Time we woke up about Cancel Culture


For a moment I thought Enid Blyton was about to suffer the same fate as Dr Seuss.

The Daily Express headline screamed at me: Five get cancelled! Enid Blyton’s work ‘racist and xenophobic’ The Daily Mail fumed: Enid Blyton fans slam English Heritage ‘insulting’ re-appraisal of children’s author’s work as “racist and xenophobic”. Then Piers Morgan waded in: “Leave Enid Blyton alone, you woke w*****s”.

Oh dear, I thought, the Famous Five were headed for the same oblivion as I Ran the Zoo and five other titles Dr Seuss Enterprises will no longer publish because they contain racist images.

But, no, English Heritage was merely updating the information that accompanies the blue plaque on the home where Blyton wrote her first stories in the 1920s. It now reads: “Blyton’s work has been criticised during her lifetime and after for its racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit…Others have argued that while these charges can’t be dismissed, her work still played a vital role in encouraging a generation of children to read.”

In other words, her work was being placed in a modern context. Whether you want your children to read the Famous Five or Noddy books is up to you, but you should explain that some of its characterisations and events are wrong for a number of reasons. Then console yourself that at least they’ll be reading instead of playing on your iPhone.

That approach is infinitely preferable to imposing a ban that does no more than draw added attention to the work and, in the case of the Dr Seuss books, increase the value of second-hand copies. Dr Seuss’ And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street increased from about $8 to more than $400. I can still buy Five Go To Mystery Moor for under $8.

What difference does it make if a few children’s books are no longer reprinted? And Enid Blyton is more likely to be parodied than pored over. Witness Five Give Up The Booze and Five on Brexit Island.

It matters because these are entry-level examples of a phenomenon that is extending its reach across the length and breadth of expression. It affects publishing, news media, broadcasting, academia, and even private conversations.

The Dr Seuss ban is an example of cancel culture, while the contextualising of Enid Blyton’s work for a modern audience is the sensible alternative.

Cancel culture seeks to erase elements of the past or present and shape our future thinking. It may be well-meaning – as in the removal of images deemed racist – or simply a bullying attempt to eradicate what does not fit with a particular world view. Whatever the motive, it is an attempt to alter reality.

You know things are reaching crisis point when a blatantly right wing organisation, intent on imposing its world view on a willing audience, claims its new news channel will “expose the growing promotion of cancel culture”. GB News (which launched last week in the United Kingdom) will, in fact, deride what it sees as left wing ‘woke’ attempts at suppression. At the same time it will avoid criticising the burgeoning right wing cancel culture and will belittle or exclude what doesn’t fit its own narrative. I suggest you keep an eye on Andrew Doyle’s Free Speech Nation. Doyle is an ‘anti-woke’ comedian and now a GB News interviewer who champions free speech

Unfortunately for GB News, cancel culture took on an entirely different meaning after the launch when Ikea, Swedish cider maker Kopparberg and Dutch brewer Grolsch  pulled their advertising. Beauty product manufacturer Nivea is reviewing its position. The channel, they said, did not reflect their values of inclusiveness.

Cancel culture does, nonetheless, pose a clear and present danger for journalists (and society in general).

A year ago 153 writers and thinkers in the United States signed a letter published in Harper’s magazine. The signatories included Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, Francis Fukuyama, Malcom Gladwell, Steven Pinker and J.K. Rowling. In the letter they said:

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. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought…We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

That should be a description of a totalitarian state but it is an accurate description of increasingly illiberal democracy. And, although it was penned when Donald Trump was president of the United States, it applies now…and here.

In August, Australian philosopher Peter Singer is due to give a single lecture in Auckland. It will be his second attempt. Last year his tour was cancelled after SkyCity withdrew the booking in the face of criticism by disability activists over his past statements about disability, including his belief that parents of profoundly disabled newborns should be allowed to ask doctors to end the child’s life. That, apparently, is an idea to which the New Zealand public must not be exposed, must not debate.

Singer is co-editor of a new academic publication The Journal of Controversial Ideas. It is a peer-reviewed journal with one unique quality. It will allow authors to publish under a pseudonym in order to protect their careers in the face of widespread censure for unpopular views.

The first issue’s editorial explored reasons why suppression needed to be resisted. It is only by discussing all ideas—even those that many regard as offensive or immoral—that we get closer to the truth. Potentially more harmful is the fact that suppressed discussion moves into silos of like-minded people where the ideas become more virulent and irrational, and more influential.

The editors rightly believe that while it is perfectly normal to feel annoyed, threatened, offended, or even insulted when our deep beliefs are challenged, we should respond with reason and argument, rather than outrage.

However, if the Harper’s letter is correct and journalists are becoming risk averse, we cannot expect them to argue against the cause of that aversion. To attack cancel culture is to label yourself a bigot, a racist, Alt-Right.

Yet we must do so.

Rather than deny the past we need to accept it and contextualise it for today.

That means publishing children’s books from the past with images we find offensive, but skilfully annotating them to explain why such things are wrong.

That means exposing past stereotypes and contextualising the wrong-headed attitudes that gave rise to them.

That even means leaving a statue of Captain John Fane  Charles Hamilton in the city that bears his name but attaching a plaque that gives an unvarnished account of the Land Wars and his role.

Unlike some, I do not argue for completely unfettered freedom of expression. I draw a line at harm and assaults on dignity. However, I respect the right to air controversial and unpopular views so long as we can, in Milton’s words, let Truth and Falsehood grapple. Peter Singer, for example, must be allowed to argue his stand on the topic of his choosing and face his opposition. And that discussion must be reported.

We must not shy from discussing race, and acknowledge that some have yet to be convinced of the direction in which the country (correctly, in my view) is travelling. Those people have a right to articulate their views and have them tested.

Editors and publishers must have the courage to confront the unpopular, to provide a forum for robust discussion, and to see falsehood exposed for what it is rather than allow it to fester while seemingly unspoken and unseen.

Cancel culture is really a crude and short-sighted weapon. If we want to rid society of ridicule, bigotry, and extremism we need to play the long game. That means building a society where values and ideas have been tested and accepted on their merits. It will not happen if our children are shielded from the wrongs of the past or lose the powers of critical thinking because they are only told the ‘accepted’ version of truth.


Bouquet: To Metro magazine. Firstly, for hitting the newsstands with an enormous 276-page Winter issue. And secondly for an assessment of Auckland secondary schools that was so rich in data it took an hour to read. Yes, prior knowledge of radar charts would help but it meant abundant information on student attainment in each school could be accommodated in a relatively small space. I hope the education minister and the staff in his ministry study the data closely. It shows they are failing to break down the socio-economic divisions in New Zealand society.


3 thoughts on “Time we woke up about Cancel Culture

  1. An excellent article that deserves to be widely shared and read. We seem to have lost all nuance in our public debates, treating everything as a game or sport, with a binary focus of good/bad, win/lose. A recipe for stasis, not progress.

  2. We used to call it a boycott

    At time when nearly 1000 people have been killed in Myanmar by a military regime which cancelled democracy; when a dissident journalist’s reporting is cancelled after he is abducted off a passenger airliner which was hijacked by military aircraft in Belarus; when UEFA threatens to take a football match away from Munich if the stadium is lit in rainbow colours; and that because the Hungarian government has banned depiction or promotion of homosexuality to those under 18, which will result in the cancellation of television series like Modern Family and films such as Philadelphia and Billy Elliot – it make worries about so-called “cancel culture” seem a bit of a first world problem.

    What worries me most about the term cancel culture is it has become another tool of the right to denigrate the left. Sorry, what’s wrong with reminding a company such as Nivea or Ikea that they may lose customers if they give commercial support through advertising to a news channel which sets out to present news from one point of view? How is that different to the anti-apartheid boycotts of Rothmans and Boots for their South African connections?

    In reality, it is progressives who have been subjected to cancel culture for decades. Show me the liberal or socialist columns or editorials in the Sun, Daily Mail, Express, Times, Telegraph, or the Australian or the NZ Herald or the Press for that matter? Isn’t that cancel culture by their proprietors of viewpoints they disagree with?

    Media magnate brought Rupert Murdoch brought the same approach with Fox News, although it denies bias in its news reporting, saying it operates independently of its opinion and commentary programming. You be the judge. The aim was to become the leading news channel by sweeping up conservatives, while the others split the remaining audience.

    The new GB News channel is following a similar path to Fox News. It was initially warned by the regulator Ofcom, that although broadcast news channels were allowed to explore issues from their own viewpoint, news presenters and reporters must not give their own views and the facts must be reported with due accuracy. However, it has already rowed back to some extent, saying there is a difference between a news programme and a magazine show. So far, there’s been plenty of right wing commentators but none from the left. Early ratings suggest it is rivalling Sky News, although that may reflect initial curiousity.

    Meantime, pressure from the right wing media on the BBC has resulted in the corporation telling comedy news programmes that they must be balanced and the BBC deciding not to renew its commission for comedian Nish Kumar’s Mash report. It often mocks politicians and those in authority, as satirical programmes have done in the UK since the 1960s, regardless of the colour of the party in power. However, no complaints of “cancel culture”, because those who bemoan cancel culture have been the same people pushing for the cancellation of the Mash Report.
    The BBC itself has been under pressure. It has lost 20% of its funding when the government passed on costs of free licences for over 70s to the broadcaster and has to practically put out a begging bowl every five years to set its licence fee. Again that campaign has been led by right wing Tories and their supporters in the press.

    Now the UK’s Channel 4 is under threat. The Conservative government wants to sell off the broadcaster – which is currently publicly owned – to a private buyer. Channel 4 has a unique model – not dissimilar to that of TVNZ –
    commercially-funded but with a public benefit remit. It has allowed it to develop unique programmes over the 40 years of its existence, like recent drama It’s a Sin and current affairs show Unreported World.
    As regards Dr Seuss, which you say is a victim of “cancel culture”, it was the decision of Dr Seuss Enterprises – which was founded by his family – that they would no longer publish six of his books out of more than 60, because of their racist depiction of African and Asian people. One academic suggested it was better seen as product recall, than cancel culture. I suggest you think again if your response is to advocate that racist books should still be published.
    And the statue of Hamilton? If you look at the facts, it is stretching it to call it cancel culture. Most people who live in Hamilton, as I did for many years, are ignorant of the origins of the city’s name. Many thought it was named after Hamilton in Scotland, or one of the Dukes of Hamilton. However, as you say, it was named after Captain John Fane Charles Hamilton, whose claim to fame was that he was killed by the defenders of Gate Pa, a humiliating defeat for the British forces. The naming of the town built on the Waikato River, on the site of the Maori settlement of Kirikiriroa, was a deliberate slight to the local iwi, following what is now acknowledged as the illegal invasion of the Waikato. Another significant omission from your column is the fact that the life size bronze statue of Hamilton was only put up in 2013, that’s right, just 8 years ago. You may have a case to cite cancel culture if the statue had been erected in Victorian times and the city that bears his name had grown up around it. But to place it in Hamilton’s main civic square 18 years after the Crown signed a Deed of Settlement with Tainui was either pernicious or just plain stupid.

  3. By the way, I’ve been a victim of cancel culture myself, thrown out and blocked by the Kiwi Journalists Association, without the courtesy of an explanation.

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