What Is “Cancel Culture”?

Written by Brandon C. Kesselly (@bckesso)

8/12/20 Note: This piece has been update for clarification purposes.

Much has been written about the phenomenon of “cancel culture.” For example, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter in July about “justice and open debate” that argued cancel culture was a threat to free speech. The letter was signed by public figures such as authors J.K. Rowling and Malcolm Gladwell, as well as journalist Fareed Zakaria. Prominent speakers like Daily Wire founder Ben Shapiro and University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson have also argued against political correctness and cancel culture, as did Bari Weiss, who signed the letter shortly before resigning from the New York Times. But what, exactly, is “cancel culture”?

AllSides, a website dedicated to highlighting media bias and multiple perspectives, highlighted four different viewpoints on cancel culture: 1) it doesn’t exist, 2) it has gone too far, 3) some people deserve it, or 4) those that deserve it are not the ones being punished. According to them, a person, product, or brand can be canceled in the following forms:

  • boycotts
  • firings
  • loss of advertising revenue
  • removal from streaming, broadcast, or purchasing platforms
  • disinviting or preventing speakers from being invited to events
  • being banned from social media

While this list and definition don’t seem to equate to more than public blackballing, it becomes even muddier and, frankly political, when asking the public.

How do you define “cancel culture”?

Rashmi, a 26-year-old Democrat and self-identified liberal, defines cancel culture as “a massive audience [rejecting] and [commenting] on the misdeeds and behavior of a celebrity or private figure.” Sometimes, she argues, this includes “having that person’s identity completely removed from the internet or public eye.”

Tina, a 31-year-old Republican and self-identified moderate, slightly disagrees. To her, cancel culture is “public shaming [or] rejection due to someone making a statement that doesn’t align with a prominent left wing political stance.” She argues that “[because] it’s a new phenomenon the short term strategy is to publicly name and shame people who don’t share left wing beliefs. After a while, naming and shaming will be the norm which will lead to the original end goal of public rejection.”

There may be some truth to her point: a recent poll by the Cato Institute showed that 50% of strong liberals supported firing business executives who donated to Donald Trump while only 36% of strong conservatives felt the same about Joe Biden donors.

Geoffrey, a 27-year-old Democrat, seems to agree, describing it as “the obsession of the public for individuals to think, say and act a certain way, and if they don’t, said person doesn’t deserve to earn a living or even exist in certain extreme cases, in the public space.” To him, “cancel culture is more like a monster your parents threaten you with, that if you don’t toe the line, will come and ruin your life.”

Pete, a 27-year-old moderate and unaffiliated voter, thinks somewhat similarly. “I would define it as a process of being harassed online, and then the offline world potentially reacting to it,” he says.

If this sounds either broad or extreme to you, that means you’re paying attention. Despite some level of overlap, everyone seems to have different definitions of what cancel culture is and, therefore, what it means to “cancel” someone.

What are the positive consequences?

Despite the lack of consensus regarding the motives and methods of cancelation, there seems to be consensus on its potential positives.

Emily, a 28-year-old progressive Democrat, points out that cancelation may have “actual repercussions for those with social transgressions that may not have been civilly or criminally liable.”

“It helps democratize power structures, hold public figures accountable, and usually reinforces social awareness,” says Virginia, a 29-year-old progressive Democrat. Rashmi feels it provides opportunities for “someone to learn from their mistakes.”

“It is supposed to give power and support to those who are powerless against powerful individuals or institutions,” says Jae, a 35-year-old moderate. Pete agrees, citing that cancel culture could help with “removing someone dangerous from a position of power, such as a pedophile or similar predator.”

Based on the sentiments above, it sounds like people feel there is potential for good cancelation. But what’s the catch?

What’s the downside?

The negatives, unlike like the positives, are split. However, while the people who support cancel culture seem to agree that there are negatives, they don’t necessarily agree on what those negatives may be.

For example, Charlie, a 25-year-old liberal Democrat, feels that one potential negative is that “[the] individual may not be as willing to learn and educate themselves on their behaviors and opinion based on how people have approached them.”

Haley, a 24-year-old socialist Democrat, feels that “[if] you have been canceled you have to work on yourself and it’s more difficult to continue your career as a public figure.”

On the contrary, those who are wary seem to have much more consensus regarding its drawbacks.

“It quite often is wrong or misguided, as people have the impulse to want justice before knowing everything involved,” says Emily.

Jae feels it’s worse than that. “In a lot of incidents, people are silenced out of fear of losing one’s career or people are bullied,” he says. “That is a short-term effect. I believe the real damage of cancel culture comes from how it could change [the] way people approach conversation.” Jae felt that “people who try to cancel others out of ideological difference do not seem to understand why their action is wrong. They believe they are completely justified because in their own mind they are doing the right thing.”

To Jae’s point, the aforementioned Cato poll suggested 62% of Americans, meaning 52% of Democrats, 59% of independents, and 77% of Republicans, expressed the need to self-censor out of fear of offense. Roughly 32% of respondents— 31% of liberals, 30% of moderates and 34% of conservatives — worry their political views could get them fired or harm their career trajectory. When broken down by ideology, only one subgroup of people had less than half who felt the need to self-censor: strong liberals (42%).

So, who’s been successfully “canceled”?

Given the gap in agreement between the definition, pros, and cons of cancel culture, how much do people agree on who’s been canceled?

“When it’s done right, we could get incidents such as Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby,” says Jae. Several respondents agreed that the two convicted sex offenders have been successfully canceled. Some cited Kevin Spacey, who was removed from the Netflix original series House of Cards, among other projects, following several allegations of sexual assault. The charges for at least one of the cases were later dismissed following the anonymous accuser’s death.

Tina believes that the lines between cancel culture and accountability are getting blurred. “I don’t believe Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, or Bill Cosby were canceled,” she says. “They were held accountable. In all three cases, the swift removal from stardom was due to a universally condemned action such as child assault and rape.”

One person cited Milo Yiannopoulos, a British provocateur who resigned from Breitbart News after video emerged of him allegedly defending pedophilia.

Things start to get tricky, however, when we move out of the realm of sexual violence and into the realm of opinion and rhetoric.

Some respondents cited James Damore, the former Google engineer whose internal memo got him fired. Damore’s memo, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” criticized the tech giant’s diversity initiatives as biased and argued that biological differences between men and women led to different preferences, abilities, and ultimately career choices. After being fired, he sued the company over allegations of discrimination against whites, conservatives, and men, although he would later drop the lawsuit.

Several respondents cited Rowling, who was recently accused of transphobia after she argued that there were biological differences between transgender women and cisgender women. Rowling lost support from the actors of the very franchise upon which she gained her fame and fortune, including Daniel Radcliffe and Eddie Redmayne. To Tina, Rowling “is an example of cancel culture,” arguing that the author’s “honest yet politically incorrect view is the reason why people want to cancel her.”

Screenshot from Twitter

One responded cited the late Kobe Bryant, whose sexual assault trial followed him into his untimely death and kept him from being an Oscar voter despite never being convicted.

Another respondent cited Monica Lewinsky and Roseanne Barr. The former faced career challenges after her affair with former president Bill Clinton and the ensuing impeachment trial. For the latter, a controversial Twitter rant forced ABC to cancel Roseanne Barr’s recently revived television series, despite its massively successful comeback season. “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj,” she wrote in a now-deleted tweet describing Valerie Jarrett, a black woman and former senior advisor to President Barack Obama.

The Verdict?

What is “cancel culture”? Based on a crude consensus, cancel culture is the public rejection of a person, brand, or product for either proven or perceived transgressions. Said transgressions, however, are extremely partisan, which leads to a lack of consensus regarding who has been canceled and who deserves it.


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