Cancel culture (or call-out culture) is a modern form of ostracism in which an individual, a group, a media outlet or even a corporation is thrust out of social or professional circles - either online on social media, in the real world, or both. Those who are subject to this ostracism are said to be "canceled." The expression "cancel culture" has mostly negative connotations and is commonly used in debates on free speech and censorship.
Cancel culture is a variant on call-out culture and constitutes a form of boycott against an individual (often a celebrity, but sometimes corporations or political figures) who is deemed to have acted or spoken in a questionable or controversial manner. The controversial speech is frequently identified as hate speech that is deemed offensive to another person or group. For those on the receiving end of cancel culture, the consequence can lead to loss of reputation and income, and is frequently connected with social media attacks.
The rise of cancel culture coincides with the rise of social media, especially Twitter, which has been used as a vehicle for campaigns to cancel individuals, media outlets, and corporations.
"Call-out culture" or "cancel culture" is based on several factors: the rise of the internet, social media, the redefinition of hate speech, and the emerging fields of postmodern race and gender theories and rise of identity politics. With the rise of the internet in the mid-1990s, political speech moved online. Due in part to the anonymous nature of much of the communication and the rising importance of social media, especially Twitter, controversial posts became commonplace. Some of these posts sparked a storm of criticism with calls to "call-out" or "cancel" the person behind the post.
The internet played a role in the shift from third-wave to fourth-wave feminism, which also played a role in the rise of cancel culture. This new development extended third-wave feminism's focus on micropolitics.
Many commentators argue that the internet itself has enabled a shift from ‘third-wave’ to ‘fourth-wave’ feminism. What is certain is that the internet has created a ‘call-out’ culture, in which sexism or misogyny can be ‘called out’ and challenged. This culture is indicative of the continuing influence of the third wave, with its focus on micropolitics and challenging sexism and misogyny insofar as they appear in everyday rhetoric, advertising, film, television and literature, the media, and so on.
The #MeToo movement also played a role in cancel culture. The #MeToo movement gave women (and men) the ability to call out their abusers on a forum where the accusations would be heard, especially against very powerful individuals.
Hate Speech and Microaggressions
Calls to limit or punish hate speech grew during the 2010s. Among the antecedents to call-out culture was an evolving view of what constitutes hate speech. The United Nations developed a policy on hate speech, defining it as "any kind of communication in speech, writing or behavior, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender or other identity factor."
The definition does not clearly elucidate what is considered hate speech, but it does clarify that the notion of hate speech is connected with the protection of certain minority groups or protected classes. The definition of hate speech expanded with the rise of the notion of the microaggression. While the concept had been around since the 1970s, it grew in popular usage during the 2010s, particularly in campus culture. Some psychologists, like Columbia University Teachers College professor, Derald Wing Sue, argued that microagrressions were "the new face of racism." Sue defined microaggressions as "brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional... " These microagressions are whatever minority groups find offensive. Sue suggests almost anything can be a microagression, such as a white person saying that "America is a melting pot." Sue argues that intent doesn't matter, only impact. If something offends the minority group, it is a microaggression, a kind of verbal violence. Sue argued that getting White Americans to become aware of their unintentional racist communications is a major challenge to society.... Although research on overt forms of racism is valuable, few scholars have explored the hidden and denigrating messages of racial microaggressions that are directed toward Black people." These microaggressions are more subtle, ambiguous, and often unintentional. Sue says this has led some Americans to believe wrongly that non-white Americans no longer suffer from racism.
Postmodern political culture
The theory behind microaggressions and much of the culture part of cancel culture is based on postmodernist thought. Prior to postmodernism during the era of Civil Rights, hate speech laws focused on deliberately hateful speech. Freedom of speech is a First Amendment right, but one that is subject to limitations. Hate speech is not protected free speech. The problem was identifying what constitutes hate speech. The rise of identity politics and a political culture based on equity which directly attacked the liberal notion of free speech is based on the postmodern critique of Western civilization.
Postmodernism argued that the Enlightenment and scientific knowledge that emerged from it produced knowledge that supported the ruling class. Specifically, these are discourses that are shaped by those with power. Michel Foucault argued that knowledge was produced by discursive practices that ultimately served the interests of the existing power structures. Those who were not part of the ruling elite, or beneficiaries of the system, were is some sense excluded and oppressed.
Meanwhile, Jacques Derrida argued that Western discourses were phallocentric, by which he meant both theocratic and patriarchal. Even the secular culture that swept in secularism and modernism remained essentially both. The "Truth" that was promised by the scientific method did not sufficiently recognize that the referent, or object, of its aim was grounded in Western metaphysical tradition, namely God. His methodology, which he termed deconstruction, was designed to eliminate absolute truths, replacing them with only provisional meanings that were always in the process of revision.
The postmodern critique argued that these universal ideals were grounded in discourses that were designed to prop up the power of the establishment, who are predominantly white, male, and heterosexual. Those who do not fit into those categories are considered to be oppressed. Consequently, discursive practices in our normal use of language always runs the risk of oppressing, or re-oppressing since minority groups are already oppressed, those not part of the dominant white, male, heterosexual society. Speech that is considered to generally support the cultural norms, conservative views and even liberal views that are not in line with the postmodern view of culture are subject to attack, and the speakers canceled for their offensive speech, whether they intended to offend or not. Thus, as Sue argued, any speech that minority groups consider offensive is said to serve as a re-oppression, as hate speech.
Safe spaces date back to the 1990s. Its original purpose was to create a welcoming space for gay and lesbian students. With the rise of gender studies, queer theory, and critical race theory, the number of covered groups grew over the ensuing two decades. Safe spaces on campus grew in response to the emerging theory off microaggressions. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and free-speech activist Greg Lukianoff addressed the impact of microaggressions in their book The Coddling of the American Mind. They concluded that "call-out culture" arises from the perceived need to protect students from words and ideas that they might find offensive. This created a campus culture based on what they call "safetyism." They argue that modern campus culture treats students, especially minority students, as fragile, in need of protection. To protect the minority group from verbal violence, the free speech of the offending group of oppressors must be curbed and controlled to protect the safety of the minority group. The campus became a "safe space." Even actual violence to prevent the expression of ideas or words taken to be offensive is not only acceptable, but necessary. The implementation of this idea led to numerous incidents of physical violence on college campuses in the 2010s.
This creates a moral culture where "safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make tradeoffs demanded by other practical and moral concerns" on college campuses. The need to stand up for oppressed groups contributed to call-out culture as did the emergence of identity politics. Lukianoff and Haidt are particularly concerned with the rise of what they call "Common-Enemy Identity Politics," which creates a tendency to operate in "tribal mode." When people make statements that oppose or contradict the acceptable norms in my tribe, it is the responsibility of those that see that bad behavior to call it out. That is the meaning of call-out culture on campus. If you fail to call it out, you are complicit in the bad behavior and culpable. You may even be called out yourself for insufficient vigilance.
From call-out to cancel culture
An exact definition of the idea or goal is still a matter of debate. In 2020, Ligaya Mishan wrote in The New York Times, "The term is shambolically applied to incidents both online and off that range from vigilante justice to hostile debate to stalking, intimidation and harassment. ... Those who embrace the idea (if not the precise language) of canceling seek more than pat apologies and retractions, although it's not always clear whether the goal is to right a specific wrong and redress a larger imbalance of power."
July 2020 marked a "high point" in the debate over cancel culture. Harper's Magazine published an open letter signed by 153 public figures. The letter set out arguments against "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."
A response letter organized by lecturer Arionne Nettles, "A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate," was signed by over 160 people in academia and media, criticizing the Harper's letter as a plea to end cancel culture by successful professionals with large platforms but to exclude others who have been "canceled for generations."
After the Capitol Hill riot of January 6, 2021, Simon and Schuster canceled the book contract of Republican Senator Josh Hawley. Hawley was one of the Senators who had planned to issue a challenge to the vote. The decision to cancel Hawley's book, The Tyranny of Big Tech, drew criticism from conservatives, but was hailed as a long overdue check on conservatives by some liberals. Shortly thereafter, Hawley found another publisher.
American public opinion
A poll of American registered voters conducted by Morning Consult in July 2020 showed that cancel culture, defined as "the practice of withdrawing support for (or canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive," was common. Forty percent of respondents said they had withdrawn support from public figures and companies, including on social media, because they had done or said something considered objectionable or offensive, eight percent engaging in this often. Behavior differed according to age, with a majority (55%) of voters 18 to 34 years old saying they have taken part in cancel culture, while only about a third (32%) of voters over 65 said they had joined a social media pile-on. Attitude towards the practice was mixed, with 44% of respondents saying they disapproved of cancel culture, 32% who approved, and 24% who did not know or had no opinion. Furthermore, 46% believed cancel culture had gone too far, with only 10% thinking it had not gone far enough. However, a majority (53%) believed that people should expect social consequences for expressing unpopular opinions in public, especially those that may be construed as deeply offensive to other people.
Reactions to cancel culture has been mixed. Those on the academic left see it as a necessary step in confronting systemic injustices. Media studies scholar Eve Ng calls it "a collective of typically marginalized voices 'calling out' and emphatically expressing their censure of a powerful figure." Cultural studies scholar Frances Lee states that call-out culture leads to self-policing of "wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate" opinions. According to Lisa Nakamura, University of Michigan professor of media studies, canceling someone is a form of "cultural boycott" and cancel culture is the "ultimate expression of agency" which is "born of a desire for control [as] people have limited power over what is presented to them on social media" and a need for "accountability which is not centralized."
Others, like Professor of Media Studies at Michigan State University, Keith Hampton, contend that the practice contributes to the polarization of American society, but does not lead to changes in opinion. Professor Joshua Knobe, of the Philosophy Department at Yale, contends that public denunciation is not effective, and that society is too quick to pass judgment against those they view as public offenders or persona non-grata. Knobe asserts that these actions have the opposite effect on individuals and that it is best to bring attention to the positive actions in which most of society participates.
Criticism of the concept
Former US President Barack Obama warned against social media call-out culture saying "People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and, you know, share certain things with you." Former US President Donald Trump criticized cancel culture in a speech in July 2020, comparing it to totalitarianism and claiming that it is a political weapon used to punish and shame dissenters by driving them from their jobs and demanding submission.
Some academics proposed alternatives and improvements to cancel culture. Critical multiculturalism professor Anita Bright proposed "calling in" rather than "calling out" in order to bring forward the former's idea of accountability but in a more "humane, humble, and bridge-building" light. Clinical counselor Anna Richards, who specializes in conflict mediation, says that "learning to analyze our own motivations when offering criticism" helps call-out culture work productively.
Social media and cancel culture
Harvard University professor Pippa Norris argues that the controversies surrounding cancel culture are between those who argue that it gives a voice to those in marginalized communities and those who argue cancel culture is dangerous because it prevents free speech and/or the opportunity for open debate. Norris focuses in on how the role of information technology, such as social media, can be a large contributing factor to the rise of cancel culture within the last few years. Additionally, there have been online communications studies that demonstrate the intensification of cultural wars through activists that are connected through digital and social networking sites. Norris also mentions that the Spiral of Silence Theory may be a contributing factor as to why people are hesitant to voice their own minority views on social media sites in fear that their views and opinions, specifically political opinions, will be chastised because their views violate the majority group's norms and understanding.
Impact of Twitter
Social media platforms, especially Twitter, have played a big role in cancel culture. In March 2014, activist Suey Park called out "a blatantly racist tweet about Asians" from the official Twitter account of The Colbert Report using the hashtag #cancelColbert, which generated widespread outrage against Stephen Colbert and an even greater amount of backlash against Park, even though the Colbert Report tweet was a satirical tweet. By around 2015, the concept of canceling had become widespread on Black Twitter to refer to a personal decision, sometimes seriously and sometimes in jest, to stop supporting a person or work. According to Jonah Engel Bromwich of The New York Times, this usage of cancelation indicates the "total disinvestment in something (anything)". After numerous cases of online shaming gained wide notoriety, the term cancelation was increasingly used to describe a widespread, outraged, online response to a single provocative statement, against a single target. Over time, isolated instances of cancelation became both more frequent and the mob mentality more apparent, commentators began seeing a "culture" of outrage and cancelation.
On January 8, 2021, Twitter officially permanently banned President Donald J. Trump's twitter account. This step blocked the former President from using Twitter to communicate with his 90 million Twitter followers. According to Twitter, the account was banned based on the following two tweets:
“The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!”
Shortly thereafter, the President Tweeted:
“To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.”
The reasons given included:
- the decision not to attend the inauguration might be seen as further refusing to accept the election as legitimate
- by not attending it might be a signal to supporters that it would be ok to attack the inauguration since he would not be there
- using the term "American Patriots" could also be interpreted as support for his more violent supporters
- use of the term "GIANT VOICE" could mean that he does not plan to facilitate an orderly transition
- plans for another attack on the Capitol were already proliferating on and off Twitter.
According to Twitter CFO Ned Segal, once you are removed, there is no procedure to be reinstated.
During the last weeks of the 2020 Presidential campaign, Twitter suspended the account of the New York Post for publishing a story about Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden's laptop. The laptop contained information about business dealings with China and Ukraine, which Twitter claimed violated its hacked information policy.
Sleeping Giants is a progressive social media activism organization aiming to persuade companies to remove advertisements from conservative news outlets. The campaign started in November 2016, shortly after Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 United States presidential election, with the launch of a Twitter account aiming to boycott Breitbart News. The first tweet targeted personal finance company SoFi. Most tweets on the account are messages to companies advertising on Breitbart. Of these, most are retweets from other accounts.
The campaign operated anonymously until The Daily Caller identified freelance copywriter Nandini Jammi as a co-founder with Matt Rivitz. Shortly afterward, a New York Times profile of Rivitz with freelance copywriter and marketing consult Nandini Jammi, said the two ran the campaign's Twitter account "along with other still anonymous contributors." Other reports identified Jammi as "co-founder". Jammi has since left Sleeping Giants, saying that Rivitz "gaslighted me out of the movement we built together."
The organization primarily operates from its Twitter account, and also has a Facebook account. It has regional Twitter accounts for Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
By February 2017, 820 companies had joined the campaign and stopped advertising on Breitbart News, according to statistics provided by the organization. By May 2017, thousands of advertisers had stopped advertising with Breitbart.
The list of advertisers includes Allstate, AT&T, Autodesk, BMW, Deutsche Telekom, HP Inc., Kellogg's, Lenovo, Lyft, Visa, Vimeo, Nest, and Warby Parker. The Canadian government also stopped advertising on Breitbart News after declaring that its contents "did not align with the Government’s Code of Value and Ethics". Sleeping Giants' strategy combines traditional approaches to pressure advertisers with direct online activism, aiming to recruit and mobilize a large population of social media users. According to Slate, Sleeping Giants' strategy is similar to the one adopted in 2014 by the Gamergate movement against Gawker Media.
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ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Dershowitz, Alan. Cancel Culture: The Latest Attack on Free Speech and Due Process. Hot Books, 2020. ISBN 978-1510764903
- du Quenoy, Paul. Cancel Culture: Tales from the Front Lines. Academica Press, 2021. ISBN 1680537520
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- Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. The Coddling of the American Mind. New York, NY: Penguin Random House, LLC., 2018. ISBN 978-0735224896
- Sue, Derald Wing. Microaggressions in Everyday Life. Wiley, 2020. ISBN 1119513790
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