Cancel culture is a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles – whether it be online, on social media, or in person. Those who are subject to this ostracism are said to have been "cancelled".[a] The expression "cancel culture" has mostly negative connotations and is commonly used in debates on free speech and censorship.
The notion of cancel culture is a variant on the term call-out culture and constitutes a form of boycotting or shunning involving an individual (usually a celebrity) who is deemed to have acted or spoken in a questionable or controversial manner.
Accusations of cancellation have also been criticized on the ground that public criticism is also part of free speech, that it is not strictly left-wing and that people claimed to have been "cancelled" often remain in power or enjoy a fruitful business.
The 1983 Chic album Take It Off included the song "Your Love Is Canceled" which compared a break-up to the cancellation of TV shows. The song was written by Nile Rodgers after a bad date Rodgers had with a woman who expected him to misuse his celebrity status on her behalf. "Your Love Is Canceled" inspired screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper to include a reference to a woman being "canceled" in the 1991 film New Jack City. This usage introduced the term to African-American Vernacular English, where it eventually become more common. By around 2015, the concept of canceling had become widespread on Black Twitter to refer to a personal decision to stop supporting a person or work, sometimes seriously and sometimes in jest. According to Jonah Engel Bromwich of The New York Times, this usage of cancellation indicates the "total disinvestment in something (anything)".
Merriam-Webster states that to "cancel", in this context, means "to stop giving support to [a] person". Dictionary.com, in its pop-culture dictionary, defines cancel culture as "withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive." The phenomenon has occurred to both public figures and private citizens. Ligaya Mishan wrote in the New York Times, "The term is shambolically applied to incidents both online and off that range from vigilante justice to hostile debate to stalking, intimidation and harassment....Those who embrace the idea (if not the precise language) of canceling seek more than pat apologies and retractions, although it’s not always clear whether the goal is to right a specific wrong and redress a larger imbalance of power."
According to the book The Coddling of the American Mind (2018) by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and free-speech activist Greg Lukianoff, call-out culture arises from what they call "safetyism" on college campuses. According to Keith Hampton, professor of media studies at Michigan State University, the practice contributes to the polarization of American society, but it does not lead to changes in opinion. Cancel culture has been described by media studies scholar Eve Ng as "a collective of typically marginalized voices 'calling out' and emphatically expressing their censure of a powerful figure." Cultural studies scholar Frances Lee states that call-out culture leads to self-policing of "wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate" opinions. According to Lisa Nakamura, University of Michigan professor of media studies, cancelling someone is a form of "cultural boycott" and that cancel culture is the "ultimate expression of agency" which is "born of a desire for control [as] people have limited power over what is presented to them on social media" and a need for "accountability which is not centralized".
Some academics proposed alternatives and improvements to cancel culture. Critical multiculturalism professor Anita Bright proposed "calling in" rather than "calling out" in order to bring forward the former's idea of accountability but in a more "humane, humble, and bridge-building" light. Clinical counsellor Anna Richards, who specializes in conflict mediation, says that "learning to analyze our own motivations when offering criticism" helps call-out culture work productively.
Professor Joshua Knobe, of the Philosophy Department at Yale, contends that public denunciation is not effective, and that society is too quick to pass judgement against those they view as public offenders or persona non-grata. Knobe asserts that these actions have the opposite effect on individuals and that it is best to bring attention to the positive actions that most of society participates in.
Former US President Barack Obama warned against social media call-out culture, saying that "People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and, you know, share certain things with you." Former US President Donald Trump also criticized cancel culture in a speech in July 2020, comparing it to totalitarianism and claiming that it is a political weapon used to punish and shame dissenters by driving them from their jobs and demanding submission.
Dalvin Brown, writing in USA Today, has described an open letter signed by 153 public figures and published in Harper's Magazine as marking a "high point" in the debate on the topic. The letter set out arguments against "an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty."
A response letter organized by lecturer Arionne Nettles, "A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate", was signed by over 160 people in academia and media and criticized the Harper's letter as a plea to end cancel culture by successful professionals with large platforms but to exclude others who have been "cancelled for generations".
American public opinion
A poll of American registered voters conducted by Morning Consult in July 2020 showed that cancel culture, defined as "the practice of withdrawing support for (or canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive," was common: 40% of respondents said they had withdrawn support from public figures and companies, including on social media, because they had done or said something considered objectionable or offensive, 8% having engaged in this often. Behavior differed according to age, with a majority (55%) of voters 18 to 34 years old saying they have taken part in cancel culture, while only about a third (32%) of voters over 65 said they had joined a social media pile-on. Attitude towards the practice was mixed, with 44% of respondents saying they disapproved of cancel culture, 32% who approved, and 24% who did not know or had no opinion. Furthermore, 46% believed cancel culture had gone too far, with only 10% thinking it had not gone far enough. However, a majority (53%) believed that people should expect social consequences for expressing unpopular opinions in public, especially those that may be construed as deeply offensive to other people.
A March 2021 poll by the Harvard Center for American Political Studies and The Harris Poll found that 64% of respondents viewed "a growing cancel culture" as a threat to their freedom, while the other 36% did not. 36% of respondents said that cancel culture is a big problem, 32% called it a moderate problem, 20% called it a small problem, and 13% said it is not a problem. 54% said they were concerned that if they expressed their opinions online, they would be banned or fired, while the other 46% said they were not concerned.
Criticism of the concept
Danielle Kurtzleben, a political reporter for NPR, wrote in 2021 that the over-use of the phrase "cancel culture" in American politics (particularly by Republicans) has made it "arguably background noise". Per Kurtzleben and others, the term has undergone semantic bleaching to lose its original meaning.
Historian C. J. Coventry argues that the term has been incorrectly applied, and that it more accurately reflects the propensity of people to hide historical instances of injustice:
While I agree that the line between debate and suppression is one that occasionally gets crossed by the so-called left wing, it is almost invariably true that the real cancel culture is perpetrated by those who have embraced the term. If you look through Australian history, as well as European and American history, you will find countless examples of people speaking out against injustice and being persecuted in return. I can think of a number of people in our own time who are being persecuted by supposedly democratic governments for revealing uncomfortable information.
Another historian, David Olusoga, similarly argued:
Unlike some on the left, I have never doubted that "cancel culture" exists ... The great myth about cancel culture, however, is that it exists only on the left. For the past 40 years, rightwing newspapers have ceaselessly fought to delegitimise and ultimately cancel our national broadcaster [the BBC], motivated by financial as well as political ambitions.
Indigenous governance professor and activist Pamela Palmater writes in Maclean's magazine that cancel culture differs from accountability in her article about the public backlash surrounding Canadian politicians who vacationed during COVID-19, despite pandemic rules not to.
Former US Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia says that cancel culture is a form of free speech, and is therefore protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. According to Scalia, cancel culture can, however, interfere with the right to counsel, as some lawyers would not be willing to risk their personal and professional reputation on controversial topics.
Sarah Manavis wrote for the New Statesman magazine that while free speech advocates are more likely to make accusations of "cancel culture", criticism is part of free speech and rarely results in consequences for those in power who are criticized. She argues that social media is an extension and reincarnation of a longer tradition of expression in a liberal society, "a new space for historical power structures to be solidified" and that online criticism by people who do not hold actual power in society tends to not affect existing power structures. She adds that most prominent people who criticized public opinion as cancelling still have highly profitable businesses and concluded with "So even if you fear the monster under the bed, it will never do you harm. It can’t, because it was never there in the first place. Repercussions rarely come for those in power. Why punch down, when you’ve already won?"
Some media commentators (including Sunny Hostin and Levar Burton), have stated that cancel culture should be renamed consequence culture. The terms have different connotations: cancel culture focusing on the effect whereby discussion is limited by a desire to maintain one certain viewpoint, whereas consequence culture focuses on the idea that those that write or publish opinions or make statements should bear some responsibility for the effects of these on people.
In popular culture
The American animated television series South Park mocked cancel culture with its own "#CancelSouthPark" campaign in promotion of the show's twenty-second season (2018). In the season's third episode, "The Problem with a Poo", there are references to the 2017 documentary The Problem with Apu, the cancellation of Roseanne after a controversial tweet by the show's eponymous actress, and the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Both the Dixie Chicks, for their outspoken criticism of the Iraq War and President Bush, and Bill Maher have said they are victims of cancel culture.
- At-will employment
- Character assassination
- Culture war
- Enemy of the people
- Freedom of speech
- Internet vigilantism
- Online shaming
- Political correctness
- Persona non grata
- Presumption of guilt
- Relational aggression
- Social exclusion
- Social justice warrior
- Double standard
- Merriam-Webster notes that to "cancel", in this context, means "to stop giving support to that person".Dictionary.com, in its pop-culture dictionary, defines cancel culture as "withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive."
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