Both left and right practise ‘cancel culture’. Both should stop

<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

A Tory MP demands that the comedian Alexei Sayle be dropped from Desert Island Discs for his supposed antisemitism. With the hashtag #KaufmannOut, students at London’s Birkbeck College demand an “investigation” into lecturer Eric Kaufmann for his “white supremacy”. Essex University apologises after a damning report on the cancellations of meetings by academics Rosa Freedman and Jo Phoenix for their “transphobic” beliefs. In America, Associated Press sacks journalist Emily Wilder after a rightwing campaign against her pro-Palestinian views. Just another week on the free speech front line.

I dislike the phrase “cancel culture” because, like “woke”, it is used with such abandon that it’s become almost meaningless. Nevertheless, what these cases show is the development of a culture in which people are quick to take offence and to demand punishment for the “offender”. They show, too, that while “cancel culture” is portrayed as a leftwing “woke” phenomenon, conservatives are equally mired in it. Those demanding sanctions against Sayle and Wilder would be the first to denounce the campaigns against Kaufmann, Freedman and Phoenix and to portray themselves as champions of free speech.

It’s not enough to point to the hypocrisy of the right. It’s also important for the left to defend the right to say objectionable or controversial things. I enjoy Sayle’s humour while disagreeing with his wilder claims about Zionists, profoundly contest many of Kaufmann’s arguments and don’t see Freedman or Phoenix as “transphobic” or Wilder as antisemitic. But agree or disagree, all of them have the right to say what they said. If we don’t defend that right for speech we dislike, we will lose it for the speech we do like. The only person truly cancelled – sacked from her job – was Wilder, after a vicious rightwing campaign.

• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist