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Ethics and the Cancel Culture

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I have previously blogged about the cancel culture. In today’s blog I look at the ethical issues of the cancel culture. Is it right to target a person with whom you disagree and use the Internet to express your outrage, get people fired, or pushed out of certain circles?

What happens in the cancel culture is those offended by the comments of another party become denounced online by those who object to the behavior. It’s a form of social and cultural boycott driven by ‘groupthink’ meaning the intolerance of others with a point of view that diverges from group norms. Taken to an extreme, it’s like excommunicating someone from the community.

Canceling someone on Twitter or elsewhere sends a message that you disagree strongly with their expressed point of view or actions. Here are a few examples of those who have been cancelled:

  • Kevin Hart was disinvited to host the Oscars after tweets surfaced with homophobic statements saying he didn’t want his kids to grow up gay.
  • Rosanne Barr was fired from her show because of a racist tweet likening a former advisor to President Obama to monkeys.
  • Colin Kaepernick has been unable to sign with any team in the National Football League because he refused to stand for the national anthem.

Putting aside the issue of whether the punishment fits the crime, sometimes the statements or behaviors deemed objectionable do not rise to the level of being canceled. George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley recently gave testimony at the House Impeachment hearings that President Trump’s behavior didn’t rise to an impeachable offense and suggested the House get more witnesses and use the courts if necessary to compel testimony. He was called out online and objectors called for his firing from GWU. He wasn’t fired.

You may remember seeing a photo of Ellen DeGeneres sitting next to former President George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys football game. People wondered why a gay Hollywood liberal would be sitting next to a conservative Republican president. In response to people tweeting their displeasure, DeGeneres said she’s friends with others who don’t share her point of view and believes in being kind to one another.

Ellen is on to something here. Kindness is an ethical value as is understanding, respect, and tolerance. We should treat others the way we wish to be treated. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to be canceled for a stupid thing I did or said as an immature adolescent.

Former President Obama also called out the cancel culture when he challenged young activists about being too judgmental. He pointed out that tweeting about how someone didn’t do something right or used the wrong word verb and feeling good about oneself for doing so is not activism nor productive to bring about change. Cancel culture

One way to examine the ethics of the cancel culture is to evaluate the pros and cons of the behavior. Why do some people say it’s a good practice?

  • Expressing oneself by taking others to task is part of the democratic process and free speech.
  • Canceling others is a manifestation of holding others accountable for their behaviors.
  • Calling-out is one way to challenge provocateurs, who deliberately hurt others, or powerful people beyond our reach.

Those who argue against it make the following points.

  • Canceling someone is an attempt to stifle their free speech rights.
  • Tweeting against others in anger begets more anger and can lead to a more serious practices such as bullying.
  • Canceling is an ethical slippery slope; should we cancel everyone with whom we disagree? Where should the line be drawn or is it even possible to do so?

Some who make offensive comments deserve vocal disapproval, public scorn, and to lose their platforms. Bill Cosby comes to mind. Once thought of as a cultural icon, Cosby forfeited the right to be viewed in that light given the recent verdict upholding his sexual conduct conviction, the first celebrity trial in the #MeToo era.

Harvey Weinstein is another example. He has been accused by more than 80 women of sexual abuse and harassment. He is an example of using one’s power over Hollywood actresses and exacting sexual favors for stardom. Talking about your quid pro quo’s.

Millennials and members of the Gen Z group seem to accept the practice of canceling others more than other segments of society. No doubt, it’s because of the way they express themselves largely through tweeting and making comments on social media.

The practice of a cancel culture has further divided our country into warring camps. It’s spilled over to all aspects of our lives including politics. We need to start a national dialogue about it and how it affects civility in society. How will we ever learn to disagree with each other without being disagreeable in a cancel culture?

Those who engage in the cancel culture seek to criticize without listening or understanding why someone said something, and then trying to change the minds of those with whom they disagree. An unintended consequence may be that some members of the canceling group join in for fear of being canceled themselves. People should be able to speak out or remain silent on the issues without fear of retribution.

We need to become a more tolerant society not only in matters of differences in sex, sexual preference, race, religion, and nationality but also in showing the willingness to allow the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with and not seek to harm the offender. It may be a fine line that we walk between a legitimate cancel and ill-advised one, but it’s a line that must be drawn to bring civility back to society.