Our older readers will be familiar with Wiley – the rapper who last week posted a series of anti-semitic remarks on social media.
We linger on one tweet only, in which he undertook a whirlwind tour of the Israel-Palestine dispute, claiming that “I cannot be upset about two sets of people killing each other on land that belongs to us anyway”. This is a Black Israelite trope – the claim that black people are real descendants of the biblical Hebrews.
It takes a unique diplomatic talent to deny the rights of both Jews and Palestinians simultaneously. At any rate, it goes almost without saying that Wiley’s posts were deeply stupid, disgusting, and self-defeating.
On that last point, Wiley has lost his manager, John Woolf, a self-described “proud Jewish man” who first clung to his client, saying that “as someone who has known him for 12 years I know he does not truly feel this way,” but soon let him go – an admission that Wiley does truly feel this way.
The point about our more aged readers is not a piece of self-trolling, incidentally. At 41, Wiley isn’t exactly a slip of a grime artist almost young enough to know no better.
Anti-semitism these days is found more often on the Left than the Right, so it is tempting for a conservative site simply to slag off Wiley, as we do above, and move on. But if free speech demands anything, it demands even more than Orwell’s famous quote about liberty meaning “the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.
For above all, it requires championing their right to free speech even when – no: especially when – they make remarks that we find reprehensible.
This is not to say that wicked words should escape consequences. For example, Wiley is a Spurs fan. So Tottenham Hotspur would be perfectly entitled to bar him from its stadium (assuming that he ever goes there). That is its right as a free institution. For what it’s worth, we hope that it does.
Twitter is a different matter. After all, Spurs have not carved out, for all their footballing seniority, a culture-shaping space in the public square. Twitter has.
At the time we publish, it has havered about with Wiley, deleting some of his posts but maintaining his account. There is a case for arguing that since Twitter is a private company, it is thus entitled to set its own rules for users – banning Katie Hopkins, for example, but tolerating Richard Cowie (Wiley’s real name).
Furthermore, it may be that Twitter is a rocket that will be brought crashing down to earth by the weight of its woke “hateful conduct policy” – and its double standards. Or, if you like, that will be outsmarted by more agile competitors.
We are not convinced. Government already intervenes in the public arena – and must do, since the latter must be policed by the law. And it is Parliament that makes and unmakes law, government that must implement it, and the courts that must uphold it. (Judges should also discover rather than make law, but that’s another subject.)
It follows that the law should always have a presumption in favour of protecting free speech. So just as there’s argument for saying that what Twitter does is simply its own business, there’s also one for saying that is isn’t.
Which returns us to Wiley. The Campaign against Anti-Semitism has reported him to the police and called for prosecution. If his posts broke the law, then so be it. But not everything that is offensive is illegal, or should be. To give an example in this area, Holocaust denial is not a crime in the UK, as it is in some other European countries.
There are a number of pragmatic arguments either way, but one of principle, rightly, holds: that free speech within the law is an ideal worth preserving, and that it should apply when the Holocaust is denied.
We would like to see it extended in the world of work. Consider the case, for example, of Nick Buckley, recently reinstated as Chief Executive Officer of Mancunian Way, a charity. He had been sacked after a social media storm in the wake of remarks he had made that were critical of Black Lives Matter.
The point is that he should never have been dismissed in the first place, and further free speech safeguards might have made the charity’s trustees pause before forcing him out. (They themselves have now resigned.)
Then there is the story of Stephen Lamonby, dismissed as a part-time lecturer after making remarks about Jewish people that ventured into the perilous world of genetics, but which were positive. Or of Gillian Phillips, a children’s author, fired as an author by Working Partners for tweeting support for J.K.Rowling over the trans issue.
Wiley makes music. He doesn’t help to run a charity or write books or lecture in a university. This being so, what happens next is straighforward, or should be.
We hope that he will be ridiculed and ostracised, and that people boycott what he produces – which is admittedly, to paraphrase Shrek’s Lord Farquaad, a sacrifice that some of us are willing to make. What he can’t be, since the circumstances don’t apply – and shouldn’t be automatically, were they to do so – is “cancelled”, i.e: sacked.
At least, not until or unless he were to be convicted by a court. Let us spell it out in plain terms. In this case, Woolf worked for Wiley, not the reverse.
And since Woolf worked for Wiley, he had the right to withdraw his services. But were it the other way round, Woolf should not have the right to sack Wiley – or, rather, not an unqualified one (unless or until he is convicted, as we say.)
The right of a company to protect its reputation must be balanced by the right of a worker to free speech. Reprimands, penalties: yes. Dismissal: not necessarily.
Overall, the Government should be reviewing the balance of the law to protect free speech – a natural companion to Gavin Williamson’s new drive to protect free speech in universities. To rework Dunning on the powers of the Crown, the Cancel Culture has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.