Rowan Atkinson, of classic sitcoms Blackadder and Mr. Bean, added his voice a long time to those perplexed and strongly opposed to free speech suppression, while a recent spate of online censorship and cancel culture makes his stance all the more relevant.
Atkinson is doing more than expressing his dissatisfaction in the media, as he has also been campaigning against legislation in the UK that he sees as anti-free speech, writes the Telegraph. As early as 2005, the actor spoke out against hate speech legislation because he saw it as a threat to free speech.
After opposing this law, called the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, he stood up against other legislation for the same reason – and this included 2009 homophobic hate speech rules, the criminalization of “insulting behavior” that happened in 2012, and finally, the highly controversial Hate Crime Bill presented in Scotland last year by the ruling SNP party.
Now the latest iteration of free speech suppression, known as cancel culture, where online mobs gather to drive those they dislike out of social media, but sometimes also of their jobs, is of particular concern for the actor, who calls the phenomenon “scary” and likens it to medieval lynch mobs.
Atkinson brings his two concerns together when he says that cancel culture and attempts to suppress opposing views through censorship are perilous both to those directly subjected to online “canceling” and to free speech in general.
He is also aware of the technology that is used to create echo chambers – which he positions as the real sources of the much-lamented social polarization – criticizing the use of algorithms that control what’s visible in social media users’ feeds, that create, in Atkinson’s words, “a simplistic, binary view of society.”
“It becomes a case of either you’re with us or against us. And if you’re against us, you deserve to be ‘cancelled’,” he said.
Considering that a portion of the iconic Blackadder series takes place in the Middle Ages, aka the Dark Ages – no wonder Atkinson’s mind went there to compare present-day serious challenges to free speech, and cancel culture in particular to “the digital equivalent of the medieval mob roaming the streets looking for someone to burn.”
The good news is that if the comparison holds true, then we have something to look forward to after all, because the disarray of the Dark Ages in the end produced the Renaissance.