At the beginning of last year, Toby Young — previously a cultural commentator, food critic, self-ironic writer, and later a free schools campaigner — hit the headlines by setting up the Free Speech Union, a mass membership organisation which aims to protect the speech rights of its members. The initiative was formed in reaction to a perceived “massive increase in attacks on free speech” over the past years, associated with the rise of ‘cancel culture’, which it deems a threat to society and the preservation of freedom.

Young himself was ‘cancelled’ in 2018, when Theresa May nominated him as a board member of the newly established Office for Students, causing a massive public backlash in response to the controversy surrounding some of his past comments. These included sexist remarks, or his support of ‘progressive eugenics’, according to which providing “low IQ” parents with tools to increase the intelligence of their offspring could be an effective way to facilitate social mobility. As a consequence, he was forced to resign from five public positions, including his full-time job in education charity.

“I do think this was disproportionate,” Young explains. “I did say some stupid things. I apologised for them and stood down from the Office for Students position. This should have drawn the line under the entire affair.”

“If you allow the authorities to dictate who can and cannot speak, they’re gonna favour the powerful”

He seems to have recovered since, however, maintaining access to public platforms and a strong position in the public eye.  

“When an angry mob on Twitter calls you a Nazi, a eugenicist and a racist, it can feel that your reputation has been destroyed, the world has condemned you and you will never be rehabilitated. People told me when I was ‘cancelled’ in 2018 that few people would remember it in a year’s time – they were basically right.”

Nowadays, Young is one of the leading voices criticising ‘cancel culture’. He is also a fierce opponent of the government’s lockdown policy, editing the blog Lockdown Sceptics.

The case against cancel culture

Young’s dislike of ‘cancel culture’ is along two main grounds.

Firstly, he believes that free speech is vital for society to flourish, and ultimately most favourable for advancing the cause of disadvantaged and disempowered groups.

“Free speech has historically benefitted them rather than the powerful and the privileged, be it in the case of the Civil Rights Movement, the suffragettes, or the gay rights movement. If you allow the authorities to dictate who can and cannot speak, they’re gonna favour the powerful. We need institutional and legal defences for neutral speech rights which everyone can take advantage of regardless of their ethnicity, race, religion, or political point of view.”

How far does his protection of free speech extend?

“Anything apart from speech which is overwhelmingly likely to lead to violence should be acceptable.”

What about hate speech which does not fall under this definition but can still be very offensive to certain groups?

“The problem is that there is no clear and unambiguous definition of hate speech. One of the cases we are fighting for is the feminist campaigner Posie Parker. A trans activist started a petition on asking the Oxford English Dictionary to change its definition of woman from ‘adult human female’ to something less trans-exclusionary.

Posie Parker started a rival petition, asking the OED to keep that definition. took down the petition on the grounds that defining a woman as an ‘adult human female’ was hate speech. So the difficulty with prohibiting hate speech is who gets to define it and how to make sure that it’s not a definition that can be weaponized by political activists to silence their opponents.”

Young is not too convinced by my counter-argument that banning some more extreme forms of hate speech could help minorities to feel more included and respected in society, and proposes that even unambiguously hateful speech, such as Holocaust denial, should be allowed. “Would there be a net benefit for society from outlawing it? I would say no. If you suppress these theories, you do not rob them of their power, mystique and velocity. You should allow their proponents to set out their case in the public square and then ridicule, humiliate and rebut them with evidence and reason.”

“Cancel culture has been one of the ugliest manifestations of political extremism and political polarisation”

The second line of attack is concerned with what Young calls the “lack of proportionality” and “injustice” of ‘cancel culture’: “Someone who works for a private company will post something on Facebook that the company finds embarrassing. They will be mobbed on social media as a consequence and people will demand that they lose their job. Often the company will panic and immediately fire the person, tossing them overboard to placate the outrage mob, with no opportunity for defence and no legal process by which the extent of their wrongdoing can be assessed.”

Lockdown and the impoverishment of the national debate 

Despite having advocated some views concerning the pandemic which later proved to be wrong, including a dismissal of the emergence of the second wave, Young remains a staunch critic of lockdown. In his Cambridge Union speech in January this year, alongside scepticism about the efficiency of lockdown as a policy tool and the inflicted economic damage, Young pointed to its harm to people’s mental health, children’s education and its disproportionate impact on the most disadvantaged groups: “If you live in a council-flat at the top of a tower block and have four kids, only one computer, and you’re trying to home-school, this is a catastrophic policy.”

He believes that the debate over the response to the pandemic has been “very poor” and “completely dominated by one side” – a vivid example of how ‘cancel culture’ impoverishes national debate. “The problem is that it makes people think that if they challenge a fashionable view, they might be ‘cancelled’. The view that the most appropriate way to respond to the pandemic is to lock everyone in their homes quickly became the orthodoxy. Scientists, civil servants, politicians, journalists were reluctant to challenge it for the fear of getting ‘cancelled’. We actually saw that happening – some of those who have challenged the prevailing orthodoxy, including some members of parliament, have been brutally attacked [reference to online attacks].”

“The price we’ve paid for the fear induced by cancel culture has been the enormous collateral damage of the lockdown policy”

Young himself has been attacked for his lockdown scepticism. In April last year, after he wrote an article in The Critic questioning whether the saved lives are worth the economic damage of lockdown, many people on Twitter denounced him as a “Nazi” and a “eugenicist”.

“Had there been a proper public debate last year, we might not have locked down. The price we’ve paid for the fear induced by cancel culture has been the enormous collateral damage of the lockdown policy.”

Do the events of 2020 signify that the conduct of public discourse in Western societies is moving towards a more restrictive mode?

“Things will have to get worse before they get better. Cancel culture has been one of the ugliest manifestations of political extremism and political polarisation. Perhaps people will be so alarmed by it that they will want to move to a less polarised, more civilised form of political debate.”