By Sam Berkeley, News Editor

‘CANCEL culture’ is a very in vogue term.

A recent open letter from various celebrities claims debate and free speech are being destroyed by a mentality of ruining anyone with a different opinion. But is this actually true?

To answer that, we first need to define cancel culture and trace its origins.

‘Cancel culture’ usually means public shaming of a person for their opinions, particularly when it calls for and indeed leads to negative consequences for them (e.g. losing their job).

Despite the term itself being modern, this is not a recent practice. It perfectly sums up the actions taken by those in positions of power and privilege throughout history to silence dissent. Just think about how the medieval church ‘cancelled’ Galileo.

The difference now is that, thanks to the internet and social media, the masses can fight back. So often, the cries of “cancel culture” come from the powerful and privileged, who are not used to being challenged. Well I’ve got news for you, having your opinions criticised is not abuse, it’s freedom of speech!

Freedom of speech is an absolutely central plank of a free society and it must always be defended. But so often those self-styled 'free speech defenders' are nothing of the sort. They seem to think freedom of speech means 'I can say whatever I want and you can't do anything about it'. But freedom of speech cuts both ways - others are free to use their freedom of speech to criticise what they say, and regularly do, only to be met with a response of "cancel culture!". What this really means is: "My freedom of speech is more important than yours."

National newspapers are full of those shouting about how they have been "silenced" for their views, utterly unaware of the irony and how they are actively disproving their own argument.

Freedom of speech is the ability to say what you want (with a few sensible exceptions such as incitement to violence) without being prosecuted.

Freedom of speech is not freedom from the consequences of what you say other than in that legal sense. If the Australian rugby star Israel Folau had faced criminal charges for saying "hell awaits" gay people that would have been an attack on his free speech.  Him being sacked from the national team is not. Likewise, if a business owner expresses a controversial opinion and loses customers as a result, they must accept that their words had consequences.

And freedom of speech is not the right to a platform. Those bemoaning cancel culture after being banned from Twitter do not understand this. To paraphrase a famous saying, you shouldn't silence a Nazi but you don't have to give them a megaphone.

But the answer to the question ‘does cancel culture exist and is it a problem?’ is not black and white. ‘Cancel culture’ is a fairly nebulous and unhelpful term because it also encompasses genuinely problematic cases, like people being prosecuted for offensive jokes or getting death threats for an opinion.

Two factors are most responsible for these latter examples. One is that many people think they have a right not to be offended; but that’s simply not the case, as taking offence is entirely subjective. For example, I find Coldplay’s awful music offensive – but that doesn't make it a crime!

The other is the way social media works encourages people to insult and attack those they disagree with rather than debate them.

And herein lies the biggest issue with the online mob mentality: it leaves no room for nuance, or for misunderstanding, and goes straight for the throat. It treats people who express controversial views due to a lack of understanding the same as those who do so deliberately and provocatively.

Take, for example, the many people posting “all lives matter” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Many were probably unaware why those words in that context were so harmful. But they were frequently attacked with the same vigour as the genuine racists.

Ultimately, insults and abuse will only reinforce someone’s opinion. Debate is the only way to change someone’s mind.

Two things can be true at once. ‘Cancel culture’ is, confusingly, both a bad-faith term thrown out to delegitimise criticism and also a symptom of the polarisation of society into different sides which are frequently unable to engage with each other in a civilised fashion.

What could we do to improve this? Be more willing to listen to others and to debate with them calmly and in good faith without resorting to insults or to strawmanning.

Difference of opinion is both normal and indeed healthy in a democratic society. We don’t need to accept others’ views; we do need to accept their right to have them.

As Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote: "I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it."