Episode Transcript – Progress in a World of Cancel Culture

Stories and Strategies Podcast

Episode 35

Guest, Alex Malouf

Published January 10, 2021

Listen to this episode

Doug Downs (00:09):

Last summer, author JK Rowling tweeted some opinions that were understandably received as transphobic. The backlash was immediate and substantial on social media with even celebrities, often the victims of cancel culture themselves. Joining the voices of condemnation, one writer called it the Anatomy of a Scandal. Rowling, tried to defend herself but the condemnation kept coming. Eventually, Harper’s Magazine published a letter in which 150 writers and scholars defended rolling by articulating support for the free exchange of information and ideas. Social media backlash then turned on those who signed the letter in support, forcing two of them to ask for their names to be removed. It’s just too soon to measure the impacts to the Harry Potter franchise. But most marketing commentators have noted the momentum of Potter is gone. Cancel culture may be a newer term, but the concept isn’t. Mob mentality has been around probably from the same time homo sapiens began communicating. The Salem witch trials in the 17th century are a perfect example of tragedy from mob wrath, but cancel culture is more complicated. On the one hand, were right not to tolerate those who aren’t tolerant. On the other hand, isn’t that just intolerance?


Today on Stories and Strategies is cancel culture a product of a woke movement or a toxic trend of the wokerati making us want to reach for our invisibility cloaks?


My name is Doug Downs music off the top Hedwig’s theme from Harry Potter, composed by John Williams. It’s great to be back. Season two. First episode of season two here in January. My guest today is Alex Malouf. Hi Alex.

Alex Malouf (02:29):

Hi. How are you doing?

Doug Downs (02:31):

I’m good, thank you. And here we are in January. You’re joining us today from Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. I almost shutter to ask how warm it is where you are.

Alex Malouf (02:42):

36C. So it’s It’s getting chilly.

Doug Downs (02:45):

Oh man. <laugh>. Alex, you are a member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, C I P R, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and I A B C, the International Association of Business Communicators. With the Chartered Institute of Public Relations you are a chartered communicator with the Chartered Institute of Marketing. You are a chartered marketer and with I A B C, you are a strategic communications management professional. You have your S C M P, all three of these very high orders. You also have a diploma in change management and communication from the Public Relations and Communications Association, or P R C A, Alex, you have a master’s degree with Merit from the Durham Business School in the UK. And you’re studying a postgraduate certificate in sustainable business from the University of Cambridge as well. You have two decades experience in media marketing, public relations and sustainability. And currently you are the corporate communications director for the Middle East and Africa region at Schneider Electric. It is great to have you here today from Abu Dhabi. Alex, if I express a hateful opinion or I incite others to transphobia, homophobia, racism, misogyny, violence, I deserve to be canceled

Alex Malouf (04:06):

You probably would be canceled these days. Yeah, let’s talk about cancel culture. Cancel culture. And I think the phenomenon which has been born out of social media is something that should really fascinate us as communicators. What we do in essence is try and get people to talk and we want them to talk with each other. The big issue today online is that people don’t talk with each other. They just simply shout at each other and they try and cancel each other out. And this is something we’ve really gotta look at. How do we tackle culture as an industry? How do we get people engaged with each other in organizations and also as well outside of organizations on big issues on things like, for example, sustainability on civic duty, on human rights. And these are really big topics. The issue is today we are not having dialogue. We used to and people sat down together, people listened and they did it respectfully. It it’s a different environment today.

Doug Downs (05:23):

Yeah. Once upon a time we had rhetoric coming out of the Greek culture. We could have debate and it was somewhat logical debate. To be a victim of cancel culture you don’t actually have to be canceled. It can just be backlash that you receive to seemingly small things, which I know you’ve seen firsthand as well.

Alex Malouf (05:48):

It can be something as simple as putting out an opinion which is not popular, which is not common. It doesn’t need to be something as beyond the pale, what you initially mentioned. But it could be anything which goes against the grain. And it’s potentially very damaging because it leads us all to self censor. Are we saying what we are saying because of what we believe? Or are we saying what we are saying because of what people want to hear from us? And that’s the big question

Doug Downs (06:28):

That is fascinating. Back in November in season one, I didn’t interview with a psychologist around the US election trying to understand the incredible divide that exists not just in American politics, but it seemingly in the United States. And he put forward social identity theory as one of the root causes, the basic human need to fit within a society. And through evolution, if you look back at ancient tribes, you had to fit within the tribe or you would be expelled. And those who were expelled, they died.

Alex Malouf (07:05):

Yeah. And that tribe today is a social media tribe cuz everybody’s on social media. Everybody has some sort of digital presence and that extends to employees as well. Now it’s fascinating to see increasingly how workplaces in certain industries are becoming politicized. And if you, again, have a different opinion, you know, can be seen to be part of one group, which is not the mainstream group. And I think this has implications for what we do in terms of bringing people together. And it has also implications for getting people to engage in dialogue and talk with each other and learn about one another without negative sentiment, without pushing them apart. We really wanna try and bring people together. There’s always going to be differences in terms of who we are and in terms of what we think and why we think that. But the fact that we can’t try, or the fact that we try and we need to try, sorry even more to bring people together, really drives me to think, okay, how do we engage with other side?


Are we, for example are we listening to the other side? Are we listening to opinions which we may not agree with? And it is difficult. Sometimes I read stuff and I’m looking at it and I’m thinking, how could anybody say that? How could anybody write that? But it’s forcing yourself to break out of what we call the bubbles of social media bubbles and try and understand another perspective. And that really will help us drive not diversity element, cause we already have that, but the inclusion piece, which really is a fabric of organizations and of society as well.

Doug Downs (09:10):

Can you think of a time we were more willing to have good debate to actually sit down and talk about some of the things that people disagree on? Things like same sex marriage, multiculturalism, religion, politics, that the things we’re never supposed to talk about at the family dinner table. Even favorite sports teams. Can you think of a time in history where we actually did have good civil discourse around some of these more sensitive value-based things?

Alex Malouf (09:43):

Maybe it’s nostalgia, but I do think looking back at the eighties and nineties, there was more respect in terms of debate. There was more,


I think, mutual recognition of opposing sites. And I really do miss that, especially after what’s happened in the terms of not just in the US with politics, but you know, look at what’s happened in politics in Europe. You look at places like Australia, there really has been a polarization over the past, I’d say at least 10 years. And it’s interesting, look at who’s been driven by, people have pointed their fingers at the media and said, you’ve got sort of extreme media, you’ve got these sites coming up. But I think really for me, it has been that social media culture, sort of the desktop warriors, people at keyboards, people just blasting out without counting to 10 and without asking any questions about the other side, I keep singing it myself, trying to have a discussion on social media is setting yourself up for failure. It is very rare and unfortunately for two people contrasting opinions to come together and just listen and just hearing each other out. And it doesn’t mean you’re going to change other person’s opinion, but it doesn’t mean that you’ll leave that discussion with a more respect for the person that you’ve been talking with.

Doug Downs (11:30):

The Netflix series Black Mirror did a remarkable episode focused on cancel culture that we wanna play you a scene from season three, episode six. I know you’ve seen this one, Alex the episode, Hated in the Nation. No spoilers here. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen it. The plot involves a computer hacker who has launched a social media campaign using the hashtag death two each day. Whichever person on social media channels has been tagged the most with that hashtag is mysteriously killed once the news media catches onto this. Well, that’s a story to follow.

Actor One (12:10):

It’s 7 15 3 deaths have now been linked to a hashtag circulating on social media, controversial journalist,

Actor Two (12:17):

Joe Powell. Good morning. Have you posted the hashtag, is it Real or an Urban Myth? What thousands have been taking part, but how culpable are they? People are dying and we want to hear your thoughts. Line seven

Actor Three (12:31):

Computer game. This is real. This is happening. I urge happening. What?

Actor Four (12:36):

It’s not the hashtag it’s you killing them.

Actor Six (12:38):


Actor Two (12:39):


Actor Four (12:39):

A game. If you’re an asshole, you deserve to be shamed.

Actor Two (12:43):

Steve Line five.

Actor Seven (12:45):

But my point is, someone’s going to be top of the list, so why not make it someone who deserves it like a racist.

Actor Eight (12:51):

I, I’ve seen celebrities, politicians, everyone

Actor Two (12:55):

You have to sit there encouraging people to take part.

Actor Eight (12:57):

The point is, this is already happening and people know that they can jump on board because nobody will ever know if they did or did it.

Actor Six (13:03):

Well. Well, let’s just pause for a moment and go back to that top five. As we have been saying the Chancellor is at number one, and I want us to think about that. What does that tell us about the choice of the nation?

Actor Eight (13:14):

Well, I can’t say I’m surprised that

Alex Malouf (13:16):

You can’t forget those episodes It’s been quite a long time now. It was very scary. Most of the episodes I’ve seen have left me with a shudder down my spine and it’s becoming more and more realistic. It’s funny when they started season one and people were saying, yeah, this can’t happen. And then you had instances of things playing out and of random stories, which would mirror the series. But we are seeing it, seeing celebrities who are being called out. We’re seeing politicians who are being called out as well. We’re seeing even individuals who are being called out for whatever you think about it. It is remarkable how quickly somebody can have their, not even 15 minutes of fame anymore. It’s literally five minutes of infamy where they can go from being targeted to becoming a mem which then people will use over and over again. And we’re all very, very quick to jump to some sort of judgment and play the judge and jury.


And again, as a communicator, I’m thinking, how do we try and slow down the cycle? How do we try and get people to not jump in? How do we get ’em to think about what has happened, to read the story hear out the facts, look at the different sides as well and just try and empathize if possible. Look, sometimes it is incredibly difficult to do. You know, look at all of, for example, the racism that you find online. There are some things that for me, really are beyond the pale, but I don’t think that’s the case with everything. And I do think that people do need to slow down and not be as judgmental, and not jump in and not cast aspersions, which will impact the lives of others for possibly a long time. Because when it’s online, when it’s on digital, that’s it. It’s there. There’s no going back.

Doug Downs (15:48):

Right? And this goes beyond social media and memes cancel culture goes beyond hashtags and things like that. We’ve seen statues that have been torn down or boarded up around the world. Sir Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela in the UK, Voltaire in Paris, Ulysses S Grant and African American Frederick Douglas in the United States. Here in Canada a statue to Sir John A. McDonald. In Australia there are concerns about the James Cook discovery statue. In New Zealand the statue of John Hamilton was removed. We can’t keep statues at the same time of historical villains. I, I’m somewhat torn by this.

Alex Malouf (16:29):

What I’m very happy to see is this pivot towards long form journalism. The fact that people seem to be reading more again, which I think for us as a good thing, it’s very easy to go online and see a tweet or see a post, which could be, and because of the algorithms, I think this is something which we’ve gotta look at as well. A lot of it’s pushed by algorithms. It’s a short form content which gets pushed out the most. It’s the video, which is 30 seconds. It’s a TikTok, which is 45, 50 seconds. But as you’ve taken the time to sit down and read and read content, read an opinion read a story from somebody who is an expert, who does know the facts and who can put it into a context, which again, I think is very important for us to think about what is the context. I do think that that’s going to help in terms of trying to reset how quickly we do make a judgment online. It’s not the full solution because look, I’m not expecting 10 million people to go and read a 20 minute story on New Yorker. That’s just simply not going to happen.

Doug Downs (17:57):

It’s a lot of work.

Alex Malouf (17:59):

Look, it’s a lot of work. And if it’s late at night and your eyes are get it going red and they they’re tired, yeah, you’re just not going to read 20 minutes. But I do think that journalism, good journalism especially, is a huge help for us just to understand what is really going on. Yeah.

Doug Downs (18:20):

Brilliant. Last point. There are voices that don’t like the term cancel culture. New York Times columnist Charles Blough has said there is no such thing as cancel culture. There is free speech. And no, there are not limitations on free speech.

Alex Malouf (18:43):

I am very much an advocate for freedom of speech. I believe that freedom of speech is the cornerstone of the healthy society which can look inwards and address its issues. I think the challenge we have is that some cultures are very much based on that notion of free speech and other cultures. Maybe there’s a more subtle way of putting it, but I just want to get it indirectly and as communicators, we’ve gotta understand those various cultural aspects. We’ve gotta understand when people are trying to get a message across maybe in a way that is not immediately apparent or understandable and we have to try and filter when it’s needed. But it’s again, free speech. This whole issue of free speech of how far is too far. I think we’re going to have been having this debate for a long time.

Doug Downs (20:03):

Well, if more one-to-one conversation is the answer, I think maybe podcasts are going to save the world. <laugh>. Alex, thanks so much for your time today. Really appreciate it.

Alex Malouf (20:13):

Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure being with you.

Doug Downs (20:17):

If you’d like to send a message to my guest, Alex Malouf, you can email him at alex g maloof@gmail.com. We’ve got that in the show notes for you as well. You can also follow Alex on Twitter. It’s worth it at Alex underscore maloof. M A L O U F. If you liked what you heard today, we’re hoping you choose to subscribe to stories and strategies and receive updated episodes automatically. We’re also hoping you choose to follow and rate this podcast on any directory. And would you do us a favor? Recommend this podcast to one friend. You have an idea for an episode, or you just want to tell us something, send us an email@infojgrcommunications.com. Thanks for listening.