Cancel Culture: An Ethical Analysis
Evaluating the Rightness and Wrongness of the Cancel Culture
I recently blogged about the various ways of examining the cancel culture and its effects on society from calling someone out for their words and actions, to boycotting them and shunning them from society and everything in between. In today’s blog I use an ethical analysis to examine the rightness or wrongness of the cancel culture.
A common form of ethical analysis is utilitarianism. It holds that the benefits of engaging in certain actions should exceed the costs to justify that action. Here is an analysis of costs-benefit analysis.
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.
Consequences for Our Actions
Given the advent of social media and a 24-hour news cycle, it is not surprising that posts, tweets and other forms of online communication get discovered years after someone's words or actions are discovered to be offensive. A good example is to paint one's face to look like "blackface." It is highly objectionable to take such an action that embarrasses a group of people and reflects badly on society. Another example would be to paint one's face as an Indian warrior of days gone by. There should be consequences for such actions although I am less sympathetic to canceling someone 20-30 years after wearing black face. Firstly, we all have done and said things we regret years later. We may have even apologized for it. Shouldn't we forgive the offender? Isn't it a practice of empathy and forgiveness to do?
On the other hand, college students who are caught doing the same thing today should know better. Sure, they may not appreciate the historical significance of having appeared in blackface. Still, common sense dictates the practice should be shunned whenever it occurred.
When I think of the cancel culture in these terms my mind immediately skips to whether the ends of cancelling someone exceeds the means of taking such an action. Utilitarianism holds that it must to justify an action. Here are some thoughts:
- The exercise of free speech is sacrosanct. It trumps other ways of addressing a situation.
- Holding others accountable for their choices adds a dimension to decision-making that considers the effects on others (the ends) before choosing a method to cancel them (means).
- Using social media as the means for cancelling someone just begets strong reactions and before we know it, everyone is being canceled.
- One way to cancel another is through bullying, a practice that negatively effects the mental health of the cancelled party.
Another ethical analyses would focus on the right to cancel someone. Just because a person has a right to cancel another, that does not mean it is the right thing to do. The two are separable and must be evaluated from a rights point of view.
The bottom line on the ethical analysis is the cancel culture can cross the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Indeed, if you are a member of a group that seeks to cancel another party, you, too, could be canceled if you do not conform to group norms. One has to act as the thought police in deciding what should be allowed to stand and what should not.
Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on May 27, 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.