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Tina Casey headshot

IBM Gets It Right on Cancel Culture and Corporate Responsibility

By Tina Casey

On the heels of the failed insurrection of Jan. 6, several prominent Republicans have raged that the real danger to American democracy is “cancel culture.” That view is quite understandable. After all, several top U.S. corporations have already canceled their financial support for scores of Republicans in Congress who abetted the insurrection, and the fallout has only just begun. Despite Republicans' complaints, it appears the business community is determined to exercise its right to boycott whomever it pleases, and IBM has just made the case for corporate cancel culture to go even further.

When boycotts work: "Cancel culture" as damage control

The term “cancel culture” has different shades of meaning. Generally, it refers to an outpouring of criticism targeting celebrities and other public figures. During the Donald Trump administration, it has also become a political slur. Leading Republican officials such as former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley deployed the term “cancel culture” to neutralize Black Lives Matter supporters and other critics of the outgoing president’s policies on human and civil rights, among other issues.

But using the slur “cancel culture” has now become a damage control strategy for lawmakers facing corporate boycotts due to their connection to the failed insurrection attempt. An ever-growing list of business leaders joined a funding boycott on the 147 Republican members of Congress who objected to the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6. In addition, tech companies are boycotting Trump and some of his supporters by denying them access to their social media or e-commerce platforms.

Under these circumstances, many of those 147 elected officials will find it difficult, if not impossible, to win re-election. Other Republican party members seeking higher office are also at risk. Little wonder that they are leaning on the “cancel culture” slur to regain access to corporate dollars, media support and e-commerce platforms.

Gov. Haley provides one example of how the “cancel culture” slur works as a damage control strategy. She spoke at a closed-door meeting of the Republican National Committee on Jan. 7, just one day after the failed insurrection. As reported by Politico and other news organizations, she criticized the president and called upon members of her party to do some soul-searching.

But another part of Haley’s speech was picked up by a conservative op-ed contributor in The Hill, who reported: “Haley also warned of what might turn out to be a much more corrosive threat to the already unravelling fabric of our republic: the rise of censorship and ‘cancel culture.’”

The op-ed continued:

“Theyve demonstrated that theyll cancelanyone who gets in their way,” Haley said. They want to shout down and shut up anyone who disagrees with them. They want to take control of the classroom, the boardroom, the media green room and even the dining room table."

In sum, the real danger facing the U.S. is not the violent extremists who attacked the Capitol building with murderous intent. Members of the public who insist on a civil society are the real enemies.

IBM gets corporate social responsibility right

The “cancel culture” slur may sound like a smart strategy inside the Republican bubble, but in a corporate context, it is something entirely different. It is an existential threat to the corporate social responsibility movement. It erases the foundational principle of the movement — namely, that corporations have the power to decide right from wrong.

Christopher A. Padilla, IBM’s vice president of government and regulatory affairs, is among those recognizing the threat that the “cancel culture” slur poses to the corporate voice on matters of moral, social and civic concern. 

In an IBM blog post last week, Padilla did not call out the Republican party by name, but he clearly intended his message as an argument for corporations to flex their public muscle far beyond the cancellation of donations to Republicans. “Many of our peers in corporate America have started by suspending their financial contributions to elected officials who objected to the clear and certain outcome of the election,” Padilla wrote. “But this moment in history should be about much more than organizations temporarily withholding political money to take a stand. This is an opportunity for us to pause and think, to look ahead at what policy measures can truly restore trust and confidence in our democracy."

Padilla noted that IBM has a decades-long policy of not making political donations, either directly or through a PAC. From this nonpartisan platform, Padilla pledged that IBM would support Congress and the incoming Joe Biden administration in a series of reforms aimed at limiting the ability of the Republican party, or anyone else, to organize another insurrection.

That includes strengthening the rules for presidential transitions, updating Hatch Act restrictions on partisan politicking by public servants, restricting the installation of partisan allies in federal agencies, and reforming the law on financial disclosure and divestiture for persons holding public office.

Padilla also highlighted two legislative proposals previously supported by IBM, which bear directly on the ability of the Republican-backed mob to organize and break into the U.S. Capitol building with lethal force, reportedly with the involvement of law enforcement officers.

One is the issue of justice in policing, which dominated the public discourse in the months leading up to the 2020 election. IBM is among the corporations supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, and Padilla pledged to step up the company’s efforts to advocate for new racial justice legislation like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

The other reform has bears on the issue of tech company liability for online content. Tech companies are currently shielded under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and Padilla pledged that IBM would support transparency-oriented legislation like the bipartisan PACT Act introduced during the previous session of Congress.

Section 230 reforms cut straight to the heart of the “cancel culture” slur by affirming the responsibility of tech companies to make moral, ethical, and civic judgements about the speech and images they host.

“Cancel culture,” the talent race and brand reputation

If Gov. Haley and her colleagues in the Republican party hope to defuse the corporate boycott movement by leaning on the “cancel culture” slur, they have their work cut out for them.

Even before the insurrection, the Republican party was already at risk of losing the talent race, as the up-and-coming generation turns away from racism and white supremacy. Now reports have surfaced that employers are shying away from hiring former Trump administration officials, adding yet another reason for talented and ambitious young people to avoid associating with the Republican brand.

Lest Republicans complain that the employment issue is another form of “cancel culture,” Forbes chief content officer and editor, Randall Lane, counters that the issue is not political — it is a simple matter of brand reputation. In a Jan. 7 article, Lane warned employers of the reputational risk involved in hiring any of Trump’s top spokespersons, based on their collective track record of lying to the public.

Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie,” he wrote, while noting that Forbes is a top brand with a reputation of its own to protect. He placed “cancel culture” firmly in the silo of “societal blight,” meaning that it has no bearing on a company’s right to protect its brand. “This standard needs to apply to liars from either party,” he concluded. “Its just a realization that, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, in a thriving democracy, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.”

Reputational risk and public safety

The reputational risk factor is already emerging in areas aside from corporate donations. Loews Hotels, for example, caused a stir over the weekend when it publicly announced that its Portofino Bay Hotel in Orlando canceled a fundraiser for Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who is widely regarded as among the chief instigators of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“We are horrified and opposed to the events at the Capitol and all who supported and incited the actions," Loews wrote in a Twitter post on Jan. 16. “In light of those events and for the safety of our guests and team members, we have informed the host of the [February] fundraiser that it will no longer be held at Loews Hotels.”

Th public safety issue dovetails with the growing movement among corporations to push back against permissive state laws on carrying weapons in public. It also reinforces the efforts of corporations to push back against the anti-mask movement as a simple matter of civic responsibility.

Business leaders have only just begun to realize that they can steamroll over the “cancel culture” slur. The only question is whether they can act quickly and forcefully enough to help prevent Trump, Republican members of Congress, and their supporters from creating another insurrection from the ashes of the first one.

Image credit: Ian Hutchinson/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

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.

Read more stories by Tina Casey