Cancel culture: have you been cancelled or does no one really care what you think?

After the Pope decries “cancel culture” as “ideological colonisation”, LBC ditch Maajid Nawaz from the airwaves and Maureen Lipman calls out Helen Mirren, being cancelled is once again back in the news. But what does it mean, how does it differ from being ignored and what can it mean for a person’s career?

Beware brand vandalism

Apparently, these days, everyone fears being cancelled. I’ve even seen sponsored tweets offering consultation to companies petrified they will be the next victims of a vituperative cancel campaign. 

Cancel culture is used to describe the cancellation of any brand, product, or company you disagree with. The goal of the cancel culture movement is to “cancel” the brand by expressing public discern on social media platforms. It only takes one tweet from ten years ago to cancel a public figure or brand on social media.

Cancel culture developed as a result of people feeling a sense of responsibility to hold public figures and brands accountable for their actions. The term is used to describe any brand, product, or company that you disagree with.  The goal is to cancel the brand by expressing public discern on social media platforms. Advertiser boycotts and exposing contact information of advertisers is one of the many tactics used on social media to cancel a brand. 

The Woke Twitter movement represents the shifting values in American culture and society. But this doesn’t just stop at politics, religion, values, or demographics. It intersects with corporate brand strategy, too.

Ruby Media Group, an American PR and Brand Management company

Freedom of expression and the rewriting of history

Yesterday, the Pope spoke out about the “one track thinking” that “leaves no space for freedom of expression”. The Pope’s words have been taken by many as a direct response to actions such as the removal of statues and monuments linked to slavery, since his remarks also referred to the notion of “rewriting history”. 

Could the Pope ever be cancelled?

The Pope has taken umbrage previously at the European Union’s attempt at being more inclusive to diverse audiences, by asking that the word Christmas is replaced by “holiday period”. Calling this move “a fad, watered-down secularism”, one might not be surprised that the Pope considers Christmas the most important celebration of the winter period. However, the document suggested avoiding the assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas and not all Christians even celebrate them on the same dates. Something that, in an increasingly diverse Britain, I think we must all be aware of. Whilst it’s unlikely to truly offend someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, I don’t think it’s too far of an extreme to understand that those who don’t celebrate Christmas might appreciate a little tweak to language to appreciate and value their differences. After all, when I messaged the mother of my daughter’s best friend recently, who is Muslim, I said I hope she had a nice break: I didn’t just blindly wish her Merry Christmas like the other messages I sent out that day. It wasn’t a major hassle to do, it was just tailored communication, like we do every day. 

Assumptions and alienation

When addressing large groups of people, it does seem best to try and cater for your entire audience and not make anyone feel alienated by making assumptions. Yet, for this move, the European Union was likened to the Nazis, which seems just a tad excessive of a comparison. 

Whilst on his papal plane on his way back from a visit to Greece, the Pope referred to the changes in language, saying “It is something that throughout history has not worked. In history, many dictatorships have tried to do these things. I’m thinking of Napoleon, the Nazi dictatorship, the Communist one.”

In the stocks: public shaming vs cancellation

But what’s the difference between public shaming, the subject of Jon Ronson’s 2015 book, “So you’ve been publicly shamed” and being cancelled? Is one just the natural progression of the other? Being cancelled seems to be the newest way to designate someone who is being “called out” for something they’ve said or done. What does being cancelled really mean?

Being publicly shamed is of course nothing new and has a rich history that goes right back to putting transgressors into stocks on public show and witch trials. We used to see it with scolding hoods, writing lines on a blackboard and people forced to go about wearing sandwich boards which told all who gazed upon them what terrible act the wearer had committed. Indeed, even crucifixion is a form of public humiliation as part of the death penalty used by the Romans. Modern public shame punishments arguably include the sex offender’s register – in 2018 a Colorado judge ruled their use is cruel and unusual punishment, but this was overturned by the US Court of appeal two years later, presumably because the registers were designed to be a way of ensuring the safety of those vulnerable to sex offences.

Oh, the irony – the tale of Farage’s cancel conference

The public ostracism that so many decry most recently can relate to a range of transgressions – from seemingly minor “bad taste” jokes to more worrying and meaningful wrongful acts or sentiments expressed. Many have found that their comments on social media from years back have come back to haunt them, whilst others have faced boycotts and been “deplatformed” (stopped from speaking to an audience). One of the most unwittingly comedic examples of the latter being Nigel Farage’s conference on cancel culture being cancelled. Set to feature Laurence Fox amongst other right-wing talking heads, the event cited slow ticket sales and Covid protocol issues as the reason. 

Farage’s decision to hold the conference presumably hinged upon the fact he’d suffered the same fate himself when his event with the Preston Grasshoppers – a rugby club – was called off when two members of the club questioned the fundraiser. On Twitter, Hussein Khambalia expressed his valid opinion that they could not “justify giving this bigot a platform at what is supposed to be an inclusive community rugby club”. 

Another member, Steve Tiernan, cut up his membership card in protest at the proposed event.

When does my freedom of expression trump yours?

So, the question with an event such as this, is whose right to free speech trumps whose? Presumably it is anyone’s right to express their anger at someone being given the honour of being invited to an event and therefore the organisers’ right to then cancel the speaker, should they wish, to avoid public backlash? Even more so when you consider the bad publicity that hosting specific speakers might bring. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that Farage is heard, surely it’s more the organisers, whose action to cancel the event, who should bear the finger pointing of cancellation, rather than those who exercised their right to free speech in their complaints? 

Cancelling an event does not infringe on the right to anyone’s free speech – in the same way that me requesting a spot on the Lorraine show and being turned down doesn’t mean I’m being silenced.

Help! Help! I’m being repressed

Richard Bacon is another one who has talked about being canceled before it was “even a thing”. In an interview with that little known newspaper, the Telegraph, he discusses the effect of the tabloid sting that resulted from his sacking from Blue Peter in 1998. Having taken cocaine, the previously squeaky clean presenter faced huge public outcry and was ultimately sacked from the show. Bacon fronted a documentary on Channel 4 in early December 2021 to discuss the phenomenon. Defenders argue that it’s a way of making the powerful listen to them and that many of the things that occur would have happened anyway, before there were accusations of being cancelled. Years ago, transgressions that the recent UK government have seen would have resulted in sackings or forced resignations – today’s events where our own Prime Minister has admitted transgressing lockdown rules being one of them that no doubt, he is hoping he will get away with.

Richard Bacon, literally unrecognisable to so many, since his career was so unmistakably destroyed by “cancellation”

Making statements that are distasteful, outwardly offensive or racist will get you into trouble, regardless of whether they’re illegal or not – however, some people make a pretty good living from being absolutely repugnant and actively try to offend as many subsets of society that they can.

So few of those who cry they’re being cancelled really suffer the consequences of said cancellation. After all, if we’re hearing about them being cancelled, it’s not really true, is it? Searches for Piers Morgan and the word “cancelled” bring up a raft of articles about him railing about cancel culture. They use their newspaper columns, the radio airwaves, guest spots on talk shows, social media posts and the such to bleat that they’re not being listened to. If that’s being cancelled, I hope it happens to me soon. I could do with the exposure.

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