WE tend to think big when we think of cancel culture - JK Rowling or David Starkey being the most recent in a long string of well-kent names who have found themselves accused of hateful speech and calls to suffer the consequences thereof.

It's a sign of the problem, that we can string Rowling and Starkey together in the one breath. One made an off-the-cuff unequivocally racist statement; one tried to set out a nuanced stance formed by traumatic life experiences.

In the bin with them both, though.

Cancel culture is quite a broad umbrella term, referring to consequences as far ranging as no-platforming, such as has happened to writers invited to speak at universities; to the public sackings of individuals, or calls for the stripping of their titles; to boycotts of their output, such as the distancing of Harry Potter fans from JK Rowling; to a thorough monstering on social media.

Retribution for the holding of anything from difficult to downright abhorrent views is usually swift. Sackings come rapidly from institutions and employers worried about the bad PR. No-platforming tends to be a more agonised, drawn out process.

On the flip side, there are those who would say that cancel culture is a fabricated concern, given that there are those who make a very good living indeed off expressing cancellation-worthy views. Others would support this by pointing out that cancellations often don't last, the punishment being less than a life sentence. Yet that is a good thing - we must have forgiveness and a tolerance for those who change their minds.

I wonder if it will ever be possible to have a definitive position on cancel culture or if the trope will cause endless spirals of intellectual agony until we've reached the point that there can be no correct thoughts any more.

A smorgasbord of powerful and successful people have put their names to an open letter that ran in Harper's magazine. Signed by more than 150 writers, artists and academics, including Gloria Steinem, JK Rowling, Malcolm Gladwell and Noam Chomsky, its contents are, in themselves, quite anodyne and difficult to argue with.

Instigated by the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, the missive asks for an end to stubborn cleaving to "ideological conformity" and expresses a desire that we might be able to hold public discussions without fear of reprisal.

Unless one hankers for a return to days of McCarthyism, the notion that free speech should be unimpeded is quite difficult to take exception to. With obvious caveats, of course. Free speech and hate speech are quite distinct things, one vital, the other abhorrent.

The letter immediately proved controversial. One signatory, the author and trans activist Jennifer Finney Boylan, said she would not have added her name to it had she known who else had signed it, which quite undercuts the thrust of the letter. Or perhaps emphasises its point.

There has been gentle handwringing over the death of the letter but the past year has felt positively Victorian in its gush of explanatory ink. There are many letters to be read, all setting out various opinions on various topics and it's welcome, seeing views set out clearly and expansively.

A letter gives the space for careful and nuanced reasoning, even if that careful and nuanced reasoning is not accepted as such.

An interesting trend born on social media is the of academic language entering mainstream conversations. On one hand, it's perfect for a communication form which, by its nature, must be truncated. If you can use a neat buzz phrase to summarise a complex theory then it's natural to do so.

But at the same time, isn't this exclusionary? And does it lead to deeper understanding or does it negate the need for deeper understanding? By trotting out a few learned phrases you can quickly and easily show which 'side' you're on, and pat yourself on the back for giving an intelligent answer without the dirty work of grappling with nuance or actually having to have any meaningful grip of what those phrases mean.

The irony is that this intellectual language ultimately renders debate anti-intellectual as the scope for inhabiting a grey area of agreeing with some things and disagreeing with others is obliterated.

Hyperbole is the norm, too, and it facilitates the extreme position of cancellation. We have come to an interesting point in public discourse where intense absorption in the self has become the moral position. Identity politics have become less about political alliances within groups and more about absolute individualism, with a desire not only to control how you present to the world but to control how you are perceived.

Words are now weaponised. The theatre of debate is spoken of as a literal theatre of war. A personal perspective is seen as an attack; a difference of opinion is an attempt at erasure.

And erasure is another common theme - you will hear complaints in discussions about race, class, sex, gender and power that a person's existence is being erased.

It's not enough to complain of experience being denied. A central function of feminism has been to persuade others that women's experiences should be listened to without scepticism and treated seriously.

This has been latched onto, more broadly, and become a dire accusation to be levelled at your ideological opponent - that they are trying to ‘erase’ you.

Couldn't it be possible to set aside absolute indignation and hold debates - even robust, difficult debates - with giving or taking offence?

The standard of right and wrong are ever-evolving but they do so by persuasion and reason. Cancel culture is an easy option that requires no intellectual effort but it has an impact on lives other than those we judge too big to be cancelled, such as Rowling.

Non-celebrities are also affected. We have had examples in Scotland of people in academia, in the arts or just those who are vocal on Twitter suffering attempts to have them sacked or have freelance work removed.

We should think bigger than cancel culture; reason more with empathy than hyperbole; be willing to be challenged but not always offended.

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