August 1976 saw a small group of activists in the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) form Rock Against Racism (RAR), writing to the music press to gain anti-racist support in response to the racist claims made by Rock and Roll royalty Eric Clapton and David Bowie. (Gilroy 2002, 156) Clapton had expressed his admiration for the orator of the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, Conservative MP Enoch Powell; whilst Bowie had not only claimed that Britain was in need of a dictatorship, but went on to declare Hitler to be ‘the first superstar’. (Gilroy 2002, 156) I would like to focus this article on Bowie’s claim as it seemed curious to come from a superstar whose fame partly derives from his more left-wing disposition. It was also interesting to me how Bowie’s criticism of MTV for not playing videos by Black artists is widely disseminated, even today, but his declaration about Hitler seems lesser known - although this evidence is purely anecdotal, maybe I’m just in the wrong circles.
In today’s society, ‘cancel culture’ seems to have captured the zeitgeist of the youth. Comedians joke about how they can’t say anything anymore, or they risk being cancelled entirely. Now, whilst I believe that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences, the consequence that is cancel culture is toxic, and we need to be very careful about how we use it. In her book How to Build a Healthy Brain, psychologist Kimberly Wilson speaks about how “social media has democratised shaming” which has led to the “pile on” in which one person could be verbally attacked by millions of people within minutes. The result of this is two-fold: the ‘cancelled’ person can feel like it is the whole world against them; the rest of us live with the anxiety that it could be us next.
Whilst I personally endorse calling people out for their behaviour, a culture which perpetuates ‘cancelling’ is dangerous as it makes us quick to ostracise and reluctant to forgive. Nowadays, we are less able to learn from our actions and correct our behaviour, because there appears to be this ‘one strike and you’re out’ rule. This can only serve to polarise our society further and make us less accepting/willing to understand others, even if their opinions differ entirely to your own. Wilson goes on: “cancel culture often denies the cancelled individual the most basic of human opportunities: to apologise and to be absolved…because the road to redemption is blocked by the indignant mob.”
This brings me back to Bowie. Had Bowie spoken about Hitler as he did in the 1970s today, I am fairly sure there would have been some kind of ‘cancel culture’ surrounding him. However, with hindsight, Bowie’s life demonstrates the dangers of this culture and, more importantly, the opportunities that come if we escape from ostracization. Bowie retracted his comments about Hitler and dictatorship in an interview with Melody Maker in 1977, blaming them on his drug problem at the time: “I was out of my mind, totally, completely crazed.” (Gilmore 2012) Now, I am not saying that everyone who has been or will be ‘cancelled’ can use drugs as an excuse, but would it not be more productive to start a dialogue and allow the ‘cancelled’ to learn?
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Gilmore, Mikal. 2012. Cover Story Excerpt: David Bowie. 18 January. Accessed June 10, 2021. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/cover-story-excerpt-david-bowie-106551/.
Gilroy, Paul. 2002. There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack. London: Routledge.