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19 October 2022

What JK Rowling and John Cleese get wrong about cancel culture

A belief in accountability does not involve condoning threats or violence – and freedom of expression does not mean freedom from consequence.

By Billy Bragg

Last week, in an interview with Mariella Frostrup at Cheltenham Literature Festival, Graham Norton ventured that “cancel culture” is just another word for accountability. He referenced recent complaints made by John Cleese, who feels he is persecuted for his un-“woke” views. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition, eh John?

When pressed on whether his idea of accountability included the abuse suffered by JK Rowling following her statements on trans women, Norton suggested that it might be more illuminating to talk to trans children and their parents, rather than merely amplifying the opinions of a celebrity or author – even a very good one. 

I have long believed that what right-wing media call “cancel culture” is nothing more than the tendency of reactionaries to cry wolf when caught conducting a rearguard action against the progress made by minorities over the past half-century. So I retweeted a clip of Norton, adding that I agreed that we needed to hear more from trans children and their parents, given their status is the focus of so much online debate.

This brought an immediate response from Rowling, who accused Norton and me of throwing our support behind “rape and death threats to those who dare disagree”. I challenged this, stating that I would never condone such abusive behaviour, but Rowling doubled down, again spuriously claiming that Norton and I had equated threats of violence with accountability.

Norton was bombarded with online abuse from others and, on 17 October, he deleted his Twitter account. Will John Cleese use his new platform at GB News to express his solidarity with cancel culture’s latest casualty? Somehow I doubt it. Those with reactionary views see this particular mantle of victimhood as theirs alone. The right and left may argue over the meaning of cancel culture, but there is a universal principle that all should recognise – and that is accountability.

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I believe that freedom of expression gives us the right to offend, provided that our statements are generalised rather than directed at an individual, but those who offend should expect to be held accountable for their behaviour – and celebrity confers no protection. For, while a tolerant society should be able to accommodate vehement differences of opinion, everyone engaged in debate must understand that freedom of expression does not mean freedom from consequence. 

Rowling misconstrued that final caveat when expressed by both Norton and me, using it to imply that we would support any repercussion no matter how foul befalling those who expressed opinions deemed offensive by others. I can’t speak for Norton, but I feel sure that, like me, he would recognise that threats directed at individuals are indefensible and that no one, whatever they have said, should be subject to such personal abuse. That of course includes Rowling. 

The failure of democratic societies to hold individuals to account for their actions has led to a drift towards authoritarianism over the past few years. The idea that free speech absolves the speaker from any consequences has made social media a cauldron of rage and slander. Like all of the tools available to us in our quest for truth and a better world, accountability has its limits. It must never be used as an excuse for intimidation or violence. However, provided it is balanced with the right to freedom of expression, I believe it is the one sure guarantor of a civil discourse and a free society.

[See also: As a victim of abuse, I once agreed with JK Rowling]

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