By now, you’ve likely heard of “cancel culture.” The term is used liberally by people across the political aisle to refer to instances when people are publicly shamed for controversial words or actions, and therefore “canceled” by the culture.
But if you search for a definition of cancel culture online, you’ll uncover an intense debate between those who think cancel culture is merely overdue justice being served while others believe it’s a threat to due process and free speech.
And it’s no wonder; the term is applied to a variety of situations, some warranted, some not.
So what is cancel culture, really?
Let’s take a look.
What is Cancel Culture?
Late last month, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem rejected a bill that would protect female athletes by disallowing biological males to compete in women’s sports.
Noem had previously voiced her support for the much-needed Fairness in Women’s Sports Act and had told her constituency she would sign it. But instead she caved to outside pressures and removed some of the bill’s most important provisions. “Attempting to placate ‘woke’ special interests by eviscerating the bill's protections for collegiate female athletes falls short of the courage Noem has shown in other settings,” writes Alliance Defending Freedom General Counsel, Kristen Waggoner.
In response to strong backlash from conservatives across the country, a spokesperson for Noem told the press that “conservative cancel culture” was to blame for the critical response Noem has received.
But this is not an example of cancel culture. Rather, it’s simply a politician receiving criticism for having failed to deliver on her promises. And when has that not been part of politics in America?
No, cancel culture is something different entirely, much more nefarious.
Take former New York Times journalist Bari Weiss. After enduring years of harassment and bullying for holding opinions her colleagues don’t agree with, Weiss exited her post at the publication, pushed out because of her colleagues’ vitriolic attacks.
After her leave, she penned a letter to explain the damaging environment she saw unfolding at The Times and how she saw cancel culture playing a role in her departure: “A new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else…My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views.”
There, Weiss puts her finger on the definition and danger of cancel culture. Cancel culture is a form of censorship. Weiss, for example, felt pushed out of her job at the national “newspaper of record” because her fellow writers didn’t believe her opinions deserved to be heard. They didn’t like Weiss’s opinions, therefore they didn’t want anyone else reading them.
To many people, cancel culture isn’t worth worrying about because, in their eyes, it’s only truth being spoken to power.
But that depends on what you’re talking about: we can’t say Kristi Noem was canceled for her political actions in the same way that we say Bari Weiss was canceled from The Times. Noem wasn’t “canceled”—she lost support from some her of constituency for refusing to sign a bill. Weiss, on the other hand, had merely voiced a minority opinion at The Times, for which she was verbally flogged.
To apply the same term to both situations is the reason we’re so confused about cancel culture.
What You Can Do About Cancel Culture
Cancel culture is dangerous because it’s crushing censorship masquerading as compassionate civility. A threat that was until very recently confined to public university campuses has now spread to the broader culture and even to corporate boardrooms, undermining free speech and public discourse for everyday Americans.
As the Philadelphia Statement puts it: “Truly open discourse—the debates, exchange of ideas, and arguments on which the health and flourishing of a democratic republic crucially depend—is increasingly rare.”
We need to get back to a place where a large majority of Americans feel comfortable voicing their thoughts in the public square without fearing that they’ll be bullied or censored.
Help stand for free speech and join the growing movement taking action against cancel culture.
Sign the Philadelphia Statement today to show your support and share it with friends. In order to conquer cancel culture, each one of us has to decide to share our thoughts and hear others out in a spirit of civility.