Cancel culture is the mirco level of what is happening in many parts of our online culture.  The macro: group dynamics, power dynamics, and class are what drive the process.  As critical thinkers and active citizens we need to be aware of both levels and how they interact and form the popular social currents in our society.

The most often suggested tonic to cancel culture is free speech.  I tend to agree with that proviso, but I would add that free speech is not enough to guarantee a social dynamic that is immune from the ravages of cancel culture.  Free speech must be coupled with a citizenry that has the wherewithal to think deeply about issues and be capable of frank analysis of the positions and arguments that they make, otherwise the utility of free speech becomes decidedly limited.

People have to be able to agree to listen to each other for free speech to work as we imagine it should.  Yelling at each other from ideological fortresses accomplishes nothing.

I would suggest that the ability to compromise is one of the key ingredients that is required to make a society that values liberty and freedom work.   There is a great deal of work to do in this regard as the barriers in place, as described by the JSTOR article, enumerates.  Overcoming cancel culture will involve not only improving our own critical faculties, but also helping others make that very same transition.



“Perhaps more than anything else, cancel culture will be seen as an intrinsic part of life lived publicly in this decade, with the downfall of powerful Hollywood producers, racist and sexist comedians, white supremacists, and clueless corporations left in its wake. Cancel culture, not unlike cyberbullying, has also had its more “innocent” victims, ordinary citizens who said the unacceptable thing in a public forum. Is the destructive power of cancel culture too much?

Many perceive this phenomenon of cancelling as a very new and scary thing that young people do, so much so that they’re ready to cancel the whole thing. Even Barack Obama weighed in on it recently, cautioning young people not to be overly critical and judgmental, as though the very idea of “cancelling” must always wrong and unreasonable, regardless of what is being criticized or how problematic it may be. Obama’s negative reactions to this kind of power being wielded by a groups that are relatively powerless, as an establishment figure (no matter how benevolently he presents himself), are perhaps not unusual.

The social psychologist John Drury shows that the discourse around crowds, collectives, and people power have historically been problematic and negative, revealing the class biases and political ideologies of those commentators who describe them. Communities and crowds out of step with societal norms are often presented as something to be feared, and this is something many of us internalize. Crowds are scary. Even as we speak, there’s civil unrest, protests, demonstrations, and strikes happening all around the world, for a myriad of different reasons, in a decade that began with the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street protests. These movements have not often been described in flattering terms.

The kind of language that’s used to talk about groups of people assembled together—or their collective actions seeking to change the status quo—often maligns communities as irrational, “mobs” or “rioters” with uncontrolled, invalid emotions, a kind of faceless contagion that presents a threat to civilized, law-abiding society and the ruling establishment. As Drury points out, this language systematically delegitimizes the aims of these collectives as being trivial, if not dangerous:

If the crowd is pathologized and criminalized, then its behaviour is not meaningful. There can therefore be no rational dialogue with it. Since the crowd is not part of the democratic process, it is legitimate and even necessary to suppress it with the full force of the state.

No one could argue that it’s pleasant to be at the bottom of a pile on, virtual or not. 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. The English professor Jodie Nicotra points out that such a thing has always been a part of community life and, in fact, a part of building and maintaining a community’s values. Whenever people have deviated from the norm, there have been public acts of shaming, from the scarlet letters or village stocks of Puritan life to the ritual public head shavings of thousands of French women who were suspected of fraternizing with German soldiers in World War II.

Cancel culture is, on the one hand, less severe than these acts of public shaming, because it is mostly linguistic and communicative. On the other hand, it can seem more extreme, because unlike these historical events of past shaming, it’s unconstrained by geographical space and can involve large numbers of people in what can become an unrelenting personal attack. And that certainly can have unintended repercussions. Because social media, especially Twitter, is loosely joined together by a network of weak ties, it actually makes it easier for new, especially negative information, such as rumors or criticisms or even fake news, to spread quickly. It’s not constrained by closely linked social circles where information eventually stops spreading after repeatedly being shared by multiple people.”