Shift Happens: For businesses, is risking cancellation worth the trouble?

The growing push to banish hateful people and ideas from the public consciousness sometimes lacks nuance, but is risking cancellation worth the trouble?

The growing push to banish hateful people and ideas from the public consciousness sometimes lacks nuance, but resistance can be futile

As owner of a startup, you’ve decided to brand your venture after a historical figure with a storied past. Unfortunately, that story now includes new information demonstrating that your firm’s namesake was a virulent racist. A #boycott tag looms over the project, and your company’s future could be “cancelled.” What to do?

Where to start with cancel culture? On one hand, being able to force a collective reckoning is a powerful tool for victims of historical injustice. On the other, eliminating problematic figures and ideas from debate may lead to less-informed reflection and understanding. Both positions have value. But add social media frenzy to the equation and watch the discussion devolve into #BoycottEverything and #UsVsThem.

Business owners may shrug and think, What’s this got to do with me? Well, today, and with apologies to George Santayana, those who don’t remember the past are often condemned…period. Ignore that at your peril. (As companies behind everything from Aunt Jemima pancake mix to Dr. Seuss’s dodgier works can attest.)

Cancel culture. The term itself is loaded, a pejorative and dismissive accusation. Baked into the phrase, often levelled at the super-sensitive, pipeline-protesting, snowflake masses, is the idea that many contemporary moral crusades are nothing more than hysterical overreactions, especially when the target is, say, a revered figure.

From purging the world of Sir John A.’s likeness to reconsidering Winston Churchill—he was instrumental in defeating fascism, of course, but also a racist who presided over a 1943 famine that killed three million Indians (aid would be ineffective, he claimed, since they were “breeding like rabbits”)—revisionist busybodies ensure that no one even remotely controversial is safe from a scathing reassessment, or so the line goes. That, say cancel culture opponents, is a new and very dangerous development.

“You’re trying to erase history!” some proclaim, as if history were both static and immutable. It is neither. History is the repository of our understanding to date; it constantly changes as new information comes to light and as knowledge evolves to add nuance.

And “cancelling” is hardly new, nor is it the exclusive purview of the bleeding-hearted. From the homophobic derailment of Oscar Wilde’s career to the album-burning frenzy provoked by John Lennon’s 1966 remark that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus,” the impulse to shut down opposing views is a longstanding tradition—and engaged in by those of every political stripe.

Cancel culture opponents often claim that the targets were “of their time,” and therefore can’t really be properly assessed from our current perspective. While clearly not without merit—context is important when making sense of what has gone before—this argument also opens a can of worms. In mid-19th-century America, both slavers and abolitionists were “of their time,” yet outside of the Antebellum South, trading in human beings was mostly considered abhorrent. So whose “times” prevail? Were the fascists of 1930s Germany, for example, of their time? (Yes.) Do they get a free pass because of this? (Um, no.)

There’s loads of texture here, and lots to unpack. But back to our hapless startup. The owner could plead that we separate the art from the artist, and that their branding is only intended to celebrate an era or an accomplishment, not the flawed human behind it. Or perhaps they could provide a politically corrected explanation for the company name. Although there can be merit in an explain-and-retain approach when deciding what to do with public monuments, as a business, you’re probably setting yourself up for a continual uphill battle. Unless your name is Sisyphus, you may want to rethink that tack.

So when faced with a potential #boycott backlash, how to move forward? Cultural debates have fundamentally changed how corporations approach these kinds of controversies, notes Vancouver-based Renu Bakshi, a leading crisis manager and media trainer. The upshot? “The company should rebrand,” she says.

There’s an old saw that says, The future isn’t what it used to be. History ain’t, either.

Fictional scenario.