What Is… Cancel Culture

Cancel culture word cloud
Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is cancel culture.

Cancel culture is an odd phenomenon spawned by the social media era. Some argue that it poses a threat to freedom of speech. I didn’t know enough to write an opinion post on it, so I decided to put this post within the what is… series to find out what others have to say about it.

Cancel culture seems to encompass a few different issues, and there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on what exactly that mix is. One element is the free expression of ideas in the context of university lectures and other activities. Then there are things getting dredged up from 20 years ago and showing up in everyone’s Twitter feed, like Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s brownface photo from 20 years ago that surfaced a couple of years back.

You’ve also got publications in the present that are considered offensive, with repercussions for those who wrote and published the offending story. We can’t forget the outing of criminal behaviour such as with Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly, and Kevin Spacey. Then there are influencer spats on social media, which seems to have happened with James Charles, whoever he is. Then there’s the role of Twitter and mass-shaming.

That’s a lot going on, and I’m still not clear which bits cancel culture does or does not encompass. This perhaps has to do with concept creep, which refers to the semantic expansion of terms so they come to include more things than they originally did.

The role of social media

According to a USA Today article, “The phenomenon occurs when people get upset about something that a company or person has done or something they have said. It also can be divisive with opposers saying threats of cancellation stifles free speech.” That seems to point in the direction of the masses on social media being the driving force, which may motivate a company to react by firing an offending individual to avoid tarnishing their brand.

A Politico article says that cancel culture is generally “performed on social media in the form of group shaming.” In a poll they conducted, 46% of Americans believed cancel culture had “gone too far.” 27% of respondents thought it had a positive impact on society, while 49% believed its impact was negative. 40% said they’d participated in cancel culture, with 10% saying they did so often. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to participate. There’s a big generation gap, with Gen-Z and Millennials favouring cancel culture and Gen-X and Baby Boomers being against it.

Besides the younger generations in general, not everyone thinks that cancel culture is necessarily a bad thing. The Wikipedia article on the topic quotes a media studies professor who calls cancelling the “ultimate expression of agency” (agency in that sense is the ability to not only make but enact free choices) and a way to achieve “accountability which is not centralized.

A JSTOR Daily article says “It’s true that people can band together for the wrong reasons, but, funnily enough, they can also band together for very good reasons. Cancelling someone, in terms of public shaming, or shunning, or just being criticized, is, again, nothing new, though it is arguably different in how quickly and severely it can happen online.” That’s a very good point.

The nature of Twitter makes it very easy for negative information to be distributed widely and rapidly. According to JSTOR Daily:

“This could explain why cancel culture seems so widespread, so virulently uncontrollable, and so dangerously unstable… Rhetorical phenomena like virtual call-outs can spontaneously self-assemble a community based on #sharedbeliefs where there may not have been one before, tapping into a power that members of a group individually may never have had, but also reinforcing its evolving norms and values through language.”


What people with platforms say

In 2020, “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” was printed in Harper’s Magazine, signed by 153 prominent authors and academics, including Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, and Gloria Steinem.

The letter called out modern censoriousness for “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.” It adds, “The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”

There was a rebuttal letter published in The Objective, “A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” It called out the Harper’s letter writers for being highly privileged and ignoring how things like racism and transphobia have long silenced people. I didn’t recognize any of the signatories, and several people contributed anonymously. The Harper’s letter authors were definitely coming from a place of privilege in the sense of having respect and a large platform from which to be heard. Focusing on that, though, seems like a distraction from the message itself.

Getting fired

Nick Cannon was fired by CBS after making antisemitic comments on his podcast. Is that cancel culture, or is that CBS making a decision they don’t want antisemitism associated with their brand? No one’s stopping him from having his podcast; he’s definitely not short of a platform.

Roseanne Barr had her tv show cancelled after a series of racist tweets. Cancel culture, or ABC deciding nuh-uh, we’re not okay with that? She has a right to say what she wants, but her employer doesn’t have to like what she says.

Is it a free speech issue?

Freedom of speech in the First Amendment sense means that government can’t interfere by, say, throwing someone in jail for what they say, as happens in so many countries where there are significant limits to freedom of speech. It doesn’t mean that people have to be okay with what you have to say, and it seems like what cancel culture is all about is the people en masse imposing consequences because they don’t like what’s been said.

In my recent blog post about freedom of speech, someone commented about how cancel culture should be stopped so that people are able to have free, democratic speech. But if cancel culture happens in large part on Twitter, where the masses go to behave like there are no consequences, is that not in a sense democratic? It’s not pretty, by any means, but it’s a whole bunch of people collectively deciding that they’re not okay with someone/something. Cancel culture only exists in this way because social media has given the masses of random people the power to express their opinions in a way they just wouldn’t have been able to back when I was a kid.

If cancel culture is ugly, is that just a reflection of what our society is? What are your thoughts?

The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

36 thoughts on “What Is… Cancel Culture”

  1. I think you’re right that the phrase “cancel culture” brings together a bunch of different things that aren’t the same. It’s one thing to stop following a famous person who you disagree with. It’s quite another thing to agitate to have them fired and banned from working ever again unless they apologise.

    I’ve kind of followed the “It’s just consequences of bad opinion X” in the past, but the definition of “bad opinion” is in the eye of the beholder. It’s hard to feel sorry for someone who loses popularity or even their job because of a racist tweet, but what if someone loses popularity with a certain subset of their audience (or worse) because they come out as gay? There are certainly people out there who feel that being gay is an objectively bad thing like being racist. I don’t really trust either society or the law to police the difference.

    George Orwell said that the highest form of totalitarianism is one without a secret police, and which is policed entirely by peer pressure, because humans are naturally gregarious and want to be liked. I think we may be about to experience that…

  2. Canceling takes less energy than listening, empathizing, offering a counter opinion, and choosing to coexist with differences.

    It’s about believing you’re right and the other is wrong. It’s about labeling people and reducing their humanity to a judgment. It strips away the context of their life.

    Shaming is violence. It’s ineffective at changing people authentically. When people act because they are shamed, it’s unlikely their actions will contribute to life-affirming energy. We’re just trying to get them to do what we want. That’s called coercion.

    Instead of shaming and canceling, we could appeal to common humanity, education, opportunities for change.

    Cam Newton made comments in a press conference a few years ago that were deemed misogynistic. So we can end his public life or try to educate him about why his comment offended so many people. If he doesn’t change by choice, then realize he’s not your go-to source for equality-minded speech. Not everyone in life will check all our boxes. If the left cancels the right and the right cancels the left, then we’re just not talking to each other, but nobody’s mind has been changed.

    When speech goes underground, it can get warped, violent.

    We aren’t condemning people who cancel. Humans make mistakes. If mistakes get us canceled, then we are shunned from society. That is violence, too. We are not fans of eye for an eye. We think love is the only antidote to hate.

    Very interesting read.

    BTW, James Charles is a makeup artist

    1. My question would be how does change happen? I agree that cancel culture isn’t a good thing, but it’s so diffuse it seems hard to know what to grab onto in order to promote change.

  3. I didn’t know what cancel culture was until I read your post, Ashley. This is a hard one for me. I’m not sure how I feel about it. I can forgive an idiot dressing in brownface when he was young, but if someone has raped people and ruined their lives, I have no problem with their reputation being destroyed.

    1. I think harmful intent plays into that too. It likely didn’t cross Trudeau’s mind that he might be harming anyone then or later, but Weinstein knew exactly the kind of harm he was causing.

  4. Interesting post, interesting comments. I’m a little confused by lumping criminals into the mix tho – Harvey Weinstein wasn’t cancelled, he was convicted in a court of law – there’s a difference between trial by jury and trial by Twitter.

    1. I’m confused in general about the whole topic, but I think the issue with celebrities who’ve been convicted is whether the work they’ve created gets targeted to be cancelled. That’s less of an issue with Weinstein since he’s not overtly present in his work, but more so with R. Kelly or Bill Cosby.

  5. By choice. No one has to change just because other people want them to. But some people genuinely don’t want to offend or oppress other people. Some people are willing to examine their privilege and actions in order to contribute to harmony. It’s not easy because we can be defensive.

  6. I guess I’m a far leftist when I say if it “entrenches on someone’s right to be here, then it’s bad.”

    The examples of cancel culture I hear the most about have to do with the statues of slave owners and rapists.

    But, apparently that’s morphing into other things as evidenced here.

    Btw being a so-called far leftist is where I feel decency lies.

    1. I find it weird that the pro-statue people have dragged it into the cancel culture domain, because I think that confuses the issue. Statues serve to celebrate individuals. Taking down statues doesn’t erase history, it ends the celebration. Burning/banning books is what tries to cancel history.

  7. Nick Pipitone

    Great post, Ashley! Yeah, this is a huge topic and I have mixed feelings about it.

    One thing is for sure, though, and cancel culture is exhausting. Both the right and left do it, too, and it seems like it’s more a tool for political power than anything else.

  8. I had a couple columns published on cancel culture shortly after I first learned about it, in January 2020.



    Cancel culture horror stories abound, but I have to say I have mixed feelings. As someone said above, I think it’s taken on broader meaning in the past year or more. It has the effect of making me want to effect more self-censorship — in order to avoid cancellation. That could be a good thing, if spread around.

    1. It’s a bizarre phenomenon. Given that banishing has been going probably since humans learned how to make fire, I wonder if cancel culture is an almost inevitable result of human nature plus social media.

  9. This was a really interesting read. ‘Cancel Culture’ is a phrase that gets thrown about a lot but without any real consideration as to what it means. Because isolating people from society for views you don’t agree with is not a new concept.
    I think cancelling people is an important option to have available to ensure a moral code for society that protects vulnerable groups but that it has gone too far.
    Also as a history uni graduate I am wary about judging those in history by modern standards.

    1. Looking back at history, some actions clearly caused direct harm to others, but many were more indirect, and just because we see those indirect linkages now doesn’t mean they were apparent then.

  10. Cancelling someone, in terms of public shaming, or shunning, or just being criticized, is, again, nothing new, though it is arguably different in how quickly and severely it can happen online.” That’s a very good point.

    If they are consistent purveyors and catalysts of hatred or violence, shame and shun away!

  11. I’ve never understood cancel culture. From what my brain is telling me after reading your post, is it that of people acting upon something to which they find offensive? Or have I got the wrong end of the stick? Most likely the latter.

  12. “Cancel culture” wasn’t a thing until boycott’s started being organized on social media and hitting conservatives. Suddenly, “cancel culture” is a thing and it’s bad. Most of the time, the word they’re looking for is “consequences.”

    There are absolutely problems with setting the mob that is social media lose on a specific target. People in groups are stupid and mean. But “cancel culture” didn’t bother conservatives when they were calling for boycott’s of Nike over #takeaknee.

    Boycotting isn’t new. The sudden amplifications about “cancel culture” mostly seems based in hypocrisy. At least, that’s my reading.

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