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.”JSTOR Daily
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.
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 has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.