To cancel culture or not to cancel culture? Seems to be the question of the week.

But is it being cancelled when the person or character in point has either resigned [Piers Morgan] or been withdrawn by its own people [Dr Seuss, Looney Tunes]?

There has been a lot of talk around the topic of Cancel Culture over the past week or so with a number of different incidents that happened bringing it to the spotlight. It seems to depend largely on who you are listening to as to whether the term ‘Cancel Culture’ is being brandished or not, but the concept certainly deserves some attention.

Offensive Dr Seuss imagery

Green Eggs and Racism?

A scandal so huge that Republican Senator Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, saw fit to take it to Congress, stating: “First, they outlaw Dr. Seuss and now they want to tell us what to say.” Meanwhile, Fox News saw it as so newsworthy that they gave it extended coverage.

However, if you take a minute to breathe and actually do the tiniest bit of digging, you find that all the books that Kevin McCarthy named in his rant are still very much safe and available. It was simply the company that produces Dr. Seuss’s books that realised that 6 of its books contained problematic and hurtful imagery or words and chose to stop producing them:

Dr. Seuss Enterprises, a business controlled by the author’s estate, announced that it had made the decision last year to take six of Dr. Seuss’ books — And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer — out of print. The stated reason was that “these books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” This includes several instances of what today would be considered racist imagery.

That is literally the story! Which, along with a number of other incidents i mentioned and will touch on, had a whole lot of people hot and bothered about a whole lot of nothing.

Piers Morgan

Your Peers have spoken

Then you get Piers Morgan and the less said about him the better. Just the other day on International Women’s Day he was completely rude and dismissive of Dr. Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, a political and women’s rights activist, who was giving pushback on his comments about the Prince Harry and Meghan Markle interview with Oprah. And then on Tuesday Piers Morgan stormed off the set of his show ‘Good Morning Britain’ after his colleague, Alex Beresford, called him out for slamming Meghan Markle following her interview with Oprah Winfrey. Later that day he announced that he had resigned from the show. More than 40 thousand people had complained about his comments, especially with regards to mental health issues he was passing comment on.

But he literally cancelled himself. i think probably just in time as hopefully, the show would have taken the criticism seriously and Piers Morgan has been problematic for the longest time. But he resigned.  No cancelling here, folks.

Pepe le Pew Loony Tunes Cancel Culture

It was Looney that this was ever okay in the first place

In the same week, there was the news that Looney Tunes character, the skunk Pepe le Pew, had been removed from the upcoming movie, and sequel to one of my all-time favourites animated movies, Spacejam 2. And once again, people quickly started screaming “Cancel Culture”.

In this case, i think the picture i selected argues the case for itself. Pepe le Pew was known for having amorous affections for a black cat that he kept confusing for a female skunk and would often force his affections on her. Something which as a kid i didn’t really think too deeply about. But the moment New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow wrote a piece highlighting that the cartoon character “added to rape culture”, it was so painfully obvious to me.

As he pointed out: Let’s see. 1. He grabs/kisses a girl/stranger, repeatedly, w/o consent and against her will. 2. She struggles mightily to get away from him, but he won’t release her 3. He locks a door to prevent her from escaping.”

As if this story wasn’t wild enough, at one point, Warner Bros. was planning to release a Pepé Le Pew feature film, written by Max Landis. However, in a darkly ironic twist, Pepé’s film was canceled after Max Landis was accused of sexual assault.

Charles wrote a follow-up tweet which highlighted the specific nature of the problem: This helped teach boys that “no” didn’t really mean no, that it was a part of “the game”, the starting line of a power struggle. It taught overcoming a woman’s strenuous, even physical objections, was normal, adorable, funny. They didn’t even give the woman the ability to SPEAK.

Case closed. This should be as easy as. Same as with Dr. Seuss. We recognised that the messages being sent out in this book/cartoon/film were problematic and so we stopped sending them out. If that’s what cancel culture is, then sign me up.

But where will it all end?

This seems to be the fearful cry of many who are feeling overwhelmed by all these ‘Cancel Culture’ moments. Recent times also saw popular characters like Mr Potatohead and the Muppets in the media for different reasons and cries of ‘Cancel Culture’ came thick and fast.

“When will they come for me?” seems to be the unspoken fear. Given the deeper stories related to all of the elements i have mentioned in this post maybe the questions should become: Am I a threat to woman? Am I overtly racist? Am I problematic in other behaviour, words or thinking that shapes cultures of fear and violence and belittlement. Because if the answer to any of those is “Yes!” then maybe it is high time we did come for you.

This feels very connected to the Free Speech argument. When Piers Morgan resigned he quickly posted a picture of a Winston Churchill comment that read: “Some people’s idea of free speech is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.” 

The problem i see with many people who scream ‘Free Speech’ is that they are not as quick to call for the consequences of Free Speech. So sure you can say whatever you like, but know that if you use hate speech, you will lose your job and maybe be locked away; if you express violence towards women or minorities we may need to put you in a place where you cannot cause any more hurt to them; and so on.

Piers Morgan’s use of that quote is so ridiculous in that he went on and on and on about Meghan Markle over a period of weeks and months and the first gentle pushback he got from a colleague, Alex Beresford, ended up with him storming out and resigning. Hypocrisy much?

Fortunately, as a society, we sometimes manage to evolve in the right direction. We become aware that the way we used to always do things was deeply problematic and hurtful and so we commit to doing things in better ways. We realise that some of our art and media was deeply offensive and so we stop producing it. Hopefully as a global community we will get this more right than wrong. Because there is definitely a level of subjectivity involved. And we will likely get it wrong.

But even if we actually had completely cancelled all Dr Suess books, both the Potatoheads, all of the Muppets, every one of the Looney Tunes and Piers Morgan, and it somehow meant that we arrived at a world that felt safer and more living and more affirming of more people, i don’t think that it would be the biggest loss.

We didn’t though, so get over it, and try and lean in and see what each of these stories is really about and commit to being a little more observant with regards to the media you support and celebrate and the systems and structures that you are part of. Let’s keep asking where hurt might be happening and what can we do to make it happen less.

Perhaps we can even change the name to Kindness Culture? Because is that not in essence what we are seeking? To be more kind and loving to those around us? And especially those on the fringes and margins and those who have faced violence and suffering for the longest of times. Is that really too big a thing to ask?