The Real Reason Cancel Culture Is So Contentious

People on both sides of the debate are being too vague about what they favor and what they oppose.

Photo of a crowd of people pointing their fingers in one direction
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About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Up for Debate newsletter.

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The majority of Americans who insist that “cancel culture” is a problem and the minority who counter that it is a fraud, a myth, or a moral panic are too often talking past one another.

One faction invokes the term cancel culture as shorthand for a range of complaints: for instance, that figures such as the political analyst David Shor and Emmanuel Cafferty, a California utility-company worker, lost their jobs after innocent acts that provoked unreasonable offense in others; that universities have unjustly punished hundreds of scholars for protected speech in recent years; or that so many Americans are self-censoring that deliberative democracy is threatened.

Another faction dismisses complaints about cancel culture and reframes the status quo as “accountability culture.” This shorthand encompasses what many regard as long-overdue consequences for figures such as Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, two entertainment-industry giants credibly accused by multiple women of sexual assault, and the former NBA owner Donald Sterling, who was pushed out of the league after recordings of his racist comments surfaced.

Using any one term to frame such varied controversies hides the actual lines of disagreement. People who complain about “cancel culture” should always clarify what they oppose. They should be told: Be more specific, unless you’re literally saying that no one should ever be fired or stigmatized for anything they say or do. Likewise, people who laud “accountability culture” or dismiss cancel culture as a myth should be told: Be more specific about what you consider fair punishment, unless you’re literally saying that everyone fired or stigmatized for speech was treated justly.

Before going any further, I’ll lay my cards on the table. Although I dislike the term cancel culture because of its vagueness and potential for misinterpretation, I tend to think that “cancel culture” is a problem, by which I mean:

  • Like former President Barack Obama, I fret about a puritanical streak in U.S. politics that condemns others too often and leaves too little room for forgiving them.
  • In my view, Margaret Atwood, Cornel West, Deirdre McCloskey, and my colleague Thomas Chatterton Williams—among many other authors who signed the controversial 2020 Harper’s Magazine letter on free expression—were right to lament waning “norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”
  • Like the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, I suspect that speech taboos on university campuses are undermining teaching and scholarship.
  • And like the New York Times editorial board, I worry that some Americans are withdrawing from public discourse because they so frequently see others personally attacked, capriciously punished, or unjustly shamed by digital mobs who reject liberal speech values.

Inevitably, fair societies impose social sanctions on some bad behaviors. But fair societies also levy such sanctions in ways that the average citizen understands and accepts. They frown on arbitrary or excessive sanctions. And they reserve the most extreme extralegal punishments, such as public shaming, shunning, or depriving people of their livelihood, for extreme cases. If everyone were more specific, people who come down on opposite sides of the abstract, 30,000-foot debate over cancel culture might find some agreement about concrete cases.

To illustrate how greater specificity could keep the two sides of the debate from talking past each other, consider a 2021 Mother Jones article with the headline “Roxane Gay Says Cancel Culture Does Not Exist.” Indeed, that’s precisely what Gay, a best-selling feminist author, tells her interviewer: Cancel culture, she says, “is this boogeyman that people have come up with to explain away bad behavior and when their faves experience consequences. I like to think of it as consequence culture, where when you make a mistake—and we all do, by the way—there should be consequences.”

Yet in the next breath, Gay seems to acknowledge that punishments are not being meted out fairly: “The problem is that we haven’t figured out what consequences should be,” she says. “So it’s all or nothing. Either there are no consequences, or people lose their jobs, or other sort of sweeping grand gestures that don’t actually solve the problem at hand.”

The interviewer’s next question was about the podcast Reply All, which had reported on allegations of unjust workplace dynamics at the magazine Bon Appétit but canceled the series before it was finished, because similar accusations arose against Reply All’s own host. “I think it’s a mistake,” Gay declared. “I understand that the reporting is not finished on the final two episodes. But this is not the Mona Lisa. Somebody can finish these stories. I think the Bon Appétit story is interesting. And it’s typical. And it deserves to be told.”

As it turns out, Gay and I agree that a journalistic institution imposed a wrongheaded “consequence.” Its decision makers solved no problems while stymieing a valid inquiry into a worthy subject.

That’s more common ground than one would expect from the headline of the Mother Jones article. In the same spirit, I agree that, absent a rigorous definition of cancel culture, bad actors can exploit any ambiguity to deflect legitimate criticism of their conduct.

“Why should we care about having a serious discussion about defining cancel culture?” asks the attorney Ken White, who is deeply skeptical of the term. “We should because simply complaining about it in the abstract, without attempts to define it, without actionable responses, and without taking the rights of ‘cancellers’ doesn’t ease the culture war. It inflames it.” He’s right.

That said, the most incisive critics of cancel culture have specifically defined when a line is crossed, as they see it, from vigorous public disagreement with someone’s views to misguided attempts to stifle their expression. The free-speech activist Greg Lukianoff defines cancel culture as “the measurable uptick, since roughly 2014, of campaigns to get people fired, disinvited, deplatformed, or otherwise punished for speech that is—or would be—protected by the First Amendment.” In the higher-education sector, which Lukianoff tracks closely, he and Komi T. German note:

Since 2015, we documented 563 attempts (345 from the left, 202 from the right, 16 from neither) to get scholars canceled. Two thirds (362 incidents; 64 percent) of these cancellation attempts were successful, resulting in some form of professional sanction leveled at the scholar, including over one-fifth (117 incidents; 21 percent) resulting in termination … In 2001, the idea of one tenured professor being fired for protected speech seemed impossible, yet since 2015 there have been 30.

The author Jonathan Rauch offers a list of cancel-culture tells, which include “Are people denouncing you to your employer, your professional groups or your social connections?” “Is the tone of the discourse ad hominem, repetitive, ritualistic, posturing, accusatory, outraged?” “Are [campaigners] claiming that allowing you to be heard is violence against them or makes them unsafe?” The writer Wesley Yang has published videos, tweets, and essays fleshing out his theory that “cancel culture” is how activists pursue “the politicization of everyday life, the rule of didacticism in art, and the installation through coercive means of a dysfunctional new moral system by a tiny and unaccountable elite.”

Have any of the critics who dismiss cancel-culture concerns made a commensurate attempt to flesh out which punitive social norms are desirable, to define “accountability,” or to specify when it is warranted?

Americans will never achieve consensus about exactly which behaviors are beyond the pale—or what should happen to those who violate accepted norms. But even contested yet clearly understood rules (like the comedian George Carlin’s famous seven words you couldn’t say on TV) are better, if adopted provisionally by institutions or consistently adhered to in public discourse, than an alternative in which taboo lines are so murky that all manner of adjacent speech is chilled and many people refrain from speaking publicly at all for fear of unwittingly transgressing.

In some cases, the standards are kept vague because more specific ones would be indefensible. If you want to know which faction is abusing its relative power in a given sphere of society, ask who sees no problem with opaque taboos versus who is worried that they will unduly stifle speech.

In states solidly controlled by Republicans, for example, populist-right legislators want to punish certain categories of speech related to race or sex, likely chilling some expression that they could not persuade majorities to ban specifically, and progressive educators are noticing that vague and malleable standards guarantee such speech-dampening excesses. At Ivy League universities, progressive faculty members and DEI administrators are the ones pushing to punish certain kinds of speech related to race or sex, in many cases launching investigations into poorly defined transgressions, and centrist liberals and conservatives are the ones pointing out the danger of vague and malleable standards.

When any faction with power fails to clarify which statements and behaviors it would punish (as opposed to merely criticize) if given the chance, its members might like the fact that they are chilling the speech of their culture-war antagonists. A dearth of clarity is hugely useful for wielding social control. It leaves everyone guessing. But a self-governing people shouldn’t have to guess at what speech is forbidden and what’s allowed.