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 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.