Is Cancel Culture (or “Callout Culture”) Good for Society?

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Cancel culture, also known as callout culture, is the removal (“canceling”) of support for individuals and their work due to an opinion or action on their part deemed objectionable to the parties “calling” them out.   [1]

The individuals are typically first called out on social media to magnify the public knowledge of their perceived offense, whereupon the campaign to cancel ensues. The canceling can take several forms, including the exerting of pressure on organizations to cancel the individual’s public appearances or speaking engagements and, in the case of businesses deemed offensive, organizing boycotts of their products. [1]

Celebrities and social and political leaders are frequently the targets of cancel campaigns.  Actor and comedian Bill Cosby, who was found guilty in 2018 of drugging and sexually assaulting a woman and accused of assault by more than 50 women, is only one of many, recent, high-profile examples. [2] But everyday people can be caught in the crosshairs as well. A public relations executive, for example, tweeted an offensive joke about AIDS before boarding a plane in London and traveling to South Africa. An uproar on Twitter followed, and by the time her plane landed, she had been “called out,” “canceled,” and fired. [3]

The cancel campaigns are not always so successful or one-sided. In July 2020, after Goya Foods CEO Robert Unanue praised President Trump for promoting an Hispanic prosperity initiative, liberal Latino leaders organized a boycott of Goya products despite Unanue’s similar praise of President Obama. Instead of bankrupting the company, the callout prompted the Bodega and Small Business Association to come to the company’s defense with a “buycott” to support the more than 13,000 shops that sell Goya products and thousands of black and Latino Goya employees. [4] [5]

Anyone who remembers reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter knows call out culture is not new. What is new, however, is social media’s ability to boost the speed, scope, and impact of a call out and the influence this has had on traditional bastions of free speech, such as college campuses.

Is Cancel Culture (or “Callout Culture”) Good for Society?

Pro 1

Callout culture allows marginalized people to seek accountability where the justice system fails.

The #metoo movement gave innumerable women (and some men) the ability to call out their countless abusers in a forum where the accusations might be heard and matter.

Olivia Goldhill, Quartz science reporter, explained, “Men have sexually assaulted and harassed women with impunity for millennia. Incredibly, ever since the allegations against Hollywood impresario Harvey Weinstein stopped being an ‘open secret,’ a few famous men have finally faced repercussions for their actions. Where inept courts and HR departments have failed, a new tactic has succeeded: Women talking publicly about harassment on social media, fueling the public condemnation that’s forced men from their jobs and destroyed their reputations.” [6]

Constance Grady, Staff Writer at Vox, stated, “Historically, we as a culture don’t do much to the rich and famous and powerful men of the world when women say that those men have hurt them. We give them Oscars and a seat on the Supreme Court and in the White House, and we call their accusers liars or hysterical or unreliable. We treat the men and their power as sacrosanct and the women and their pain as disposable.” [7]

By Oct. 2018, the end of the first year of #metoo, 429 people faced 1,700 allegations of sexual misconduct. That cohort included Harvey Weinstein, now convicted of third-degree rape and a first-degree criminal sexual act. [8] [9] [10] The allegations against Weinstein date to the late 1980s, and had long been an “open secret” in Hollywood. [11] Without callout culture, Weinstein may still be in a position of power.

Weinstein is the outlier in terms of criminal justice. Few powerful men are convicted of sexual misconduct. As of July 3, 2020, #metoo allegations have resulted in only 7 convictions and 5 other people charged with sexual misconduct. [10] However, 201 men in positions of power lost their jobs in the first year of #metoo due to sexual misconduct allegations that were posted on social media. [9]

As Jill Filipovic, JD, lawyer and writer, explained, “for the powerful, criminal convictions are rare, in part because these people have better tools to work the justice system and rarely fit the stereotype of a convict. So the court of public opinion ends up being where accusations–and just as often, accusers–are tried.” [12]

Beyond #metoo, other movements are able to demand justice. Black Lives Matter has repeatedly called out the killing of black men in particular by police officers. The result was perhaps the biggest global civil rights movement in history when 15 to 26 million people marched globally for black rights in June 2020. [13] [14]

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Pro 2

Callout culture gives a voice to disenfranchised or less powerful people.

Osita Nwanevu, MPP, Staff Writer at The New Republic, states, “The critics of cancel culture are plainly threatened not by a new and uniquely powerful kind of public criticism but by a new set of critics: young progressives, including many minorities and women who, largely through social media, have obtained a seat at the table where matters of justice and etiquette are debated and are banging it loudly to make up for lost time.” [15]

Meredith Clark, PhD, Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, elaborates on the power given to disenfranchised voices, “To me, it’s ultimately an expression of agency. To a certain extent: I really do think of it like a breakup and a taking back of one’s power.” [16]

Oscar Schwartz, PhD, author, elaborates, “While there may be instances of collateral damage [in call out culture], even people innocently accused, a more pressing problem to address is how and why institutions we are supposed to trust are deaf to many of the problems facing women and minority groups.” [17]

While not everyone has access to legislators or other powerful people, everyone can sign up for a Twitter account. “Canceling is a way to acknowledge that you don’t have to have the power to change structural inequality. You don’t even have to have the power to change all of public sentiment. But as an individual, you can still have power beyond measure [online]” and “for black culture and cultures of people who are lower income and disenfranchised, this is the first time you do have a voice in those types of conversations,” explained Anne Charity Hudley, PhD, Chair of Linguistics of African America at the University of California Santa Barbara. [18]

Dee Lockett, Music Editor for Vulture, summarizes the results of the social media call outs during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests: “It’s been most effective as a collective public display of pointing the finger at a problem. It’s a massive signal boost, but that doesn’t mean it’s valueless. It’s performative … to post these screenshots of our donation receipts, swipe ups to anti-black reading lists, and lying en masse on the grass for eight-plus minutes as George Floyd’s last words are recited over a mic. It’s also the language and currency of this era. Purses are opening. Cops (in one case) have been charged. There’s also a lot of value in seeing your faves turn into grassroots activists overnight. Halsey is a war nurse out of nowhere?! John Boyega is an anointed civil-rights leader. Kehlani is mobilizing on the ground. I’ve never seen anything like it.” [20]

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Pro 3

Callout culture is simply a new form of boycott, a cherished tactic in the civil rights movement, to bring about social change.

Lisa Nakamura, PhD, Professor and Director of the Digital Studies Institute at the University of Michigan, states that call out culture is “a cultural boycott. It’s an agreement not to amplify, signal boost, give money to. People talk about the attention economy — when you deprive someone of your attention, you’re depriving them of a livelihood.” She elaborates, “Socially irredeemable things are said on platforms all the time” but cancellation provides “a culture of accountability which is not centralized and is haphazard, but needed to come into being.” [16]

Hudley, states simply, “If you don’t have the ability to stop something through political means, what you can do is refuse to participate.” [18] Boycotts have long been associated with civil rights movements with the most famous, perhaps, being the Montgomery Bus boycott began in 1955 after Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of an Alabama bus. [19]

Craig Jenkins, Vulture Music Critic, refers to cancel culture as “a redrawing of the balance of power between brands and consumers — a necessary one, I think. I’m thrilled the brands are scared to death of saying the wrong thing for once.” [20]

Jenkins’ colleague, Senior Writer, E. Alex Jung responded, “Accountability is a really good way to frame it. It’s actually asking, well, if Amazon is suddenly going to uproot systemic racism (lol), what does that actually mean in terms of their labor practices? Or Twitter trying to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter even though as a company they haven’t taken racism and misogyny that affected their users seriously for years. The question is how deep this reckoning goes” [20]

Meanwhile, at least 800 big brands like Coca-Cola, Unilever, and Ford are using cancel culture to boycott Facebook advertising due to the platform’s refusal to censor the speech of organizations deemed “hate groups.” [21]

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Con 1

Callout culture amounts to online bullying, and can incite violence and threats even worse than the original offense being called out.

Sam Biddle, the journalist who retweeted Justine Sacco’s joke about AIDS that resulted in her firing while on a plane to South Africa, later regretted his actions and their results, stating, “it’s easy and thrilling to hate a stranger online.” [22]

Asam Ahmad, author and community organizer, notes that canceling an everyday person without compassion for the complexities of that person’s life amounts to bullying: “For instance, most call-outs I have witnessed immediately render anyone who has committed a perceived wrong as an outsider to the community. One action becomes a reason to pass judgment on someone’s entire being, as if there is no difference between a community member or friend and a random stranger walking down the street (who is of course also someone’s friend). Call-out culture can end up mirroring what the prison industrial complex teaches us about crime and punishment: to banish and dispose of individuals rather than to engage with them as people with complicated stories and histories.” [23]

Like the incident with Sacco, a single call out frequently snowballs into a mob attack on an individual. Anna Richards, MA, Vice President at The Neutral Zone Coaching and Consulting Services, notes that those doing the calling out are “taking this moral high ground, with a lot of righteous indignation, and inviting others to participate in a public shaming exercise.” And that is frequently counterproductive because the people being canceled “feel as though they’re already on shaky ground and if they have some sort of mistake highlighted it would be drawing from an empty cup. Generally what I see is just a total collapse, where the person’s sense of self is eroded, or a kind of counter-attack, where they double down on their position and don’t want to learn.” [24]

Alex Miranda, a high school student, explained, “All too commonly… users feed off the negativity presented in these online boycotts to create a hate train of mass cyberbullying targeted at one specific individual. Death threats are oftentimes among the list of obscene proclamations directed toward canceled individuals, which elevate the resented climate to an even more alarming state and can lead to real-life detriments. From this perspective, social media users’ retaliation against those who are canceled is sometimes more offensive than the exposed behavior of the offender themself.” [25]

Sameer Hinduja, PhD, Co-Director of the Cyberbullying Research Center at Florida Atlantic University, stated cyberbullies are “more likely to feel free from social norms and morals and ethics and rules and possible punishments and sanctions when they’re behind a screen and physically distant or geographically separate from the target.” [26]

Further, the cancellation can damage both parties if it has devolved into bullying. A 2020 study found 39% of cyberbully victims and 29% of cyberbullies showed signs of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). [26]

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Con 2

Call out culture is not productive and does not bring about social change.

President Barack Obama, JD, stated, “Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, cause, ‘Man, you see how woke I was, I called you out… That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.” [27]

As Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter, notes, “People don’t understand that [social activist] organizing isn’t going online and cussing people out or going to a protest and calling something out.” Activism is hard work entailing sometimes boring meetings, strategy sessions, building a campaign, and getting petitions signed. [28]

Aaron Rose, Corporate Diversity and Inclusion Consultant, explained, “Mainstream internet activism is a lot of calling out and blaming and shaming. We have to get honest with ourselves about whether calling out and canceling gives us more than a short-term release of cathartic anger.” Rose admitted that callout culture did not give him the conclusions he wanted: “I was not seeing the true change I desired. … We were still sad and mad. And the bad people were still bad. And everyone was still traumatized.” [18]

Frequently, callout culture backfires and engenders sympathy for the alleged offender, leading to continued support by fans. Louis CK took what amounts to a 10-month vacation before selling out dozens of comedy shows. After enduring decades of cancellations and documentaries about their alleged misdeeds, both R. Kelly and Michael Jackson’s music saw increases in streaming. Kevin Hart withdrew from his Oscars hosting job but saw no decline in audience for his movies or stand-up specials. [18]

Rose, among others, have promoted individual conversations with people to encourage growth on both sides. Sometimes termed “calling in.”

Author and Digital Strategist Maisha Z. Johnson offers “Addressing harmful behavior is important, but so is understanding that everyone is on a different step of their journey, so we all make mistakes. And we all have different strengths – so if someone’s lacking in one area, like knowing vocabulary words, we don’t have to treat them like they’re totally disposable to the movement. We can help them grow in that area, and hope that others would help us in the areas we need to grow, too.” [29]

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Con 3

Callout culture is a slippery slope and leads to intolerance in democratic societies as people systematically exclude anyone who disagrees with their views.

Loretta Ross, author, deems cancel culture a “cannibalistic maw” that is “[s]ometimes… just ruthless hazing.” [30]

In a July 4, 2020, speech at Mount Rushmore, President Trump stated, “One of (the left’s) political weapons is ‘cancel culture’ — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America.” [31]

Instead of canceling people, we should be encouraging more people to tell their stories, to add inclusivity and complexity. Connecting cancel culture to the dismantling of historic statues, Christian Sagars, Assistant Voices and Opinion Editor for Deseret News, stated, “Instead, they have come for the opportunistic Columbus and the slave-owning Founding Fathers. They have come for Brigham Young, the eponym of my alma mater and the leader of one of the largest religious migrations in the country’s history. It’s healthy to expose the thorny characters of history’s pages — and there’s a distinction for those who fought against their country and those who built it — but to ignore or eliminate wholesale their contributions to the nation’s foundation is a slippery slope, indeed.” [32]

Callout culture is also a slippery slope for those doing the calling out as Steven Mintz, Professor Emeritus at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, explained: “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.” He continues by calling for more tolerance and “willingness to allow the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with and not seek to harm the offender.” [33]

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Discussion Questions

  1. Is call out or cancel culture good for society? Why or why not?
  2. What are the most productive ways to interact with someone who has said something offensive? Explain your choices.
  3. Does callout or cancel culture silence different opinions or allow more opinions to be heard? Explain you answer and give examples if possible.

Sources:

1. Merriam-Webster, “What It Means to Get ‘Canceled,’” merriam-webster.com (accessed July 14, 2020)
2. Graham Bowley, “Bill Cosby Assault Case: A Timeline from Accusation to Sentencing,” nytimes.com, Apr. 25, 2018
3. Jon Ronson, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life,” nytimes.com, Feb. 12, 2015
4. Francisco Marte, “Why Hispanic Business Owners Are Urging You to BUY-cott Goya Products,” nypost.com, July 15, 2020
5. Goya, “History: Our Story,” goya.com (accessed July 23, 2020)
6.  Olivia Goldhill, “Naming Abusers Online May Be “Mob Justice” but It’s Still Justice,” qz.com, Nov. 7, 2017
7. Constance Grady, “Some say the Me Too Movement Has Gone Too Far. The Harvey Weinstein Verdict Proves That’s False.,” vox.com, Feb. 24, 2020
8. Riley Griffin, Hannah Recht and Jeff Green, “#MeToo: One Year Later,” bloomberg.com, Oct. 5, 2018
9. Audrey Carlsen, et al., “#MeToo Brought Down 201 Powerful Men. Nearly Half of Their Replacements Are Women.,” nytimes.com, Oct. 29, 2018
10. Orion Rummler, “Global #MeToo Movement Has Resulted in 7 Convictions, 5 Charges of Influential Figures,” axios.com, July 3, 2020
11. BBC, “Harvey Weinstein Timeline: How the Scandal Unfolded,” bbc.com, May 29, 2020
12. Jill Filipovic, “It’ll Never Be the Right Time for Famous Sexual Predators to Make Their Comebacks,” time.com, May 10, 2018
13. Spencer Kornhaber, “It’s Not Callout Culture. It’s Accountability.,” theatlantic.com, June 16, 2020
14. Larry Buchanan,  Quoctrung Bui, and Jugal K Patel, “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History,” nytimes.com, July 3, 2020
15. Osita Nwanevu, “The ‘Cancel Culture’ Con,” newrepublic.com, Sep. 23, 2019
16. Jonah Engel Bromwich, “Everyone Is Canceled,” nytimes.com, June 28, 2018
17. Oscar Schwartz, “Calling out for Justice,” ethics.org, July 19, 2018
18. Aja Romano, “Why We Can’t Stop Fighting about Cancel Culture,” vox.com, Dec. 30, 2019
19. History.com Editors, “Montgomery Bus Boycott,” history.com, Feb. 10, 2020
20. Craig Jenkins, E. Alex Jung, and Dee Lockett, “Videos, Blackouts, and the Times: A Roundtable Discussion on a Chaotic Week in Social Media,” vulture.com, June 5, 2020
21. Nancy Scola, “Inside the Ad Boycott That Has Facebook on the Defensive,” politico.com, July 3, 2020
22. Sam Biddle, “Justine Sacco Is Good at Her Job, and How I Came To Peace With Her,” gawker.com, Dec. 20, 2014
23. Asam Ahmad, “A Note on Call-Out Culture,” briarpatchmagazine.com, Mar 2, 2015
24. Adrienne Matei, “Call-Out Culture: How to Get it Right (and Wrong),” theguardian.com, Nov. 1, 2019
25. Alex, Miranda, “Let’s Cancel ‘Cancel Culture,’” southblueprint.com, Mar. 4, 2020
26. Megan Marples, “Some Cyberbullies Show Signs of PTSD, According to UK Study,” cnn.com, June 24, 2020
27. Emily S. Rueb and Derrick Bryson Taylor, “Obama on Call-Out Culture: ‘That’s Not Activism,’” nytimes.com, Oct. 31, 2019
28. Akiba Solomon and Kenrya Rankin, How We Fight White-Supremacy, 2019
29. Maisha Z. Johnson, “6 Signs Your Call-Out Is About Ego and Not Accountability,” thebodyisnotanapology.com, May 22, 2019
30. Loretta Ross, “I’m a Black Feminist. I Think Call-Out Culture Is Toxic.,” nytimes.com, Aug. 17, 2019
31. Brandon Tensley, “Cancel Culture Is about Power - Who Has It and Who Wants to Be Heard,” cnn.com, July 10, 2020
32. Christian Sagars, “Is There Any Stopping the March of Cancel Culture?,” deseret.com, June 19, 2020
33. Steven Mintz, “Ethics and the Cancel Culture,” ethicssage.com, Dec. 16, 2019