Why authenticity & accountability trump cancel culture
Throughout 2020 and 2021, waves of American Woke culture began crashing on European shores, much to the frustration of many people in Europe (often of older generations, but not only) who don’t identify these narratives as part of their own nations’ histories. Several analyses surfaced, including this article from the New York Times by Norimitsu Onshi, first published in March then updated in October 2021, describing the backlash, particularly in France. As the world started to reopen after the initial COVID-19 lockdowns, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police Officer Derrick Chauvin reignited the Black Lives Matter movement, this time on a much more global scale. Statues of historic men with less than stellar histories could be found covered in graffiti, and in some cases, overturned in places like Paris, Bruxelles, London, and Bristol (also in the UK), where the statue of trans-Atlantic slave trader Edward Colston was defaced and overturned. This lead to a deeper public inquiry of who else might be on public display that would no longer be welcome, according to modern human values. It seems the tide was rising to fight racial inequality in places with a loathsome colonial past, which were often accompanied by many protests and the destruction of monuments and public property. This was followed by a spectrum of opposing views which ranged from “this is not our history” and simply not wanting to change the urban public decorum, to the ridiculousness and even danger of Cancel Culture, precluding the possibility of learning from past atrocities.
One way the trend of Cancel Culture manifested was in mid-2021, when the “Seuss Scandal” that plagued elementary schools and libraries around the US for months. That year, leading up to March 2, when Dr. Seuss Day has for decades been observed each year; public school teachers received threats from parents with opposing opinions, as to whether they should or should not include books from the cherished children’s book author, affectionately known by generations of Americans as Dr. Seuss. The day is endorsed in the US by the National Association of Education, celebrating the author’s birthday (born Thedore Geisel) to encourage children and parents the importance of reading. In 2022, a year after the scandal, the classroom drama and raving PTA parents seem to have calmed down, but the six books that Dr. Seuss Enterprises chose to pull from production on their own volition remain out of print, including the popular “And to Think I saw it on Mulberry Street.”, citing the inclusion of imagery that could be perceived as hurtful and wrong. Contrary to popular belief, the books were not “canceled” by vicious voices of internet trolls.
This also became a fascinating part of a debate I included as discussion during my ESL class at the prestigious École de Guerre, here in Paris. My students are all highly ranked, highly intelligent military officers who happen to be very good people in my opinion. The news gave us fertile ground to get into some dicey topics, including #BLM, #MeToo, queer rights, islamophobia, and more, and exploring how they see these homegrown American ideas spreading around the world into countries like France, where they possibly lack the right context and — according to some French intellectuals, often older generation — have the potential to upend French society and destroy French culture. The reaction I can feel the strongest is a sentiment of anti-revisionism, and not erasing history. Not removing statues and such because every human has good and bad sides and in the end, there will be no one left to represent our culture and our history.
Personally I feel that every society needs to take stock, from time to time, of who they have on display in their public squares, presumably to be revered in some way. If the positive contributions of these figures far outweigh their flaws, they probably should remain; however, a plaque stating the full truth of their personhood and deeds should be added, that could read something like, “Although Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant mind who contributed incredibly to the creation of our nation, this man was not without flaws. As history has taught us, slavery was an abomination and Jefferson was also known to be a slave owner who participated in this abomination — a racist institution that still scars our country in a systemic way today.”
If the bad outweighs the good, their likeness has probably outlived the evolving values of that society, and it should probably be retired to go to a museum. Such figures are no longer in alignment with our values, and should no longer be in places where they would be on public display, and therefore revered or admired.
So when it comes to Dr. Seuss’ works, I can certainly understand why many people would call some of his drawings of Black and Asian people racist. When he wrote and illustrated these books I don’t think it was about subjugating a whole segment of society. The whimsical universes he created in his stories were filled with wonder and fascination with creatures, real and invented alike, from the Lorax to the Sneetches, privileged with a yellow star or not. His curiosity about people from far off lands with vastly different ways of dressing and living still fascinates anthropologists today, and in Seuss’ case I would say it was done more in admiration than scientific observation; the latter may suggest a certain superiority than the former. Does that imply the entire branch of academia we call anthropology is founded in racist principles of superiority?
Photo Credit: Middleweb.com; Dr. Seuss Enterprises
So while most people these days of every race drive a car to work, wear blue jeans, and eat with a fork, there are still to this day people who look and act very different from modern Western norms. I don’t think whoever might depict such people as they are today should be considered racist. And I don’t think that depicting people who live in a remote tribal village in the Amazon, Africa, or Papua New Guinea suggests in any way that all darker skinned people worldwide go through life scantily clad with a bone through their nose. Similarly, an image of a man in remote areas of Tibet in traditional clothing does not imply that all Asians carry chopsticks everywhere they go. Images of the French typically show a man in a beret, lazily strolling the streets of Paris with a cigarette on his lips and a baguette under his arm. This archetype is not a true representation either.
Back in June 2020, several prominent figures from the past were under fire for their role in the slave trade, including the 17th century British politician and merchant, John Cass, for whom Cass Business School was named. That June, the unsavory history of John Cass’ prominent role in the British slave trade again came to light, and justifiably, people were enraged to see his previously effectively anonymous statue on display in public. The news came as a shock to the entire campus at Cass Business School, based in central London and housing one of the world’s top-ranked MBA programs, producing alumni in enviable titles at multinational companies around the world. I happened to call a close friend as the news was unfolding, who had been working for several years at Cass, and I could hear the bewilderment and shame in his voice. Then what happened next was nothing short of courageous. From one day to the next, those in charge of the school decided to change the name. The efficiency was incredible, because the following day, I checked the famous Financial Times rankings, and the school’s name had already been modified on this highly prized business school ranking list as well. For slightly over a year, the school bore the temporary name, “City Business School” as well as “The Business School” until a more permanent solution could be put in place. Then, in September 2021, it was announced that the institution would be known as Bayes Business School, moving forward.
Photo Credit: Bayes Business School Facebook page
Doing the right thing isn’t always the easy thing, and that was certainly the case for Bayes, who made the decision to stand on the right side of history. Such a transformation of course comes with a price, and not without some backlash. Not only did they face the challenge of getting the whole campus on board for such an abrupt existential change, identifying their new namesake, and going through a massive rebranding exercise, but also they needed to appease and reassure generations of alumni. These are people who’ve paid tens of thousands of pounds to have the Cass brand on their chests (and CV, and LinkedIn) which is a massive investment in their professional lives, and naturally there were fears of what their association with a man with such a dark past, as well as an infant brand identity would mean for them, their careers, and their reputations. As an MBA Admissions Consultant, I’ve been watching closely as the story unfolded and solutions were found, and it was clearly not just about scrubbing some old dirt from their name, but a holistic transformation for which they should be proud. As is prominently displayed on the home page of the Bayes website, their new mantra is “Always Learning”, and I think this has truly been a learning experience for everyone. Hats off to the entire Bayes community for taking ownership, being authentic, and growing into a better version of itself!
Back in the US, where Woke Culture was born and we see today a country ever more divided, there is another layer to the story: the fact that children are highly impressionable. And well-meaning adults tell children stories like Thanksgiving being a friendly dinner where the Indians welcomed the Pilgrims…and that’s where the story ends. These stories are truly formative for children, and it's about time adults start telling truth behind the tradition. Being honest about our nation's past doesn't preclude us from enjoying the traditions of today. So while I’m not sure that banning books (or taking them out of print) is the path for many people to absolve their White guilt; perhaps these books could be given a preface that explains to children (and adults) that this story is a fantasy and that most people from these cultures don’t look and act like this. Perhaps the Department of Education or the Department of Arts & Culture could be charged with creating a website that is highlighted at the beginning of such books, that give the reader (and parent) the proper tools and footnotes to the story so the art can persist for its cultural and educational significance, despite its less favorable aspects. There are lessons to be learnt from past impressions, even when they are ugly, but it is equally important that cultures are depicted as well in their accurate, modern form. Like the plaques we could add at the feet of the old statues we wish to keep in our squares, the full-truth version of history lets us learn from our past to be a better future version of ourselves, star-bellied or not.
-Eric Lucrezia, Creator, Coach, & Author
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