Cancel culture seems to be a topic on everyone’s lips at the moment. It refers to the boycotting or denunciation of a brand or individual—largely taking place on social media—who has made an offensive statement. There isn’t a hard measure of when something might be ‘cancelled’.
There have been two camps in this matter: those who believe cancel culture isn't real and those who think it’s a detriment to ‘free speech’. So affected is the latter camp that some of the most prolific authors and journalists in the world—including Malcolm Gladwell, J.K. Rowling and Margaret Atwood—recently signed a letter published on Harper’s condemning cancel culture.
An excerpt of the letter reads:
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.
To many others—especially those from vulnerable groups—cancel culture is nothing but a myth. Journalist Sarah Hagi, who is black and Muslim, wrote in an op-ed:
The problem with this perspective is cancel culture isn’t real, at least not in the way people believe it is. Instead, it’s turned into a catch-all for when people in power face consequences for their actions or receive any type of criticism, something that they’re not used to… This applies to not only wealthy people or industry leaders but anyone whose privilege has historically shielded them from public scrutiny. Because they can’t handle this cultural shift, they rely on phrases like “cancel culture” to delegitimise the criticism.
Hagi isn’t wrong. It’s worth thinking about who’s declaring victim to cancel culture. Oftentimes, it’s people who sit in positions of power and wealth, or those whose voices are already amplified. It’s also important to think about what ‘cancellation’ might entail in the first place.
Those who signed the Harper’s letter, for instance, are under a pretence that they might be intensely scrutinised, or that one day, their careers might take a hit for things they’ve said in the past. It would do the industry much help if we could all move past this newfound fragility against cancel culture and instead shift our focus to thinking about actual ‘cancellation’.
For instance, when we talk about an individual’s career being cancelled as a result of the #MeToo movement, we tend to also discredit the real ‘cancellation’ at play here: victims of sexual misconduct whose careers and health have been affected. We can’t think about cancel culture without thinking about power structures—who among the various parties involved has the right to uphold dangerous ideals or get away with dangerous behaviour?
The Xiaxue conundrum
In Singapore, this issue of cancel culture has been brought to the fore following influencer Wendy Cheng aka Xiaxue’s 'downfall'. For years, Cheng has been putting out offensive blog posts, videos and statements—some of which have been covered by local press—but only recently, social media users have begun to hold her accountable for it. As a result, her brand partners—pressured by social media users—have pulled out of deals with her.
Because of this, Cheng filed a protection order and harassment suit against what she calls the “woke mob” looking to “cancel” her. According to Mothership, she might also consider further legal action, including a possible case for defamation. Many social media users, on the other hand, say that Cheng deserves to have her opinions—controversial or not—aired.
In the past, Cheng famously started a petition to ban or 'cancel' South Asian migrant workers on Orchard Road as well as actively—without evidence—provoke an agenda against the same group for posing a danger to Singaporean woman. And it’s not just this group she has targeted—the disabled community, Muslims and fat people have been chastised by her in the past in the name of ‘free speech’.
This isn’t, as some say, a moralised issue. There are no ‘two sides to a story’. Bigotry is bigotry; hate speech is hate speech. On Twitter, for instance, its hateful conduct policy indicates that it prohibits promoting violence against or directly attacking or threatening people based on race, ethnicity, national origin, caste, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religion, age, disability or serious disease.
Incidentally, last month, Twitter permanently removed right-wing commentator Katie Hopkins from the platform. In the past, Hopkins had been heavily criticised for her comments, including comparing migrants to cockroaches as well as stating that people with dementia should not ‘block’ hospital beds.
Despite this, cancel culture as we know it shouldn’t merely focus on individuals. It should be less about dissecting an individual’s past and more about understanding the systems of accountability around bigotry and the spread of dangerous messaging. What are the structural privileges that allow brands and individuals to display bigotry? Subsequently, what can and should be done about it?
Singapore-based journalist Kirsten Han said in her weekly newsletter that discourse around cancel culture should always focus on justice. She said: “People can mobilise and organise for all sorts of reasons; not all protests are just, and not all boycotts are bullying. We shouldn’t forget that the same tactics demanding accountability from Xiaxue for her racism have also been used to pressure public agencies, companies, and brands to censor and remove their support for LGBT rights and equality. The tactics aren’t necessarily the problem; the motivation and the purpose are what’s key.”
Brand hypocrisy an issue?
In the case of Cheng, brands began to distance themselves from her as soon as social media users pressured them to do so. But Cheng’s style of offense isn’t a revelation: as a ‘veteran’ in the influencer scene, she has displayed these patterns time and time again.
Han’s newsletter added that it’s important to remember that brands and companies aren’t always being just in dropping or firing people, either, even if the person did deserve it. Additionally, it doesn’t always signal progress when a company distances itself for PR reasons.
Brands might define controversy as something that could hurt brand safety, and therefore, prefer to play it ‘safe’. A piece in The Atlantic sums it up nicely:
This mechanism is not, as it is sometimes presented, a long-overdue settling of scores by underrepresented voices. It is a reflexive jerk of the knee by the powerful, a demonstration of institutions’ unwillingness to tolerate any controversy, whether those complaining are liberal or conservative. … Brands will gravitate toward low-cost, high-noise signals as a substitute for genuine reform, to ensure their survival.
Unilever, for instance, stands accused of repeatedly harassing a Sri Lankan influencer for refusing to promote a whitening product. In the meantime, the brand recently rebranded its Fair & Lovely product in India, bowing to pressure against the backdrop of #BlackLivesMatter. In this case, where does one draw the line between genuine purpose and merely swerving to avoid trouble?
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And this problem doesn’t just concern a brand’s reputation, it can also escalate internally. Findings from Edelman’s Trust Barometer suggest that employees increasingly expect business leaders to take a stand and speak up about issues of the day whether they concern diversity, ethics, or social issues. In fact, this year, ‘my employer’ emerged as the most trusted institution by a margin of 18 points over ‘business in general’ and even NGOs. Trust in ‘my employer’ was 27 points ahead of trust in government and media.
In a piece by PRWeek UK’s editor-in-chief Danny Rogers, one PR leader said: “It used to be that we were only responsible for our employees once they walked into the office. But now there is a sense that people should bring their whole selves to work. They expect their employer to take a view on big societal issues, to actively facilitate change.”
With brands and organisations often rallying passionate calls for change, it’s about time they put some of that into practice.
Surekha Ragavan is editor for experiential marketing and PR with Campaign Asia-Pacific, and editor with PRWeek Asia.