Sunday 8 November
Living Freedom is the boi charity’s annual three-day residential school aimed at 18- to 25-year-olds interested in exploring ideas as they relate to the past, present and future of freedom. This year we have taken the spirit of that event online to explore the some of the important issues that have emerged in our time of corona.
TICKETS AND REGISTRATION
This event is open too all Living Freedom students and alumni. To register, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
The onset of Covid-19 has served to reinforce and in some cases accelerate trends related to freedom and democracy. While commentators for some time have expressed doubts about the benefits of democracy, today we seem to have descended into a Democracy Panic. Meanwhile while many commentators presumed that the pandemic would serve to dampen culture war style conflicts, in reality it has brought further to the fore divisions and conflicts around issues of identity while intensifying challenges to freedom of expression which assert themselves in relatively new forms such as through cancel culture.
This special online event in collaboration with Global Youth offers an opportunity to explore these new challenges and get to grips with how to make the case for anew for democracy and freedom.
Please note that all times are GMT (UK time)
09:30 – 09:35
Welcome and introductions
secretary, boi charity; convenor, Living Freedom; co-producer, Living Freedom International
Vice President, Global Youth; co-producer Living Freedom International
09:35 – 11:00 Session 1
Democracy under siege: how can we give a voice to the people?
sociologist; public intellectual; author, Democracy Under Siege
founder & director, Liberty Institute
Chair: Ella Whelan
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; journalist and commentator; author, What Women Want
11:30 – 12:55 Session 2
Should we cancel ‘Cancel Culture’?
Dr Jan Macvarish
education and events director, Free Speech Union
chair, Ideation Hub, Global Youth
secretary to executive board, Global Youth
journalist; under-graduate, Keble College, Oxford; alumnus, Living Freedom
Chair: Jacob Reynolds
external affairs manager, boi charity; writer and commentator
12:55 – 13:00
Conclusions and thanks
Living Freedom International has been jointly produced by boi charity and Global Youth.
Production team: Alastair Donald, Nikita Yadav, Shreyanka Chandel and Vrinda Gumber
Democracy under siege: how can we give a voice to the people?
Under the shadow of Covid-19, questions over the durability and the benefits of democracy have proliferated. ‘Can democracy survive the coronavirus?’ ran one of many headlines hinting that the imperative of survival must now take precedence over people’s desire for freedom. Some say authoritarian states such as China have been better at responding to the pandemic than democracies. Others warn that ‘we need Big Brother to beat this virus’ and the civil-liberties lobby must not blind us to the need for state surveillance. With hastily imposed emergency powers generating little debate but leading to the suspension of hard-won rights, cultural support for freedom now seems weak and the foundation for democracy fragile.
In reality, since its emergence in ancient Greece, support for democracy has co-existed with forceful opponents who question its value. From Plato’s critique of Athenian democracy to Hobbes preference for the supreme rule of the state to Enlightenment and liberal philosophers’ disdainful of rule by the people, profound thinkers have struggled over the nature and value of democracy. What can we learn from those eras marked by the establishment of democracy and the subsequent attempts to tame it?
Although the rhetoric of anti-populism has grown rapidly in recent years, many critics remain wary of expressing open hostility to democracy. Yet there are plenty of signs that there is suspicion of the demos and the moral and intellectual capacity of the electorate to shape society. These include the outsourcing of decision-making from democratic institutions, the rise of expert-led bodies and the expanded role of judicial and non-governmental organisations.
Why has hostility to democracy gained momentum recently? And if democracy is under siege, how best can we defend it? Many would agree that in the face of pandemic threats we need expertise and executive decision-making and that our rights should be balanced by safety restrictions. Does living under the threat of a virus mean having to sacrifice our civil liberties? How much freedom should we give away in order to stay safe and what are the implications for democracy?
Others say that the real battles lie elsewhere. Some, for example, advocate more direct forms of democracy such as local assemblies or citizens juries, or digital technology that provides opportunities for an ‘always connected’ citizenry. Would this give a much-needed boost or are they distractions? When the defence of democracy is often, at best, instrumental and at worst dismissive of the ability of ordinary people to govern, how can we offer positive affirmation of the principle and the value of democracy?
Should we cancel ‘cancel culture’?
‘Cancel culture’ is now a widely used term to describe apparently new assaults on freedom of expression and belief. These attacks go beyond traditional free-speech controversies around ‘no-platforming’. Cancel culture is a form of boycott where a person who has shared a controversial opinion, expressed an ‘inappropriate’ viewpoint, or whose actions are perceived as offensive, is called out and then ‘cancelled’ for their errant behaviour.
Many high-profile figures have been caught up in this demand to ‘punish and also banish from the community a respectable opinion’. Author JK Rowling, singer Lana Del Rey and actors Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson are just a few who have either been fired or lost work for expressing their views. And trending hashtags have urged boycotting of Bollywood stars such as Karan Johar, while Rhea Chakraborty’s public vilification was called ‘a modern-day witch hunt’ and AIB’s Tanmay Bhat was fired from Comicstaan.
With many less well-known figures also now being targeted, Harper’s Magazine published a joint letter from 153 prominent writers, academics and entertainers, across ideologies, ethnicities, religions and sexual preferences, including Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood. The signatories found widespread support for their concern that ‘the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted’.
Critics claim, however, that the problem of cancel culture is exaggerated. People with large social-media followings, they say, complain about censorship when the reality is that newly empowered activists are simply holding people to account for their offensive views. In universities, where academic freedom is often said to be the victim of a cultural war over the censorship of speakers, plenty of cancelled speakers still find a way to air their views. Defenders of cancel culture say that free speech does not – and should not – mean freedom from consequences and that some views and opinions do make you unfit for a certain job.
Why has cancel culture become a concern to many people and how should we respond in such a climate? Does it stifle open debate, or are we just seeing a new generation who have found their voice and are speaking up? Where should the line be drawn between legitimate criticism and shaming someone? When do such actions become a systematic marginalisation of certain views – and what’s wrong with marginalising repulsive views anyway?