Rowan Atkinson, the British comedian, actor, and writer known for sitcoms including Mr. Bean and Blackadder, is apparently not a fan of “cancel culture.”
Speaking with the U.K. outlet Radio Times, as reported by Deadline, Atkinson decried the polarization online algorithms create. “The problem we have online is that an algorithm decides what we want to see, which ends up creating a simplistic, binary view of society,” he said. “It becomes a case of either you’re with us or against us. And if you’re against us, you deserve to be ‘canceled.’”
“It’s important that we’re exposed to a wide spectrum of opinion, but what we have now is the digital equivalent of the medieval mob roaming the streets looking for someone to burn,” Atkinson added. “So it is scary for anyone who’s a victim of that mob and it fills me with fear about the future.”
Per Aussie newspaper The Australian, Atkinson added that he does not believe in having a social media presence, calling it “a side-show in my world.”
For years now, various celebrities and public figures have railed against “cancel culture”—a nebulous term that often boils down to “getting criticized for expressing unpopular and often offensive or abusive views.” Despite cries from people like J.K. Rowling and Bari Weiss, “cancel culture” is not comparable to, say, government censorship; it is, more than anything, a boogeyman—one that allows powerful people to avoid ever having to interrogate their own positions while blaming any professional repercussions for their speech and actions on others.
But these statements are not out of character for Atkinson, who has historically campaigned against anti-hate speech laws on the grounds that they would stifle free speech—a familiar line that many comedians have used to bolster their complaints against so-called “cancel culture.”
In 2005, Atkinson joined The National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner and author Ian McEwan to fight a measure aimed at expanding race hatred laws to cover religious hatred as well. (The legislation eventually evolved into the Racial and Religious Hatred Act.) The law aimed to curb the Islamophobia that ran rampant after the September 11 terrorist attacks—but Atkinson believed its implications were broader.
“The excuse for this legislation is that certain faith communities have suffered harassment and a law is required to address it,” Atkinson told The Guardian at the time. “That in itself is a perfectly good reason, and it is what this amendment which we are launching today addresses. But it is not the real reason behind it [the home secretary's bill].”
“The real reason, it seems to me, is that since the publication in 1989 of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, a hard core of religious thinking in this country has sought a law to grant religious beliefs and practices immunity from criticism, unfavorable analysis, or ridicule,” Atkinson continued, adding, “The government has prepared a weapon of disproportionate power which can be deployed on their behalf at any time.”
In 2009, Atkinson urged the House of Lords to vote against removing the free speech clause from the Coroners and Justice bill, a measure intended to remove protections for homophobic speech.
Atkinson freely admitted that he did not believe the measure would have led to his own prosecution, he said he was concerned about the broader “culture of censoriousness” such a move would create. He added that religious groups were “particularly concerned” about the measure. (Take one guess as to why.)
And most recently, the comedian caught flak last year for a letter opposing the Scottish government’s Hate Crime Bill. That legislation, like the religious measure, aimed to expand protections extended on the basis of race to cover a broader range of characteristics.
“The failure of the Bill to require intent to be proven in court on some offences risks a significant chilling effect on free expression,” the letter stated. “This is why the UN Rabat Plan has six tests on controlling hate speech including that any laws must ensure intent is proven. This strikes a sensible balance between protecting individuals from hate crime and protecting freedom of expression and the Bill needs amending to properly achieve this.”