The “cancel culture” strategy to silence freedom of speech

by Michael Swain
25 November 2020

By Michael Swain, FOR SA Executive Director

There has been a lot of discussion on the FOR SA Facebook page (@FreedomOfReligionSA) recently about “free speech”. This followed, in particular, FOR SA’s article on attempts by trans activists to sanction Dr Sybrand de Vaal for the views he expressed as part of a democratic process initiated by the Western Cape Education Department (WCED). 

In October 2020, the WCED convened a meeting and asked for input to help in the development of their Draft Guidelines for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in public schools.  At this meeting, Dr de Vaal presented international, accredited medical studies to demonstrate that the efficacy of recommending puberty blockers, hormone therapy (and often thereafter, sexual reassignment surgery) to children suffering from gender dysphoria, is by no means settled science and might not be in their best interests.  Merely voicing this alternative view and/or research, was enough for an online petition entitled “Protect Trans Kids: Bar Dr Sybrand de Vaal from psychiatric practice” to be launched immediately (and alreadysigned by over 2,000 people), calling on the University of Cape Town (UCT) (where he is currently in the process of completing four years of academic study) and on the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) to investigate and sanction him for expressing these views. Importantly, these views were expressed as part of an open democratic process, where everyone is supposed to be allowed to have their say and/or voice their opinion.

Freedom of expression cancelled:

As FOR SA has said in our recent article, the Constitution protects free speech unless it exceeds the narrow limits defined by section 16(2)(c) as “hate speech”, namely the advocacy of hatred (on specified grounds) that constitutes the incitement to cause harm.  So-called “cancel-culture” is proving itself to be a potentially extremely dangerous limitation on South Africans’ constitutional right to free speech, because it often takes the form of a concerted attempt to shut down debate (which is essential in a democracy, and the absence of which indicates you are essentially living in a totalitarian state), and opposing viewpoints which counter the views and/or beliefs of those doing the cancelling (“cancellers”).  This not only manifests in obvious forms, such as the above-mentioned attack on Dr de Vaal’s career (as opposed to engaging in public debate with him with evidence to prove your point), and the warning this doubtless is intended to send to others who too may wish to express alternative views.  It often begins with more subtle social pressures designed not only to nip in the bud conservative views and values, but ultimately to prevent anyone from expressing any opinion and/or belief that differs from those of the cancellers.

How to cancel opposing viewpoints:

Step #1 of the cancel culture shutdown strategy preys upon the inherent sense of decency of people who may be seen as conservative and who typically value being decent and polite.  When such a person is told that something they are saying or doing is offensive, there is an innate tendency to consider this opinion as valid.  As a “nice” person, you do not want to upset anyone, so you will tend to keep quiet.  The problem with this, is that many conservative people are beginning to equate decency and politeness with a desire to be inoffensive to others and are thus acquiescing to having their viewpoints silenced. 

Cancel culture makes it all too easy to forget that part of being a “nice” person involves being honest with both yourself and with others.  It is not “wrong” to speak the truth in love, or to point out to someone who is heading in a destructive direction that there is another, better way.  Sometimes you need to hold someone to account if they are doing something wrong because you have their best interests at heart.  To be a faithful friend, you may have to wound someone you love by pointing out something that they may not have seen or are trying to ignore.  Although this may (and probably will) be offensive, no one has been given a constitutional right not to be offended, and if what you point out is something that can prevent harm from coming to your friend, you would arguably have an ethical duty to raise it with them.

Step #2 of the strategy kicks in when you find yourself facing the additional pressure that comes if you choose not to remain silent. You may believe that speaking truth is important.  You may believe that it is important that the truth (or at least another perspective) is heard –– if for no other reason than to allow the considering of all viewpoints, so that an informed and accountable decision can be made.   However, if you do so, you are likely to experience pushback because something which is considered to contradict the “acceptable” view, is not only considered offensive but also harmful.  By stating your opinion, you are said to be acting aggressively towards another person and causing them actual emotional harm because you are attacking their human dignity.  Worse still, your views will be seen as actively encouraging others to do the same thing, thus compounding the harm.  At this point, since you were either unwilling or unable to remain silent, you must be silenced because you pose an active threat. 

This has been the experience of the owners of the Beloftebos wedding venue, who are being taken to Court by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) as well as a same-sex couple for refusing – on grounds of their Christian belief that marriage is between a man and a woman – to host and participate in a same-sex marriage at their venue.  In their founding affidavit, the same-sex couple makes a statement right out of the cancel culture playbook when they say that “had the Beloftebos owners kept their opinions and beliefs to themselves, there would be no concern. The problem arises because they brought their opinions and beliefs into the public sphere …”.  For causing this “problem”, the couple is asking (among other things) that the Court orders Beloftebos to pay a R2 million fine to a charity of their choice.  The clear message is “Shut up – or else…!”

Another example of this was when the (then) Deputy Minister of Justice laid a complaint with the SAHRC against the Creare Training Centre (a school that trains and equips students for Christian ministry).  Creare was accused of promoting “violence” against homosexual people because of their traditional interpretation of Scripture that said homosexuality is a sin.  The SAHRC found that although Creare’s view of homosexuality was a Biblical one, it was unacceptable and a violation of human rights. They were directed to undergo “sensitisation training” and forbidden to continue teaching on this subject.

Step #3 is that it is insufficient that you keep your views to yourself – you must change your views.  Silence is not enough because “silence is violence” and you cannot simply “agree to disagree”, because that means that you are maintaining your unacceptable views.  What is required, is that you actively recant your position and openly agree with the viewpoint which you may previously have opposed.  By refusing to positively endorse and actively support views which conflict with your own, you are seen as an “aggressor” who must either change – or go.  This can be seen in the initiative of LGBT activists to promote and push through the Civil Union Amendment Act, which President Ramaphosa signed into law last month.  This removes the previous right of State-employed marriage officers and magistrates to refuse – on grounds of their sincerely held religious convictions and beliefs – to personally solemnise a same-sex marriage.  As stated before, this new law was unnecessary and does not grant same-sex couples any new rights.  All it does, is give the State the power to force people to do something that potentially goes against their religious beliefs. This new law means that, after 24 months, they must either compromise their conscience or face sanctions, including possible dismissal.  Similarly, if Beloftebos loses their case, they will either be forced to celebrate same-sex marriages, or to close down their business.


Despite the many things that have been said about FOR SAon our Facebook page, we wish to point out that we are faith and ideologically  neutral:  We believe that there is a place for all views and values to be presented and argued in the public space.  We believe that robust debate and an open sharing of perspectives are essential ingredients in any democracy worth that name.  We support the oft-stated and classic libertarian position of “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.  Sadly, this is all too quickly being replaced with, “Say what I want you to say and how I want you to say it, or suffer the consequences!”    Unless conservative-minded people understand why and how counter-culture is being used against the views and values they hold dear and regain the courage to stand up for them, there is no doubt that this trend will continue and even accelerate. 

Michael was raised in England, graduating from the University of Bristol with an honours degree in Law before immigrating to South Africa in 1983. He has been a successful businessman as well as having spent over 30 years in ministry in South Africa, Europe and the USA. He serves as the Executive Director of Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA).

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