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Calling out the Cancel Culture

I have previously blogged about the cancel culture and implications for free speech. The overall ethical question is: 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?

Canceling someone can lead to a loss of a job and damage to their career. There are many ethical issues to consider including: How do we determine who should be canceled? Should we cancel them just for a period of time or “forever”? Is it ethically appropriate to cancel someone who may have committed one offensive act but otherwise has not been involved in saying offensive things or acting in an offensive way? What about the fact that cancelling someone is akin to bullying them for thoughts that differ from the prevailing group norsm

Calling out or Cancelling

First, we need to distinguish between calling someone out and canceling them. A call-out may be appropriate if the offending party committed only one offense and you want to draw attention to it. Cancelling that person is more appropriate if the offenses are pervasive and establish a pattern of negative behaviors. This doesn’t mean canceling is an ethical act. That depends on the nature of the act and reasons for it.

Let’s assume a comment made on social media offends an individual or group but is not a pattern of behavior. A call-out is appropriate especially if the comment was made a long time ago and the offender has apologized for it. The situation with Kevin Hart comes to mind. He was disinvited to host the Oscars after tweets surfaced with homophobic statements saying he didn’t want his kids to grow up gay.

On the other hand, if the remarks or actions were part of a pattern of offensive behavior, canceling someone would seem to be more appropriate. This is a persistent pattern of bad behavior with no remorse. The offensive acts may be in the present or the past. Two people who come to mind are Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein.


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. It may be appropriate to do so when a person makes insensitive racial or sexist comments especially in the currently super-charged political environment where most of America has been split into two camps and haven’t learned how to talk to each other.

Diversity in Society and the Workplace But Not in Thoughts

Many people value diversity in society and in the workplace. Yet, by cancelling someone it is diversity of thought that is being stifled. This makes no sense, especially in a society built on the concept of free speech.

It’s more appropriate to engage the person who makes offensive comments, or acts in a way not acceptable to prevailing group norms, through civil discourse and meaningful dialogue. In other words, use the occasion as a “teachable moment.”

Each of us has a situation in our past where we said something we regretted or did something unacceptable to a maturing self. We wouldn’t want to be ostracized from a community for words or an act done in our past, especially if the behavior is being called out because of political correctness.

Ethical Slippery Slope

Cancelling someone may feel good for awhile but then we have to stop and think isn’t this just a form of intolerant behavior? Where do we draw the line? The problem with cancelling someone for something they said or did is it can be an ethical slippery slope. It creates disharmony in society that could be better addressed through discussion and personal growth.

Another danger is the example of Colin Kaepernick. He was let go by the S.F. 49ers after he refused to stand for the national anthem. No other team in the NFL wanted to pick him up even though he had good success as a quarterback. Once a goat, Kaepernick is now thought of as a hero in light of the murders of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. So, the cancel culture took away the best years of his football life and cheated him out of a promising career. Cancel

The Good and the Bad

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?

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.

Civic Discourse and Civility

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.

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 23, 2020. You can sign up for our newsletter and learn more about Dr. Mintz’s activities at: Follow him on Facebook at: