In the age of ‘cancel culture’ and ‘no-platforming’ we are in danger of shutting down all opposing views and stopping intellectual discussion and debate.
The former Home Secretary was recently uninvited from speaking at Oxford UN Women Society, as a result of her controversial links to the Windrush Scandal. This act by the Oxford Society is one of many cases of no-platforming in a time when cancel culture is widely accepted, with others such as Germain Greer and Peter Tatchell being no-platformed due to “transphobic” comments.
The phenomena is a dangerous one. It could lead to the weakening of public discussions and the silencing of opposing views, resulting in the entrenchment of views into ‘two camps’.
Rudd was meant to appear at the event on 5 March but was told, she says, 30 minutes prior to the event that she would be unable to speak. This was after a vote of their committee who decided it would be better for the society to avoid being seen as endorsing the politician. Her role in the scandal culminated in her resignation, and rightfully so; the Home Office had unlawfully declared people encouraged to settle in the UK between 1940 and 1973 to be illegal immigrants, leading to their deportation.
It could lead to the weakening of public discussions and the silencing of opposing views, resulting in the entrenchment of views into ‘two camps’.
Clearly, Rudd deserves to be criticised. Should her actions be condemned? Definitely. Should she have to respond to questions from those affected and those that are interested in the issue? Of course. But should she be silenced? Absolutely not.
The society has attracted much criticism for its no-platforming. The Charity UN Women UK has announced it will no longer associate with the society, resulting in a name change to United Women Oxford Student Society. Rudd has said their actions were “badly judged and rude”. The University of Oxford even got involved and said that they “strongly disapprove”, stand up for “free speech” and “oppose no-platforming”.
The risk with accepting and even encouraging such behaviour goes back to John Stuart Mill’s classic justification for free speech. Without it, when formulating an opinion, one cannot push it to its logical limits. Instead, they have to limit their ideas to what is socially or legally acceptable, resulting in “a sort of intellectual pacification” of society. In short, if we are unable to challenge our own and others views, our beliefs will have no integrity at all. Is the strength of a belief not that you can stand firm in it and defend it against criticism? And is intellectual honesty not that when our views are critiqued we are able to reflect and potentially alter our opinion? If we simply silence all opposing views we risk not truly understanding the world. When we hear something we don’t like, we cannot simply run away and pretend such voices don’t exist.
Is the strength of a belief not that you can stand firm in it and defend it against criticism? And is intellectual honesty not that when our views are critiqued we are able to reflect and potentially alter our opinion?
Had the Oxford students allowed Rudd to speak and pulled her up on her past mistakes, sparking a debate, they may have promoted change rather than outrage. At the very least, if we cannot change the beliefs of those who think differently to us, we will gain a greater understanding of their reasoning, and therefore win a better angle for debate with them at the next opportunity.
The purpose of Rudd’s speech was for female empowerment – to get more women into politics. The original brief for the talk was that it would be “an honest and frank conversation” confronting the impact of her policies on women and urged people to come “to help campaign for a truly frank feminism which is not afraid of taking opportunities to discuss issues with high profile figures”. Clearly, this was turned on its head with the decision to cancel the talk altogether. Surely this sends the wrong message to young women thinking of a career in the political field, implying they can be silenced if they step out of line.
Fundamentally, we must think about what would happen if the tide was turned. Currently, we see that the vast swathes of opinion at universities are in favour of issues such as feminism and LGBTQA+ rights. But we must consider what it would mean people advocating for these issues were silenced, in the same way some are suppressing the views of ‘the other side’. The danger of only allowing ‘acceptable’ views to be heard is obvious and sinsister. We must engage with those views we detest, in order to have fruitful debate. This will ensure a healthy, thriving democracy in which everyone’s voice is heard.