Howard Feldman

OPINION: 'Cancel culture' is killing humour and personality

2019-11-13 18:00
A meme of Maggie Smith illustrating the irony of cancel culture. (Supplied)

A meme of Maggie Smith illustrating the irony of cancel culture. (Supplied)

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Cancel culture is dangerous. It has the potential to cause enormous damage. By forcing people to seek safe and approved options, it leaves personality and humour dead in its wake, writes Howard Feldman.

One of my favourite memes is one that depicts Maggie Smith in her role as Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey. In the photo, she looks down her nose and says, "People are so judgemental. I can tell by just looking at them."

Whereas in many ways the matriarch of the series depicts the era in which she lived, there is a magnificent relevance that is applicable to our generation. Because somehow, we have given ourselves moral authority not only over our current age, but all ages before us. Without basis we have convinced ourselves that morally we have reached a pinnacle and that all generations before us were somehow appallingly vile or quaintly naïve. And it is with arrogance and superiority with which we judge generations before us.

The cancel culture is one that has gained more prominence over the last few years. Cancel Culture according to Wikipedia describes "a form of boycott in which someone (usually a celebrity) who has shared a questionable or unpopular opinion, or has had behaviour that is perceived to be either offensive or problematic called out on social media is 'cancelled'; they are completely boycotted by many of their followers or supporters, often leading to massive declines in celebrities' (almost always social media personalities) careers and fanbase."

When it happens, it happens quickly. This week in South Africa, Idols judge Unathi Nkayi was forced to apologise for a so-called "tribalist" remark where she joked about Xhosa people being "tired of holding up the nation". It was a humorous continuation of an on-going thread which was also relevant given the fame of Siya Kolisi. The reaction was swift with many calling for her to be axed from the series. Instead she apologised by saying, "It saddens me that I have broken so many hearts with what I said tonight. What I saw was a beautiful joke being passed around this past week by so many South Africans not necessarily Xhosa and wanted to share."

From a personal career perspective Unathi was correct to apologise. A rule of thumb in public relations and marketing is to get a negative story off the front page as quickly as possible. The best approach is to react quickly and do what it takes to make the story go away. Even if it means apologising for something that you might not believe you should. (I have no basis to say that Unathi wasn't sincere, but I am using this example to illustrate a point).

But when it comes to the "War against Woke" and the fight against cancel culture, Unathi's apology did the cause no favours.

Cancel culture does not limit itself to time frame. For that reason, despite the undisputed positivity of the Springbok win at the Rugby World Cup in Japan, the EFF and their spokespeople are able to stand up in Parliament and say that the "Boks must fall". What Ndlozi relied on is the fact that the Springbok was a symbol used by the team during the apartheid era. Fair comment, but surely the fact that it has now, in 2019 become a symbol for unity, non-racism and success, should be exactly why we celebrate it. If anything, by taking ownership of the Springbok, the victory is amplified.

There are many cases where new information does and should impact on our view of the past. The cases of Michael Jackson and Bill Cosby are two examples. These cases are different in the sense that if the information was available at the time, that generation too would have judged them harshly as well. Their behaviour would not have been acceptable in their time, let alone in ours, and it is on that basis that we should view their conduct. This is very different to revisiting history and judging them on the basis that we, in our 2019 arrogance deem it to be the ultimate moral standard.

Cancel culture is dangerous. It has the potential to cause enormous damage. By forcing people to seek safe and approved options, it leaves personality and humour dead in its wake. So much so, that we need to rely on a fictional character from a bygone era to make a point that we might be too afraid to make.

Maggie Smith meme


- Howard Feldman is a keynote speaker and analyst. He is the author of three books and is the morning talk show host on ChaiFM.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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