Philip Hensher has defended the right to disapprove of his same-sex marriage. Photo: © BGARY DOAK/Alamy Stock Photo

Why we should call time on “cancel culture”—and hold on to our friends

I have a friend who thinks crystals will heal you, and another who’d like to bring back corporal punishment. Arguing with views like this isn't just good for you—it's the essence of civilisation
July 10, 2020

How different are your friends? If you had to assemble a kind of sports team of difference, who would be in it? I’m not talking about racial or sexual diversity here—although let’s make those differences our base. More specifically, do you know any monks or fund managers? Anyone who works in TV or in a factory? Does anyone you know go hunting? Do you know any hunt saboteurs?

My own friends include lawyers and bankers—hard to avoid in south-west London—but also communists and anarchists, from my time living in Spain and Latin America. I know scientists who demand evidence for every theory, but I also know a shaman who can recover lost fragments of your soul from the universe. Some of my friends own two houses; some rent rooms. One lives on a boat.

This seems important, because these are tribal times. Any hesitancy to celebrate the demolition of statues, or the faintest association with JK Rowling is enough to provoke not mere disagreement, but something more like excommunication—or in the new parlance “cancellation.” There’s a hankering for purity that rules out conversation, let alone friendship, with people who think differently.

And yet I have a friend who thinks crystals will heal you, and a friend who’d like to bring back corporal punishment. I know a wine merchant who sometimes calls women “girls” and a designer who thinks it’s more inclusive to call them “womxn.” Both terms infuriate me, but we still hang out. Recently an old friend talked me through her previous lives. I don’t believe in reincarnation, but I wasn’t offended—just a bit bored.

Probably the only thing all these people have in common is that they’re good company—otherwise they wouldn’t be friends. Not all of them are close, of course, and some of them I barely see from one year to the next. They’ve been gathered over many years, in childhood, at university, in workplaces, at the school gate. There’s nothing like having children at a large inner-city school to infuse your middle age with the lifeblood of new friendships.

It was at the school gate that I acquired a Catholic friend who opposes abortion and a Ghanaian friend who thinks homosexuality is a sin. Gay sex is illegal in Ghana, so hers isn’t an unusual view. How, you may ask, can I sit down at the same table with these women? The simple answer is that it would be much worse not to sit down with them. A curated friendship list in which every member holds an approved set of views is not only stifling, it leaves you unable to understand people who don’t share them. Our convictions may be dearly held, but they can race towards paranoia and hatred if they don’t regularly come up against thoughtful opposition. One of the worst aspects of Brexit has been sitting in rooms with people who all think the same thing and keep shouting it louder, like a monolingual tourist on holiday. Where there’s a conversation, there’s a chance for progress. We mould each other’s ideas. Isn’t that the basis of a civilised society?

The writer Philip Hensher recently tweeted a video of his 2014 appearance on Newsnight, in which he charmingly defended journalist Melanie McDonagh’s right to disapprove of his marriage to another man; you could see her start to question her belief on the spot. Hensher doubted that such equanimity would be permissible in 2020s Britain.

I myself wasn’t sure where I stood on same-sex marriage when it was first proposed in 2011. I’m a vicar’s daughter, but my doubts owed more to pedantry than faith. It seemed to me that marriage had been instituted for men and women and that it was no better, and probably rather worse, an arrangement than civil partnerships (some gay people also thought this). Those doubts were dispelled because I knew several gay couples and saw how much the amendment meant to them. I now feel churlish for ever doubting its value. Friends changed my mind in a way that being attacked on Twitter wouldn’t have done. The virtual noise doesn’t enlighten anyone. It just makes you feel frightened and depressed.

Taking offence is nothing new, but the speed at which an outraged army can now be marshalled to support the offended person forces any dissenters to muster their own troops. We’re driven to pick sides, when perhaps the middle ground would have suited most of us best. I’m not always perfectly sure what my views are—isn’t that a good thing? For instance, I’m largely opposed to voluntary euthanasia or legalising cannabis—but we can talk about it. I’m prepared to change my mind.

Have I strenuously tried to change the mind of my pro-life friend, then, or my anti-gay one? No: a friendship is not a conversion project. People’s convictions reflect their culture, religion and upbringing and need to be handled with sensitivity. The fact that we are in each other’s lives is a start. Other kinds of conversation may—who knows—sway particular views down the road. My friends probably hope to sway my ideas, too. It’s a friendly battle. A soft diplomacy which—not to sound too lofty about it—creates the fabric of a progressive democracy, where cultural institutions are about free thought, not orthodoxies.

Lines do have to be drawn somewhere. If my friends began actively campaigning against gay rights, or women’s reproductive rights, our friendship would end. All the same, I hope that I would still see them and keep talking. I don’t want all my conversations to be with people who think like me.