
On immigration, I can tell you that in my view, Labour politicians and Conservative politicians have struggled with finding, well, the right way is to have a, one would hope, empathetic, sympathetic but safe and secure immigration system, while also pleasing the public. The most right wing on immigration are the public, that’s what needs to change. And that is a far, far bigger task than I would ever set my hand trying to do. Well, actually I did a bit during the Brexit debate, but I definitely lost it. The bigger issue is how we communicate with the public about immigration in a way that doesn’t talk down to them, but it’s truthful, factual and fair. I don’t think anybody has really successfully done that.
James Harding: Amber, I know you’ve got to go, but thank you. Thanks for joining us. I want to have the conversation that I can within the left. Ash, can I ask you first? Do you take the point that even if you accept the run of your argument, right, which is: we’ve got to think about who is getting access to these discussions, we’ve got to think about power and hierarchy, as well as quote-unquote, freedom of expression, that this is an issue that is particular to the left or particularly striking the left. And if so, why?
Ash Sarkar: Well, I mean, I think that there is a strategic question here, which is that the left does all of its disagreeing in public, whereas the right, do it in private and enforce discipline and, you know, through all the dark arts of political management and the…
James Harding: Hang on a second. Did I just miss something? I thought the Conservative Party just tore itself apart in front of our very eyes for a decade over Europe?
Ash Sarkar: And one faction won and the faction that won did it because they were disciplined, they knew how to build a coalition and they held the line.
James Harding: Your argument is the left has its public squabbles, has it squabbles in public and the right somehow managed to do this in a discreet way, out of sight.
Ash Sarkar: Even within the faction, right, so we’re talking about even just like the left-wing of the PLP, it’s not as if they were always presenting a united front, they were fighting like rats in a sack. The left needs to sharpen up and realise how to present something that’s public facing and looks coherent. In terms of dealing with freedom of speech, what I would actually say is rather than opposing freedom of speech and responsible use of a platform, I believe in situating freedom of expression within a network of other rights. So you’ve got to think about the rights of others to live their lives in dignity and peace and safety. You’ve got to think about political expression not just being a right to parp opinions into the ether, because that’s not all that politics is, but the right to organise.
I think that what’s kind of funny about how we have this conversation is that we would just talk about immigration policy as if it was a matter of opinion. It’s not a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of how the state works and how institutions function. And so how do you want to go about changing how those institutions function? Well that’s political organising,
James Harding: But there is something really significant that’s moving here isn’t there, which is that historically progressives, if you think back to the 60s and 70s, civil rights movements, these were enshrined in laws and rights. The real progress was by the legislation and then by the implementation of those laws and the heart of them was the respect for those rights. The question I’ve got is whether or not something has moved in the balance of priorities on the left between rights, individual rights, particularly that individual right of freedom of expression, the right to say things that are unpopular, the right to say things that might even transgress or offend versus the priority to stand up for the marginalised, to address the problems of the power gap and, and there are trade offs always. And what I’m asking really is whether or not you think a trade off has happened?
Ash Sarkar: You know, I think two big things happened, two really big things happened. And this is why the left doesn’t feel so comfortable talking about freedom of expression. And I think that’s a mistake, I do think we really need to talk about freedom of expression.
I think one thing that happened is that freedom of speech was kind of, a bit of an American import and a way to sort of sanitise reactionary opinions, which had fallen out of favour. So if you say the reactionary thing, then you go out and say “ah, this is actually freedom of speech”, it’s again, winning the war of framing.
And I think that that left a lot of people who are progressives, who’re on the left, a bit queasy about using this concept, as if it had been sort of tainted. And then the other thing that happened I think is, because there emerged a discourse around thinking about things structurally and thinking about the ways in which structures speak through you, is that it then became, I think, quite difficult to escape that and to then think about pushing opinions forward, thinking about the dialectic quite frankly, and how ideas develop and transform. And I think that there’s a way out of this.
James Harding: Okay, good. Hallelujah. What’s the way out?
Ash Sarkar: When I look at how the parameters around freedom of speech are being set it’s in quite an unattractive way. So when I look at the Free Speech Union, or I look at somebody like Toby Young, there’s a definition of freedom, which is basically the freedom to offend. What level of cruelty must we allow in law? And of course, I think people should have a right to say things which are offensive, but fundamentally I don’t want my freedom to be predicated on, how much do I want to be a prick to people?
Matt d’Ancona: Unless there is a freedom to offend, that freedom is meaningless.
Ash Sarkar: No, what I’m saying is…
Matt d’Ancona: Hold on Ash, hold on, hold on. Pass the mic a bit. You can’t say, well, that freedom nestles within other rights without accepting that you’re going to substantially curtail that right. And unfortunately, and I share your distaste in the way that free speech has been colonised by the right, but one of the reasons for that is that the left has left that terrain so vacant. It is the case that free speech underpins all other rights. This was the great insight of activists like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Congressman John Lewis. You know, they understood that if you give away that right, or you start to curtail it with reference to other rights too much you will be giving away a right that you might need very much in future. You talk about framing the debate, what is often described as the fetish of free speech can be bloody handy if it is enshrined in some form.
Ash Sarkar: But hang on, that was half of my point, which is that it’s been sort of framed by kind of unattractive people in an unattractive way, but we can’t let that be the end of it. Because I agree with you, I agree with you about the foundational nature of the freedom of speech and that I think that the foundational nature of freedom of speech being the core of other political rights is phenomenally important.
But thinking about freedom in a way, which I think, yes, is nestled within these other rights and it’s nestled with the rights of others to a dignified life. And so that doesn’t mean, I think necessarily, that you get rid of the idea that sometimes what I’m going to say is going to offend people because of course, yeah, it is. And that’s important. The idea that men should be in relationships with men was once deeply offensive to people. And thank goodness that’s generally changed, but thinking about how I think we express that freedom of speech as a freedom to care, to express our care, to express our love for some kind of collective, to express our love for individuals, to express our sincere belief in the betterment of human society, I think is a better way to get the left back on board than I think this relentless framing and negative terms.
James Harding: Given the story started with Suzanne Moore I’m going to actually, if I might, give the last word or the last conundrum that I’ve got here, Suzanne, which is in the end, I’m going to do exactly what you say we shouldn’t do, which is distill a complicated world into a tweet. I find myself thinking that there are two really, really ugly options here. And the choice is between one or the other.
One is: you’re furious with cancel culture and you do exactly what Ash says, you delegitimise your opponents and you frame the debate in a way that, if you like, silences them and what you do is you’ve found yourself, unwittingly on the side of elite power every time it comes to making a fresh argument.
On the other hand, you entirely give in to the idea that everyone who’s furious and everyone who’s got an axe to grind comes together and actually makes it impossible for us to hear the voices that we might not like, we might find offensive, we might even find transgress the things that we think are our values, but as a result of it, we have allowed mob justice to operate in the debate. And so I’m left with this choice between elite power and mob justice. And I don’t like the look of either. And I wonder how you navigate that?
Suzanne Moore: Wow. A small question James. I think in relation to the left, much of what Ash said I could relate to there, but the bits that I can’t relate to are what I call, I guess, a kind of puritanical stance. Ever since I started writing, I know that I can write what I like in a right wing newspaper in a way that I cannot in a left-wing newspaper, now why is that? What’s that about? Is that about not offending people? Is the column that caused the fuss, is my saying that I think biological sex exists in itself a heresy? I think we’ve got to be a little bit less kind of fundamentalist about our own beliefs, because I think that’s where we’re at at the moment. Or how it can seem when you’re involved in these rows there is simply good and evil. Whereas for a lot of these issues, certainly for the trans one, there are a lot of people in the middle, or people who simply want to ask questions, who we don’t hear from, because they’re frightened to speak. We should listen. It’s a real cliche, but in the end we have to listen.
If you listen, if you get on a bus and just listen to people, you just hear the complexities of how people think. They just do not hit these tick boxes that we’re expected to hit. So I think the left has to be much cleverer. We have to always kind of locate these arguments in place and history rather than have this “I’m woke” – woke, came from Black culture in 1942, and it was Martin Luther King who told us we must remain awake. And that’s all we can do. Listen and remain awake.
James Harding: Okay, Suzanne, thank you. Actually, I should say genuinely thank you because I hoped to go into this in an honest spirit, which was – here’s something that I’m uncomfortable with, I don’t really know what I think. I had a curious experience last summer when that letter was published in Harpers and it was the, you know, you remember the letter, sort of everyone was in it, Michael Ignatieff and Yascha Mounk, JK Rowling and everyone, and they’d written this letter. And when I read through it, there was almost nothing in it that you could disagree with. And when I looked at the list of the lineup of people, I was like, my God, it’s like the hall of fame and who am I to kind of pick a fight with Michael Ignatieff for not having thought through the principles of liberalism, I was like, okay. And yet, when I got to the end of reading it, I felt deeply uncomfortable.
Actually, we started this conversation trying to come to the view that a ThinkIn could help you come to a clearer point of view and for what it’s worth you have. So thank you. I will just summarise quickly where I come out thinking about this. One is I feel liberated not to be afraid of modernity, what Nimo said, which is, this is just, you know, I just grew up on the internet, this is what it is, don’t freak out, you know, it’s helpful. I think, Ash, your point about the extent to which journalists pathologise memes is really helpful. And I’ve just gotta be aware of that, so that’s one thing. Don’t fear modernity.
The second is I can’t get away from the thing, and I suppose this is addressed to you, Ash, I can’t get away from the instinct that I have that, when Matt makes the point about defending freedom of speech when it’s most uncomfortable is when it matters most, right, is that I’m inevitably going to be drawn to the arguments of institutional liberalism, the arguments that defend rights. And when they’re the most difficult to defend is when they’re the most needed and so on, inevitably drawn to that.
I also think that there’s a sort of hysterical nature to this – journalists talking about it in the context of the battle for truth. This is a skirmish, right? This is not something that we need to get too worried about because we’re not talking about cancellation, we’re talking about inhibition and we may be talking about displacement, particularly for people like us. But I am very persuaded by Suzanne’s point, which is the inhibition of people who don’t necessarily have platforms who don’t have microphones or don’t have columns.
And that I do think is something that matters because it plays out in unexpected ways. But I suppose the fourth and final thing, which I least expected, is I’ve actually come out of this conversation much more excited by quote-unquote cancel culture as itself a form of freedom of expression. I really do take your point Ash, which is, put the right of freedom of expression within the context of the right to organise, the right to protest and if it is the case that in this last year we are both more aware of what technology can do and radicalised by what we’ve seen in the world, and this is a way of making those points, actually, we should welcome that as part of the debate and not see it as the end of the debate.
Suzanne Moore, thank you. Ash Sarkar, Matt d’Ancona, Nimo Omer – thank you very much for joining us.
Suzanne Moore: Thank you. Bye.
Ash Sarkar: Thanks so much for having me.
James Harding: Bye all.
Thank you so much for listening. As you’ll know, this ThinkIn came out of a series that we held in our newsroom at Tortoise, a series of ThinkIns on the battle for truth. We hold ThinkIns everyday at Tortoise, you can easily book them in the app and our thinking, our journalism, is better informed by your involvement and engagement.
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