When J.K. Rowling tweeted her support for a transphobic tax specialist back in 2019, I was devastated. As a Potterhead, it was heartbreaking to know that one of my heroes had used their hugely influential platform to speak out against trans activism. Although I would continue to read her books and watch the films I already owned, I could not in good conscience continue giving support and praise to someone who willingly spreads and creates hurtful content. I unfollowed her on the platform and blocked her in my mind. It seemed like a natural response, after all, if this was one of my friends in real life I would ignore their calls after explaining why I disagreed so profoundly with them. They are entitled to their opinions, but that doesn’t mean I have to listen.
That was the case of J.K. She still has a platform and an audience of millions, but that doesn’t mean that I or the many other disappointed fans have to support her. Yet, for notable figures much like the powerful writer, it can feel like censorship. So used to being applauded and unchallenged, they are now being held accountable for their devisive comments, and it’s a hard pill to swallow. When actor Lawrence Fox shared an All Lives Matter banner on Twitter in the middle of the surging Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, he moaned that he had been “cancelled” by a friend as a result of his own actions. To be cancelled can feel like a life sentence for these celebrities, and the fear of losing control and relevance has led some to protest against “cancel culture”, with 152 public figures signing an open letter in 2020 calling for an end to such “disproportionate punishments”. Can’t get cancelled if you cancel “cancel culture” first. Smart.
But now it seems that even Parliament is worried about the potential implications of having an informed and organised population. This week the government unveiled plans to appoint a “free-speech champion” for universities to ensure free speech is being upheld within the educational institutions. The Department of Education told the Telegraph that the “unacceptable silencing and censoring on campuses is having a chilling effect”. Universities and heritage bodies have been warned against taking steps in re-evaluating how British history is being taught following BLM protests last summer and subsequent calls for subjects, statues and monuments that celebrate our country’s colonial past to be revised. However, admitting the devastating impact of colonialism does not suit the interests of our conservative government, and considering that many of the protestors were made up of younger generations, Boris probably thinks he’s being really smart by enforcing these rules in universities. Kill action at the source, right?
Wrong. While universities play a huge role in shaping an individual person, when it comes to “cancel culture” and this rise in accountability, social media has more to do with calling public figures out than universities do. Back in the days before social media, celebrities and public figures had to be open and direct about their feelings in order to cause any controversy – whether that be by punching a paparazzi in the face, or openly admitting they’re now dating their former stepdaughter. At worst, these celebs might appear on the front page of a national paper with a headline that brands them a pervert or a deviant, but despite the media storm and a lifetime of whispers, their career would more often than not recover. After all, who doesn’t love a comeback story?
But then along came social media, and platforms such as Twitter gave the public a chance to discuss these headlines with each other as well as (potentially) interact directly with the big names and brands at the heart of the debates. Any racist, sexist or classist opinions or comments that would normally have been confined to a really awkward dinner party, were now being broadcast to the world. All of a sudden these figures that usually held such power and respect were having their views challenged by newly enlightened citizens. It allows for social and racial injustices to be highlighted without being censored by mainstream media and makes it easier then for subsequent protests to be organised and formed.
Of course, powerful public figures don’t like it. It’s beyond their control and knowledge and so their natural reaction is to try and fight it (Boris). But this is a fight they can’t win – free speech can’t be ruled or regulated. If people don’t want to listen to racists, they shouldn’t have to. And that’s not censorship – it’s progression.