Everything can be discussed

Richard Garside
Friday, 27 August 2021

At the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, we believe that improved knowledge and understanding are a foundation for effective action and meaningful change.

Our experience tells us that standing for improved knowledge and understanding is not always without controversy.

For instance, when, more than a decade ago, we established the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs with David Nutt, we were clear that drugs policy was unlikely to be effective if it was not informed by the best scientific evidence. This standpoint, unremarkable in itself, was controversial because of the politics of drugs, then and now.

David Nutt had just been dismissed from his position as Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, after championing science-informed drugs policies. In contemporary parlance, he had been 'cancelled', and by the then Home Secretary no less.

The argument between David Nutt and the Home Secretary was not really about whether the questions being posed, the research agenda being proposed, could be pursued in any context. It was about whether it could be pursued by an official government advisory body. The Home Secretary concluded he could not accept that. The work continued independently.

This, in retrospect rather civilised, argument seems a long way from the toxic silencing tactics of today's so-called ‘cancel culture’, where certain questions, certain positions, are denounced in advance as bigotry and not worthy of a respectful hearing, in any context.

Earlier this week, the actor and veteran gay rights campaigner, Simon Callow, gave his thoughts on the subject publicly. “This is just tyranny and that’s what we’ve fought against all our lives,” he told The Times, “people saying, ‘this cannot be discussed’. Yes, it can be discussed. Everything can be discussed.”

Our next webinar, on 9 September – ‘Shut the **** up ****’ – will go to the heart of this issue. Are there no limits to what can be discussed? Is there a right to offend, or to not be offended? Where does legitimate protest end, and cancellation and silencing begin?

We will be joined by two speakers – Professor Jo Phoenix of The Open University, and Professor Rosa Freedman of Reading University – whose no platforming at the University of Essex led to a highly critical independent review, which concluded that the University had breached its legal duty to ensure freedom of speech and the freedom to pursue controversial (to some) areas of knowledge and understanding.

The webinar is free to attend, but we are encouraging small donations to help cover the costs of running it by those who can afford to do so.