In recent years, topics like ‘cancel culture’ and ‘identity politics’ have become a more frequent feature in the public debate. Originally a thing of the Anglo-Saxon world, such concepts seem to be on the rise in mainland Europe as well—at least in ‘old Europe.’
‘Cancel culture’ is seen as a modern way to ostracise people, kicking someone out of certain social or professional circles for having said or done something. Here, the issue is not so much that people are being ostracised for ‘unacceptable’ behaviour. Rather, the problem really is the definition of what is ‘unacceptable.’
Earlier this year, The Washington Times published “top ten recent examples of cancel culture,” a list which made evident how mainstream and perfectly legitimate opinions are now being vilified. One example involves J.K. Rowling, the famous author of the “Harry Potter” series, who was attacked for criticising an article which used the phrase “people who menstruate” (rather than simply referring to women). She later explained: “I know and love ‘trans’ people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives.”
After this, Rowling joined 150 other authors and academics in denouncing ‘cancel culture’ in an open letter. Signatories of this letter included Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky, and novelist Salman Rushdie. Together, they lamented the fact that “[t]he free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.”
Rowan Atkinson—the famed actor who plays the beloved “Mr. Bean” character—has also lashed out at ‘cancel culture,’ comparing it to a “medieval mob looking for someone to burn.”
The root of the problem really lies in academia, which for years has been infamously unbalanced when it comes to acceptance of different political ideologies. A new Harvard study of political scientists around the world finds that 72% of them lean Left, with 14% of those on the radical Left. In the United States, 80% of political scientists lean towards the Left. This data suggests that the problem is more pervasive over there than perhaps in Europe.
When people live in an ideological ‘echo chamber,’ it encourages them to become more intolerant of what other people think. That’s true even for supposedly objective academics, who tend be gifted with high intelligence. In the UK, one in three academics (35%) have confessed to engaging in “self-censoring,” fearing negative repercussions from others—such as loss of privileges, demotion, or even physical harm. In the UK, 25% of students are afraid to express their views openly and 12% of them have heard of incidents where academic freedom was inhibited.
In a very revealing and informative post about this topic on Twitter, UK academic Matt Goodwin recalls how a professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, “left his job due to concerns over dogmatic thinking, public humiliation, no platforming, and attempts to have other scholars fired.” Another example pertains to a UK academic who was “cleared by [the] university of being Islamophobic but [saw his] module removed anyway after student protests.” The outcry was so fierce, that he had to “flee home due to threats.”
A similar authoritarian, bullying mindset has been visible during the COVID-19 crisis, with proposals like ‘vaccine passports’ receiving broad support on the Left—despite the fact that, according to many experts, this would be an ineffective approach to protect public health.
‘Free speech’ was never a hallmark of the ‘far Left.’ So it should not be a surprise that many of those on that side of the political spectrum have few qualms in condemning opinions that are, in fact, quite reasonable and even moderate, dismissing them as perverse and extreme—and using them to vilify, ostracise, and cancel those with dissenting views.
Some—particularly on the Left—contend that the idea of ‘cancel culture’ is a ‘myth.’ However, an investigation by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in the U.S. found that over five years, 426 academics had been targeted—with almost some form of sanction being imposed in 74% of cases.
That we have a problem is now more or less widely acknowledged. In September, a mainstream publication like The Economist featured on its front page a lead article about “The threat from the illiberal left,” warning readers not to “underestimate the danger of left-leaning identity politics.”
‘Identity politics’ really binds the left-wing authoritarians together with some of the more extreme elements on the fringes of both sides of the political spectrum—the extremists for whom race is central in classifying others. Like some from the fever swamps on the Right, the ‘woke’ Left, as they have come to be known, has often engaged in arguments that play up the importance of race. The idea is that only those who are sufficiently ‘alert to racial prejudice’ are truly ‘woke.’
While there is nothing wrong with resisting racial prejudice, of course, it doesn’t mean that one should morally condone students shouting things like “there’s just too many white people in here” or writing essays titled “Why People of Colour Need Spaces Without White People.” Equally unacceptable in moral terms are ‘black-only spaces,’ like the ‘black feminist festival’ that took place in Paris in 2017.
This should, of course, not mean that such things should be banned by the authorities. Free speech is all about permitting such perversities—not about only permitting or allowing middle-of-the-road opinions. All opinions must be allowed to be expressed— for it is only when things are said in the open that they can be challenged.
In this regard, a somewhat interesting question that some have been asking is: how to be sure someone is of a certain race? Are supporters of identity politics going to engage in pencil tests, like the apartheid regime did in South Africa? Or do the ‘woke’ have other methods in mind, perhaps a skin pigmentation test? As scientists have explained: “There’s no scientific basis for race.” Martin Luther King was truly colour blind—and, because of that, should remain a great example for all of us.
At the end of the day, a mere glimpse at ‘identity politics’ quickly reveals its true colours: it is nothing more than reactionary tribalism. And like other forms of narrow tribalism, it should be disposed to the dustbin of history.
Pieter Cleppe is the editor-in-chief of BrusselsReport.eu, an online magazine covering EU politics. He is on Twitter @pietercleppe.