Cancel Culture: A Societal Obligation or Infringement on Free Speech?

A large majority of people spend their time online talking to friends, sharing and obtaining news, or connecting with family. Our lives being connected to the internet has forced us to learn how to network and find our way around social media platforms. Social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, facilitated the creation of “cancel culture” as we know it today. Cancel culture is used to call out behaviors and actions of individuals and corporations that convey opinions or feelings which are objectively questionable or not appropriate from a public perspective. Engaging in cancel culture typically requires a series of hashtags that proclaim an individual is being cancelled. A hashtag followed by the word cancelled or a hashtag with a person’s name followed by the phrase “isover” are the most commonly used hashtags within the tradition of cancelling. This brings us to an interesting dilemma of whether or not cancel culture is an infringement on freedom of speech.

Infringement on Freedom of Speech

Cancel culture has proven to be an effective method to identify the actions taken by individuals and corporations to rectify mistakes. Recently, in light of social justice movements such as the Black Lives Matter Movement and #MeToo; during an election year, cancel culture has been used to take down racist statues, rename buildings named after white supremacists, call out celebrities and prominent figures in society, and address “racist, sexist, or homophobic views or ideologies.”

Cancel Culture from Two Perspectives

The first perspective is often from the people who are advocating against cancel culture. These people often have large platforms, and they are upset that their freedom of speech is being infringed upon due to the policing of cancel culture and they’re afraid of being criticized for their opinions. The first perspective against cancel culture revolves around the inability to take criticism.

The second perspective involves those that do not engage in exercising their right to free speech and expression. People are afraid of the repercussions of cancel culture so they choose to not express themselves. This second perspective of cancelling is more concerning because it involves actively suppressing the beliefs, ideologies, and perspectives of people and a true cancelling of these voices.

There is a delicate balance in defending the right to freedom of speech and holding individuals and corporations responsible for their actions. The issue with cancel culture is that there is no gradation and all missteps have the same severity of punishment. People can be fired, and student admission can be halted as a result of this. In most cases, it’s a trend to be cancelled where people jump on a bandwagon without the slightest amount of information on what they are cancelling.

On the other hand, “defending speech has become a tool to bully others into silence.” Often, proponents of free speech will quote the right to speech and expression granted by the Constitution to prevent others from criticizing them. While it can be a useful tactic in the short term to support an argument, it leaves no room for compromise. This tactic makes it impossible to find the equilibrium in a conversation, which I argue can be almost as bad as cancel culture.

A protestor holds us up a fundamental part of what defines the freedom of speech. Source: theduran.com
A protestor holds up a fundamental part of what defines the freedom of speech. Source: theduran.com

A Different Option: Call Out Culture

More often than not, free speech is not being infringed upon. It is often a case of what boundaries are being set to speak in a public setting and if those boundaries are acceptable. While it is our responsibility to be open and receptive of opposing views, these views are not always in concordance to what a majority of people might believe. This gives leeway for a new type of action where the public can participate in call out culture instead of cancel culture. But before calling out, it is still important to give the opponent a chance to respond and hear their responses to avoid regressing and participating in what can be a very toxic culture. Responses do not need to include canceling, suppressing, or removing, but can include educating, accepting, and forgiving. This gives room where we can set boundaries safely and simply say, “I do not agree with you,” but even with this it is very situational where some actions are above disagreeing and need to be addressed properly.

For example, in 2016 a Pepsi advertisement featuring model and influence Kendall Jenner was incredibly tone deaf, and downplayed the severity of protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. The outcry against the ad prompted a response from Pepsi and Jenner apologizing for the missing the mark on trying to project “unity, peace, and understanding,” and for putting Jenner is this position. The public seemed to not hold Pepsi to the same standards that Jenner was held, and to this day still is, and essentially made her accountable for the apology, when every one that participated in the situation and production should have also been held responsible. On the other hand, Larry Nassar, who was national team doctor for USA gymnastics, was charged for hundred of cases of sexual assault under the pretext medical treatment for the athletes. Him, his actions, and his behavior harmed hundreds of lives and families, and so the public outcry against the individual, his actions, and the system that supported him was warranted and justified in a situation. Did he deserve to get cancelled? I think most people would argue yes, in a situation that is very black and white both morally and legally. Then the question becomes one of gradation. Did Jenner, a decent person often on the right path, deserve to get cancelled and held to the same standards of accountability, just as Nassar, and risk facing a stagnant and declining career for a misstep? For this, I think most people would argue no, because, yes while the ad was harmful to several communities, it was no where near the severity of Nassar’s actions. Yes, her participation needed to be addressed, but did it warrant “cancelling” a targeted individual because of their background instead of education them?

How to avoid cancel culture?

  • Do your own research on the situation or individual – the one being called out or cancelled as well as the individual doing the calling out or cancelling.
  • Evaluate the gradation and the consequence of the action in question, and ask yourself if cancel culture actually works.
  • Try to address how toxic it can be for your mental health and identify if there is another way to help.
  • If you do decide to engage, make sure to call out and educate instead of cancel.

The Fight against Hate

a black and white pic of a microphone
Microphone. Source: drestwn, Creative Commons.

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, there has been national attention on hate and the fight against it. One must wonder where the line—if there is one—between free speech and hate speech; it does exist but it is a very fine line. The First Amendment protects citizens against government infringement upon speech but it does not explicitly protect against retaliation from private companies and universities. Since the protection of hate speech does not exist wholly under the First Amendment, employers fired several of the Neo-Nazis present at the Charlottesville rally.

I interned for SPLC on Campus this summer. It is the Southern Poverty Law Center’s campus outreach program. It aims to promote LGBTQ+ rights and racial, economic, and immigrant justice on college campuses and within local communities. It also advocates against hate crimes and bigotry. Charlottesville happened during my last week at the center. The live streams flooded social media and the positive collective response blew me away. Although the amount of hate disheartened me, I had hope because people were just as shocked as I was, and everyone I knew was condemning the hate while sending love and support to victims. There were solidarity rallies and protests promoting unity. There was also an increase in SPLC on Campus club registration.

SPLC on Campus began two years ago. Lecia Brooks, director of Outreach at the Southern Poverty Law Center as well as the Civil Rights Memorial Center, launched the program into full throttle. There are around forty-five active clubs in the States now with the staff for the program standing at only three people. These three people, including Lecia Brooks, Daniel Davis (the SPLC on Campus Coordinator), and Shay DeGolier (Outreach and Organizing Specialist) have been the foundation for these clubs. They fight hate relentlessly and push for more college students to do the same. College students have historically been a source of advocacy and activism; we still are. Here at UAB, the fight for equity, inclusion, and unity continue with student organizations like SPLC on Campus club, and Gender and Sexuality Alliance among others.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), founded in 1971, tracks hate groups across the United States. As of today, there are 917 active groups. It is important to note that these groups are not just comprised of those on the far Right. What defines a hate group? The SPLC defines one as a group “[having] beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.” (Hate Map, n.d.). Therefore, any organization that speaks out negatively about another about things they cannot or should not have to change–the color of their skin, their gender or sexuality, their religion, etc.

I have always heard the expressions, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” and “If they can’t fix/change it in a minute, don’t tell them.” The embedding of the first saying—along with the Golden Rule—took place in both the private and public spheres for me. Teachers, parents, and random posters with cats reminded me to treat others as I wanted to be treated. Everyone has heard at least some version of these clichés. Yet, when did we stop living by the childhood mantras we learned in kindergarten? So many people try to change things about others, and many do not do this kindly. If your friend notices something wrong with you, they might lean over and whisper, “Hey, you have some spinach in your teeth” but they would never say to you, “Hey, your skin is too dark.” It is interesting that hateful rhetoric is no longer taboo; it is mainstream.

A recent study reveals the very fine line between free speech and hate speech when employing the First Amendment. Supporters are quick to jump to the defense of someone saying something racist, often using free speech as a justification. However, with the removal of the targeted group identifier occurs, people rarely use the same defense. How far does the defense for free speech go? On a recent NPR Hidden Brain podcast, researcher Chris Crandall discusses a study he performed on this same question post-election, which revealed that people thought it was much more acceptable to speak out against groups that Trump had targeted in his speeches. The research proved some believe that if someone in a position of authority can use such speech with little to no retaliation, then it must be okay. Prior to the election, many withheld their bias for fear of punishment, look no further than the vilification of Mel Gibson or Michael Richards. Following the election, these barriers seemingly no longer exist, allowing a flood of prejudices to permeate our culture.

Remaining nonviolent in the face of such hatred is essential in overcoming it. Fighting fire with fire cannot solve this problem. In fact, there is evidence by counter protests that have ignited with violence. The entire fight for social justice is a figurative fight, fueled by protests, solidarity, unity, and participation. We cannot counter hate speech with more of the same rhetoric. You may wonder: What can I do to fight hate speech? My suggestions is get involved in groups that advocate against it. Reach out and get involved with human rights/social justice groups like SPLC on Campus, HRC, IHR, Amnesty International, and others. Hold protests and react nonviolently to such charged commentary. The most important thing to do is act. As I learned at SPLC, apathy is not an option.

The UAB Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion will host a panel “From Protest to Academic Freedom: Free Speech, Hate Speech, and the First Amendment on College Campuses” tonight, Wednesday, September 20 at 6pm, Heritage Hall, room 102.

Here’s a more in-depth look at some steps you can take to prevent and fight against hate: https://www.splcenter.org/20170814/ten-ways-fight-hate-community-response-guide.

 

Caitlin Beard is a first-year graduate student from Hartselle, Alabama. She is pursuing a Masters of Arts in the Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights. Deaf culture courses and interaction with the Deaf World for her ASL minor ignited an interest in the field of human rights—specifically how it pertains to the Deaf and other oppressed groups.