Business leaders who seek to take a stand against voter suppression are meeting with fierce pushback from Republican elected officials and their allies. The weapon of choice is “cancel culture,” an accusation aimed at characterizing voter advocates as intolerant, overbearing, and undemocratic. “Cancel culture” is clearly meant as a reputational smear, but it contains a much more concerning point of view that goes beyond brand reputation to have an impact on the whole corporate social responsibility movement.
The hidden threat behind the “cancel culture” slur
In the abstract, “cancel culture” is a relatively harmless rhetorical trick. It generally refers to a sort of knee-jerk reaction to any kind of offensive speech, literature, entertainment or other public acts.
However, in practice the phrase has emerged as an anti-liberal and anti-Democratic slur, one that is intended to smother criticism of Republican policies that foster white supremacy.
In the context of Republican support for white supremacists, cancel culture provides a rhetorical weapon against those who criticize hate speech. It confers the moral high ground to a broad interpretation of free public discourse, in which everyone is entitled to articulate hate speech in any public forum, anywhere.
If an entertainment company, sports team, school, media platform or other institution refuses to enable such license, that’s cancel culture in action.
Editor's note: Be sure to subscribe to our Brands Taking Stands newsletter, which comes out every Wednesday.
The basic premise behind the cancel culture slur has been articulated most clearly and persistently by Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
“We care deeply about diversity,” Zuckerberg wrote in a 2016 memo to employees cited by Forbes. “That's easy to say when it means standing up for ideas you agree with. It's a lot harder when it means standing up for the rights of people with different viewpoints to say what they care about. That's even more important (emphasis added).”
The problem is the lack of an ethical or moral anchor for “different viewpoints.”
Zuckerberg refined his perspective somewhat in 2018, when challenged on Facebook’s tolerance for Holocaust denial. Facebook has also tempered its tolerance speech that incites physical harm. Still, the basic theory of speech is the same. In terms of the Facebook platform there is no single point of ethical or moral reference for hate speech. It all depends on the intention of the speaker, and that intention is to be determined by Facebook.
As positioning himself as the ultimate champion of free speech, Zuckerberg also clarifies the moral outrage expressed by white supremacists who feel they are being censored. If Facebook is the arbiter of free speech, then any speech permitted on Facebook should be permitted in any public forum.
That is clearly a specious argument, but former President Trump provides a standout example of how Republican elected officials have worked to normalize this zero-ethics approach to public speech. Time and again he used his public office to elevate public hate speech and celebrate white supremacists with the presidential seal of approval.
Cancel culture and corporate social responsibility
All of this should raise a giant red flag for business leaders who have a stake in the corporate social responsibility movement.
The cancel culture slur is more than a rhetorical dart slung by Republican politicians and white supremacists. It is a direct threat to the central principle of corporate social responsibility.
After all, the whole concept of corporate social responsibility presumes that an ethical center exists, and that business leaders can steer their companies in ways that get them closer to, or farther from, ethical behavior.
Major League Baseball raises the bar
Now the question is whether business leaders are giving up the corporate social responsibility model of ethical behavior in favor of the Facebook model.
In some respects, the Facebook model is winning.
As a group, corporate leaders failed to take action against the 147 Republican members of Congress who supported the failed insurrection of January 6, and they stood by while state legislators introduced hundreds of bills that make it more difficult to vote.
On the plus side, one pivotal, attention-grabbing moment occurred earlier this month, when Major League Baseball abruptly raised the bar on voter suppression protest by pulling the 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta. MLB explicitly cast the decision as a protest against a new voter suppression bill signed into law by Governor Brian Kemp.
The MLB decision brought the cancel culture slur roaring into the media spotlight, with Kemp providing a representative example.
“It means cancel culture and partisan activists are coming for your business, they’re coming for your game or event in your hometown, and they’re coming to cancel everything from sports to how you make a living,” Kemp said last week, in a widely reported criticism of the MLB decision.
Employee activism in play
It remains to be seen if corporate citizens finally turn off the flow of money to the Republican elected officials who support voter suppression. However, it does appear that more business leaders are finally waking up to the potential for the cancel culture slur to undermine corporate social responsibility movement.
On March 31 a group of 72 leading Black executives took out a full page ad in The New York Times to protest the new wave of voter suppression bills. More than 200 other business leaders followed up on April 2 in support of that effort, through a public letter organized by The Civic Alliance.
Letter-writing is all well and good, but the corporate movement in support of voter rights will most likely fade with time, unless something happens to provide it with additional momentum.
One factor that could come into play is employee activism. Employee activists have become increasingly outspoken and influential in corporate policy, and the voter suppression bills have sparked a new wave of activity in that area, as illustrated by the MLB decision.
“An M.L.B. source described what many within the league saw as an untenable scenario for the sport: A number of players would refuse to participate in the game. The remainder would have been asked — over and over again — about their positions on the voting law,” Lerer wrote.
Few workers have the high profile and financial clout of professional athletes, but many possess skills and institutional knowledge that employers can’t afford to lose. Business leaders that aim to recruit and retain top talent should be doing everything they can to push back against the cancel culture smear and stand up against voter suppression.
Image credit: Marcus Winkler/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.