Does Cancel Culture need to be cancelled?

Allan Dunlavy 13 Oct 2020

Cancel Culture. A phrase that provokes fear and celebration in equal measure. A way to give agency and voice to underrepresented groups, or a phenomenon that unfairly destroys livelihoods? A representation of free speech or the death of debate?

The challenge in this conversation is the lack of a definition of what Cancel Culture is. It’s a clever phrase that’s easily dropped into conversation – but scratch the surface and you find everyone defines it differently.

To address this, let’s take a look at what Cancel Culture is – and, crucially, what is isn’t.

Cancel Culture – what it is and what it isn’t?

Despite popular belief to the contrary, Cancel Culture is not simply people expressing opposing views or seeking to debate an issue – perhaps in an antagonistic and aggressive manner – online. This conduct – an unfortunate by-product of social media – may well amount to cyber-bullying or even harassment; but it is not Cancel Culture and should not be treated as such.

Cancel Culture is much more than this. It is a group attack on an individual or a company deliberately attempting to extinguish everything about the target – their livelihood, the company’s business and clientele and/or their privacy and reputation. It is an attempt to have them completely ‘cancelled’ by pressuring those that the target works with or for; it has a specific goal and is not simply about expressing an opposing view – even vigorously.

A typical “cancellation” attempt looks like this. An individual or company holds or expresses – or quite often is simply perceived to hold or express – views that differ from another group. The latter group decides to go after this target and any individuals or businesses associated with them, often including their employer, to have them ‘cancelled’ – which includes being fired, de-platformed, disinvited and disassociated.

Crucially, Cancel Culture involves action on the part of people who have no stake in their target. If an individual has a stake in an organisation – for example if they are a student at a school or university or an employee at a company – and they feel that the values of that organisation are not fairly reflected by the choice of a certain association with a company or individual, they should call for the organisation in question not associate with that particular individual. This is not Cancel Culture as the individual, as a member of the organisation, has a vested interest in the organisation hewing to its values. Cancel Culture is instead where opponents with no specific interest seek to pressure all organisations (and/or their members) associated with the target to have them removed and cancelled – especially focusing on employers or sources of income.

Why cancel?

In theory at least, Cancel Culture comes from a well-intentioned place. It’s the ability of a group to take meaningful action against something they deem to be wrong or offensive. This issue is, however, not about individuals or companies that hold extremist views or support extremism. This type of conduct is expressly legislated against through various hate speech-type laws cross jurisdictions. Such views sit far outside the norms of acceptable society and acceptable debate and should not be given oxygen.

While it is no doubt fair to say that not all extremist and outlier views are currently covered by legislation. The tenets and tactics of Cancel Culture are not the right way to go about achieving broader legislation in this area and that is not what these actions are intended to achieve..

What’s the alternative?

The goal of Cancel Culture conduct – to permanently silence the opposing view – is the very antithesis of constructive debate and liberal democracy.

If an individual or company doesn’t hold the same views or values as you, then you have plenty of options to simply ignore them, not buy their products or not support them. Also of course everyone is entitled to express their disagreement – hopefully in a more constructive manner than is often seen online. But for debate and free speech to flourish it cannot be desirable for such opponents also seek to have the opposing company or individual “cancelled”. This type of conduct does not promote free speech but rather stifles it.

Open debate helps society learn and understand, and true tolerance is only fostered through a genuine understanding another person’s views and situation. Cancel Culture, at its most harmful, ignores the truth and facts and polarises people as a result.

Expressing one’s opposing views is one thing but calling on others to be punished for expressing theirs is quite another. Debate – don’t hate.