Cancel culture: Victim status for bigots or a growing threat to critical thinking and free speech?

As a storm of controversy rages over the “de-platforming” of Joanna Cherry and Edinburgh University’s failed attempts to show the film Adult Human Female, Calum Ross finds out what led to so-called “cancel culture” – and whether the phenomenon itself should now be cancelled.

If this article had been written by a woman, its author would very quickly find herself “cancelled”. Because the writer is a man, however, there will be no consequences whatsoever. That was the stark assurance offered by Professor Sarah Pedersen, long before a single word of this had been typed.

It was not because she had been given any indication that the contents of the article were likely to be particularly inflammatory. But simply that, according to the Robert Gordon University expert, there are some subjects women can no longer discuss in public without facing grave repercussions. One of them is “cancel culture”.

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Prof Pedersen says: "Some of my research has involved interviewing gender critical women over the last couple of years, asking them about things like cancel culture.

The film, Adult Human Female, was due to be shown at Edinburgh University’s Gordon Aikman lecture theatre on Wednesday evening but protesters blocked the entrance hours before the screening timeThe film, Adult Human Female, was due to be shown at Edinburgh University’s Gordon Aikman lecture theatre on Wednesday evening but protesters blocked the entrance hours before the screening time
The film, Adult Human Female, was due to be shown at Edinburgh University’s Gordon Aikman lecture theatre on Wednesday evening but protesters blocked the entrance hours before the screening time

"And I can assure you that any woman that has been brave enough – and you do need to be brave – to put her name out there, whether as acampaigner or as an academic or as a journalist or as a politician, will have found herself being cancelled in some way.

"Whether that is invitations to speak at things being withdrawn, invitations to write something being withdrawn. Whether it is abuse atwork – being reported to your employers in an attempt to get you sacked or, in several cases, death threats.”

Prof Pedersen, who has written books on Scotland’s Suffragettes and the “Politicization of Mumsnet”, describes herself as a gender critical feminist.

She spoke to Scotland on Sunday amid the ongoing furore over transgender rights, which have become closely associated with cancel culture north of the border in recent years.

SNP MP Joanna Cherry had been due to take part in an event at the Stand Comedy Club until staff objected (Picture: Russell Cheyne/WPA pool/Getty Images)SNP MP Joanna Cherry had been due to take part in an event at the Stand Comedy Club until staff objected (Picture: Russell Cheyne/WPA pool/Getty Images)
SNP MP Joanna Cherry had been due to take part in an event at the Stand Comedy Club until staff objected (Picture: Russell Cheyne/WPA pool/Getty Images)

Edinburgh University is engulfed in a controversy over its attempts to facilitate the showing of a documentary called Adult Human Female, which has been branded transphobic by opponents.

Two scheduled screenings of the film have been abandoned amid safety concerns as protesters gathered on campus.

Meanwhile, another row has erupted over a decision to scrap a planned appearance at The Stand Comedy Club by SNP MP Joanna Cherry, who has regularly spoken out in the trans rights debate.

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The club has since reinstated the event saying the decision was "unfair and constituted unlawful discrimination against Ms Cherry". She had threatened to take "whatever legal action is necessary" to get the event to go ahead.

Prof Pedersen says the cancellation of public figures has wider consequences than those felt by any one individual.

"It doesn't just quieten the women being primarily targeted but, of course, it also has impacts on other women who were thinking about speaking up, because they think, 'well if Joanna Cherry is being attacked in that way, then I certainly could not survive',” she says.

"It was interesting that when I did my study of gender critical women that many women told me that they had actually waited until they hadretired before they spoke out publicly because they were in such fear that they would lose their job, or things would get problematic for them at their job if they spoke out beforehand."

The professor of communication and media believes the growth of cancel culture is putting women off entering politics.

"Why on Earth would you want to be involved in politics when you see so many female politicians being attacked?" she asks.

"And I think there is a big question about what it is doing to the ordinary woman who isn't someone who has any sort of public pulpit.

"It's putting them off going into politics. It's putting them off getting involved in conversations.

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"I mean this cancel culture doesn't just exist within invitations to speak at universities and things like that.

"It exists in, do I say something on Facebook or am I going to lose my friends?

"Do I mention something at Sunday lunch or is there going to be an atmosphere?

"It's a cancellation of entire discussion topics throughout Scotland.”

Prof Pedersen’s view of cancel culture is not shared by everyone.

Dr Katie Nicoll Baines, co-chair of Edinburgh University Staff Pride Network, was among the protesters who gathered to object to the proposed screening of Adult Human Female, although she says the aim of the demonstration was not to “cancel” the event, but to highlight concerns about the documentary and to show solidarity with those who find it offensive.

She agrees that women speaking out on any high-profile social matter are likely to be subjected to more scrutiny and criticism, although she believes this is primarily a result of prevailing sexist attitudes, rather than being specific to the trans rights debate.

Dr Nicoll Baines argues “cancel culture” is actually something that has been named and created by those who feel they are being cancelled.

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"That typically comes out from a realisation that people don’t really like their views, because somebody has called out those views or explained that those views are problematic in some way,” she says.

"People claim this ownership of being cancelled as some kind of victim status in response to being told that their views are unacceptable, harmful or bigoted.

"They often have a very specific interpretation of what being cancelled looks like.

“With the example of Joanna Cherry, she is claiming to have been cancelled because of her views, meanwhile she still has a widely read platform, she has a newspaper column, she is appearing in various news cycles.

"The degree to which she has been cancelled or silenced, I would say, is questionable.

"It’s an isolated situation where a venue has chosen not to go ahead with an event she was taking part in, which from my understanding is founded on the principle that The Stand’s staff refused to work her event.”

The origins of the phrase “cancel culture” are said to be found in the “cancellation” of TV shows, denying them further air-time.

Today, cancelled individuals can also be denied “air-time”, through being hounded off social media, or “de-platformed” by a university or other venue, such as a comedy club.

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The phrase has also been linked to the 1991 crime film New Jack City, in which a character played by Wesley Snipes makes reference to cancelling his girlfriend.

While in Scotland, cancel culture has recently been particularly associated with the battle over transgender rights, it grew around the world as a result of a wide range of movements and moments.

The “cancellation” of sex offender Harvey Weinstein and the associated MeToo campaign, are an example, as is the Black Lives Matter movement and subsequent backlash.

Both exploded on social media, with platforms such as Twitter enabling likeminded people to come together and connect through hashtags, although Dr Nicoll Baines says these movements were more to do with social change than cancel culture.

Dr Audrey Tang, a psychologist and teacher who wrote a book called The Leader’s Guide to Resilience, says it is really important to have spaces for people to voice their feelings, in order to “hear that people have been hurt and to learn from that”, such as in the case of MeToo and Black Lives Matter.

"I think it can really help with social justice. It's a very important tool that can be used,” she said.

However, the writer highlighted a “few problems” with the way the culture has grown.

"The first is cancelling somebody on social media, does that not just push them to find another group that will listen to them?” she asks.

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Dr Tang gives the example of Andrew Tate, a social media personality and former kickboxer who has expressed views that have been described as extreme misogyny by domestic abuse charities.

“If no-one wants to listen to him on Twitter, will he just go and find somebody else to listen to his misogynistic views? That's actually very possible,” she says.

"Often when we cancel someone we don't actually know where they are going to go and they might end up with a group of people who are going to listen to them sycophantically and not question them, and that could be worse.”

Dr Tang was working at Brunel University in 2015 when students walked out of the audience during a panel discussion featuring right-wing commentator Katie Hopkins.

"It had the effect of 'cancelling' her appearance. The issue I have there is… Well, if they had actually listened to her, I'm not saying agree with her, but hold her to account, question her about her views, actually get into a debate.

"That would have helped their skills as well as maybe got her to think about some of her opinions and the way she says them. It might not have but that is something that could have worked.”

Dr Tang adds: "Cancel culture is not just a challenge to free speech but actually it's a challenge to critical thinking and debate and making someone accountable for their views.

"Make someone stand up and really debate with you about that, and you get a far more intelligent outcome than just de-platforming.”

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Dr Tang urges people to try to de-escalate situations, rather than resorting to cancellation.

She suggests asking people to repeat sentences which may contain remarks perceived as offensive, in order to give them a chance to think again about what they are saying, and potentially rephrase it.

"Call people out if they discriminate but don't be nasty or humiliating,” she says.

"Because you are not going to affect a change of mindset if you are nasty or humiliating.”

Dr Tang’s antidote to the current culture is simple: “Cancel with care”.