If we know different, we can do different. Is it time to cancel ‘cancel culture’?

To Kill a Mockingbird – a Pulitzer Prize winner and a classic of modern American literature has just been cancelled from a school in Edinburgh. Yep, you’ve read that right. The book voted the most inspirational book of all time by British readers has been cancelled because it ‘promotes white saviour narrative’.

Over the last year, it’s felt as though a day doesn’t go by when another book, film or person gets cancelled for one reason or another. While the phenomenon isn’t new (even Galileo was cancelled for stating the earth revolves around the sun!), social media makes it incredibly easy to generate a mass of support very quickly and to openly deride something or someone.

But is this helpful or is it simply silencing useful debate? We take a look.

What does cancelling culture mean ?

At the most basic level it’s a form of ostracism. Originally, it centred around cancelling people, normally a celebrity or another public figure who said or did something offensive. Remember, the criticism J.K. Rowling faced for voicing her transgender views? Well, that is an example of someone being cancelled.

More recently, this trend has moved onto cancelling films, TV shows, books, and even brands. Anything that is deemed not to fit in with the social norms of the time or to be politically correct is deemed as being officially ‘over’.

Is cancelling culture ever justifiable?

Of course, calling out offensive and/or inappropriate behaviour is right and people or companies should be held accountable for their actions. But we also have to acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes. So while it’s not very palatable that Anna Wintour failed to increase visibility and opportunity for black creators when she was editor of Vogue, she did take full responsibility for her behaviour, so should she still be cancelled?

And the other question is – should we cancel people, because we just don’t agree with them? Yes, their views might be controversial, but does that mean they shouldn’t have a say?  We might not agree with Kirstie Alley’s view on the Oscars’ Diversity Initiative, but is stopping her being able to voice her opinion actually stopping her freedom of speech?

But in some ways the more worrying aspect about cancel culture is what goes with it. Social media quickly fans the flames and enables anyone and everyone to have their say. While some responses are measured, inevitably there are those that aren’t, and some people have even received death threats. Doesn’t that simply make it another form of bullying?

Interestingly,  the Government as part of their drive to protect freedom of speech is telling teachers to talk to pupils about how ‘cancel culture’ is not part of a ‘tolerant and free society’ and that they should respect people with controversial opinions. Maybe that’s a lesson we should all consider.

Is cancelling culture the right approach?

The biggest issue with ‘cancel culture’  is that it seems to be very much a case of all or nothing. Okay, so To Kill a Mockingbird uses language which is no longer acceptable and ‘promotes the white saviour narrative’, but rather than choosing not to teach it in school, doesn’t it offer a great opportunity to discuss the issues it raises? How about using it to talk about how society and beliefs have evolved and will continue to evolve over time?

It seems in many cases, people just have a kneejerk reaction to something they don’t like, rather than looking at things in the round. Last year, Churchill’s statute was defaced because he was deemed to be a racist. But what about him successfully leading Britain through World War Two? Do we cancel that as well? Do we ban all John Wayne films because he made some controversial comments about race and morality?

Of course,  the argument is often ‘they were a product of their time’ but is that an acceptable defence? Maybe not, but again it gives us chance to discuss why it’s not acceptable.

The all-or-nothing approach of cancel culture has resulted in a call for it to be cancelled itself.  Yes, people may have different views, books may contain antiquated language, films may contain inappropriate content, but look at it from another angle. If you cancel them, you don’t get chance to address why they are troublesome and you miss the opportunity to talk to someone about their views and offer them a different perspective. If we know different, we can do different, but cancel culture is in danger of taking that opportunity away.

What impact is cancel culture having on marketing?

It’s not just people and the arts that are being cancelled but also brands. L’Oréal, Pepsi, Jo Malone – they have all been cancelled over the last few years. And to be fair, cancelling brands has led to some positive outcomes, such as Ben’s Original changing its name and logo after claims it was guilty of racial stereotyping.

But it does mean brands have to be very aware of this trend and ready to respond appropriately if they get cancelled. Misjudge the seriousness of the situation, or forget to listen to your audience can quite easily result in a PR disaster. Even though Jo Malone apologised for dropping John Boyega from the brand’s China ad, not only did he step down as the brand’s global brand ambassador, but the brand’s localisation strategy was heavily criticised.

Brands and companies also have to be very careful of weighing in on social and political issues, given 64% of consumers will boycott a brand if they don’t agree with them. Ensuring something fits with the brand’s overall ethos is crucial, so you’re not seen as simply jumping on the bandwagon. Don’t post a statement, like Amazon did, about Black Lives Matter if your company only has one black senior-level employee.

Don’t silence debate

The Collins Dictionary describes culture as “a particular society or civilization, especially considered in relation to its beliefs, way of life, or art.”

Maybe To Kill a Mockingbird shouldn’t be taught in schools anymore and maybe all John Wayne films should be banned, and let’s not go anywhere near the sexual inuendo and highly inappropriate (in 2021) Carry On films, but it is part of our cultural past, so let’s talk about it. We might not be able to change it, but we can learn from it.