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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Wolf That Cried Cancel Culture

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Sydney Lenoch ’22

Sydney Lenoch ’22 double majored in Philosophy and Women’s and Gender Studies, with a minor in English, and was a 2021-22 Hackworth Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

Over the past few years we have been hearing more and more about “cancel culture,” especially as it exists online. My generation–Gen Z– is extremely familiar with influencers being canceled over five year old tweets and entire Youtube video series dedicated to the “downfall” of a certain person revealing past problematic behavior. During the COVID-19 quarantine period, when more people were online in general, and seemingly had more time to dive through any prominent figure’s internet footprint searching for something to bring them down, I became particularly interested in this phenomenon. I, like many of my peers, spent a lot of time on TikTok during this period and was intrigued by the conversations surrounding cancel culture; who was currently being canceled and why, if they apologized adequately, and if cancel culture was even real or not.

However, it is not just teens and young adults that are talking about the implications of cancel culture, and it’s not just influencers and TikTok stars that are accused of getting canceled. Various news sites and journalists have reported on public figures canceled for all kinds of reasons, from racial profiling (Amy Cooper), to anti-vaccine rhetoric (Aaron Rogers), to sexual misconduct (Aziz Ansari). I began to ask questions about the varying reasons that trigger cancellation, as well as who is getting canceled, and what this says about online ethics. Why does it seem like such a problem right now? Who decides when someone is canceled or not? What does it mean to be canceled? It is the way journalists cover “cancellation” stories, and the framing of “cancel culture” which is the main focus of this article.

What is Cancel Culture?

Before we can answer any questions about the ethics of cancel culture, we must first ask ourselves what does it mean to be canceled, which itself is a difficult task. While there are a number of definitions that involve similar themes–a way of expressing disapproval, withdrawal of support resulting in the loss of revenue or jobs–it is unevenly applied to drastically different cases. Knowing this, I cannot claim that a single definition works the best for all cases. Therefore, my working definition of cancel culture refers to the phenomenon of a withdrawal of support or public criticism of a person after the canceling side claims they have done something objectionable or offensive. Most commonly this refers to people in the public eye, such as politicians or celebrities. For example, there are allegations that comedian Dave Chapelle has been canceled over his transphobic comments in his newest Netflix special, “The Closer.”

The “canceling side,” makes up the “culture” aspect of the definition. Online social media–where “cancellation primarily takes place–fosters a culture for group-shaming and criticism that can travel quickly and unrestrained. This is important because the notion of “canceling” is not new and has existed for a long time. People have been shunned or ostracized after exhibiting behavior that the community has deemed offensive or inappropriate. People have always disagreed with the actions of politicians and celebrities. With the internet however, we have greater access to people’s opinions and tangible evidence of their disapproval. Where such expressions previously might have been made in a living room of friends and family, the living room has since turned into a Twitter feed for all–including the person they disagree with–to see. A key tenet of the criticism of cancel culture implies that it is often a skewed version of justice where the punishment of public disapproval and potential financial consequence or defamation seems worse than the act calls for.

Timeline of Cancellation

An understanding of the general timeline of how “cancel culture” plays out is necessary to this discussion. In my research, I have found that most cases of cancellation generally follow this pattern:

  1. Person A does some disagreeable act (X).
  2. Upon learning about X, there is some negative reaction from the public.
  3. Person A feels the negative backlash and chooses to stay silent or respond; either in an effort to reduce harm or actively deny X.
  4. If the backlash results in a significant negative change in their life or removes them from power or influence, they have been effectively canceled.

However, even if they have been effectively canceled, in the vast majority of cases, the negative change is temporary, leading to perhaps the most intriguing stage:

5. Person A is able to “bounce back” from the situation.

Who Gets Canceled and why?

When we think about “victims” of cancel culture, those in the public eye–such as politicians or celebrities–are the first people that come to mind. This is because the unsavory things they say are made more accessible by their fame or notoriety. Think of J.K. Rowling, Ellen DeGeneres, or Justin Trudeau. Many of those that are “canceled” in this category are elites, which comes into play later when we discuss remedy and the question of if they have really been canceled.

While their scandals are most likely to end up in the news, public figures are not the only ones who experience disapproval and related consequences. There have been numerous professors, journalists, and even high school students who have been allegedly “canceled” after expressing certain behaviors and opinions. It is this crucial detail that makes defining “cancel culture” so difficult. When reporters use this language they are falsely equating these cases and simplifying them–both leading to inaccuracies. Michael Hobbes points out that this is a key aspect in the classification of a moral panic–public responses towards a certain group of people or thing categorized as threatening to the values of the community. A number of types of people experience perceived public disapproval for various acts, and referring to all of them as “cancel culture” makes this type of criticism seem like a pervasive problem in our society. Turning the public into the problem for calling out these acts as wrong is a convenient strategy to distract from the person committing the original wrongdoing.

Additionally, people of all backgrounds are subject to being canceled and there does not appear to be any significant racial or sexual demographic that most experiences cancellation. This is because any group that organizes itself to issue a complaint “counts” as participating in cancel culture when using this general definition.

However, non-elite “victims” tend to face more significant consequences than their elite counterparts. When an elite person faces backlash resulting from an offensive comment or behavior, it is usually only their reputation that is harmed and usually repaired after some time has passed and the scandal has been forgotten. They have the money and resources to deal with any losses that may occur. For the non-elite, losing their job can have a significantly more negative impact. 

As mentioned above, people are canceled for a variety of reasons. In the simplest of terms, the trigger is often an act, behavior, or expression that a group deems inappropriate or offensive. However, there is a key distinction in the nature of cancellation that occurs, especially when we remember what it means to be “canceled” paints with a broad stroke, encompassing everything from political beliefs to sexual assault. In my research, I have found that most of the cancellations reported can be attributed to one of two types that tell us more about what it means to be canceled, and why cancel culture may not exist past its use as moral panic.

The first type of cancellation is when someone does something that is a criminalizable offense. A criminal offense could still be marked as an unsavory expression or behavior, however it is harder to write this off as someone being canceled because it could be considered an instance deserving of public disapproval. Cases that exemplify this type of cancellation include those of Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly, and Kevin Spacey, who have all been charged with sexual assault. These people have found it difficult to re-enter their respective entertainment fields and have been deemed to be canceled. I think it’s fair to say that this is not due to cancel culture, but to the fact that they did something criminally wrong, and are facing the consequences of their wrong actions.

The second of these is similar to what I’ve mentioned earlier: an unsavory expression of behavior. Many times these expressions or opinions are when someone makes a comment that is homophobic, racist, sexist, transphobic, or harmful towards any minoritized community, and is then critisized holding these beliefs. See J.K. Rowling and Dave Chapelle and the backlash they received after perpetuating transphobic rhetoric. An alarming number of white politicians including Justin Trudeau, Ralph Northam, and Kay Ivey, have participated in blackface. DaBaby and Kevin Hart have both faced criticism and consequence after making anti-gay comments. This category is mostly made up of reprehensible things that people say about other groups of people.

My question, and issue with this, is why is the first type seen as facing the consequences appropriate to their actions, but the second type isn’t? This is especially salient when we consider that because most people who are public victims of cancel culture are wealthy elites who don’t suffer any negative consequences as a result of their actions or the cancellation taking place. Most of the celebrities or politicians that have been canceled have been able to “bounce back” with relative ease. I think of Brett Kavanaugh … people were claiming he was a victim of cancel culture when he was being accused of sexual assault, but I don’t think anyone could say that someone on the Supreme Court, with all the power and prestige they have, is truly canceled. He has not suffered any consequences, and neither do most “victims.”

“News Media and Cancel Culture”

It is this second version of cancellation that many right-wing reporters seem to have an issue with. Right-wing media often frame cancel culture as the “woke liberal mob’s” threat against free speech that discourages democratic debate. They disagree particularly with the deplatforming of people who make these types of comments, such as former President Donald Trump’s ban from Twitter after violating a number of their company policies; spreading misinformation and inciting violence. Libertarian Nick Gillespie reflects this in his article “Self-Cancellation, Deplatforming, and Censorship: a taxonomy of cancel culture”:

“Complaining and working to change the system (voice) is also a powerful strategy, both in politics and in dealing with online platforms.We should loudly criticize platforms for kicking people off in arbitrary ways that diminish our ability to freely argue and disagree about politics and culture.”

Nevermind the fact that platforms like Twitter and Facebook are corporations that have their own policies and rules and have the right to refuse service the same way any other corporation does, this rhetoric runs into a logical contradiction. After praising the use of complaint as a strategic tool, Gillespie is saying that cancel culture is a violation of free speech that encourages conformity and is different from mere criticism but encourages the loud criticizing of social media platforms where this occurs as well as the people who partake in it. My question is, why can’t those who find an act, expression, or behavior offensive and would like it to stop happening loudly disagree as well? At its core, as an amendment which allows you to speak out against the government, the First Amendment (free speech) encourages you to criticize. But as the famed “shouting fire in a theater” analogy entails, free speech does not mean you are free from consequences. A part of free speech is that people are free to criticize and disagree as well. It cannot be written off as “cancel culture,” in order to associate those who are making the critique with undue stakes, in order to not take their criticisms seriously.

Most right-leaning media headlines refer to cancel culture as a real phenomenon and threat, invoking the claim of cancel culture when any figure faces public backlash. Most center- to left-leaning media platforms tend to call more attention to the falsehood of cancel culture, that it doesn’t exist, or is a method of holding people accountable. However, this primarily shows up in opinion articles or think-pieces as opposed to journalistic reporting. Almost no right-wing media examine the essence of cancel culture outside of it being a moral threat. I believe an interesting question is not whether cancel culture exists or not, but rather why it seems to work and what it is used for.

When journalists invoke cancel culture in their reports of a public figure’s expression or behavior, it shifts the focus away from those that were harmed by the action. If we include in the definition that one suffers the loss of their job or livelihood, even mentioning cancel culture brings this negative consequence into the mind of the reader. They cannot conceptualize the report without thinking of the alleged harm the public figure has suffered. This often has the effect that it is not the canceled person that is in the wrong for saying or doing something offensive, but that the people who are calling them out are at fault.

Take for example the recent controversy around Dave Chappell’s transphobic comments he made in his Netflix special, “The Closer.” After receiving backlash from trans people and trans allies he claimed he was attacked by cancel culture. This technique, to blame cancel culture for being “too soft” or “too sensitive,” or “just an opinion,” blames the people who are directly hurt by these types of comments, where the person being canceled centered themselves in the narrative rather than owning up and taking accountability for their wrongdoing. When we consider this, we see that talking about cancel culture is just another way to center themselves in the narrative and shift the focus away from them as a perpetrator of harm in order to victimize themselves. This is another level of harm that silences those that rightfully call for accountability measures.

Knowing this, journalists should center the voices of people targeted by the public figure before bringing up any alleged consequences the figure received from the group collective. This strategy keeps the focus on the ethical implications of the offensive behavior in question before moving onto the consequences, if any. This would allow for the naming of appropriate remedy from those harmed as well as making precise the critique. Often, when cancel culture is invoked as moral panic, the critiques of the marginalized are simplified or misrepresented.

The notion of cancel culture is directly tied to feminist scholar Sara Ahmed’s ideas about collectivist complaint in the way it’s framed; to label it as cancel culture is to diminish the harm being done by the person who committed them. It also says the harm of being disapproved of is worse than the actual legitimate harm that called for the cancellation to begin with. This sends the message that the more prominent figures, very often elites, are more worthy of their feelings and anger being respected.

This is especially prevalent when these instances have to do with negative comments or attitudes towards minoritized communities. The targeting of these communities, followed by dismissal of their voice and anger is a vicious cycle that gaslights and allows these prominent figures to avoid any substantial accountability on their end. To be accountable, those who are canceled should recognize their wrongdoing as wrong, and reckon with that. They should learn why it is wrong if they do not know, and change their behavior. Ultimately, they must accept the consequences of their actions.

Being canceled, being called out for sexual violence, or hate speech doesn’t end your life the way that actually committing these acts of violence can to their victims. The people noted in the cases mentioned above were not “canceled,” they harmed someone and that harm is wrong. There are so many claims that since the MeToo movement, those in my generation are too sensitive and will cry wolf for anything. This does not mean critiques cannot be had, and there are many; this analysis serves as both a critique and defense of cancel culture. It is a critique of the idea that it is anything more than a moral panic. Treating cancel culture this way diminishes the power of collective complaint and writes it off as a mob mentality as if hegemonic violence is an illegitimate reason to be upset. This is a framing technique that ironically silences the people they claim are silencing them. It is a defense of these complaints, an effort to emphasize the validity of marginalized anger.

By vilifying cancel culture, the core of what it is–an accountability measure and tool to call for change–gets erased. Calling out politicians for the problematic things they say has been an effective tool for political change for centuries, from the country's founding to the civil rights movement. It is a way to expose hegemonic wrongdoing, to show why it’s wrong, and to offer the opportunity for reconciliation. This does not only have to be applied to politics; by exposing problematic ideologies as such, it encourages other people in society to change their mindset as well, so that they may not make these same mistakes.

Why you Should Care

So, what does this all mean? The next time you come across a story of someone being canceled, I urge you to specifically identify those that are harmed by the act or statement of the individual being “canceled,” and listen to their concerns. This is the same if you find yourself in a situation where you think you may be experiencing your own cancellation. Listen to those that tell you what you are doing is wrong, and resist the temptation to think their anger and suffering is invalid in comparison to your own. Especially if it’s occuring online, I want you to remember that there are more important things in the world than online cancellations.

Practicing this technique of listening and believing when people say they are being harmed extends beyond the internet. This method–inspired and touted by Black feminist and abolitionist scholars–is the best way to think about these cases. It’s not about canceling people for any reason, but recognizing that reason as legitimate harm, and recognizing it as an opportunity for accountability.

We, as consumers and participants of our culture, must pay attention to whose anger we are validating, who we perceive as being entitled to anger and entitled to criticize. Without power, individual criticism and cancellation is inconsequential, and that is not the purpose. When someone does something wrong, we don’t aim to punish, but this doesn’t mean they are undeserving of consequence. It is the power of the collective, the grouping together of culture that gives this critique power.

Recommended Reading/Viewing 

  1. Phillips, W. (2020). Whose Anger Counts? Boston Review, 45(1), 132–147.
  2. D. Clark, Meredith. “DRAG THEM: A Brief Etymology of so-Called ‘Cancel Culture.’” Communication and the Public, vol. 5, no. 3–4, Sept. 2020, pp. 88–92, doi:10.1177/2057047320961562.
  3. Amanda Elimian, Youtube, “let’s talk about ‘cancel culture’... https://youtu.be/Wj3buGq7ppc
  4. Michael Hobbes, Youtube, “Is "Cancel Culture" Really a Threat To America?”...https://youtu.be/RkVYvp_CumI 

References/Bibliography

Cases

Celebrity Cases

Ferrie, Anton. “‎Cancelled: Ellen DeGeneres on Apple Podcasts.” Apple Podcasts, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/ellen-degeneres/id1579957150?i=1000538152325.

Simpson, Annique. “‎Cancelled: Doja Cat on Apple Podcasts.” Apple Podcasts, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/doja-cat/id1579957150?i=1000544033656.

Morgan, Danielle Fuentes. “Dave Chappelle the Comedy Relic.” Vulture, Vulture, 21 Oct. 2021, https://www.vulture.com/article/dave-chappelle-the-comedy-relic.html.

“Kevin Spacey Timeline: How the Story Unfolded.” BBC News, BBC, 18 July 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-41884878.

Political Cases

Mahdawi, Arwa. “A Question for Brett Kavanaugh: Who Gets a Second Chance? | Arwa Mahdawi | The Guardian.” The Guardian, The Guardian, 24 Apr. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/apr/24/brett-kavanaugh-week-in-patriarchy-arwa-mahdawi.

Coates, Ta-nehisi. “Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Cancellation of Colin Kaepernick.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Nov. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/22/opinion/colin-kaepernick-nfl.html.

Vincent, Isabel. “Inside BLM Co-Founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ Real-Estate Buying Binge.” New York Post, New York Post, 10 Apr. 2021, https://nypost.com/2021/04/10/inside-blm-co-founder-patrisse-khan-cullors-real-estate-buying-binge/.

Nomani, Asra. Twitter Thread. 9 Apr. 2021, https://twitter.com/AsraNomani/status/1380886760712982528?s=20.

"Common" Cases

Lanum, Nikolas. “Cancel Culture Backfires as Thousands of Students Sign up for Professor’s Princeton Lecture | Fox News.” Fox News, Fox News, 12 Oct. 2021, https://www.foxnews.com/media/cancel-culture-backfires-students-sign-up-professors-princeton-lecture-mit.

Background/Approach

Allen, R. N. (2021). From Academic Freedomto Cancel Culture: Silencing Black Women in the Legal Academy. UCLA Law Review, 68(2), 364–409.

  1. Let’s Talk about “Cancel Culture”... YouTube, 28 June 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wj3buGq7ppc.

Bennett, Jessica. “What If Instead of Calling People Out, We Called Them In? - The New York Times.” The New York Times - Breaking News, US News, World News and Videos, 19 Nov. 2020,

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/19/style/loretta-ross-smith-college-cancel-culture.html.

Cohen, E. L., Myrick, J. G., & Hoffner, C. A. (2021). The Effects of Celebrity Silence Breakers: Liking and Parasocial Relationship Strength Interact to Predict the Social Influence of Celebrities’ Sexual Harassment Allegations. Mass Communication & Society, 24(2), 288–313. https://doi-org.libproxy.scu.edu/10.1080/15205436.2020.1839102

D. Clark, Meredith. “DRAG THEM: A Brief Etymology of so-Called ‘Cancel Culture.’” Communication and the Public, vol. 5, no. 3–4, Sept. 2020, pp. 88–92, doi:10.1177/2057047320961562.

Gillespie, Nick, et al. “Self-Cancellation, Deplatforming, and Censorship.” Reason.com, 7 Sept. 2021, https://reason.com/2021/09/07/self-cancellation-deplatforming-and-censorship/?utm_source=pocket_mylist.

Norris P. Cancel Culture: Myth or Reality? Political Studies. August 2021.

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/00323217211037023?casa_token=PnEbzZIopo8A

AAAA%3AcXA6f0qAWII10UDV9T3ngtLWbPYN7EdTjLxhhmVMP42OVhDq71-o9ot-0GaAdSq4ObQpGFqD6yeJHA&journalCode=psxa.

“S1 E18: Abolition Is Not a Metaphor - Zora’s Daughters Podcast.” Zora’s Daughters Podcast, 26 May 2021, https://zorasdaughters.com/episodes/abolition-is-not-a-metaphor/.

Saint-Louis, H. (2021). Understanding cancel culture: Normative and unequal sanctioning. First Monday, 26(7), 1. https://doi-org.libproxy.scu.edu/10.5210/fm.v26i7.10891

Yar, Sanam. Tales from the Teenage Cancel Culture. https://oglethorpe.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/teenage-cancel-culture.pdf.

Behavior

“Shunning: The Ultimate Rejection | Psychology Today.” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-time-cure/201302/shunning-the-ultimate-rejection. Accessed 20 Dec. 2021.

Social Media

Williams, Kat. Tik Tok. https://www.tiktok.com/@jonkerpilled/video/7019062216636763398?_d=secCgYIASAHKAESPgo8K5Mim%2BZnLhT3w%2F9BHVgKQ8hfyEPAF%2Bn0lOdAB1sPESIsd8H%2FSKj4xuEKKFl3qgzPuYJNaqp4d3NvmNOSGgA%3D&checksum=bb834dc89d1c40d2a08ece2fa91ac71b8c43b4fca26fd4b3791609d839c23d7f&l.

Hue, Darkest. “The Selective Toxicity of Cancel Culture.” Instagram, https://www.instagram.com/p/CSM_795r5Qc/?utm_medium=copy_link. 

Aug 2, 2022

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