In recent years, cancel culture has gained notoriety for high-profile “cancellations” of prominent figures for harmful actions. The #MeToo movement saw people like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby rightly exposed and brought down for instances of sexual assault. In these and other cases, cancel culture has effectively held people accountable for evil actions by giving average people the power to bring wrongdoings to light and deter future transgressions.
However, the vagueness and complexity of what should constitute a cancelable offense makes cancel culture impossible to control and therefore dangerous. Before we fully embrace cancel culture as a weapon against evil, we need to understand its nuances so innocent people don’t get hurt — and so free speech doesn’t fall by the wayside.
In her recent article in The Student Life, Abby Losielle argues that we should view cancel culture in a more positive light rather than as “mob rule, obstruction to free speech, public shaming, [and] silencing.” She says that because cancel culture holds many people accountable, especially those accused of sexual assault, ordinary citizens should embrace it as a wholly positive tool.
Loiselle does not appreciate how subjective and difficult it is to determine what is considered to be problematic and cancelable. She doesn’t consider that cancel culture punishes differences of opinion in the same way as it punishes actual infractions.
In cancel culture, “[t]he objective behind canceling is often to deny that attention, so that the person loses cultural cachet.” There’s no nuance to that logic; the same punishment, denial of attention to the cancelee, applies for all offenses. It’s also easy to get carried away; sometimes, innocent people are prematurely canceled by the public before being able to clear their names. The court of public opinion has a strong tradition of conviction without a trial.
Cancel culture allows for people to speak out against actions they find offensive. In many situations, our different backgrounds and preferences stifle our ability to agree on a definition of “wrong,” which then challenges the idea that people should be acting on every action they find offensive.
Similarly, people who try to apply the logic of cancel culture to issues less clear-cut than sexual assault face serious moral difficulties. Sexual assault is universally accepted as wrong, but, in a general context, things like remarks, insults, and particular ideologies don’t necessarily warrant the same punishment as sexual assault in the minds of most.
Additionally, some people may find being conservative or a member of the Republican party to be problematic, perhaps problematic enough to warrant cancelation. Since many other people don’t see conservatism in the same light, attempts to cancel people for holding these ideologies are much more controversial. This subjectivity of perspective creates serious issues for proponents of cancel culture.
One example is the case of Bari Weiss, a former New York Times writer “who voiced what have become unpopular opinions within her newsroom and accused her colleagues of harassment and censorship.” In her letter of resignation Weiss included details on the hostile work environment she experienced working at the New York Times, where she claimed her colleagues called her a Nazi and racist for her controversial views. Weiss also stated that “New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action.”
Prior to her resignation, Weiss signed ”A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in opposition to “[t]he restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society,” which “invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.” Democracy draws its power from freedom of debate, which helps raise the voices of those with less power.
It is partially true to say we cancel some people for genuine assault or harm, but we have to acknowledge that we are also cancelling many people for harmless differences of opinions. Obviously, some opinions violate most people’s sense of right and wrong, but we must draw distinctions between evil and merely different thoughts. Cancel culture can only be justly applied to the former category; we need different strategies to approach the latter.
Abby Losielle does not examine these complexities, ignoring the seriousness of the threat cancel culture poses to free speech. The fact is, though, that Bari Weiss is not the first or last person to be cancelled for a difference of opinions. There will be many more people subject to this unfair cancellation, causing substantial harm to our society.
Considering the degree of this social damage, we should not embrace cancel culture. People too often use it as a tool to silence others for controversial remarks or opinions. Jumping straight into an aggressive response when people share views we disagree with ignores the fact that our views aren’t necessarily any more right than theirs. It also undermines what is arguably the most powerful trait of democratic society: the ability to draw from multiple different ideologies for solutions to problems. As such, we should stand against cancel culture and the damage it continues to do to our society. While people may not agree with everyone’s perspective, that should not permit them to restrict their speech.
The open letter on Justice and Open Letter concludes by stating that “[a]s writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.” It’s not just writers who benefit from good-faith disagreement; it’s our world as well.
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