The phenomenon of “cancel culture” has made headlines around the world in the last few years, with “woke” mobs supposedly shutting down organisations, people and ideas that they believe are not politically correct. At the centre of the media furore is the fear that the western world is experiencing a free speech crisis. Concerns have been voiced from across the political spectrum, with comparisons made to Orwell’s 1984, Stalinism and the Taliban.
Universities are a focal point for these worries. Students are depicted simultaneously as fragile, risk-averse “snowflakes” and heavy-handed “social justice warriors”. They are to be both pitied and feared. Conservatives, libertarians and liberals in the UK, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have all expressed alarm about “cancel culture” on university campuses. They claim that students and academics are increasingly afraid of (or uninterested in) debate, and unwilling to be challenged by controversial ideas. For example, in 2015, Nick Cohen wrote in the Guardian: “Rather than being free institutions where the young could expand their minds, British universities were becoming ‘theological colleges’ where secular priests enforced prohibitions.”
The populist and far right have taken up the free speech battle with gusto. Nigel Farage of the Brexit Party spoke to the Young America’s Foundation last year, branding students who banned speakers from university debates as fascists:
"I mean frankly, the real fascism these days, the real intolerance isn’t Matteo Salvini or Donald Trump, it’s those on the left who wish to shout down the other side and indeed on campuses like this, across America and across the whole of the UK, attempt to no platform speakers who’ve got ideas they don’t like. That’s the real modern fascism: the attempt to close down free speech."