What is Cancel Culture? And Who Benefits?

Screenshot 2023 02 07 at 9.01.06 AM copy min
Screenshot 2023 02 07 at 9.01.06 AM copy min

Is It Damaging to Livelihoods and Reputations or Critical to Activism? 

By Dr. Katharine Howie, Assistant Professor, University of Southern MississippiAkane Kanai, Senior Research Fellow, Monash University, and Dr. Megan Sharp, Lecturer in Sociology, University of Melbourne

Is ‘Cancel Culture’ the Most Productive Approach?

Professor Katie Howe (University of Southern Mississippi) and Dr. Megan Sharp (University of Melbourne) discuss "cancel culture."By Dr. Katharine Howie – Assistant Professor, University of Southern Mississippi

For a discussion of the potential dangers or merits of “cancel culture,” it’s imperative to define the term. “Cancel culture” is a newer cultural phenomenon whereby a group of people attempts to remove an individual’s or organization’s power, platform, financial resources, or livelihood. Typically, “cancel culture” targets public figures, but instances of canceling ordinary citizens are not uncommon. It takes place when people perceive that the target has transgressed against moral or social norms. An onslaught of tweets and other online content is created to highlight the transgression and demand significant consequences. Social media and technology are the factors that have created this international culture of mob justice. Hashtags allow movements to form, and social media algorithms virally amplify these sensationalized messages. Is “cancel culture” a real problem? Without a doubt. Commentary from both sides of the political aisle consistently emerges to document how tired the public is of “cancel culture.” 

Who Is Affected by ‘Cancel Culture’?  

The most obvious stakeholders are those targeted. Countless public figures and organizations have experienced devastating consequences following a “cancellation.” Individuals may lose their livelihoods and incur damage to their reputations that renders them unemployable for years. The punishment often does not fit the crime or the crime in question isn’t accurately understood (nuance, context, or even basic fact-checking is often absent or haphazard). If the target is innocent or if the consequences are egregious relative to the damage, this represents a major societal problem.

“Cancel culture” also directly affects those who organize the ostracism. It appears that engaging in “cancel culture” largely originates from self-interest. Virtue signaling and impression management seem like primary motivators for many cancellers. A “cancellation” mindset leads people to characterize others based on a singular action, which isn’t a practical lens for relating to others. Overall, engaging in “cancel culture” is likely detrimental to one’s mental health, especially considering the messages exchanged are often hateful and toxic.

What about broader societal effects? “Cancel culture” fuels polarization and makes each party seem more extreme and vengeful than is likely accurate. Only a small portion of the public engages in “cancel culture.” A 2020 Politico poll found 8% of Americans reported frequent “canceling” behaviors. The algorithms and associated media coverage make it seem far more pervasive. Additionally, there is serious concern that the fear of retribution will stifle open debates and the discussion of new, challenging ideas. The nation cannot evolve and improve without a climate of tolerance, curiosity, and collaboration. Of note, the impact of “cancel culture” is not confined to our borders. Russia has identified this phenomenon as a viable tool to weaken American democracy. Russian troll farms create and perpetuate “cancel culture” occurrences online.  

Cancellations have happened due (ostensibly) to perceptions of individuals or companies as unpatriotic, voicing anti-trans views, or making racist comments. While factions of Americans wholeheartedly believe these people should be shamed, consider this question: Do they honestly believe they will win more people to support their causes by leveraging public shame and eliminating civil discourse?

So, What’s Next?

Understanding the potential benefits of “cancel culture” requires reflection on who has possessed power in our societies and the limitations of that dynamic. Historically, those in power dispensed punishments and consequences. Before social media democratized the ability to form a platform and create a voice, it was difficult, if not impossible, for average citizens to demand consequences for those in power. Powerful and well-insulated people and organizations are now held accountable through the tools of “cancellation.” For example, Harvey Weinstein, once a powerful figure in Hollywood, was brought to justice for being a sexual predator. The size and noise from the #metoo movement created enormous pressure on the Weinstein case. It motivated more victims to come forward. Without these influences, would Weinstein have been prosecuted so successfully? Would the systemic abuses in the entertainment industry be recognized? Maybe not. In such instances, the value of mobilizing and giving platforms to ordinary citizens is obvious. Moreover, when we consider disadvantaged groups that traditionally lack power, wealth, and other resources, “cancel culture” represents an opportunity for greater equity. 

Yet given the selfish motivations and mob mentality underlying “cancel culture,” it isn’t surprising that the outcomes are largely negative for the causes supposedly being protected and our societal health at large. America can and should do better at advancing issues about which its citizens are passionate. Whether one sits on the left or right side of the aisle, “cancel culture” usually isn’t a strategy that will achieve meaningful outcomes. Can a new, more productive approach replace “cancel culture”? Yes and no. One tactic is to start “calling people in” (2022 MacArthur Foundation Fellow Associate Professor Loretta Ross has powerful ideas for this strategy) with accountability while preserving the humanity of everyone involved. The reality of the situation is that social media companies control the levers that matter. Their algorithms are not interested in amplifying civil exchanges that lack strong emotionality. Unless Americans drastically alter their relationship with social media or the algorithms are rethought, it’s unlikely much will change regarding “cancel culture.”  

‘Cancel Culture’ Offers the Power to Change Inequality

Professor Katie Howe (University of Southern Mississippi) and Akane Kanai (Monash University) discuss "cancel culture."Professor Katie Howe (University of Southern Mississippi) and Dr. Megan Sharp (University of Melbourne) discuss "cancel culture."By Akane Kanai, Senior Research Fellow, Monash University, and Dr. Megan Sharp, Lecturer in Sociology, University of Melbourne

Dr. Howie is correct to say it’s important to clearly define the term “cancel culture.” However, we respectfully argue that the definition Dr. Howie offered needs further specifics and justification to connect with the realities of how “canceling” actually operates, and has operated, in the world. If not, the danger is that the use of the term itself can polarize beyond the practices identified as “canceling.”

Contextualizing ‘Cancel Culture’ 

Let us explain what we mean. First, we need to acknowledge that “canceling” has moved significantly beyond the notion of removing a person or institution’s “power, platform, financial resources, or livelihood.” This definition is too narrow to use in the context of mediated discourse. It is now used in an everyday sense to denote any form of pushback against an influential person on the internet, ranging from naming and shaming to enforcement of the law. For example, recently, it has been suggested that popular men’s rights influencer Andrew Tate is now being “canceled” by being arrested due to suspected sex trafficking. Commentators may also use the term “canceling” to refer to wide-ranging forms of critique facilitated through social media, such as criticism of the transmisogyny of high-profile author J.K. Rowling

Within the restricted parameters of Dr. Howie’s current definition, it seems self-evident that “canceling” is not effective. We suggest that the definition of “cancel culture,” used in such a blanket fashion, needs to take into account its long history embedded in activism. “Cancel culture” is not, in fact, new. What is new is the term itself and its popularity as a description of strategies of resistance applied by typically marginalized folks to demand social accountability for real and perceived transgressions. Dr. Howie suggests “cancel culture” is negative because “individuals may lose their livelihoods and incur damage to their reputations that renders them unemployable for years.” Taking a long view, such accountability may not necessarily mean employment or economic loss. It might represent a change in shared moral and social standards. We would argue that losing livelihoods is not the norm, and many high-profile people, like J.K. Rowling, continue to have lucrative careers after being “canceled.” Moreover, those who have had their careers cut short momentarily seem to have largely been those convicted of committing crimes such as sexual violence and human trafficking.

Blaming and Shaming 

Using this narrow definition, divorced from its history, has another unintended consequence. It blames the groups that attempt to make a difference by imputing their weakness and ineffectiveness to their actions. It dovetails with the embrace of the term “cancel culture” by commentators who seek to further polarize audiences. But given the wide set of practices understood to “cancel,” ranging from criticism to boycotting, it doesn’t make sense to write off these groups, particularly when social movements urge action over performative allyship. 

What Dr. Howie’s overall argument overlooks are the bonds of solidarity that bring marginalized folks together for a common goal, something that is vital for any activism or advocacy. We agree, however, with her observation that there are positive possibilities in “canceling.” The same set of practices that inform so-called “cancel culture” has also made way for increased representation of marginalized groups in the media, music, and art, fostering the curiosity and openness Dr. Howie promotes. Corporations are being held accountable for their appropriation of culture and global enterprises achieved through the exploitation of workers. 

In a neoliberal age, mediated responses to injustice are simply new forms of old resistances. And just as social media has provided an algorithm for unveiling moral or social transgression, so too has it provided a space for solidarity, particularly for those who have historically been disempowered. Social change does not happen overnight. No one group of ordinary citizens can necessarily end a historical, structural wrong such as misogyny through one coordinated set of actions. But they need to begin somewhere.

Progress With a Cost

By Dr. Katharine Howie – Assistant Professor, University of Southern Mississippi

Dr. Sharp and Dr. Kanai argue that “cancel culture” may raise social norms and moral standards. The success of major organized online movements (such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too) would support the effectiveness of progressing societal standards through online discourse. I agree that “cancel culture” could have similar positive effects. However, I don’t think this progress comes without a cost, such as fueling polarization. Is it a two steps forward and one step back situation? It’s hard to say, especially when accounting for the fickle and powerful algorithmic forces at play. I would continue to argue that different approaches might be more effective in many situations, especially when assessing broad outcomes and long-term benefits.

Dr. Kanai and Dr. Sharp assert that “cancel culture” is “not, in fact, new.” While groups have always formed to push back and seek remedies against those in power, critical factors have combined to create a new phenomenon. Before the Internet and social media, niche groups were limited on how effectively they could unite and through what (if any) channels they could be heard. “Cancel culture” exemplifies how this paradigm has seismically shifted. For example, last fall Lizzo released a new song that contained a derogatory slur, which was offensive to disabled communities (especially those with cerebral palsy). Disability advocates voiced their concerns through the interconnection and real-time publishing provided by social media. Moreover, the virality afforded by hashtags or algorithms supplied the visibility needed to make the musician aware of the issue. Within a week, Lizzo apologized and committed to amending the lyrics. While the desire and need for a “cancel culture” have likely always existed, the tools and circumstances enabling this phenomenon are, in fact, new.

The Term ‘Cancel Culture’ Is Used too Broadly

By Akane Kanai, Senior Research Fellow, Monash University, and Dr. Megan Sharp, Lecturer in Sociology, University of Melbourne

We appreciate Dr. Howie’s overarching point about the need to balance progress and costs. It is certainly not our argument that all online antagonistic discourse is positive. We agree that polarization on social media has often resulted in debates framed in binary terms of for or against. Indeed, social media has generated new avenues for calling out attitudes and behaviors that have had detrimental consequences. And while digital media has hastened the timeliness of pointing out the problem, as Dr. Howie asserts, we suggest that this is not always a negative consequence. The practice of consolidating information for the purpose of mobilization is common among activists. The internet has simply provided new architecture—such as hashtags and algorithms—to do so.

Our central point is that “cancel culture” is becoming an untenably broad term framing diverse disagreements with public speech and public acts. Beginning from the premise of “canceling” presumes any disagreement by concerned citizens denies the freedom of others and needs to be situated in a wider set of social, political, and economic practices. We need to examine the dynamics of each case in assessing social standards of what we think is just and reasonable. We understand the worries connected to “canceling” that many people feel in relation to the incivility of social media. But to invoke “cancel culture” at any instance of calling out harmful behavior may, in fact, serve to bolster the polarization that Dr. Howie refutes.

If you enjoyed this article, please make sure to like, comment, and share below. You can also read more from our Culture Wars series here

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Dr. Katharine Howie
Assistant Professor of Marketing

Katharine Howie is currently an assistant professor at the University of Southern Mississippi in the College of Business and Economic Development. She researches topics such as cancel culture, brand activism, and how political ideology shapes consumption. Katharine publishes research in premier academic outlets, teaches courses related to digital marketing, and brings corporate marketing experience from Bass Pro Shops. When she's not in the office, Katharine enjoys mountain biking and cooking spicy food.

Akane Kanai min e1672882284125
Akane Kanai
Senior Research Fellow, Monash University School of Media, Film and Journalism

Dr. Akane Kanai is a researcher based in the School of Media, Film, and Journalism at Monash University, Australia and a Discovery Early Career Award Research Fellow (Australian Research Council). Her research focuses on changing youth identities, digital and popular culture, and associated identity politics. Her last book, Gender and relatability in digital culture, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2019.

profilepic Megan Sharp min e1672882011709
Megan Sharp
Lecturer in Sociology, Researcher of Diversity and Inclusion, University of Melbourne

Megan Sharp is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses on youth, genders and sexualities, subcultures, and social inclusion. Megan has received numerous awards and prizes for her teaching, research, and engagement activities. She has published her work in journals such as Emotion, Space and Society, Journal of Youth Studies, The Sociological Review, and Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture. Megan is the co-convenor of The Australian Sociological Association's Genders + Sexualities Thematic Group.


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