When I heard that people were burning J K Rowling’s books I was delighted and wondered if and where I could join in. At last, I thought, the people of Britain had come to their senses and seen through this derivative, convoluted and pagan nonsense, but then… apparently the books were being burned in protest against her.
Now I was even more intrigued, what had the multi-millionaire who seemingly could do no wrong done wrong? It transpires (no pun intended) she thinks people with penises are men and people who have menstrual periods and the capacity to give birth are women.
Moreover, and this is probably where she went wrong, she thinks that people with penises and who do not have menstrual periods and who lack the capacity to give birth are not women. Then she really put her foot in it by saying that these people, men who claim to be women, should not be allowed to use women’s toilets.
So, this was all that the fuss was about, re-stating what is biologically correct and what most of the British public believe. Twitter revealed the size of the protest (not a great indicator as issues attract more detractors than supporters and people use multiple accounts) but, most alarmingly, the naked vitriol to which JK Rowling was being exposed.
There were messages of hate, death threats and promises that she would be raped (presumably by someone with a functional penis, however self-identified). Towards anyone who offered words of support, the same vitriol was aimed and her virtue-signalling luvvie proteges from the Harry Potter film series came out against her too.
In the spirit of virtue-signalling, it goes without saying that society should tolerate a variety of placements on the gender spectrum. People can self-identify in any way they wish and should not be persecuted for it. But facts cannot be changed, for example, by altering birth certificates to indicate a different sex at birth (excepting in cases of genuine genetic developmental disorders) and surely, the transgender community must see how a woman (born as such and having lived her life as such and having used women’s toilets her whole life) could be uncomfortable having someone with a penis using her toilet. Most transgender men do not have genital surgery and amongst those, some remain capable of erection. I rest JK Rowling’s case.
The point about the JK Rowling incident is that it is indicative of a much wider ailment in our affluent educated western society, that of cancel culture. We see it manifest in book burning, statue toppling and the enforced cancelling of visiting speakers to universities, ones who may have said something with which a vocal minority of the students disagree.
This also extends to lecturers employed in universities and, increasingly, silence is not enough. For example, it is considered inadequate not to be a racist, never to have uttered a racist word or proposed racist ideas; you must be seen to be joining in the opprobrium for whoever is being pilloried.
Silence is no longer an option. Witness the pressure for people to be seen to be ‘hashtagging’ Black Lives Matter (BLM) in their social media. And God help anyone who dares to suggest that (hashtag) All Lives Matter. As incomprehensible as it seems, this is deemed offensive by the BLM brigade and one British academic has already been suspended for doing exactly this.
A glaring indication of how far things have gone is when some one on the left – represented by a bunch of Bollinger Bolsheviks including Salman Rushdie and Margaret Attwood and others – are moved to sign a declaration urging free speech in Harpers magazine and then suffer the inevitable tsunami of abuse.
It is at one level heartening to see this but, at another level, such posturing from these multi-millionaires who will still be on the world’s rich lists when they go to their graves, does little to help the university lecturer who gets suspended and then probably sacked for uttering an unpleasant truth while still having a mortgage to pay and a family to support.
Cancel culture knows no bounds as to what gets cancelled, removed or renamed and seems to have no restraint when it comes to conflict with anyone expressing an alternative view. Everything and anything that offends is a candidate for cancellation and the list is extensive.
Moreover, the reasons are extensive and inevitably come from some utterance or adherence to an unpopular view often centuries ago. Thus, we see several pioneering statisticians – Pearson, Spearman, Galton and Fisher – being erased from the records. How long before we can no longer refer to Fisher’s exact test or Pearson’s correlation when teaching statistics, lest we offend someone in the group? Their crime was to espouse eugenics, in fact Galton is referred to as ‘the father of eugenics’ and the possibility that their views spurred monsters like Hitler and others to commit mass genocide.
This may be the case, but the kind of eugenics discussed over a glass of port by the likes of Galton was a far cry from the gas chambers and was also being discussed by George Bernard Shaw and Marie Stopes who have survived the cancel culture. I have no idea where Galton and his cancelled colleagues lay on the political spectrum, but I know Shaw veered to the left and is thus probably immune to cancellation.
Stopes was an admirer of Hitler, she wrote letters to him, but our society is so badly infected by the Malthusian bug and the sexual liberation of the 1960s and our addiction to artificial family planning and abortion so great that we are afraid to rock the pillars of that particular industry. What Stokes’ view were on transgenderism we will never know, perhaps just as well for her legacy.
We laugh at cancel culture in the same way we laugh at ‘health and safety gone mad’ but we should not underestimate the power it has. It is a symptom of our politically correct, snowflake culture now described as ‘woke’.
But, in addition to the Pavlovian aspects of cancel culture, there is also the autonomic reaction by our media gatekeepers at the BBC who, under no specific pressure to do so, yet clambering over each other to demonstrate how ‘on message’ they are, begin pulling programmes from the schedule that they think may offend. Woke meets cancel culture and the nanny state.
None of us wants to see the ghastly Black and White Minstrel Show or the profoundly unfunny Til Death Us Do Part again (I hope) but anyone who could not see that The Major in Fawlty Towers was being exposed as a typically prejudiced colonial needs a serious humour transplant.
If that fails then at least these self-appointed censors need to be told to stop deciding what is best for the rest of us who not only pay our licence fees but can also operate the off button or change channels from the comfort of our armchairs if we feel offended. For example, I take that option whenever News at Ten comes on lest I am offended by the continuing stream of anti-Brexit views and hysterical reporting about the latest pandemic.
The ‘cancelleers’ are a simple bunch. To them, life is black and white (often literally) with no shades of grey. You are for or against and your past record of doing good (philanthropy, defeating fascism, developing statistical tests that have helped humanity) is discounted if you are found to have done one thing that offends the woke perspective. Furthermore, forgiveness is impossible; this is Islamic State versus Christianity. The cancelleers cannot conceive of the irony in attacking the legacy of Winston Churchill without whose help they would be goose-stepping down The Mall, not pouring paint on statues.
Things will probably get a lot worse before they get better. Those of us with views to express need to tread carefully if we want to see our salaries and pensions. But the resistance continues, and the fight back has begun. A range of online sources is not afraid to publish the truth and challenge the nonsense.
Among these, the Bruges Group, the Adam Smith Institute, Spiked, UnHerd and of course The Salisbury Review are not afraid to give voice to the dissenters. More recently, Toby Young established the Free Speech Union (FSU) which promises to offer legal support to the highest court in the land for a very modest subscription to those who fall foul of the cancel culture.
In tandem, the Workers of England Union, again for a modest subscription, offers to provide independent trade union support to workers in almost any industry. Moreover, a reduced subscription is available for members of the FSU. These are not offering licences to lunatics and both organisations abhor hate speech and any form of discrimination. They also do not guarantee success; but they do mean that anyone willing to speak the truth, to risk offence and who will enter a genuine debate need not feel alone.
Roger Watson is a Professor of Nursing