The list is growing of historical figures or public personalities whose views are considered by the woke brigade as unacceptable, backward, or bigoted. It raises not only the changing assessments of these figures, but also whether one can enjoy any work or activity that is regarded as unacceptable for present-day political or cultural reasons, or for being the product of an unenlightened era.
A number of incidents in 2021 illustrate the manifestation of bigotry and cancel culture. One concerns a German artist, Jess de Wahls, a textile artist born in East Berlin, whose work has been removed from the gift shop of the Royal Academy after trans activists accused her of expressing “transphobic views” in a blog she posted in 2019. Apparently, she criticized “gender identity ideology” and Stonewall, the LGBT charity, which has been accused of fostering a climate of intolerance in workplaces in the UK. Miss de Wahls wrote in her blog that a woman is an adult human female and not an identity or feeling. She could not accept assertions that people are in fact the opposite sex to which they were born.
A more general issue is the suspension on March 24, 2021, of a teacher for showing pupils a drawing from Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, during religious studies class at Batley Grammar School in West Yorkshire. The teacher refuses to return to teaching for fear of being attacked and has moved to a secret location, though the school board Trust ruled that the suspension should be lifted. However, the Trust did recognize that using the image did cause deep offense to some students, parents, and members of the school community.
A third issue involves a new TV channel, GB News, pledged to confront cancel culture. The channel expressed a critical view of “taking the knee,” becoming more familiar from Stop Funding Hate activists. The response was that large corporations, including Vodafone, Ikea, and Kopparberg, the Swedish cider brand, pulled their proposed ads to the channel.
A more controversial issue concerns the well-known writer Enid Blyton, the prolific writer of children’s books. English Heritage administers the blue plaque system marking the places where people lived or worked. These plaques in London commemorate more than 950 historical figures. Following BLM protests in 2020, English Heritage vowed to review all blue plaques for links to “contested” figures, individuals associated with Britain’s colonial past offensive to many or seen as negative. It plans to provide on the plaques more information on people of this kind so that their stories will be told without embellishment or excuses. Only about 19 words can be put on a plaque, but the EH website provides a fuller picture of a person’s life.
In June 2021, EH updated the plaque, installed in 1997, on Enid Blyton, on her Chessington home in southwest London, linking her to racism.Blyton has delighted children with tales of adventure, and her books encouraged generations of children to read. She composed more than 700 works and 4,500 short stories, and her books have sold more than 600 million copies.
Blyton’s work was criticized during her lifetime and in years since for racism, xenophobia, as well as lack of literary merit. In 2016 she was rejected by the advisory committee of the Royal Mint for commemoration on a 50-pence coin on the grounds she was a racist, sexist, homophobe, and not a very well recognized writer. Nevertheless, many generations of children have enjoyed her images of happy holidays by the seaside, picnics in the forests, the wreck on Treasure Island, escapist adventures to fire the imagination of a child.
Yes, some of her writing was racist and used language unacceptable today, but should her work be erased? Did her writings turn any child into a racist?
The problem has arisen once again. One must appraise the stories of Blyton in the context of the time her books were written. Criticism of Blyton is not new. In 1960 Macmillan refused to publish her book, The Mystery that Never Was, because of its “Faint but unattractive touch of old-fashioned xenophobia towards foreign characters.” In 1966 an article accused her of racism over her book Little Black Doll. In this, a toy doll named Sambo is only accepted by his owner once “his ugly black face is washed clean by rain.” Certain features in her writing have been changed, such as the substitution of “goblins” for “golliwogs.”
English Heritage has also updated profiles of Benjamin Franklin and Rudyard Kipling with new sections on their attitudes toward race, slavery, and empire. Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the U.S., is viewed as regarding black people as inferior and as an owner of six enslaved people from about 1735 until 1781. But Franklin’s views began to change, and he questioned the morality of slavery, became president of Philadelphia’s Abolition Society, though he did not free his own slaves. Kipling was listed for portraying imperialism as a mission of civilization.
Wokery is alive and active in Britain. Goldsmiths College, University of London, in New Cross, in southeast London.
The British Equality and Human Rights Commission said in 2019 that about 13 percent of students said they had experienced racial harassment at a university. A fifth of those said they had been physically attacked and a half had experienced racist name-calling.
Another study in Goldsmiths in October 2019 indicated that 26 percent of minority students said they had experienced racism. At the time, 45 percent of their students were from minority backgrounds.
Hitherto, students could ask a university to take into account their serious life events, personal trauma, mental health problems, or caring responsibilities, when assessing their record of studies. To this has been added “racial trauma.” Already in 2020, Oxford and Warwick Universities offered black students the chance to apply for leniency in their grading. Goldsmiths goes further in allowing blacks and persons of color to defer essays and exams because of alleged racism. Is this fair to white students?
Cancel culture has been at work for some time at University College, London. The college authorities now express “deep regret” that UCL played a fundamental role in the development, propagation, and legitimization of “eugenics.” They pledged to give greater prominence to teaching “the malign legacy,” of the eugenics movement, and to acknowledge and address its historical links with the movement.
In accordance with this resolve, UCL renamed two lecture theaters and a building that honored the prominent eugenicists, Francis Galton, polymath in many fields of science and the pioneer who coined the word eugenics in 1883, and Karl Pearson first UCL professor of eugenics. UCL also stripped the name of Ronald Fisher, who succeeded Pearson as professor of eugenics, from a research center and renamed it “The Center for Computational Biology.”
The thrust of the UCL position is that the eugenics ideology cemented the “spurious idea” that varieties of human life could be assigned a different value. It therefore provided justification for some of the most appalling crimes in history; genocide, forced euthanasia, and other forms of mass murder and oppression based on racial hierarchy. UCL holds that the legacy and consequences of eugenics still cause direct harm through racism, anti-Semitism, ableism, and other harmful stereotypes that they feed. All this is a striking indictment, one contradicting the desirable values of equality, openness, and humanity.