Tom Stoppard on cancel culture and the end of free speech

As Stoppard himself attested, it is not only the public figures who have been attacked by online mobs who are paying a price for their perceived shortcomings it is the future artists.


Sir Tom Stoppard, award winning British playwright and screenwriter, is one of the most respected and admired in the field. In the course of his career, he has spent a great deal of time exploring themes such as human rights, censorship and political freedom. He was knighted in 1997, after a long career that started in journalism but evolved into creative writing. His professional credits include Shakespeare In Love, The Invention of Love, Undiscovered Country and Enter A Free Man. Yet it is not his much-lauded work that has landed the now 84 year old playwright in the news headlines—it is his opinion on cancel culture, and the impact that the movement is having across the world.

Earlier this week, Stoppard took part in a promotional interview to discuss his play Leopoldstadt, and it was during this discussion that the topic veered onto the current problem of cancel culture. Stoppard said:

"There was no such thing [as cancel culture, when he started]. 50 years ago the freedom to say what you like—within the constraints of the law of the land—was the freedom upon which all other freedoms depended… it was essential that people were allowed their moment on their platform.

"People tread wearily, careful of what they say. I say one casual thing and I'm screwed for the rest of my life! It's really quite embarrassing to listen to people, often much younger people, who are embracing what to me is heresy. The main one being that truth is a construction and that certain social truths are constructions. I believe in truth and falsehood. I don't understand how society can operate without that, anymore than science can..."

Coming at a time when cancel culture is becoming ever more rampant, with several high profile figures finding themselves at the centre of the hashtag frenzies (and at the mercy of social justice keyboard warriors) it seems apparent to most that we are heading towards complete censorship and the death of freedom of speech.

As Stoppard himself attested, it is not only the public figures who have been attacked by online mobs who are paying a price for their perceived shortcomings it is the future artists. The new generation of up-and-comers, who have witnessed the epic damage that cancel culture can have upon a person's life and career, who are now wary of what they say, as a result. These young original thinkers, the potential freedom fighters and the unique artists amongst us are certain to self-silence themselves in order to conform and remain a "safe" figure, out of reach of criticism.

When I think about some of the true greats of our time, the artists who have forged ahead and made a significant mark, it is never the figures who have played it safe – it is the bold, opinionated souls who remained unafraid to express their individual beliefs and opinions – and yet how many of those will be left for us to enjoy in the future? Who will be there to cause ripples and question the status quo? Few would be brave enough in today's social climate.

It is not just in the world of writers or singers, either, where we see the negative effects of this destructive movement. Just recently comedians Ricky Gervais, John Cleese and Chris Rock have argued that this new breed of "wokeness" will kill comedy. It seems there is little left to laugh about. We are all swiftly losing our sense of humour. (If our public figures being under staunch attack were not enough, fear not – apparently even the names we give certain foods are now under call to be cancelled. A recent news item made headlines regarding a popular food blogger asking for the term "curry" to be dropped, as she finds it racist and offensive.)

The price we will all pay if cancel culture continues to move at this trajectory is a world where artists no longer celebrate unique thought and true diversity. Ultimately, it is not just the people who are "cancelled" who pay a price: in the end, we will all lose.

Without these figures spearheading the way, making a path for true pioneers and independent thinkers, we will be left with the nothingness of uniform conformity, where to disagree is to be exiled, where to express a different thought is considered hateful or controversial.

A war against cancel culture must be waged, and now. The cost of this is too great to us all.


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