IT’S the year 2020 and the world is in the grip of a deadly plague. On the islands of Great Britain, controversial columnist Julie Burchill is still alive and well and has taken to sharing her as-ever enlightening views from behind a computer screen using the moniker “BoozeAndFagz”. Ready to promote her new book, Welcome to the Woke Trials: How #Identity Killed Progressive Politics, the outlook is positive for our Julie.

That is, until one Sunday afternoon when, seized with fear over whether she can truly lay claim to the descriptor ­“controversial” in a time when shock jocks are a dime-a-­dozen, Julie whips out her miniature keyboard and does the only logical thing. She fires off several public messages to a Muslim journalist, Ash Sarkar, questioning her on the young age of the prophet Muhammed’s wife around 1400 years prior.

Of course, Burchill was practically ­goaded into it – Sarkar had criticised a ­column written by Rob Liddle for the Spectator in 2012 in which he claimed he couldn’t have become a teacher because he “could not remotely conceive of not trying to shag the kids”. And if you can’t defend a man’s stated desire to have sex with ­children by attacking a woman on the ­basis of her religion, what can you do in this ­godforsaken year (so to speak)?

It turns out some people do think this is a thing you cannot – or at least should not – do, because the book was dropped from the publisher no sooner than Burchill pointed out that it was available to pre-order and she “thought a Twitterstorm might be the perfect way to celebrate”. All’s well that ends well though: Julie is “with the FSU [Free Speech Union] now and excited for imminent events.”

No, this isn’t a satirical dystopia written in 1987, when Burchill was already making a living from offending people with such delightful observations as “when the sex war is won prostitutes should be shot as collaborators for their terrible betrayal of all women”. This is real life, and it’s what some are trying to package as part of an ­unprecedented attack on freedom of ­expression dubbed ominously as “cancel culture”.

I’m old enough (or young enough, as the case may be) to remember being in primary school when reports started circulating that singing “baa baa black sheep” was ­going to be banned (it wasn’t) and that saying “Merry Christmas” had become taboo (it hadn’t), because of “political correctness gone mad”. Pretty sure Muslims were meant to be to blame for all of that too. But as with every right-wing scare ­campaign over the decades, eventually the language has to be modernised to make the same-old ­arguments sound shiny and new.

That, and acknowledging that this is all a tired rehash of the debates of yesteryear would sorely disadvantage those whose grift is dependent on the endless cycle of offence > outcry > consequences > defiant “I don’t care what anyone thinks” victory tour. Nothing sells like something that has apparently been “censored”, even if all “censorship” means in this context is that a particular company didn’t want to pay for your opinions.

One of the rallying cries of those who long for the cash-cow status of cancellation is “if you don’t like it, don’t buy it”. Knowing full well that outrage is their life supply, simply turning away and saying nothing certainly has its appeal. The problem is, this latest incarnation of the free speech debate has reached fever pitch in the age of social media and clickbait news, and it has far more dangerous consequences than building the careers of narcissistic rent-a-quotes.

The bogeyman of “cancel culture”, like just about every trick in the book of reactionary politics, is being deployed more astutely than ever before at a time when online communication means misinformation can spread like wildfire and ­people around the world can be ­connected more easily by fear of a common enemy. The enemy in this case being the supposed authoritarianism of the “woke” liberals who want to lock up anyone who disagrees with them, and the minorities whose ­interests are their sole concern.

Nevermind the fact that, far from ­getting locked up, the purported ­victims of this censorious culture are being ­invited to ­express their indignance at ­being ­“silenced” in innumerable columns, TV and radio interviews, and staged debates with the subjects of their offence (which, to be clear, usually means their racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia... pick your poison based on what seems likely to generate the biggest stooshie in a given week).

These continuous, confected melodramas are being used to recruit people to an ever more extreme right wing ideology – even as many of those who lend credence to the existence of “cancel c­ulture” ­situate themselves on the left. This is ­possibly the most depressing aspect of this whole mess. Ostensibly left wing commentators, activists and politicians all too often repeat conservative talking points as if they were fact and not part of a grand manipulation through which the right has been allowed to set the terms of our entire cultural conversation.

Even the hate crime legislation currently being scrutinised in the Scottish Parliament is being framed by some as part of this great assault on free speech, despite the fact that the main points of contention within the original bill have now been amended. You’d almost think those arguments were going to be made regardless of the content and that it has less to do with the legal implications and more to do with the fact that any policy focused on protecting marginalised groups will be presented as an infringement on the ­majority’s rights.

The sad irony is that this all acts as an excellent distraction from the fact that the real dangers to freedom of speech come not from the left but the right. So let’s talk about what “cancel culture” ­really looks like. Cancel culture is the UK ­Government telling teachers in England they’d be breaking the law if they taught about critical race theory without presenting an opposing viewpoint for “balance” and scrapping its own unconscious bias training, because they realised ­people were being encouraged to question the structures of power that serve their ­interests.

Cancel culture is the same government ceasing funding for LGBT inclusive ­education, because apparently that’s also too controversial — again. Cancel culture is healthcare being withdrawn from children struggling with their gender identity because individuals and groups supported by the American Christian right have the resources to mount legal challenges, and very few with the power to do so are asking the hard questions about the ­agenda behind these costly actions.

THE people who are truly cancelled are those who rarely, if ever, get a public hearing for their views, who are denied a seat at the table when decisions are made that affect their lives, who are considered too contentious not because they offend but because to recognise the reality of their experiences would challenge too directly the script with which the powerful of all political stripes are so comfortable.

People like the sex workers Julie ­Burchill once set her sights on. Or the ­Palestinian human rights activists who she likes even less. People like those caught up in the criminal justice system, a reflection of our broken society. Or maybe the people using drugs, whose lives lie behind the stark statistics on deaths that were torn into like an annual sacrificial offering by the press and politicians this week.

All of these and many more are causes which those interested in the power of systemic silencing might give their attention to instead of concern-trolling over the latest hack or hasbeen celeb to get suspended from Twitter for violating the terms of use.

There are real injustices around us and real risks to free speech — that we’re all arguing about something else is part of the plan.