Jeremy Stangroom casts a critical eye over some of the justifications offered for cancel culture.
Let’s, for the sake of argument, take “cancellation” to involve the attempt to deprive a person of the ability to make a political and cultural difference through their words and actions. This might be achieved variously by pressurising a university to withdraw an invitation to give a talk at a prestigious event (no-platforming); or persuading a publisher to cancel a book contract; or lobbying a social media company to terminate an account; or getting a potential employer to withdraw a job offer; or persuading a current employer to terminate a position of employment. The idea of cancellation is to neuter the target, to strip them of their ability to bring about certain kinds of perlocutionary effect – informing, influencing, persuading, inciting, and so on. If cancellation also functions as punishment, then so much the better. Not all cancellations are successful, of course, and some go spectacularly wrong, but for our purposes, it is the attempt that counts.
In these terms, cancellation sounds like a bad thing. It conjures up images of demented Twitter mobs, getting off on the frisson of collective outrage directed towards a “moral” end, seeking to destroy somebody’s career because of an intemperate remark they made when they were a teenager. But, in fact, the issue is more complex than this admittedly sometimes-accurate caricature.
The complexity lies in the fact that it is easy to identify occasions where it seems, certainly at first sight, that a limited form of cancellation would be a good option. For example, in our present circumstances, it is reasonable to think that universities should not offer a platform to a conspiracy theorist who wants to disseminate a message of COVID denial, and that were such a platform offered, people would be right to protest it.
Here the harm of allowing a COVID-denialist to speak at an institution of learning is clear and obvious. As well as providing a platform for the dissemination of misinformation, which might result directly in harm (if, for example, somebody in the audience cancels a vaccination appointment because of what they’ve heard), there is also a reputational boost for the speaker and the views they espouse. They gain because of the association with an institution of repute.
This point can be dressed up in some fancy philosophical clothes. The philosopher, Neil Levy, for example, talks about no-platforming in the context of “higher-order evidence” – evidence that doesn’t bear directly on the issue under consideration, but rather functions at one step removed. It’s evidence about evidence, how the evidence was generated, for example, whether it enjoys widespread support amongst a community of scholars, whether it has stood the test of time, whether it has been rigorously tested, and so on.
The provision of a platform by a prestigious institution of learning is a kind of higher-order evidence. It tells us, or apparently tells us, that we’re dealing with a respectable, academically legitimate, speaker, whose ideas are worthy of consideration. Obviously, universities, and other prestigious institutions, should not be in the business of generating false evidence, so if a speaker is known to espouse views that are obviously wrong, they should not be granted a platform. Stripped of its fancy philosophical clothes, this is an obvious point, and it’s long been understood.
An example from the world of academic philosophy will make the general point clear. The example takes us back to 1985, and the publication of Roger Scruton’s book, Thinkers of the New Left. Scruton tells the story of an exemplary cancellation.
My… book was published… at a time when I was still teaching in a university, and known among British left-wing intellectuals as a prominent opponent of their cause, which was the cause of decent people everywhere. The book was therefore greeted with derision and outrage, reviewers falling over each other for the chance to spit on the corpse. Its publication was the beginning of the end for my university career, the reviewers raising serious doubts about my intellectual competence as well as my moral character.
The book was published by Longman, a reputable academic publisher, which did not go down well with one unnamed Oxford philosopher.
One academic philosopher wrote to… the original publisher, saying, ‘I may tell you with dismay that many colleagues here [i.e., in Oxford] feel that the Longman imprint – a respected one – has been tarnished by association with Scruton’s work.’
The unnamed philosopher concluded his missive by expressing the hope that “the negative reactions generated by this particular publishing venture may make Longman think more carefully about its policy in the future.”
Scruton goes on to note that one of Longman’s best-selling educational authors threatened to move to a different publisher if Scruton’s book stayed in print, and, lo and behold, the remaining copies of Thinkers of the New Left quickly disappeared from bookshops (notwithstanding the dangers of a post hoc fallacy here).
The point is that it was not the publication of Scruton’s book per se that was unacceptable (though, obviously, its critics would have preferred for it not to have been published at all), it was the fact it was published by a respectable imprint, the sort of imprint favoured by legitimate – i.e., not conservative – academics. The respectability of the imprint provided higher-order evidence that Scruton’s take on the character of left-wing politics and thought was worthy of serious consideration, and this could not be allowed to stand.
The Scruton example points to a large tension in the view that concerns about higher-order evidence can justify certain kinds of cancellation. How is it possible to determine which ideas and viewpoints are acceptable and which are not? Who exactly gets to decide?
The philosophers Robert Mark Simpson and Amia Srinivasan answer these questions in terms of a framework that focuses on the norms and practices of the Academy, and the role that “recognised disciplinary experts” play in ensuring that intellectual rigour and disciplinary standards are upheld. Thus:
It is permissible for disciplinary gatekeepers to exclude cranks and shills from valuable communicative platforms in academic contexts, because effective training and research requires that communicative privileges be given to some and not others, based on people’s disciplinary competence.
Simpson and Srinivasan argue that the processes that amplify the speech of experts and marginalise the speech of non-experts are ubiquitous and routine within the Academy.
The professoriate decides which candidates have earned doctoral credentials. Editors of journals and academic presses exercise discretionary judgment to decide whose work will be published. The curriculum is set by faculty… and students work within it.
Therefore, there is nothing contrary to the ethos of academic freedom, or to a liberal politics that takes free speech seriously while recognising that universities are not just an extension of the public square, in depriving a person of a platform to express their views because of a negative appraisal of their credibility and content of their ideas.
There are things to be said in favour of this view, not least it allows us to dispose of now apparently easy cases such as our COVID-denier from earlier. But let’s examine the argument more closely through the lens of an example from 30 years ago.
In May 1992, several top philosophers, including W.V. Quine and David Armstrong, wrote an open letter to The Times newspaper protesting a proposal from Cambridge University to award doyen of French philosophy, Jacques Derrida, an honorary degree. Here are some choice excerpts from the letter:
In the eyes of philosophers, and certainly among those working in leading departments of philosophy throughout the world, M. Derrida’s work does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour.
Many French philosophers see in M. Derrida only cause for silent embarrassment, his antics having contributed significantly to the widespread impression that contemporary French philosophy is little more than an object of ridicule.
Academic status based on what seems to us to be little more than semi-intelligible attacks upon the values of reason, truth, and scholarship is not, we submit, sufficient grounds for the awarding of an honorary degree in a distinguished university.
The signatories of this letter were not exactly seeking to no platform Derrida, but it’s same basic phenomenon. The claim was that Derrida’s work is not of sufficient quality to warrant an honorary degree, and the letter implied that a distinguished university, and by extension the discipline of philosophy, would suffer reputational damage were the degree to be awarded.
So how should we view this attempted “cancelling” of Derrida, analysed in the light of Simpson and Srinivasan’s approach?
It seems, at the very least, that the cancelling is defensible from what is in their terms a “liberal” standpoint. If the letter writers were correct in their suggestion that among philosophers in the Anglophone tradition, overwhelmingly the dominant tradition in British and American universities at this time, Derrida’s work was not considered to meet acceptable standards of clarity and rigour, and that even among French philosophers, he was considered something of an embarrassment, then the disciplinary gatekeepers of philosophy had spoken, and Derrida should not have been awarded his degree (and also presumably should not have been invited to give prestigious lectures, and so on). Simpson and Srinivasan explicitly state that flouting epistemic and methodological norms of enquiry justifies the act of no-platforming, and it was precisely the claim of the letter writers that Derrida’s work flouts the established disciplinary norms of philosophy.
Obviously, there is some wriggle room here, not a lot, but a bit. Maybe Simpson and Srinivasan can just bite the bullet, and say that Derrida should not have been awarded his degree, and that it would have been defensible, perhaps even desirable, not to have invited him to give further talks and speeches. Maybe they can deny the claim of the letter writers that there was a groundswell of opinion among philosophers in leading universities that Derrida’s work was not up to standard. Maybe they can claim that the Derrida case is one of their hard cases because there was deep intradisciplinary and/or interdisciplinary disagreement about the status of Derrida’s work, and about whether he possessed the requisite disciplinary competence to be awarded an honorary degree.
So then, let’s bring the tensions in Simpson and Srinivasan’s account into sharper focus by considering a hypothetical case. It’s mid-1984, and Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the founders of Latin American liberation theology, has a longstanding invitation to give a commencement speech at a prestigious Catholic university in North America. However, because of the recent publication of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s document, “Instruction on Certain Aspects of ‘Liberation Theology’”, which levels the accusation that most forms of liberation theology reduce Christianity to Marxism, a groundswell of opinion has developed in opposition to the speech going ahead.
The almost unanimous opinion of faculty experts and the student body is that Gutiérrez’s status as a reputable theologian is now in serious question. The invitation was always controversial, but Ratzinger’s report has confirmed the suspicions of even the more liberal members of faculty that Gutiérrez’s Marxism is incompatible with a proper understanding of the gospel. Therefore, the decision is made to withdraw the invitation, and to find an alternative speaker to give the speech.
What are we to make of this scenario? The first thing to point out is that while the scenario is hypothetical, the background to it is real. Liberation theology was highly controversial in North America in the 1980s, and, unsurprisingly, conservative, and other, theologians were deeply suspicious of its socialist aspects. A Vatican report from this era explicitly stated that Marxism was incompatible with Catholicism, and in the late summer of 1988, full-page adverts appeared in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, which railed against the impact of liberation theology in fermenting a revolutionary consciousness in Latin America.
On the face of it, then, our scenario is not wildly implausible. So how should we view it if we take Simpson and Srinivasan’s account seriously? The answer is that there are no obvious grounds for objecting to the withdrawal of the invitation. There is a strong consensus among faculty and the student body that Gutiérrez’s embrace of Marxism severely undermines his credibility as a competent theologian. None of the university’s disciplinary experts will be inhibited in their teaching or research because of a decision to deny Gutiérrez a platform. Therefore, such a decision is entirely compatible with a respect for the autonomy of faculty professionals. Moreover, to the extent that cancelling the invitation functions to uphold the disciplinary authority of the university’s relevant experts, then (arguably) the decision should be supported not merely permitted.
This is surely an uncomfortable result for a defence of the practice of no-platforming that rests on liberal principles. Of course, in the present day, the right tends to call for fewer restrictions on speech, so it might seem like there is little potential in the real world for this sort of outcome, especially if one considers that the Academy skews left politically. Put simply, it’s hard to imagine that a decision to no platform motivated by right-wing concerns (e.g., the recent decision by Samford University to cancel Jon Meacham’s invitation to speak at its president inauguration because of his attendance at a Planned Parenthood event) could ever secure the required level of support among disciplinary gatekeepers to make it legitimate in Simpson and Srinivasan’s terms (though the Derrida example might come close - assuming one considers it to have been motivated by right-wing concerns). But nevertheless, dangers lurk for an approach that gives all the power to disciplinary gatekeepers. This can be nicely illustrated by considering one of Simpson and Srinivasan’s own examples.
There have been repeated calls to no platform Germaine Greer, the renowned feminist author, for her views on trans women. A lecture by Greer held in 2015 came under intense pressure, and though it went ahead in the end, it did so under high security. Simpson and Srinivasan recognise that there are deep divisions within feminist theory over questions of sex and gender identity, and that consequently there simply isn’t enough agreement to make it possible to characterise Greer’s no-platforming as a case of somebody being excluded for lacking disciplinary competence. So far, so good. But they go on, rather wistfully it seems, to suggest that this might not always be the case.
At some point it may cease to be a matter of controversy – among experts with broadly comparable credentials in relevant disciplines – whether Greer’s view represents some kind of failure of disciplinary competence. If ascendant trends in feminist theory continue, it is possible that Greer’s trans-exclusionary (sic) views might one day be rejected by all credentialed experts in the relevant humanities or social science disciplines.
Yes, that’s certainly possible. It is also possible that the debate might resolve in the opposite direction, that “ascendant trends” might reverse, and the gender critical view might become the orthodox view. What then? If Simpson and Srinivasan are brave enough to follow the logic of their own argument, they must accept it might become permissible to no platform a speaker for espousing the view that trans women are women, which is not a comfortable position for a liberal to occupy.
In fact, there is something deeply suspect about the idea that “disciplinary experts” should hold sway over these sorts of issues. It seems to be rooted in an implicit whig historiography, allied to the notion that scholars in the humanities and social sciences function in something approaching an ideal speech situation, forming a community of impartial experts proceeding by reason alone, making arguments and weighing up evidence in the pursuit of shared epistemic goals.
Well, the Academy is not like that, not in the least bit like that (though it is very tempting for academics to believe that it is). It is necessary to paint in broad brush strokes here, exaggerating a little, to make the point clear. I’ll speak to sociology, and its related disciplines, because that is what I know.
Sociology as a discipline is political all the way down. The explanatory frameworks within which it operates – and there are more than one, because sociology remains in a pre-paradigmatic state (to borrow some language from Thomas Kuhn) – are political even when they are not ostensibly political (because each rests upon a particular conception of how society functions at its base). If you spend your time doing empirical work, you might not notice this politicisation, but the moment you move into the domain of sociological theory, or political sociology, you’re operating on the terrain of the political.
Sociologists as a group are overwhelmingly on the political left (in fact, multiple studies confirm that the social sciences, generally, skew heavily to the left). Partly this is because young radicals and activists are attracted to disciplines such as sociology, but it is also because there is (now) a self-selecting dynamic in play – put simply, conservative students might end up taking one course in sociology, but probably they’re not going to take two. Matthew Woessner, a conservative Professor of Public Policy, relates a story that is instructive in this regard:
I recall that as a naive sophomore I enrolled in an introductory sociology course and was surprised that the professor was an avowed Marxist. Concerned that our ideological perspectives might ultimately affect my course grade, I tried unsuccessfully to lay low. However, noting that I cringed as she denounced Reagan’s economic policies, the professor asked if I had a different take on the issue. Somewhat reluctantly, I offered a defence of Reaganomics. To her credit, she listened attentively and, as far as I could tell, took my novel ideas seriously. In light of the fact that, by her own admission, she had never heard a spirited defence of conservative economic policies, it became clear to me that sociology was an ideological minefield.
The consequence of all this is that sociologists, and academics working in related disciplines, tend to operate in extremely insular and self-reflexive academic environments, characterised by the almost complete absence of conservative voices. In this context, epistemic goals are secondary to political goals. To (incorrectly) paraphrase Marx, the point isn’t to understand the world, the point is to change it.
As I noted above, this is something of an exaggeration, but not as much as you’d probably imagine. Consider, for example, that the Department of Gender Studies at the London School of Economics (I take gender studies to be a discipline related to sociology) tells us studying gender “opens up space for thinking about other forms of oppression, discrimination and inequality”, and notes that the department is “strongly committed to the principle that gender theory is the foundation of policy, practice and activism: Theory saves lives.” Similarly, the Sociology Department at Essex University identifies the “big questions” as “Why are societies unequal?”, “What is equality?”, “What does it mean to hold power over others?”, “Why are some societies violent?”, and declares that studying sociology at Essex will “help you develop a sociological imagination to take out into the world and change it for the better.” Lastly, if you check out the web page for SOAS’s Centre for Gender Studies, you’ll learn that the Centre is “a hub of research and training working to support anti-racist feminisms and social movements challenging normative constructions of gender and sexuality.”
If you’re interested a more rigorous take on similar themes as it applies in an American context, Christian Smith’s The Sacred Project of American Sociology (OUP, 2014) is well worth a look. He argues that sociology today is “animated by sacred impulses, driven by sacred commitments, and serves a sacred project.” Sociology concerns itself with:
…exposing, protesting, and ending through social movements, state regulations, and government programs all human inequality, oppression, exploitation, suffering, injustice, poverty, discrimination, exclusion, hierarchy, constraint and domination by, of, and over other humans (and perhaps animals and the environment).
The point of all this is that “disciplinary experts” in sociology, and related disciplines, are not objective, unbiased producers of knowledge, who view the world from nowhere, and share common epistemic goals, but rather they are (often) highly politicised, activist professors and researchers who create “knowledge” through the filter of their ideological and moral commitments. The consequence is that there are few good epistemic reasons to think their judgements about the contentious issues that often surround cases of no-platforming should hold sway. For example, it might well be the case that among relevant disciplinary experts a consensus has emerged that “racism” must be defined as involving prejudice plus systemic power. But this would not establish the “disciplinary incompetence” of a social psychologist, for example, who dissented from this definition, and therefore it could not provide legitimate grounds for a no-platforming.
To date, it’s proven quite difficult to pin down precisely which ideas and viewpoints are legitimately subject to “cancellation”, and who exactly would be involved in such a determination. Perhaps, then, a more fruitful way forward can be found by exploring whether some general criterion of harm can be identified that would justify shutting down certain kinds of speech and ideas.
The first point to make is that the law, in the UK at least, affords certain protections in this regard. For example, The Racial and Religious Hatred Act (2006) makes it illegal to stir up racial or religious hatred, with a person guilty of an offence if they use threatening, abusive or insulting words with that intent; and The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (1994) outlaws the public use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour if the intent is to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress.
It goes without saying that a commitment to the importance of free speech and to academic freedom does not entail thinking that people have the right to say absolutely anything they want when they want. Clearly, the incitement of violence should be prohibited, as should targeted harassment, and indeed other forms of speech that threaten specific, serious and immediate harm. J. S. Mill’s famous harm principle looms large here – namely, that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
The trouble is, as always in these matters, the devil is in the detail. Let’s look at some of the complexities involved by means of an example.
A proselytising atheist has been invited to give a talk at a British University. She’s the sort of atheist who does not so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike Him (h/t George Orwell). The following things are true:
1) She will not violate UK law during her speech – more than that she will explicitly disavow hatred and/or discrimination linked to anti-religious sentiment.
2) She will make it very clear that belief in God cannot be justified on rational (or evidential) grounds, and that the baggage that goes along with religious belief – ensoulment, the afterlife, and so on – is similarly lacking in justification.
3) She’ll make her points using arguments that are rationally defensible (i.e., her talk won’t be a kind of knockabout theatre).
4) She is a very effective speaker, and her words will strike home.
5) Religious believers in the audience will be hurt and offended by her words. They will feel that their religious identity, mediated through a personal relationship with God, has been called into question, disrespected and invalidated.
6) The wider religious community at the university will also believe that they have been harmed by our atheist speaker’s words, albeit indirectly. Specifically, they will experience, or at least believe they have experienced, an uptick in harassment which they will link to the fact the talk went ahead.
7) There is reason to believe that the event will be disrupted, and the possibility of (minor) injuries cannot be ruled out if this happens.
The question here is obvious – does this set of circumstances provide legitimate grounds to no platform our proselytizing atheist (assuming we know in advance how all this will play out)?
It is entirely possible to answer “yes” to this question, and to construct a minimally defensible argument, balancing the harm of supressing free expression against the direct and indirect harms of allowing the talk to go ahead, to justify cancelling the event.
But several problems with this response immediately spring to mind. The first is that there are no obviously decisive arguments to be deployed here. Consequently, the justification offered for cancelling the talk is unlikely to persuade anybody who is not already sympathetic to the justice of this course of action. As Simpson and Srinivasan point out, in the context of a different example, any justification that supports the decision to no platform based on this kind of harm profile will have to engage with several tricky and contested philosophical puzzles, each of which on its own will be a challenge to surmount. For example, it’s not immediately obvious how to respond to an interlocutor who insists that if we no platform a speaker who explicitly disavows violence and discrimination, because of a worry that violent disruption might follow an event, we’re in effect holding the speaker responsible for actions that she plays no part in and cannot control, and also providing a heckler’s veto to any group willing to cause trouble about an event they don’t like.
A second problem is that there are going to be difficulties with cases that are structurally identical (or near identical), but where there are different actors involved. Put simply, there’s the danger we’re going to find ourselves, on the pain of inconsistency, having to support a decision to no platform that we’d much rather oppose. For example, imagine we tweak our scenario so that the university is in the American deep south, the atheist is a person of colour concerned to advocate for a pro-choice position, and the religious believers are white protestants, not affluent, but thoroughly conservative in their worldview. Everything else remains the same. Does the intuition about this scenario come out the same way? If not, why not, and is there a justification to explain the difference that can be deployed consistently across other similar kinds of scenario?
A final problem is that allowing that cancellation is justified in this sort of case will almost inevitably end up in an arms race with opponents across ideological divides accusing each other of causing direct and indirect harm through their words and deeds. It is possible to see this dynamic at work on Twitter, where ideological opponents engage in tit for tat cancellation attempts (see, for example, the controversy surrounding comedian David Chappelle’s recent Netflix comedy special), sometimes over the same issue after it turns out that the instigator of the original callout had themselves, a number of years previously, engaged in the behaviour about which they’re now complaining.
It seems clear that thinking about harm isn’t going to give us much clarity on which ideas and viewpoints are legitimately subject to “cancellation”. Likely everybody will agree that certain sorts of speech should be regulated because of the potential for harm (for example, shouting fire in a crowded theatre), but that’s not going to help us with the contentious cases that tend to provoke a firestorm around this issue. People are not going to agree about which ideas are harmful and which are not, about the difference between intentional and unintentional harm, about who it is that is harmed, about the moral significance of purely private harms (for example, hurt feelings, offence, and so on), about the significance of indirect harm, about how to balance the presumption of the right to free speech against harm reduction imperatives, and so on. Harm just isn’t the magic bullet that’s going to get us clear on the justifications for no-platforming and “cancellation”, more generally.
I want to finish up by looking at the issue of harm from a slightly different angle, returning to some of the concerns we talked about earlier. It will be remembered that one purported justification of no-platforming has to do with “higher-order evidence”. To recap, the argument has the following form:
1) There is an imperative for reputable institutions of learning not to generate inaccurate evidence.
2) If such an institution provides a platform to an “undeserving” speaker, it precisely generates such (higher-order) evidence, because it erroneously communicates the message that the speaker is worth taking seriously and has ideas and views that are academically respectable.
3) It follows that if a speaker is going to use a platform to disseminate nonsense, then the platform ought to be withdrawn.
We’ve seen that this justification runs into choppy waters as soon as it comes to the task of establishing criteria by means of which it can be determined which ideas and views are legitimately subject to cancellation. However, there is another problem with the “higher-order evidence” argument that has to do with thoughts about harm.
The decision to no platform, or otherwise cancel, a person is itself a kind of higher-order evidence. In the case of a decision to no platform, it signals that the institution in question does not consider a speaker to be reputable, trustworthy, serious, scholarly, and so on. It might also, depending on the circumstances, function as evidence that the speaker should be considered morally abhorrent, a racist or some other kind of bigot, for example. As Simpson and Srinivasan put it, “no platforming generally expresses the view that the targeted person is morally or politically beyond the pale, and that they should thus be denied a voice on campus.”
These are not trifling matters. It is the kind of thing that ruins lives, easily destroying a person’s self-image and confidence, devastating a career, ending friendships, leaving the target isolated and alone. It is trivially easy to detect the retributive impulse lurking in the background of campaigns to no platform, so it’s not as though these outcomes are merely unintended side-effects of a righteous desire to prevent misinformation and ensure moral probity. They are part of the point, designed to exert a deterrent effect in case anybody in the future is tempted to stick their head above the parapet.
At the very least, what this means is that you’ve got to be certain that you’re on solid ground, that you have arguments that lead inexorably to the conclusion that the decision to no platform is justified (even in the face of the potential harm it will cause). But how is that possible given that the issues surrounding cancellation tend to be contentious?
There is a lesson here from how philosophers sometimes talk about higher-order evidence that comes from disagreement. A standard view is that if two interlocutors of similar intellectual competence and experience disagree about some complex issue despite having access to the same evidence, then both should be less confident about their own conclusions. This follows because divergent conclusions means that at least one person has made a mistake in working out what the evidence entails, and since both are epistemic equals, neither has strong reason to suppose that it is the other person rather than themselves who has made the mistake.
This is analogous to the situation that people find themselves in when it comes to a contentious cancellation. Serious, intellectually competent, people will disagree about whether the cancellation is justified. This fact should make everybody involved less confident about their own position. But the requirement for epistemic humility imposes a greater burden on the side pushing for cancellation than it does on the side objecting to it. The reason is obvious – you don’t risk doing serious damage to a person’s well-being unless you’re absolutely confident the risk is justified, and normally you cannot be confident the risk is justified.
There are several possible rejoinders here. Perhaps the most obvious is to claim that cancellation, whether it is in the form of a decision to no platform, or under some other guise, doesn’t tend to mess up people’s lives. If you support the principle of no-platforming, there might be a temptation to point out that efforts to cancel a person often backfire, and in fact targets frequently go on to greater and better things. Trouble is, this response does rather cut the legs out from under one of the main reasons for thinking that a cancellation might be justified in the first place. Put simply, if the consequence of a successful campaign to no platform a speaker, for example, is that they end up on national television with a much bigger audience than before, then the higher-order evidence calculus has decidedly gone against you. In the age of social media, the old established institutions of learning no longer enjoy a hegemony, if they ever enjoyed one, over the production and dissemination of specialised knowledge. In this new reality, you’re playing a dangerous game if you think you can control the fallout from attempts to cancel your ideological enemies.
Jeremy Stangroom is a founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, and has a PhD in Political Sociology from the London School of Economics. He is the author of the international bestseller Einstein’s Riddle.