Fringe censors should trouble all of us

The Edinburgh Fringe is a world-renowned hub of artistic, literary, and theatrical expression. People from various industries appear at it to make a name for themselves, and tens-of-thousands of visitors descend on Edinburgh each year to enjoy its events. The Fringe is something to be proud of. It’s a boon to tourism, and Scotland’s international reputation. However, events in recent days have cast a dark shadow over the festival, and by extension Scotland itself.

Last Monday, Leith Arches – one of the venues hosting Fringe events – decided to cancel a show involving comedian and Father Ted co-creator Graham Linehan after staff received complaints about his “gender critical” views. Laws governing breach of contract and discrimination on the grounds of a protected belief appear to have been forgotten. Rather than suing, the organisers of Linehan’s show moved it to another venue, nearby. On Thursday, the second venue cancelled as well.

In the end, Linehan was forced to perform his short stand-up routine in the open air, outside the Scottish Parliament, where he condemned what had happened as a political attack. He told those gathered: “I keep asking people what I’ve said wrong and what I’m saying wrong in this fight about women’s spaces, about children being mutilated and sterilised in gender clinics, and about the women who are being harassed and threatened for standing up to it.”

“The events of recent days have cast a dark shadow over the festival, and by extension Scotland itself”

There are several things to say about this. Firstly, it’s insidious. The suppression of people due to their beliefs – political, religious, or otherwise – should be anathema in the arts. Creatives are supposed to push boundaries and understand the historic importance of free expression. How this precious liberty has been central to civil rights movements, and the struggle of oppressed peoples across the world. That Scotland’s main arts festival has played host to such a stifling atmosphere says much about where the arts is today – not in a healthy place.

Secondly, a deep hypocrisy is at play here. On the same evening Linehan was “cancelled”, another comedian, Frankie Boyle, took to the stage without incident. The same Frankie Boyle who has made infamous gags about women celebrities being raped, and disabled children. Why are the people who targeted Linehan due to his views on trans issues, and the prospect of people being offended, not so concerned about Boyle? Could it be because he has the “right” views on gender identity theory and other voguish ideas? It’s an enormous double standard.

Thirdly, Linehan wasn’t the only one subjected to mob justice this week. In a separate incident, the same group behind the no-platforming of the comedian conducted a Stasi-esque attack on Edinburgh theatre figure David Greig. His crime? He had liked Tweets by a gender critical feminist, which someone scrolled back through his likes to find. Greig was forced into a grovelling apology for his supposed “transphobia” – witch well and truly hunted. As the journalist Gina Davidson observed: “This is seriously crazy.” “The plot is lost”.

Of course, some people will defend what happened last week as noble – caring people standing up for those who could be hurt and upset. Such people clearly have a low view of the historic freedoms upon we all depend on. Living in a free society requires all of us to allow others we don’t agree with to say things we don’t like. There is no right not to be offended. And offensive speech – within the bounds of the law – should be acceptable in Scotland today, particularly at a festival that prides itself on allowing irreverent, and counter-cultural forms of expression.

“There is no right not to be offended. And offensive speech – within the bounds of the law – should be acceptable in Scotland today”

Others say “cancel culture” doesn’t really exist – that it’s overblown. I’d point them to the litany of other censorious incidents we’ve seen in Scotland. Last year, women trying to discuss their rights were hounded out of Edinburgh University. In 2020, a Christian evangelist was booted from a council venue in Glasgow due to his faith. Earlier this year, a woman MP was discriminated against and intimidated due to her gender critical views. Members of the public complain that they’re unable to express their views in universities, schools, and workplaces. There is a real problem in our culture, and those who fail to admit this because it doesn’t affect their tribe are naive.

I said that the events at the Fringe last week reflect badly on Scotland. Many in the watching world see a stifling atmosphere growing in Scotland and wonder what has gone wrong. Our country is, after all, the seat of Reformation and Enlightenment thinking that went on to shape other free nations. It’s deeply sad that we are retreating from ideals that made us the envy of the world. And running towards ideas that will impoverish our society.

I agree with Joanna Cherry MP KC that what happened at the Fringe this week – and what’s happening in Scottish culture more widely – needs to be called out by those in positions of influence. The political class, educationalists, creatives, industry leaders all need to push back against those who would deny fellow citizens their fundamental rights. If we fail to arrest this trend and articulate a better way of conducting societal debates, Scotland is headed for very dark days.

Image creditFestival Fringe Society, CC BY-SA 3.0

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