19 July 2020

‘Cancel culture’: in whose name?

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This is the CapX weekly briefing

As resignations go, it was blistering. The New York Times (NYT) has suffered some unfortunate mishaps in recent years, as us apparently boiled mutton-eatingswamp-‘cavorting’ Brits know only too well. But for outgoing Op-Ed staff editor and columnist Bari Weiss, the problems run deeper than some bafflingly blind articles.

In her resignation letter, Weiss paints a picture of a once great institution ‘whose concerns are [now] profoundly removed from the lives of most people’; a paper frightened of the public and unwilling to debate. This fear reveals itself in a (bullying) culture whose harshest judgments are reserved for those inside the organisation wishing to deviate at all from an ever-narrowing line of socially acceptable opinion. A veil of self-censorship had descended as a result.

This sort of thing is not exclusive to the NYT, or journalism in general – cases litter academia and publishing, as well as the charity, arts and commercial sectors.

A few recent examples illustrate the point: best-selling children’s author Gillian Philip was sacked by Harper Collins for tweeting in support of JK Rowling during a row about trans rights; Booker prize co-founder Baroness Nicholson was stripped of her honorary vice presidency by The Booker Foundation because of her opposition to gay marriage seven years ago; a Boeing communications chief had to leave his job because of an article he’d written thirty-three years ago arguing women shouldn’t serve in the military.

There has been much eloquent writing on the creeping ‘cancel culture’ these acts are deemed part of, but a key question has been largely absent: on whose behalf are these decisions being taken; in whose name?

The PR answer is easy: ‘we’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do’. But what a public or charitable institution thinks is right is necessarily conditioned by their perception of the wider public mood, while for corporate institutions (and universities), public opinion is a matter of commercial imperative. However, the public has many faces. In the name of which public are the likes of Boeing, Booker and the NYT acting?

For Weiss the answer is simple and devastating: ‘’Twitter is not on the masthead of the New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor.’

And if you think social media is a great way to divine the public will, that might make superficial sense. But some statistics worth bearing in mind: barely 20% of the UK population have a Twitter account, of whom 10% – about 1.3m people – are responsible for 80% of all tweets. Take away journalists, politicians, lobbyists and the like, and you’re left with an ‘’active public’’ portion of Twitter that (if we’re being generous) amounts to probably around 1 million people. From a country of some 65 million. That’s 1.5% of the population (and they, of course, don’t all agree with each other).

It’s to this thin, unrepresentative sliver that institutions cave, terrified of reputational damage – a public where the public aren’t even present. And by doing so, often in the name of inclusivity and/or diversity, the decision-makers inadvertently speak on behalf of people they haven’t consulted, and risk attributing to sections of society far more radical views than they may in fact hold. And a radicalism which has no room for compromise, forgiveness or forgetting – the hallmarks of ‘cancel culture’ –  is a radicalism of conflict and polarisation: a radicalism without redemption.

Institutions and brands would do well to learn the lesson politicians have started to absorb post-Trump: social media can be an instrument of distraction rather than democracy. Not only is the proportion of the public unrepresentative and small, the volume of posts is so great that the news agenda rarely has time to focus.

Often, institutions don’t need to react – if they are caught in a Twitter storm, in most cases the social media wind will soon blow people’s attention away, or drown it under a sea of content. And while the noise might be great, the truth is that most people aren’t listening.

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Frank Lawton is the Deputy Editor of CapX