The Black Lives Matter Movement has given new impetus to the “cancel culture” in the ascendency in Western liberal democracies. Every day now someone in business, politics or the arts is cancelled for inappropriate comments or controversial views that they held while living in less enlightened times, ie, less than a year ago.

Author J.K. Rowling, American singer Lana Del Rey, and British actress Jodie Comer have all recently fallen under the guillotine of the rapidly escalating woke revolution.

Historical figures have not been spared the wrath of the cultural crackdown. The first POTUS, George Washington, Scottish moral philosopher David Hume, and Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish author of “The Little Mermaid” are among some of the latest scalps in the battle to expunge discriminatory sympathies from our cultural heritage.

The sheer rate of cancellations has spooked even the most progressive members of our cultural elite. In response, J.K. Rowling — who has faced fierce criticism for her stance of transgender issues — has teamed up with fellow authors Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushie and 150 other academics and writers to pen an open letter in Harper’s Magazine decrying the cancel culture that has set in in liberal societies.

“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted”, the recently published letter read. The authors express grave concern at the increasing “intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty”.

“The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away”, the letter concludes.

Somewhat predictably, the authors of the letter have themselves been summarily cancelled for their views.

“Any speech meant to attack another person’s existence and human rights is not freedom but oppression”, celebrity US physician Eugene Gu tweeted.

“There is no such thing as pure freedom of expression […]: the expression of some views necessarily encroaches on the dignity and freedom of others”, wrote Guardian columnist Zoe Williams in a response to the letter.

Yet there’s the rub. How can anyone express a view on identity politics without at least implicitly exposing some identities to rational critique? Is rational debate now constrained by the endlessly proliferating identities that members of different social groups wish to assert?

Indeed, we can use the work of one of the co-signatories of the Harper’s letter as a lens through which to analyse the core problem with an aggressive cancel culture. In his 2018 book Identity: the Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, political theorist Francis Fukuyama describes how social groups seeking recognition can easily morph into aggressive movements that seek to dominate other groups in society.

Rather than being content with the same set of basic rights accorded to all members of liberal societies, some social groups seek a special status whereby their identity is not just tolerated but celebrated, with any dissenters facing devastating social censure.

A case in point is the transgender rights movement — the very movement that has recast Rowling, otherwise a champion of progressive ideals, as a shameless bigot. Transgender activists demand that their fluid identities be accorded the same social recognition as traditional binary gender identities. A failure to do so could very well cost someone their career and destroy their standing in polite society.

What started off as an important campaign for respect and social acknowledgement, in other words, has turned into a form of thought-policing and has led to a situation in which any debate is liable to be construed as hate speech.

From the perspective of liberal society, this is deeply troubling, and indicative of a crisis in our capacity for civil disagreement and self-critique.

Fukuyama argues that liberal societies need to negotiate the tensions between competing ideologies and identities by facilitating respectful intellectual debate and by fostering a willingness to at least tolerate critique of some of our self-identifying beliefs.

One glance at the Twittersphere, however, reveals that this liberal vision is far from being realised.

Fukuyama once suggested that liberal democracy signaled the end of history. Does cancel culture signal the end of rational debate?

Xavier Symons

Xavier Symons

Xavier Symons is a bioethicist at the University of Notre Dame and a 2020 Fulbright Future Postdoctoral Scholar.