The Dangers of the Cancel Culture
This is the first of a series of blogs on the cancel culture. It is, arguably, the most important issue of the day with respect to free speech and an open exchange of ideas.
The cancel culture seeks to call out individuals whose words or actions are being questioned. Typically, the group calling out finds those actions offensive. They seek to gain support from the larger community for ostracizing the individual and basically shunning them from society.
A basic question is whether any organization should pick and choose when to cancel an individual rather than allow them to exercise their free speech rights. The latest example of the cancel culture at work is the controversy over whether Simon & Schuster should withdraw support for publishing a book by former Vice President Mike Pence. Hundreds of employees and thousands of outside signatories called on the publisher to drop Pence’s forthcoming book. But the company’s head had already dismissed them, writing that “we come to work each day to publish, not to cancel.”
Those calling out Simon & Schuster for its book deal with Pence allege that he had made a career out of discriminating against marginalized groups and denying resources to groups such as the LGBTQA community. Is this enough to shun someone from society? Should an individual be judged by their worst act or on the totality of their behavior? These are questions that society needs to address.
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?
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.
Intolerance in Society
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. As a manifestation of groupthink, the cancel culture is often motivated by political correctness. Taken to an extreme, it can lead to bullying behavior.
Canceling someone on Twitter or elsewhere sends a message that you, or a group of like-minded individuals, disagree vehemently with the target’s espoused positions or actions. It is a way to get one’s views circulated among mass society instantaneously.
The practice of a cancel culture has further divided our country into warring camps. It has 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?
I worry about cancelling becoming the cultural norm of the day. I admit there are those who deserve to be canceled. Harvey Weinstein comes to mind as does Bill Cosby and Jeffrey Epstein. I am okay with canceling them although I recognize it can be an ethical slippery slope.
Open communication is essential to a free society. Unfortunately, the cancel culture is turning people away from voicing their opinions on social media. They are trying to take away the platform the target uses to express their views that may be offensive to others.
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 is a line that must be drawn to bring civility back to society.
Moral values are essential to a free society and that includes civil discourse. But how will we ever have civil discourse if we shut each other out whenever we do not agree with a different, albeit offensive, point of view? My concern is that free speech will be stifled throughout society and the cancel culture is creating a “thought police” that may be unforgiving.
We all make mistakes. We all say and do things that years later, upon reflection, we regret. Kindness and forgiveness are two moral values. Empathy is another and when we fail to live our lives according to such ideals, we lose a sense of our humanity as a caring, understanding, and forgiving society.
Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on May 3, 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.