Cancel Culture: For the Few, Not the Many?


12th August 2021

On the launch night for GB News Andrew Neil said that the channel aimed to “expose the growing promotion of cancel culture”. This was just one example of the numerous discussions and outcries (plus some head-scratching and soul-searching) that have been sparked over the past couple of years by the issue of “cancel culture”.

But to what degree does this any of this actually resonate with the general public?

When the band Chic first performed their 1981 song “Your Love is Cancelled”, which was inspired by a bad date Nile Rodgers had been on, they could scarcely have imagined that the phrase they had coined would still be resonating 30 years later – and with such frequency and strength. And yet here we are.

“Cancelling” is a term commonly used to describe the public shaming of a member of a community for a perceived violation of that community’s standards, by other members of that community, often with the intention of discouraging people from buying their products or employing them. JK Rowling, Dr Seuss and Dumbo are just three recent examples of supposed cancelling that have received widespread attention.

To test the public’s understanding of the term, at Deltapoll we asked a representative sample of British adults the following question: “There have been reports of campaigns, often beginning on social media, that set out to ‘cancel’ specific celebrities and other public figures because of things they have said or done. Have you heard about this happening in the past couple of months?”

In response, half of British adults said no, they had not heard about this. Furthermore, just under a quarter (24 per cent) said they had heard of the term but were unable to name anyone whom others had attempted to cancel. Just under one in six (15 per cent) British adults was able to name anyone who had faced an attempted cancelling – a figure virtually unchanged from the 16 per cent when we asked the same question in 2020.

“There have been reports of campaigns, often beginning on social media, that set out to ‘cancel’ specific celebrities and other public figures because of things they have said or done. Have you heard about this happening in the last couple of months?”

As is often the case, there were differences across the age groups, with millennials and 18- to 24-year-olds significantly more likely to be able to provide at least one name. Even among the latter group, however, fewer than a third could name anybody.

Rowling was the cancelled celebrity most likely to be mentioned unprompted, as she was last year, with the YouTuber and make-up artist James Charles coming second. They were the only two people who more than one in 50 (2 per cent) of the British population was able to name as someone who had been cancelled. Even the Harry Potter author was only cited by just over a quarter (28 per cent) of those respondents who could name someone – equivalent to just 4 per cent of the total population.

When these respondents were then asked if they personally supported the campaigns to cancel any of these public figures, seven out of ten said no. The end result of this is that fewer than one in 20 British adults (4 per cent) could name any celebrity whose cancellation they supported.

While it is true that this figure rises to as high as one in seven 18- to 24-year-olds, we are still talking about very small proportions of the population. It is a classic case of noise being confused with volume. Voices in both the traditional media and on social media may be loud, but this data shows they are not numerous.

Of course, being cancelled can take many forms and certainly does not refer just to the response of the British population as a whole. Targeted public shaming can still be hugely damaging to an individual’s career, prospects or life, even when it takes place solely within the confines of a much smaller group or community – as every Regina George knows.

But if you are genuinely concerned that the people of Britain are collectively ostracising certain public figures, then you can relax; the evidence does not support that conclusion.

And the idea that the nation is gripped by the growing promotion of cancel culture? That idea should probably be, well, cancelled.

Deltapoll interviewed 1,590 British adults online between 23 and 26 July 2021 and 2,380 British adults online between 16 and 19 July 2020. The data have been weighted to be representative of the British adult population as a whole.

A version of this article originally appeared in The New Statesman.

The full results can be viewed here.

Joe TwymanAuthor: Joe Twyman