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Cancel Culture: An Ethical Analysis

Cancel Culture: A Variety of Perspectives

Cancel Culture: What it is

Intolerance in society is being fueled by the cancel culture. The cancel culture is mainly an internet phenomenon where those offended by the comments of another party become denounced online by those who object to the behavior. It is one form of a cultural boycott that seeks to isolate the offending party by a group with counter views. Taken to an extreme, it can lead to bullying behavior.

Critics of cancel culture say the process stifles free expression, inhibits the exchange of ideas and keeps people from straying from their comfort zones. Others, however, argue that it has empowered people to challenge the status quo and demand accountability from those in positions of power.

When we think of the cancel culture what comes to mind right away is how social media is used to call someone out for their words or actions as offensive to a group. Those offended go on social media and start a firestorm of criticism against the offending party. Before you know it, others have taken to the internet to voice their views. The result may be to cancel the offending party by denying them the status they may have achieved or blacklisting them in the mind of the public. It some respects it is like ostracizing a person or group.

Cancel culture seeks to embarrass the canceler and call them out for their offending behavior. The cancel culture stops supporting them even if they apologize for their mistakes. The reason given is they should have known before doing it. But how can we mend our ways if not given a chance to move on and show we can, indeed, reform our ways given the cancel culture is intolerant.

In its current form, cancel culture is anonymous, fueled by a politically correct mentality that relies on the “thought police” to direct its behavior, it is intensely polarizing – “I am right, you are wrong.” It teaches us that if someone does something wrong, or champions someone or something that we may not like or agree with, then we must stop supporting them immediately. No grey areas allowed: they are cancelled, they are finished, and their name is attached to the #IsOverParty hashtag to prove it.

Woke Culture

Cancelling someone for their offensive actions or words is a sign of wokeness. The cancel culture is a logical extension of political correctness and being “woke,” a common term of contempt among some who oppose the movements it is associated with, or believe the issues are exaggerated. It is sometimes used to mock or treat supporters of those movements as children. Some have criticized subscribers to woke views of being racist; adding identity politics is extremely racist.

The term ‘woke’ is at the center of many of the contentious political, social, and cultural debates right now. Some people say being woke is a sign of awareness to social issues, others use the term as an insult. Therein lies one of the causes of division in our society. Moreover, those who are not woke risk being cancelled for their lack of social and political awareness.

Cancel Culture: A Bridge Too Far?

Are there any rules of the road when it comes to when the cancel culture goes too far? Here is a good example. Some youngsters had a paint color party and everyone painted their face a different color. And some poor white kid, who had never heard of blackface, gets wrung through the wringer for choosing black. I doubt the kid even heard about blackface no less know about the offensive act years ago. It is not as if such behavior is discussed in the history books today.

Few if any students today know that blackface in any manner is always deemed as racist and such behavior should not be tolerated in a civil society. It is much more than just dark makeup used to enhance a costume. Its racist origins can be traced to minstrel shows. In the mid to late 19th century, white racist actors would routinely use black grease paint on their faces when depicting plantation slaves and free blacks on stage. The images mock these portrayals that reinforced the idea that African Americans are inferior to white people.

While some argue youngsters should not be cancelled for doing something they know nothing about, I believe youngsters should know better in 2021 than to wear blackface. A politically woke society cannot tolerate such behavior as indicating social injustices of the past. Cancel culture jpeg image

Cancel Culture: Legitimate Action

A key member of the Oath Keepers militia told associates he had coordinated alliances with the Proud Boys and other paramilitary groups in advance of former President Donald Trump’s January 6 rally prior to the insurrection on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. Those responsible for the violence deserve to be canceled by society for their divisive actions that have no place in a civilized society.

Benefits and Harms

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 is a good practice?

  • Expressing oneself by taking others to task is part of the democratic process and free speech.
  • Cancelling 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 raises the question of whether we should cancel everyone with whom we disagree? Where should the line be drawn or is it even possible to do so?

Mental Health Considerations

The most serious effects of the cancel culture are when it turns into bullying. Like bullying, if you have been canceled, it can make you to feel ostracized, socially isolated, and lonely. It can feel as if everyone is giving up on you before you have even had the chance to apologize. Instead of creating a dialogue to help you understand how the offender's actions hurt them, the cancelers shut off all communication with you, essentially robbing you of the opportunity to learn and grow from your mistakes or insensitivities. 

Cancel culture is toxic for our mental health because it does not allow us to be human, make mistakes, apologize for it, and then give people second chances to reverse their behavior. After all, showing forgiveness for another is a form of kindness and empathy, two core ethical values.

Anxiety and Depression is at an all-time high with the cancel culture because it can be very isolating and lonely as you feel everyone gave up on you before you could even apologize or correct your mistakes.

Cancelling in the Workplace

Cancelling an employee because of their words or actions is an ethical slippery slope. How can we draw a line between a legitimate action by an employer and stifling free speech? Should an employee be canceled because they criticize the employer online? What if other employees feel the same way? Firing offending employees is not the answer as it only adds fuel to the fire of political correctness in the workplace

Views of Americans

In a recent poll taken by Harvard CAPS-Harris, a majority of Americans say they view "cancel culture" as a threat to their freedom. Sixty-four percent of respondents said that there is "a growing cancel culture" that is a threat to their freedom, while 36 percent said they did not view it as a threat to their freedom. 

Additionally, the poll found that 36 percent of Americans said cancel culture is a "big problem," while 32 percent called it a "moderate problem." Another 20 percent said it was a "small problem" and 13 percent said it is "not a problem." 

Changing the Names of Schools

How many school kids know or care why their school has the name it does and whether they are uncomfortable about it unless they were told they should be? We need to address this issue in a historical context before deciding to cancel the name and replacing it with another that is more politically correct.

I was dismayed to see the San Francisco school board was going to remove Abraham Lincoln’s name, along with Washington and Jefferson, from their schools.

We would not have our country as it now exists without George Washington, commanding general of the Continental Army and first American president. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and accomplished the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of our great country. Abraham Lincoln kept the Union of the United States of America together, issued the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves and created the Transcontinental Railroad, which tied our country together from coast to coast.

By demanding that the names of school buildings be changed, such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, because their namesake owned slaves back in the day or were known to have discriminated against black Americans, the cancel culture shuts down a major advantage of having free speech taught in their schools. Rather than change the name, schools should discuss with students why the actions of historical figures are offensive looking back some 200 years. In other words, schools should use it as a teachable moment. How will students learn about the ills of society unless they are discussed in the classroom?

Taking Down Monuments

The University of Missouri rejected calls to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson. Instead, a university task force recommended contextualizing the statue, rather than removing it. In 2020, MU officials refused to dismount the statue, defying the wishes of student organizations demanding for it to be removed. The students' demonstration represented a microcosm of a larger movement advocating the toppling of statues honoring American heroes. MU President Mun Choi became one of the only university presidents to declare that “we don’t remove history” in response. As a compromise, Choi appointed The Taskforce for the Contextualization of the Thomas Jefferson Statue to write a report recommending how best to “contextualize” it. The committee report recommended that the university “establish a commemorative wayside sign with language explaining why the Jefferson statue is present on the MU campus, as well as summarizing Jefferson’s accomplishments, and also his shortcomings, including his role as a slaveowner and the father of children by an enslaved person.”  

Treatment of Japanese Americans in Internment Camps During WW II

The Japanese American internment camps during World War II were often nothing more than makeshift barracks, with families and children cramped together behind barbed wires. Most of the internees were U.S. citizens from the West Coast who were forced to abandon or liquidate their businesses when war relocation authorities escorted them to the camps.

John Tateishi says the experience was both humiliating and disorienting. "We came out of these camps with a sense of shame and guilt, of having been considered betrayers of our country." He says that after the war most families never spoke about it. "There were no complaints, no big rallies or demands for justice because it was not the Japanese way."

Should the U.S. be canceled by the rest of the world for our behavior? Perhaps so just as Germany should be canceled for its behavior during the Hitler years.

Developing Guidelines

We need to develop guidelines on the cancel culture. When does it go too far? When might it be acceptable behavior? Teachers should include it in the curriculum. Use these instances as teachable moments about free speech and the consequences of our words and actions.

The real question for me is: Should an individual be judged by their worst act or on the totality of their behavior?

Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on May 24, 2021. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.