Interviews

“I’m for freedom of speech, but I’m not anti-cancel culture”: Confessions of a Liberal Activist

Jessica Lee is in the infancy of her political career, yet she is already causing a stir. A care leaver, she now studies Politics & International Relations at Royal Holloway. Earlier this year she founded the Abolish BAME campaign, which seeks to remove the term ‘BAME’ from political language, and she has since become the interim BAME officer for the Young Liberals (the Liberal Democrats’ youth council). Ultimately her dream is to win the Conservative safe seat of Windsor for the Lib Dems, allowing her to represent her hometown whilst also fighting for human and democratic rights in Parliament.

But as she sat down with The Oxford Blue this week, Lee was firmly fixated on the challenges of the present. A summer of protests and riots across the world have left many wondering what is next in the fight for racial justice. In Britain most of the focus has been on police reform in line with the Lammy Report, however another concern remains fiercely debated: the issue of language. 

The term BAME may not seem like anything special. Short for Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic, BAME is a term used widely across society, particularly within political spheres. However, concerns persist over its usage, which was initially intended to aid the conversation on racial equality. Lee describes it as a “catch-all term”, arguing it’s usage should be considered “really dangerous” and that it “has been used in ways to hurt the conversation on racism, instead of benefiting it”. She argues that positions such as her role as BAME officer should be rebranded, suggesting that she would retitle her own position as “Liberation Equity Officer”. Such a suggestion may seem a stretch too far to many, and so an explanation is needed as to why the term is so problematic.

The contention over the use of BAME all boils down to how the term is used. Whilst it can, and was intended to, help minority groups in their fight for true equality, recently it has been used by politicians in particular to paint over the cracks of their failings. Lee explains that the term BAME “allows specific groups, like the government … which are being lobbied to become more diverse, to basically say ‘Oh, we’re being diverse.’” She points to a Sky News interview featuring Matt Hancock that took place this summer after the death of George Floyd. Lee recalls that within the interview he was confronted on the issue of representation within the Cabinet, “And he went, ‘we’re the most BAME-diverse cabinet in history’”. But, as Lee also points out, this allows those groups being lobbied to claim diversity when “they might be only diverse with Asian individuals, or black individuals or individual specific minority ethnic backgrounds”.

The concerns that Jessica Lee raises are clearly very real, and yet the premise of removing words from language seems to fly directly in the face of the traditional liberal notion of freedom of speech. Lee states, in terms of a utopian view of the world, that she personally believes that “the way society should work in terms of freedom of speech is that you should be able to say anything, as long as it doesn’t violate the person’s integrity as another person”. This rule seems vague and open, befitting of the politicians she seeks to challenge. Later, Lee clarifies the point somewhat. “In reality, people are allowed to say things and those things are often violent towards other people, and they’ll get away with it. Whether it’s racism, sexism, or what’s more recently been justified in the mainstream, transphobia, which is absolutely horrible – because you should never have to be presented with someone literally questioning your right to existence”. While it is, in the eyes of many, right that people should be allowed to be themselves, most would also deem it right that those of different backgrounds and faiths should be allowed to express their views, however at times the two necessarily conflict. Often in today’s society, freedom from exposure to offensive viewpoints is now perceived by many, including Jessica, as more important than the rights of others to express those same ideas. 

It feels like ‘woke’ society can be summed up by Jessica Lee’s claim: “I’m for freedom of speech, but I’m not anti-cancel culture.” The two apparently contradict each other, but that is evidently something that Lee feels she can live with. In response to claims that a liberal cannot simultaneously be a vocal supporter of ‘cancel culture’, she explains, “cancel culture is literally a group of people seeing something someone said and going ‘that violates the person in so and so vulnerable group’. Therefore, we, in a large number, are going to do something about what that person said, and going to make sure that what that person did to hurt another person has consequences, whether those are professional or personal.” Still, the idea of pursuing consequences for someone stating an unpopular opinion not only seems to contradict the principles of free speech, but it threatens to move towards the suppression of dissenting ideologies.

The issues raised by Jessica Lee’s campaign are significant, but the ramifications, if you are also trying to pedal the line of liberalism, are huge. The failings of major groups, such as the government, to have true diversity at the top table is unacceptable. It is right that we hold them to account for that. It is also right to say that other terms would be better placed to be used at specific times where BAME serves to mask existing inequalities between its constituent parts. But is it right that we strike it out of the dictionary completely? This is a decision that we as a society must face. 

Josh Reid

Josh Reid is an Interviews Editor for the Oxford Blue. An active member of the Labour Party and Co-operative Party, he served as Youth Officer in Woking Constituency Labour Party from 2018-2019, and stood as the Labour candidate for Horsell, Woking in the 2019 local elections. He is currently studying a Bachelor of Theology at Regent's Park College, and can usually be found trying to persuade his friends to hold political or religious conversations with him.