Rowan Sebastian Atkinson is an English actor, comedian, and writer. He played the title roles in the sitcoms Blackadder and Mr. Bean and in the film series Johnny English. He has spoken up about cancel culture, likening it to “a medieval mob roaming the streets looking for someone to burn.”
He is harshly mocked and criticized for his criticism, with media describing him as one of the “older comedians” speaking out about the “so-called Woke culture.”
In the speech below, he perfectly describes the problems with hate speech laws and the cancel culture. This is a partial transcript.
“The second most precious thing in life is the right to express yourself freely. The most precious thing in life, I think, is food in your mouth, and the third most precious is a roof over your head. But a fixture for me in the number two slot is free expression, just below the need to sustain life itself. That is because I have enjoyed free expression in this country all my professional life and fully expect to continue to do so. Personally, I suspect I’m highly unlikely to be arrested for whatever laws exist to contain free expression because of the undoubtedly privileged position that is afforded to those of a high public profile.
“So my concerns are less for myself and more for those more vulnerable because of their lower profile, like the man arrested in Oxford for calling a police horse gay. Or the teenager arrested for calling the Church of Scientology a cult, or the cafe owner arrested for displaying passages from the Bible on a TV screen.
“When I heard of some of these more ludicrous offenses and charges, I remembered that I had been here before in a fictional context. I once did for a show called Not the 9:00 o’clock News four years ago, and we did a sketch where Griff Reese Jones played constable savage a manifestly racist police officer to whom, I, as his station commander. is giving a dressing down for arresting a black man on a whole string of ridiculous, trumped-up, and ludicrous charges.
“The charges for which constable savage arrested Mr. Winston Kadogo of 55 Mercer Road were these: walking on the cracks in the pavement, walking in a loud shirt in a built-up area during the hours of darkness, and one of my favorites, walking around all over the place. He was also arrested for urinating in a public convenience and looking at me in a funny way.
“Who would have thought that we would end up with a law that would allow life to imitate art so exactly? I read somewhere a defender of the status quo claiming that the fact that the gay horse case was dropped after the arrested man refused to pay them to pay the fine and that the Scientology case was also dropped at some point during the court process was proof that the law was working well, ignoring the fact that the only reason these cases were dropped was because of the publicity that they had attracted.
“The police sensed the ridicule was just around the corner and withdrew their actions, but what about the thousands of other cases that did not enjoy the oxygen of publicity that weren’t quite ludicrous enough to attract media attention even for those actions that were withdrawn?
“People were arrested, questioned, taken to court and then released, you know, …that is censoriousness of the most intimidating kind, guaranteed to have…a chilling effect on free expression and free protest…”
Atkinson talked about threatening or abusive speech depending on the circumstances being proportionate to the language or behavior. Insults or ridicule should never be criminalized. This should be handled “outside the legal process.” Trying to contain “obnoxious elements in society have created a Society of an extraordinarily authoritarian and controlling nature.
“It is what you might call the new intolerance, a new but intense desire to gag uncomfortable voices of dissent, … many softly spoken, highly educated liberal-minded people say ‘I’m only intolerant of intolerance.’ …People tend to say those are wise words; and “yet if you think about this supposedly inarguable statement for longer than five seconds, you realize that all it is advocating is the replacement of one kind of intolerance with another, which to me doesn’t represent any kind of progress at all…”