by UnHerd
Thursday, 29
July 2021

Winston Marshall, Jess de Wahls, Sarah Ditum: free speech in the Arts

The latest UnHerd Live event, hosted by Freddie Sayers
by UnHerd

Do we currently enjoy free speech in the arts? In recent years the worlds of publishing, fine art, and music, have been engulfed in controversies over speech and manners. Several high-profile artists have been cancelled — removed from their positions for failing to go along with prevailing political orthodoxies.

At a live UnHerd members event this week, Freddie Sayers was joined by musician Winston Marshall, artists Jess de Wahls, and writer Sarah Ditum to ask: what is the state of free speech in the arts? Is there the beginnings of a return of freedom of thought? Each of them has experienced their own version of cancellation, and they shared their experiences and thoughts before a small audience at the Sekforde Arms in Clerkenwell.

Don’t miss this highlights video — and make sure to join UnHerd to be invited to our next event!

On being cancelled:

Jess de Wahls:

I found out through social media that the Royal Academy had dropped me. So instead of emailing me back, or responding in any way to my plea to not drag this into the open, they thanked the people that pointed out my indiscretion. They didn’t name me, but at that point, it had become such a big thing that everybody was talking about anyway. They will no longer stock this transphobic artist, and thanking people and that was that.
- Jess de Wahls

Winston Marshall:

I’d been posting books that I’ve been reading through the pandemic. In March, I tweeted about a book, which documents far-Left extremism in mainly in Portland and Seattle, in the States, so very niche topic, certainly for a Londoner. And I called the book important and the author brave, important because as far as I saw it was the only book on the topic… [When the tweet went viral] you have extreme activists who then pile on and they pile on not just on Twitter, they’ve changed my Wikipedia page to say fascist, they then go through your friends and similar sort of behaviours. It gets quite scary, particularly when your friends don’t know what’s going on. There were threats from radio stations, saying they’re not going to play the band, several artists, some of whom we’ve worked with literally accusing me of endorsing fascism. And so it wasn’t just activists, it was then it felt like the music industry more widely.
- Winston Marshall

Sarah Ditum:

One of the ways in which my behaviour has changed over the last few years is that I won’t engage with my friends on social media. So if there’s someone who is like a quote unquote, “civilian”, who follows me on Twitter it’s like, oh no, you don’t know what you’ve let yourself in for because like the cost of engaging with me and my public profile, is that somebody who has absolutely like no relationship or association with the stuff I think can be vulnerable to trolling. And that makes me feel terrible. It makes me feel guilty and responsible. And it makes you feel vulnerable and fragile as a person because ostracism is the worst thing that can happen to a human being. Humans can live in sub zero temperatures in the desert underground on the moon, or these things, but what humans can’t do is survive on their own.
- Sarah Ditum

On gatekeepers:

Winston Marshall:

It’s costly to speak up. If you work in Hollywood, everything is about the gatekeepers. So if you’re an actor or an actress, if you want to get to an audience, you have to get through producers, directors, financers. It’s all gatekeepers in the music industry… Well, the music press is another thing, which is another good example because I think that they’re an important example of gatekeepers. That’s a good way to get to a big audience when you’ve got a new album or whatever you’re trying to get it out and they are almost entirely pretty Left. So whenever I’m going to get interviewed by music press again, or if I’d stayed with the band, this story would come up and it would be a negative story. So it’s like, that’s also unfair for the band for them to have to suffer that.
- Winston Marshall

Sarah Ditum:

I had a fascinating direct message exchange with a person who runs a small print and independent small press. And he got in touch to tell me that I shouldn’t be allowed to write for some of the people who I write for. And if I do write for them, they should be allowed to tell me what my tweets say. And I was like, hold up. This is a mad and totalitarian thing for you to think as a publisher. But from their perspective, this publisher didn’t see that that was a particularly mad and totalitarian position to hold. Her belief was that she was absolutely in the right and her ideas about gender identity, were the only beliefs that were constant with art and culture. And the position that I hold is an outcast position that should be unsupported. I, as a person who believes that sex exists and is important in many situations, should be not allowed to write.
- Sarah Ditum

On hope for the future:

Jess de Wahls:

What matters is to stick to my guns to stick to what I believe. That gets through to people, I think that gets through to people and to young people. So it’s important to not sort of waver and that doesn’t mean not take in new conversation, have the conversations. And most of the times when I’m trying to have a conversation, it really stops very quickly, when when you meet dogma. It doesn’t go much further. And when people say speech is violence, and I just keep calmly talking on and they realise that a lot of nonsense. You do get through to them. I am hopeful.
- Winston Marshall

Sarah Ditum:

I think I like the question about what is art for and I think you can good art only happens through acts of bravery, small bravery, or large acts of bravery. You have to put yourself on the line you have to be willing to be wrong. You have to expose yourself to other people’s views and reactions. I think one of the problems with the low key volunteer Stasi totalitarianism is it’s corrosive to bravery. And it eats away at the all the stuff that makes people interesting, makes people capable of saying, terrible, shameful, shocking things in lyrics and novels and doing exciting, thrilling, so it makes people small c conservative in a way that is antithetical to art. I would hope for people to sort of rediscover the joy of being brave and rediscover this sort of pleasure of, we’d like acting in good faith and trusting other people.
- Sarah Ditum

On the ‘anti woke’ brigade

Winston Marshall:

Before the experience I would say I was quite against wokeism. Perhaps because of the apology I then got the anti-woke that came after me, and I recognised that they were behaving exactly as the woke mob. They are the thesis and antithesis, but I’m more interested in the synthesis, in the middle ground. I think that I’m changed in that I’m now quite cynical about that movement. More than I was before.
- Winston Marshall, UnHerd

Join the discussion

  • I enjoyed this. 3 very different perspectives. I could identify with Mr Marshall…the trip wires…when I least expect it. Centrist types cop it from all sides. Character building? Yes. We are all fallen, we all fly. All the best to all at Unherd.

  • I watched the whole thing

    So what I got was Lefty/Liberalism is running its course. These guys were part of it, and Lefty/Liberalism is obviously an illness. But what are its symptoms? What harm is it doing? And what is its R-factor, how fast is it spreading? About 2016 it appeared as we now know it, and … well, you know.

    See Liberalism is entirely focused externally. It is all about Correctness, and some concept of ‘Social Injustice’ which others cause, and yet others then suffer from, and You need to fix. It is never about how you can be better, it is about making ‘Them’ better. This means it is redistributive, it is a Zero Sum Game where some have more, some less, and this is unfair and needs fixing as obviously the ones with more have some of the stuff which belongs to the one with less.. (education, status, money, houses, jobs, and so on)

    Where a Right, or Conservative see inevitability in much unequal distribution, Look at a sports Star, the guy on stage there, the Doctors, Stock Brokers, Business owners, and just the millions of youth who did their homework 2 hours every night, did 4 hours a night at university, and then seriously put their nose to the grind stone in the job market – Right Wing have no issue with inequality of outcomes, (but kind of balk at gross inequality of opportunity).

    A Conservative sees someone ignorant and lazy and thinks ‘what a loser’ wile a Liberal thinks ‘This guy has been wronged by us all, and so needs some of that guys money.’

    You build an entire Creed around scrutinizing every person and every situation’ to root out ‘Social Injustice’, and you will find plenty of it. It is a cult of redistributive Justice, or SJW as we know them. Canceling is just a way of redistributing social credit, weird as it sounds.

    Everyone in that room is one of these believers, just some more, some less – and they have, like Jess said, let the monster grow by not speaking up till it is devouring them all.

    The thing which disappoints me is why Unherd did not get some Right Wing guy who is canceled to also be up there. I mean he is the actual ‘Fair Game’ of the vigilantes – and so to play this you need some of those, not just the ones hurt as ‘Collateral Damage’ Think of the President of USA during his vital Election! Canceled by some Lefty/Liberals from ALL Social Media, wile huge Social Media bias is given to his opponents – and so loses his job.

    Several people asked this panel what is to be done, to general shrugs and vagaries as answer. Wrong answer. Attack them back. That is what needs figuring out. (and I am always amazed when I log on and find I still can post – that Unherd actually allows my side is a great credit to them, and unique in the industry as everywhere I post eventually cancels me.)

  • This was a very interesting event, imo.
    I was initially skeptical because of Sarah Ditum’s article in Unherd this week based on her participation in this event. I suspected the event would be nothing more than a giant pity party. I was wrong.
    The first part of the event was mainly the participants explaining how they were cancelled and the practical and emotional effects that had on them. I think it’s important for all of us to understand the real world consequences of cancellation. I was particularly struck by Jess de Wahls recounting how she’s been the subject of cancellation efforts for a couple of years and it’s clear some people actively track her life and attempt to cancel her at every opportunity. This type of behavior is truly corrosive.
    For me, things didn’t really become interesting until the participants began discussing how to fight cancel culture. I have so much respect for Jess de Wahls. She stands tall and strong and faces down these bullies. It’s clear she pays a price but I think her most telling comment was that if we don’t start standing up to these people and challenging the nonsense they preach then where do we expect society to be in five or ten years? This week there’s an article on Unherd titled “The Dangers of Twitter” that considers the possibility that the verbal abuse associated with certain vocal groups on Twitter might ultimately lead to violence. If we don’t stand up to these people now that’s likely where we’ll end up.
    A couple of participants briefly referred to having received legal advice in connection with their cancellation. I would love to know more about legal courses of action against those who practice or enable cancellation. The law of libel and defamation are obvious starting points, but what about torts such as intentional interference with business relationships when cancellation deprives people of their livelihood? Also, does human rights law have a role to play here? It would be interesting if Unherd interviewed a legal expert about these issues. Perhaps they could tempt Lord Sumption to offer some analysis.
    Great event, Unherd. I hope this is the first of many such events and articles in which you explore how to fight back against cancel culture.

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