Where do we draw the line at cancel culture?

Encouraging cancel culture is a slippery slope which can get out of control to the point where we will not know where to stop

Delilah no more: Welsh rugby fans can no longer perform the Tom Jones classic in stadiums
Delilah no more: Welsh rugby fans can no longer perform the Tom Jones classic in stadiums

While it is true that pop culture and society have undergone massive transformations, and what was acceptable in the past is frowned upon today, I do not think the answer is to shove it under the carpet and pretend it didn’t happen. I am not very comfortable with revisiting the past and trying to change or obliterate it, and yet it seems to be happening much too frequently. 

There have been cases where old video clips have been dug up of celebrities in which they said things which today are considered “non-PC” and being made to apologise for them. Creators of famous shows have likewise been cornered and taken to task about the lack of representation and diversity in their original scripts which were written decades ago. Even songs which seemed innocuous are now being banned from certain settings because of their lyrics, with a case in point happening just this week. 

The Tom Jones classic “Delilah” which is a favourite with Welsh rugby fans will no longer be performed in stadiums because of the line, “she stood there laughing, I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more.” But, as pointed out by one commentator, the song has been popular all this time purely because of the rousing chorus of “why, why, why Delilah” and most fans were not even aware of the rest of the controversial lyrics about a jealous lover.  

Explaining its decision, the Welsh Rugby Union said, “The WRU condemns domestic violence of any kind. We have previously sought advice from subject matter experts on the issue of censoring the song and we are respectfully aware that it is problematic and upsetting to some supporters because of its subject matter.” 

Now I have been writing on the issue of domestic violence for years, but I find it hard to believe that it is a song from the 60s which is the root cause of men beating or killing their wives. If we had to look at songs throughout the history of pop/rock music there are so many which refer to some form of violence, from “I shot the Sheriff” to “I don’t like Mondays” (the title is in reference to what the student responsible for an actual school shooting told reporters) to “Bohemian Rhapsody” (“Mama, I killed a man, put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger, now he’s dead”). Even the catchy “Copacabana” is about a fight over a woman and ends up with someone dying (“There was blood and a single gunshot, but just who shot who?”). And, of course, there are countless rap and hip hop songs which are even more graphic and explicit. So what is the solution… are we going to go around banning everything?  

Some might argue that the problem with Delilah is that it was being sung in a sports setting and that a lot of male-on-female violence occurs after sporting events. However, I still find the connection between this particular song and DV a bit of stretch, because there are thousands of men who have sung along to the song from years and have never been triggered into stabbing anyone. Those who raise their fists against someone who cannot defend themselves have a propensity for violence which is stemming from much deeper, unresolved issues. As one observer pointed out, when it comes to sexism and misogyny, the problem is much bigger than an innocuous song. In fact, I would say that by reducing it to something as frivolous as a song lyric, we are risking the possibility trivialising the whole topic so that it becomes the subject of ridicule, instead of being taken seriously. 

When it comes to TV shows or interviews from the past which sound completely tone deaf today, the list is endless. I have watched old interviews with women by respected journalists and interviewers such as Barbara Walters and Michael Parkinson which are so sexist and cringeworthy that they would never be allowed today. In another example of how badly women were treated by the media, late night comedians openly smirked and belittled Pam Anderson about the stolen sex tape to her face and even though she played along and took the jokes in her stride, in her recent documentary she admitted that it was the only way she could deal with it, even though she was humiliated. The double standards were rife. Her career was over but, in contrast, for her husband Tommy Lee, the sex tape simply consolidated his bad boy rock ’n’ roll image. He was practically patted on the back for his sexual prowess. 

Yet while these interviews and even jokes are still around for all to view, the answer is not to cancel them, or ban them, because they are a part of television history. It is, in fact, important that they remain there for posterity, and to understand them in the context of the times when they were first aired, if only to show how things have changed (or in some cases, how little has changed). It is only when we do not learn from them that we should be concerned. But encouraging cancel culture is a slippery slope which can get out of control to the point where we will not know where to stop. 

The same applies to racism. On the local scene, a video clip has emerged from a TV series called Villa Sunset from the early 2000s in which casual reference is made by the leading characters about how they would not want to visit anywhere in England “where there are lots of blacks”. As far as I can tell the scene was played “straight” and not for laughs, so this is not like the Archie Bunker series ‘All in the Family’ where the conservative, racist white guy does not realise how ignorant he actually sounds. And there was no young liberal guy to counter his prejudice because the young man in the scene was equally (and cheerfully) racist.  

Viewed today, the ‘Villa Sunset’ scene seems shocking and unacceptable, and yet we all know people who still talk like that today when it comes to other races (and they think nothing of it). So after my initial reservations, my next thought was, why not have TV characters voice the racism which is prevalent in so many people’s minds – why sugar-coat it? Why hide it or pretend it does not exist? It is only by hearing how it actually sounds that we can have real conversations about why it is so jarring to hear this discourse from a 20-year-old TV show. 

In fact, I sometimes watch contemporary shows and films where there is too much of an effort to not step on anyone’s toes. The writers have gone out of their way to be “woke”, throwing in every possible stereotype and creating so many convoluted storylines which tick all the boxes that it all feels very contrived and forced. I am also seeing a trend where white characters go around being ultra-careful about how they speak to people of colour in order to compensate for what has become known as white guilt or privilege. Unless it is a deliberate satire, it is not realistic and the story often falls flat as a result because, let’s face it, no one really talks like that. No one wants to go back to a time when blacks or Hispanics were never seen in leading roles, and were only relegated to playing drug dealers and criminals, but why does that have to come at the expense of white actors who are often made to speak lines which are downright embarrassing? 

There is too much tiptoeing and moralising going on, especially as many shows/films are intent on ‘making it a teachable moment” (a phrase which makes me want to reach for a bucket).  

I find a similar gaffe is made when it comes to bending over backwards to include one (or two, or three) people from the LGBTQ community in every single show. Inclusion and acceptance are good steps forward of course, but when it becomes like a checklist of ‘token’ characters I think it does minorities a disservice. I also don’t see the point of glorifying people who are different so that they stand out from the rest. This conversation finds its way in the public discourse every time there is an awards ceremony, when black or brown people are not nominated. If they are nominated purely because of their race rather than their talent then I would think it is more of an insult, than true recognition. I also recently heard it being suggested that those who are gender fluid should have their own category. Oh, come on. True equality is when everyone is measured on their own terms and are not defined by their skin colour or sexual orientation. 

If we keep making it about whether we are white/brown/black and who we “identify as”, then personally I think we are going to be undermining the Arts, and we will be snubbing those who are truly talented.