How can HR achieve a balance between cancel culture and free speech?

Nada and Andrew Kakabadse consider what can be done when the two collide and threaten controversy in and out of your organisation

Nada and Andrew Kakabadse

The generally accepted view of cancel culture – the process of actively rejecting, boycotting or ceasing support for specific people or groups because of their socially or morally unacceptable views and actions – is that it came to the fore in around 2017. 

However, the real origins of this phenomenon date back to 1880 when, as part of a campaign for fair rent and against proposed evictions in County Mayo, Ireland, local activists of the Irish National Land League encouraged retaliation against the land agent: Charles Cunningham Boycott. The result was that neither pubs nor shops would serve Boycott and many of his tenants refused to obey his demands. This is when the term ‘boycott’ came into common usage as a description of isolating and shaming unwelcome individuals or views.

Cancel culture can even be said to stretch back as far as Roman times, where there was an effort to cancel out Paganism, or discredit those who directly challenged society’s conventions at the time.

Today, cancel culture is represented by a bottom-up, sponsored grievance process, made rapidly public through the latest technology. In this sense it’s nothing new. Challenging each other’s views and applying varied forms of censorship to control the flow of information has been, and still is, a critical part of organised societal life. What has changed is the immediacy and dynamism arising from the role played by the internet and social media platforms. Never before has there been such speed of comment, rebuttal and rebuttal to the rebuttal.

In effect, new channels of communication for public interaction have bridged the former divide between private and public spheres. By unlocking the distribution and access of public information, comment, opinion and analysis is now more independent of state control. This place has been overtaken by a private form of censorship, driven by the needs of specific agendas. Social media platforms have also inadvertently allowed governments to become much more in touch with the needs and tempo of society.

The essence of free speech

Today, individuals can rapidly come together, argue their views and pursue particular perspectives, in large part because of these advances in technology.

Freedom of expression, with minimal censorship to counter undesired speech, is now what most recognise and interpret as free speech, or promoting a view and allowing its rebuttal. Cancel culture calls out potentially offensive content so that the voice of minorities can be heard and respected – this is the essence of free speech.

Today, people can literally voice their opinion in the public domain, as part of a mix of misinformation and radicalism, fuelled by polarised mass media opinion.

Advocates hold that cancel culture is an essential tool to fight injustice, while critics condemn the process as an unwarranted interference in public and social discourse and a violation of free speech rights.

However, the idea that free speech is about debating who has the right to define what belief or comment is dangerous. What has changed more recently is that the fundamentals of this discussion are argued on social platforms owned by private companies, which are driven by profit and have the power to silence unacceptable views.

Cancel culture has encouraged the disapproval of individual acts or statements that have supposedly caused offence. Through social platforms, the ability to summon others to join a cause, or even emergent public affray, is immediate.

Depending on the issue, the backlash can be dramatic. Resulting tension is often fuelled by a politically aligned social media class and can serve to enhance an individual’s standing, or damage their social and professional reputation beyond repair. Individuals being boycotted through their work can even face disciplinary or legal action as an outcome and all of this is on the increase.

Progressing democratic conversations

Comment and counter comment are an integral part of democratic conversation, which has forever been exhilarating, threatening and sometimes even intimidating. Today, congregations start virtually, after which crowds gather to publicly share and emphasise their point. Comment, rebuttal and rebuttal of the rebuttal are the three essential components of free speech. 

Now, as in the past, the rebuttal to the rebuttal is the sensitive and most often problematic area. Former UK home secretary Amber Rudd is a case in point. Invited to speak by the UN Women Oxford Student Society at an event in the lead up to International Women’s Day, Rudd was cancelled 30 minutes before the start of the event. Despite her track record concerning women’s rights, it was ostensibly her role in the Windrush scandal that led to her being singled out. The Oxford Feminist Society said she was “not entitled to be celebrated or upheld as a feminist”.

In response, then education secretary Gavin Williamson commented that the government would intervene if free speech was not defended. The rebuttal to the rebuttal was not allowed to proceed because of a weakness in the governance of freedom of speech.

Rebutting the rebuttal

Columbia University in the US is one case of a rebuttal to the rebuttal taking place. The address given by the then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia University attracted considerable protest and criticism from the federal government, Senate and others. Despite pressure to cancel the event, the speech was delivered and defended by Columbia as part of its continued drive for pursuing robust debate.

Few would doubt that a moral interest in speaking freely contributes to the wellbeing of individuals and the state. Free speech is essential to enhancing democratic participation through divergence of perspective. However, freedom of speech is also discomforting. Being challenged and challenging others results in inevitable tension. 

But cancel culture is not the real concern. It is whether independent and resilient stewardship is provided by the governing body of the entity involved at the time. What is its reaction at the rebuttal stage? Is the original comment cancelled, or does it proceed?

Seven tips to anticipating cancel culture

So how should HR and business leaders act? The following points suggest a best practice approach:

  1. Remember, cancel culture involves three core elements: speed of comment, rebuttal and rebuttal to the rebuttal.

  2. Based on the evidence available, consider: ‘Is the comment (or the person making it) likely to cause discomfort, disrespect or harm?’

  3. If discomfort is already anticipated in advance of raising a truly public interest topic or debate, why cancel? Stand firm and let the dialogue play out.

  4. Actual disrespect involves targeted attacks that make deep criticisms of individuals or groups, such as transgender people. They serve no purpose other than to propagate offence or hate.

  5. Damage arising from purposefully intrusive comments or actions leading to psychological or physical harm should not be tolerated under any circumstances.

  6. Freedom of speech is a right that should be upheld and stands above reputational or risk concerns. 

  7. Be aware of and understand the law in different natures and cultures. This approach should include various by-laws and religious sensitivities that could cause genuine distress.

When a comment or commentor is already in the public domain, the reaction is highly likely to fall into the discomfort category. The challenge continues to be an absence of resilience to withstand the force of a cancel culture rebuttal.

Any leadership team needs to adhere to specific compliance requirements, but also stewardship of oversight should be a key concern for leaders. Taking a disciplined and systematic approach to addressing cancel culture challenges is fundamental.

The stewardship of cancel culture rebuttal ultimately means reaching a balanced view on the evidence presented. Each case should be considered on its own merits. The most significant question for the governing body is: ‘Is the comment made inducing discomfort, disrespect or harm?’

Cancel culture is of itself a right of freedom of speech and should be treated as such. Discomfort is integral to the democratic freedom of speech.

Andrew Kakabadse is professor of governance and leadership and Nada Kakabadse is professor of policy, governance and ethics, both at Henley Business School