What are the Motivations of the Cancel Culture?
According to Dictionary.com, “Cancel culture is the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures or companies after doing something offensive or deemed to be so by one group or another.”
When someone has been “canceled,” it means they cease to exist to that person. There is no communication with them or about them. Social media has had a hand in the increase of “canceling,” as it holds a great deal of power in getting a message across in such a short period of time.
The cancel culture as alive and well in the workplace. The benefits of cancelling an organization should be weighed against the harms to reach an ethical conclusion about the value of the cancel culture in the workplace.
The cancel culture has affected the workplace in several ways. Employees can be canceled if they make offensive comments on social media about the organization and its programs, such as denying health benefits to part-time workers. Many companies follow the social media activity of its employees during personal as well as workplace hours. Employees should be careful about what they post online.
The cancel culture also may strike and take action against employees who fail to embrace the organization’s political and social justice position on matters affecting society. For example, if a company fully supports the Black Lives Matter movement but a group of employees take to social media and criticize the company for it, then the employees may be canceled in return.
By far, the most troubling aspect of the cancel culture in the workplace is when a company or its top management adopts a position that goes against the social or political orthodoxy of a group of people who seek to lash out against offenders. In many cases, it illustrates the reaction of progressive Democrats to statements made by conservative Republicans.
Supporters of the cancel culture in the workplace claim it’s a form of exercising free-market capitalism by boycotting a person or product for offensive behavior. The idea is to make it more difficult for the company to thrive in its community and even deny them the right to earn a living.
The key to understanding the cancel culture and its effects in the workplace is to understand the motivation for action. In ethics, motivation (intent) defines right and wrong. Trying to harm a company for the words or actions of its top management illustrates self-serving behavior. There is no thought given to the harm that it causes to its employees and their families.
There are many examples of where the cancel culture has tried to hold companies accountable for their actions or the words of top management, some having to do with making supportive comments about former President Donald Trump or supporting his position on controversial issues. Liberal and progressive Democrats have taken offense to such comments and have taken action to cancel the offending party. Two examples follow.
Back in 2020, Goya Foods CEO, Robert Unanue, participated in the White House’s signing of an executive order, the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, aimed at finding ways to help the Hispanic community navigate the Covid-19 pandemic. Unanue announced that Goya would “denote one million cans of chickpeas and another million pounds of food-to-food banks throughout the country.” Sounds like a praiseworthy gesture. But Unanue showed his appreciation for President Donald Trump’s initiative with the following statement: “We are truly blessed…to have a leader like President Trump who is a builder. And we pray. We pray for our leadership, our president, and we pray for our country, that we will continue to prosper and grow.”
Those offended by the statement in support of Trump took to social media and posted comments criticizing Unanue and Goya Foods. Their motivation was to withdraw support for Goya food products because of Unanue’s statement of support for Trump. Campaigns on social media gained traction including #Goyaway and #BoycottGoya. Unanue told Fox News that he won’t apologize for praising Trump and insisted the boycott amounts to “suppression of speech.”
The cancel culture sought to cause direct harm to the market position and revenues of Goya Foods, a company that employees more than 4,000 employees worldwide. The goal was to shift business away from Goya thereby harming the company and its employees for one isolated statement made by their CEO. An important ethical question is whether it is appropriate to use a company as a dart board and aim directly for the center – a bullseye – to deny its very existence.
The Goya example and Unanue’s comments supporting Trump are instructive because they raise the important question of whether being accountable and accepting the consequences of offensive behavior should be enough for the cancel culture to back off. After all, doesn’t the First Amendment guarantee of free speech provide a cover for such comments and form of protection against the cancel culture?
Mike Lindell: “My Pillow” Guy
Another example is the “My Pillow” guy, Mike Lindell, who made supportive comments during the time that Trump was claiming the election had been stolen from him. Many took offense to Lindell’s comments claiming he had an ethical blind spot to what most people believed was fake news on the part of the Trump team.
Lindell was clearly hurt by the reaction to his comments and the effect of the cancel culture on his business. Lindell said his company was ditched by nearly 20 retailers after he publicly supported Trump including Bed Bath and Beyond. Lindell was also banned by Twitter.
Lindell was a victim of the woke culture infiltrating all aspects of society. As people become aware of social and political issues that they find objectionable, they may lash out and cancel the offending party. In this instance, the idea of being “woke” is to create harm to an offending party, but such action doesn’t really makes things better through activism or creating a dialogue on the controversial issues.
Let's assume an employee has detected what is believed to improper financial reporting. They bring the matter to top management but are unsuccessful in changing the accounting. Repeated efforts go unheard. What can they do next? They could, of course, report the matter to regulators but that is an extreme way of handling the matter. It jeopardizes the employee's job. It is more likely they go on social media and denounce the company in some way. It may be an attempt to call out the company for its practices and garnish support for the call out practice that might, in certain cases, lead to canceling the company. Companies need to develop policies to listen to employee complaints. It is important to show employees that the company takes the matter seriously and is seeking to resolve it to avoid being canceling.
What is the Answer?
Is there a solution to the cancel culture problem? I’m becoming more pessimistic day by day. It is a sign of the times that people take to social media to express their outrage. The ease of doing so and ability to draw followers facilitates the cancelling of companies. There no longer seems to be any tolerance for alternative views. There does not seem to be an appetite to discuss those differences in a productive way. The cancel culture has taken over the psyche of the American public and is crushing civility along the way.
One of the freedoms of the capitalist system is getting to vote with your wallet by boycotting a company for its offensive comments or actions. In that sense, it was not the cancel culture at work but the exercise of free market capitalism. However, the end goal was the same: to call out a company and cause harm to its brand. This seems mean-spirited and against the core ethical values of kindness and empathy for others. The real question is what can be done about the cancel culture and the harm it might cause. However, this is an issue for a future blog.
Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on June 21, 2021. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.