It’s hard to think of anything more ironic.
Two Saturdays ago I participated as a panellist at the Disrupted Festival of Ideas held by the State Library of Western Australia. I was on the panel for a lively discussion about the meaning of “Cancel Culture”.
Besides myself, other panellists included SLWA chief executive Margaret Allen, Murdoch University post-graduate research student Graeme Paton, and LGBTQI+ activist Kai Schweizer.
However, as reported by The Sydney Morning Herald, “a SLWA spokesman said the livestream of the cancel culture discussion had been cancelled due to one of the panellists not giving permission for it to air ahead of the event”.
One of the panellists told a journalist that “Mr Schweizer was concerned participants would raise topics that might have been disturbing”.
As also reported, “the panellist was concerned the discussion could upset some of his followers on social media”.
Surely the whole idea of such “Disrupted Festival” was to promote the free exchange of ideas and to challenge the status quo.
However, the public display via internet of the cancel culture panel has been censored by one of the members of the status quo.
Graeme Paton, another panellist, contended that “sexologist” and LGBTQ activist Kai Schweitzer requested a ban of the livestream on the grounds of the panel discussing “topics that might have been disturbing”.
Of course, it might be really disturbing for such people to have their hegemonic discourse challenged.
Despite the Left’s fear of having their hegemonic discourse further challenged, oit is really foolish to believe that free speech favours those with more power.
Anyone who has any decent knowledge of history knows very well that protecting free speech is about giving voice to the powerless.
Free speech is a core principle of every functional democracy. Every totalitarian regime restricts speech as a matter of course.
In July this year, a varied group of 153 writers, academics and authors – including Noam Chomsky, Salman Rushdie and JK Rowling – signed an open letter criticising the ‘intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty’.
They did not explicitly refer to ‘cancel culture’, but instead “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity”.
How many of us now have to think twice before posting a legitimate message – not because the post is offensive per se, but because of the possible repercussions if someone chooses to interpret it the wrong way?
In a free society everyone must have a basic right to choose the words that best reflect their personal feelings.
Democracy requires robust expressions of disagreement. Indeed, no democratic society can possibly sustain a general prohibition of certain forms of speech simply because they might be thought to be “offensive”.
This is a point which has been made by Salman Rushdie, the British novelist who was put under an Islamic death sentence because he “offended” Muslim hyper-sensibilities. He stated:
“The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted.
“A fundamental decision needs to be made: Do we want to live in a free society or not? Democracy is not a tea party where people sit around making polite conversation. In democracies people get extremely upset with each other. They argue vehemently against each other’s positions”.
Rushdie goes on to conclude:
“People have the fundamental right to take an argument to the point where somebody is offended by what they say. It is no trick to support the free speech of somebody you agree with or to whose opinion you are indifferent. The defense of free speech begins at the point where people say something you can’t stand. If you can’t defend their right to say it, then you don’t believe in free speech. You only believe in free speech as long as it doesn’t get up your nose”.
Rod Lampard notes in Caldron Pool the great irony of ‘organisers and fellow panellists deploying cancel culture tactics in an event asking whether Cancel Culture is “right-wing” fiction of fact, is peak Leftism’. In so doing, he concludes, such people have merely confirmed that cancel culture ‘creates harmful safe spaces, the dismissal/dehumanization of opponents, and the outlawing of honest debate’.
Above all, we must never forget that the ruling elites have a special interest in protecting their hegemonic discourse by suppressing free speech. Free speech is therefore most necessary for the weak, not the more powerful. And this precisely why one of the cancel culture panellists has cancelled the presentation on cancel culture.
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Dr Augusto Zimmermann PhD, LLM, LLB, DipEd, CertIntArb is co-editor of the book Fundamental Rights in the Age of Covid-19. He is Professor and Head of Law at Sheridan Institute of Higher Education in Perth/WA, and Professor of Law (Adjunct) at the University of Notre Dame Australia, Sydney campus. He is President of the Western Australian Legal Theory Association (WALTA), and former Law Reform Commissioner with the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia, from 2012-2017. Dr Zimmermann was chair and professor of Constitutional Law at Murdoch University from 2007 to 2017.
 Marta Pascual Juanola, ‘Unbelievable: Livestream of Cancel Culture Debate “Cancelled” During State Library of WA’s Disrupted Festival’, The Sydney Morning Herald, November 12, 2020, at https://www.smh.com.au/national/western-australia/unbelievable-livestream-of-cancel-culture-debate-cancelled-during-state-library-of-wa-s-disrupted-festival-20201110-p56d7v.html
 Salman Rushdie, Defend the Right to Be Offended (7 February 2005) OpenDemocracy .
 Rod Lampard, ‘Cancel Culture Panelist Cancels Presentation on Cancel Culture’, November 18, 2020, at https://caldronpool.com/cancel-culture-panelist-cancels-presentation-on-cancel-culture/