The witch-hunt culture in the arts: a personal account

I have worked in the arts for 34 years. I was an immigrant from a working-class background, and the first to gain a degree in my family; both my parents had left school at 14.

I have always been interested by ideas, experimentation, and the world of the imagination as expressed through the arts – converging to curate work that asked audiences to question and to open new doors of understanding. I also believed that clashing ideas and traditions could create fresh thinking, looking at the world differently.

My politics is an eclectic one, as I moved from Marxist, socialist thought to a more libertarian position that aligns with a leftish and social democratic sensibility. The fundamental position that has underpinned my work and life is to prod the status quo of cultural thinking and politics in the arts. The arts organisation I worked for, for 19 years, was an organisation that aligned to my thinking: to encourage, develop and support artists to take risks and experiment, not just with form but in their ideas and thinking.

My passion for artistic freedom of expression, free speech and debating ideas have always been at the centre of my values and I always thought that these values would be cherished in every liberal-minded cultural institution, but this was not always so.

There are no-go areas in public debate. In my own experience these were my disagreeing with the boycott of Israeli artists, my critical position with regards to environmentalist based political art and culture, my public support for Brexit and more recently my questioning thoughts on transgenderism, specifically on gender self-identification and the silencing of people who are critical of this current wave of gender-politics.

I also have a sense of humour about of these issues which I express on my personal social media platforms. It was the jokes that have mainly got me into hot water with my former employer. Over the last 15 months as a freelance arts consultant and artists’ mentor, I have been cancelled and called out on social media, resulting in loss of work.

I was hauled into a room by my former boss for going on a trip to Israel in my holiday time to speak at a roundtable debate against cultural boycotts. I informed my boss about the invitation and said that I would attend as an unpaid, voluntary steering group member of the civil liberties group, The Manifesto Club which campaigns against cultural boycotts. My participation at the roundtable debate in Tel Aviv was reported by a boycott campaigning group on its blog who also informed my employer. I was seen as a public embarrassment by my employer and was forced to account for my decision to take part and for expressing ‘stridently anti-boycott views’. I was made to feel like a naughty schoolboy being given a dressing down by the headteacher.

After the National referendum to leave the EU on 23 June 2016, relationships between my employer and I worsened. Both my employer and an arts organisation where I was a non-executive/board director were contacted by someone who saw that I ‘liked’ a posting made by Facebook friend, on a thread I started about Nicola Sturgeon’s anti-Brexit position. The exchange led to the friend posting a visual joke, a bad taste joke if you will and I clicked the ‘like’ button. This led to an almighty angry exchange between artists expressing shock that I endorsed a ‘sick’ image. I said that the post was a form of artistic or poetic license. Yes, I found it funny – it’s my personal Facebook page and occasionally I am vulgar, crude and a little rude.

This time the hauling in for a chat by my employer was more serious, as it was a written complaint about my conduct on my own social media page. I met with my union rep, the pro-Remain BECTU and I believe my employers also took legal consultation with a lawyer friend of theirs. As I was expressing myself in a personal capacity, not attacking the company I worked for, both my union rep and, I presume, the legal advisor concluded that it wasn’t grounds for a formal discipline nor a sackable offence. However, again I was given a dressing down with warnings that the company would be drafting a social media policy to stop me from expressing myself publicly in certain form, causing ‘damage to company reputation’.

More recently since becoming a freelancer in October 2018, I have been under attack by trans activists for another post I made on my personal Facebook page. This time, I made vulgar yet comical response after reading a piece in The Times that a lecturer and trans activist was behind a concerted smear campaign against gender-critical academics. The author Vladimir Nabokov remarked once that ‘nothing is more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity’, and Punk transsexual icon Jayne County was banned from Facebook in 2014 for making derogatory ‘transphobic’ comments on Facebook. These people are my s/heroes and I took inspiration from them.

The pattern of cowardly anonymous reporting of people for saying things in a personal capacity, or on social media that is deemed ‘phobic’, has increased to worrying levels since Jayne County’s social media ban. Other artists, writers and cultural critics have also been under verbal attack, lied about, cancelled and censored by a growing generation of online Stasi-like informants. They include Nina Edge, Nina Power, Rachel Ara, DC Miller, #Womensart twitter page, the Doctor Who writer Gareth Roberts and former Queer Up North Director Jonathan Best who wrote about this issue for Arts Professional back in 2018.

Someone screen-grabbed my vulgar Facebook comment and circulated it on Twitter. So what? I thought, they are also entitled to their free speech, I am free to argue back which I did. However, things took a turn for the worse when an anonymous Twitter group called TERFS Out of Arts began to hunt down gender-critical individuals and inform on them to their clients, hosts, employers and contractors. I was targeted, and was dropped by the New Art Exchange gallery as a judge for an Open Exhibition, dropped as a mentor by University of the Arts, Bloomberg New Contemporaries and Artquest, dropped as a chairperson/facilitator by Brighton Lighthouse for an artist’s talk, all because of one comment that I made on my personal Facebook page.

I know who some of the informants are. One of them, Shy Bairns, are a young arts collective who I gave a free mentoring session to over Skype. So much for goodwill. Another is a young visual arts bloggers called The White Pube who attacked me for defending Nina Edge online and another is someone whom I had collaborated with when I worked on a disability arts programme.

The Art Critic JJ Charlesworth was dropped by a USA-based art criticism website, for which he had contributed reviews previously. They informed him that following the Brexit referendum they told him that they could no longer work with him because of his public support for Brexit. As an EU national living in the UK, the editor felt deeply offended by Charlesworth’s position, telling him that he was jeopardising the company’s economic, personal, professional, and emotional health. His pitches afterwards went unanswered.

The online witch-hunt is particularly aimed at people who rely on freelance or contractual work; individuals with no employment rights are hit hardest. Peoples’ livelihoods are being affected, not because of the quality of their work, but for holding views or political positions that go against the grain of dominant cultural politics.

The irony is that dissident voices against cultural mainstream thinking in the arts chime with the majority of citizens. The 2019 General Election was essentially a second referendum as parties battled the Remain/Leave line. A conservative government won and the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020. The public consultation on the proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 – on whether to revise the act to include gender self-identification – has not been resolved and the debate remains fiery and complex. These are major public issues that are fiercely debated publicly, yet arts institutes will only allow one side of the argument.

New groups are opening up where antithetical voices are heard and supported. As a result of the referendum I helped co-found Artists for Brexit, and more recently Brexit Creatives (yes, even Brexiteers have their differences and I defected). Social media witch-hunts are leading to greater self-censorship, and to counteract these censorious tactics meet-up groups are popping up everywhere where free-speech, freedom of association and free-thinking are positively encouraged, offering intellectual as well as moral support.

The public arts institutions have behaved in a cowardly manner, treating critical voices as lepers or pariahs to be silenced, rendered invisible, as if we are a dangerous viral infection. Neither I nor any of the above named who have been ‘cancelled’ have posed a threat to staff, students, fellow artists or visitors. Yet we are perceived to be a danger. Brighton Lighthouse emailed me stating

a recent comment you made on Twitter refers to a trans activist in a derogatory manner. This comment directly opposes our organisational values and code of conduct, as well as our equal opportunities and bullying & harassment policies. Lighthouse is committed to providing a happy and supportive environment for our staff and audiences. Volunteers and contributors to our programme and all other activities are also expected to share this commitment. For that reason, we are not able to have you lead the conversation tomorrow evening…at a public facing event.

UAL responded to the ‘controversy surrounding comments made by Manick on social media’ that ‘the remarks refer to a person’s gender identity and may be perceived as offensive, derogatory and humiliating, whether they relate to an individual or a group. Such remarks do not reflect the values of UAL’. I was advised ‘to seek out a way that could ameliorate the situation, possibly by affording an apology to those affected by your remarks’.

Index on Censorship, probably the only absolute pro-free speech group on Arts Council England’s funded portfolio, is concerned about the matter and is ‘in the process of documenting examples of individuals disciplined, dismissed or who have lost work because of views expressed online. In particular it plans to develop guidelines to help support employers navigate social media storms to ensure any complaints are assessed properly and to help organisations and employees better navigate differences of opinion.’

After much thought I decided not to apologise for a comment I made in response to a witch-hunt against gender-critical feminists. Arts and universities should be spaces where free and open debate from all persuasions should be allowed; organisations should not punish individuals for opinions expressed on personal social media platforms that are within the law. Institutions should uphold the liberal democratic values of free speech and expression for all, even speech and expressions that are disagreeable.

Restricting speech you disagree with leads to a dangerous path of suppression and expulsion for everyone. An American teenage girl was expelled from a faith school for posting a photograph of herself, on her Facebook page, with a rainbow-designed sweatshirt and birthday cake. I would have hoped that arts organisations would show greater tolerance.

Manick Govinda is an independent arts consultant, artists mentor, curator, project manager and writer. He co-founded Brexit Creatives. His writings can be found on Authory.