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This expression has getting popular these days. Googling it led to the explanation from Wikipedia that says:

Cancel culture (or call-out culture) is a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles – whether it be online, on social media, or in person. Those who are subject to this ostracism are said to have been "cancelled".

While I have the vague idea on what it is about, I am confused on its implication in the social and political arena.

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    What's wrong with the question that has received a few negative marks? Anybody care to point out, but making the shot from behind? – r13 Mar 14 at 21:08
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    One possible explanation for the downvotes on this question is that this community generally dislikes questions they know will lead to lots of heated arguments and debates. – Philipp Mar 14 at 21:41
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    It seems to me you answered your own question pretty concisely. There are many answers below, but the answer you provided in your own question is about as good as you can get. – Jack J Mar 15 at 4:36
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    @Noah We still try to avoid political discussions on this website and focus on explaining facts about politics and political processes in an objective, neutral and unbiased manner. A good explanation of the mission statement of this community can be found in the help center article what topics can I ask about here. – Philipp Mar 15 at 14:29
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    Frankly it's unclear to me what you're asking. The title question is obviously self-answered by the quote you gave. Your last sentence--stating that you're confused-- doesn't explain what you're confused about, so (nor) how could answers help with your unclear confusion. If you want an enumeration of the the implications of "cancel culture" that seems a tad broad (and possibly opinion-based to a good extent) and it's actually not what your title question is asking. So, not surprisingly, answers to your q are all over the place. VTC. – Fizz Mar 15 at 14:46

12 Answers 12

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Cancel culture is when a group uses social media to convey outrage to a company/person in an attempt to remove a product they are offering, to get one of their employees fired or to stop a commercial/campaign they are running.

It is often done with political motives, but sometimes also religious motives. The "culture" comes from the point that it seems to be (successfully)happening a lot more in recent years. Often with a liberal group disagreeing with a conservative person/product/use of words. So in the eyes of the conservatives it becomes a culture to remove everything people find offensive instead of respecting other people's political views.

The distain towards cancel culture comes from the point that a lot of people find it undemocratic, that forcing somebody to change their views through social media is not a proper alternative for opening a dialogue. They fear that if it continues on like this people will only be allowed to voice one opinion or be publicly crucified for their different opinions.

From the comments:

Trump trying to get a football player fired because he disagrees with the players views IS Cancel Culture.

The Riots around the Capitol ISN'T Cancel Culture, that was Terrorism/A Failed coup.

Not buying their product (Boycotting) ISN'T cancel culture. Actively promoting on social media that somebody tied to the product has to get fired and the product removed IS cancel culture.

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    Cancel culture is extremely vibrant on the far right. To deflect from this vibrancy, they point to the few illiberal people on the left for doing exactly what the right has been doing for years and is doing in far greater numbers. – David Hammen Mar 14 at 18:48
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    If I don't buy a product, read a news story, watch a TV show, etc, because the company, newspaper, or show producer has said or done something I don't like, what, exactly, am I 'cancelling' (UK spelling)? – Michael Harvey Mar 14 at 21:22
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    @MichaelHarvey nope, then you are Boycotting. If you go on Social Media telling that they should fire or discontinue something you are part of Cancel Culture. Cancel Culture is simply using social media to (try) and end something you disagree with. – A.bakker Mar 15 at 6:51
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    When a rock musician that I liked was convicted of sexual abuse of children, my wife and I put all his CDs that we owned in the trash. Is that 'cancel culture'? – Michael Harvey Mar 15 at 11:35
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    @MichaelHarvey Boycotting is not the same as Cancel Culture. Letting your approval known can be but isn't by definition. If you send a message of your disapproval it's not Cancel Culture, if you start/join a social media campaign to have people fired then it becomes cancel culture. If you throw away his stuff it isn't cancel culture, if you start a hashtag #fireThisGuy then it does become cancel culture. – A.bakker Mar 15 at 11:42
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A new*, deliberately pejorative, term to describe an old phenomenon, that of pressuring individuals or companies through the media when you disagree with their views, often in the ethnic/sexual orientation/religious/political spheres.

Admittedly, it is associated, on the right, with the increasingly strident voices that are on the left, like the great beans boycott.

But it has older antecedents, including on the right, like a proposed boycott of Disney in 97 because it "promoted homosexuality".

Basically, it is justified activism when you agree with the action, cancel culture when you don't.

However, cancel culture is more a right-side slogan and the left has yet to come with an equivalently pejorative catchy term for the just-as-agitated right activists. For now, it remains, thankfully, a largely USA-centric term.

Edit: I am not at all interested in debating the finer points of who is right or wrong or how justified the term is. Only in pointing out its elegant slogan power. It's brilliant, very "turn your enemy's strength against them". The left's best bet, IMHO, is just to own it and use it to criticize whatever right-side boycott campaigns they see. Unlike say tax and spend, it has no builtin ideological connotation.

And, if say both sides refrained from frivolous name-calling to avoid being tarred by this label... one can only dream.

* Google ngram doesn't find it, as it stops in 2019 (replace cancel with world and you can see ngram works fine with a different term).

But... (thanks, J...), Google Trends does and show an April 2019 rampup.

And, credit to Fizz, this seems to have been the first mainstream negative use of it:

The writer Shanita Hubbard used the phrase in a tweet about the controversy surrounding Gabby Douglas in November 2017. The Olympic gymnast was ostensibly canceled after she appeared to blame survivors of sexual assault; in response to her teammate Aly Raisman's tweet about sexual assault, Douglas said that "it is our responsibility as women to dress modestly and be classy."

Responding to the backlash against Douglas, Hubbard tweeted: "Let's talk 'cancel culture.' Personally, I am willing to give a lot of grace to young Black girls simply because the world doesn't." The tweet got more than 6,000 likes.

—Shanita Hubbard (@msshanitarenee) November 18, 2017

The phrase continued to gain popularity on Twitter in late 2017, with several people writing "cancel culture" in quotation marks to describe the trend. Insider found that most of those tweets referred to cancel culture negatively.

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    This answer is being discussed on meta. – Philipp Mar 15 at 14:16
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    As I can't be bothered to write a long answer to an unclear [to me] question; the origins of the term are discussed in a bit more depth in insider.com/… "The writer Shanita Hubbard used the phrase in a tweet about the controversy surrounding Gabby Douglas in November 2017. [...] Responding to the backlash against Douglas, Hubbard tweeted: "Let's talk 'cancel culture.'" – Fizz Mar 16 at 2:42
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    Great answer. I would say that it is partially new in that, prior to Twitter, Facebook, and the rest of social media, it was much harder to a) go back and find something stupid someone said years ago and b) draw enough attention to it to matter. – Kevin Mar 16 at 12:41
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    This is probably about as unbiased of an answer one could expect on stackoverflow, and it's not terrible. But something I'd like to point out is that the speed, effectiveness, and breadth of this sort of recent cancellation is unprecedented. I don't think corporations of the past were so quick to bend the knee to appease a vocal minority, and people/groups weren't being cancelled for decade old actions viewed through an ultra-modern lens. These aspects are generally associated with modern left-leaning cancellation. – user2647513 Mar 16 at 15:07
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    @user2647513 - I'd forgotten about it until it was mentioned in one of the other answers, but during McCarthyism, corporations were, in fact, quite willing to listen to the vocal anti-communist minority, and people were "cancelled" for anything they had ever done that raised a suspicion of being a "commie". It may have been somewhat slower, but that's because communication in general was slower. – Bobson Mar 16 at 22:59
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Cancel culture is a term reflecting two things, not just one:

  1. Cancelling - an outcome related to extreme disapproval of people and organisations perceived to have acted so egregiously, that they deserve removal from public dialogue and removal of privileged statuses (de-platforming), removing of things that support them and present them as respectable/role models (employment, sponsorships, banking facilities, or other as applicable), and often, a degree of social destruction of their voice in the public sphere, by shunning and social activism; and
  2. Its cultural use - The increased use (or perceived increased use, or broader social comfort) of cancelling, in social activism.

About "cancelling"

Cancelling itself can be seen as an extreme form of boycott and shunning, with elements of social pressure rapidly built up over social media, and often triggered by some specific incident that acted as a "last straw".

It usually reflects something that is widely perceived as so damning, related to equality or bigotry, that horrified recoil and avoidance, and massive social "pile-on" pressure on others to follow suit (employers, sponsors, trading partners, organisations), are widely perceived as the only really plausible responses a person can have, to make clear publicly the level of widefelt disgust/disapprobation.

In effect cancelling is a direction that a mass protest can go, against typically racist/sexist/egregious behaviour and comments, where the behaviour is seen as extreme enough to warrant it. As such it is typically associated with racist and sexist behaviour, or (less often) hugely inappropriate conduct by someone or some organisation, related to.racism/sexism such as comments by the CEO, such that ordinary people on the street are outraged that they should continue to have any social prestige or platform at all. As such its a kind of de-platforming as well.

An example of cancelling is what happened to notorious historian David Starkey in June 2020.

David Starkey was a "celebrity historian" who had many books, prestigious appointments, and TV/media appearances. But he also over some 20+ years repeatedly made comments that were at best inflammatory and racially/sexually hugely insensitive, and at worst inflammatory and outright racist/sexist. So there was already a large pent-up feeling that he was not a good person, because of his repeated provocative allusion to the kinds of things that racists/sexists say.

Finally, in June 2020, in a podcast interview, he made a comment that proved to be the "tipping point". He stated, in the heat of the "Black Lives Matter" campaign, that people should not "go on about" slavery because it had been abolished in 1833, and that "Slavery was not genocide, otherwise there wouldn't be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain would there?" - a statement that gained the response that if that was true, the Nazi Holocaust wouldn't be genocide either, as many Jews survived it.

For whatever reason (probably the BLM social context of the time he said it, following the police killing of George Floyd), this was the point which resulted in his cancellation. Protests and expressions of disgust were HUGE across social media, and demands that he was unworthy of the honours and status accorded him, because of this and his decades-long racially and sexually incendiary views, which he seemed to use provocatively and unrepentantly. Universities, then publishers and others, felt the pressure and as one removed an honour or position, others felt even more pressure that they too could agree he was unfit for their position and bringing them into disrepute too.

As Wikipedia succinctly states:

Starkey's comments were rebuffed by former Chancellor Sajid Javid, who said they were racist and that they serve as "a reminder of the appalling views that still exist", and they were widely described as racist in the media. Historian David Olusoga, praised by Starkey in the same broadcast, described the comments as "truly disgusting. And by the same ridiculous, twisted logic the Holocaust would not be counted as a genocide". As a result, the Mary Rose Trust accepted his resignation from the board of trustees and the Historical Association announced on Twitter that it would withdraw the Medlicott Medal it had awarded him 20 years previously. Fitzwilliam College of Cambridge University distanced themselves from his comments and later accepted his resignation as an honorary fellow on 3 July 2020. Canterbury Christ Church University, where Starkey had been a visiting professor, removed him from that role in response to his "completely unacceptable" remarks. The magazine History Today also removed him from their editorial board. Lancaster University revoked Starkey's honorary degree after an investigation found that his comments were "racist and contradictory to the values of the University". The University of Kent launched a formal review of his honorary graduate status. HarperCollins terminated its book deal with Starkey and his previous publisher Hodder & Stoughton has also said that they "will not be publishing any further books by him". Vintage Books announced it would be reviewing the status of books by Starkey in their back catalogue. Also on 3 July 2020, at a meeting of the Royal Historical Society, the Society's Council resolved that Starkey should be asked to resign his fellowship with immediate effect. On 6 July 2020, Starkey resigned his fellowship of the Society of Antiquaries of London at the request of its Council.

Cancelling can also apply to other matters, not just people. An example is old TV programs, books and movies which were "of their time", but are no longer felt capable of being re-shown or sold/streamed by businesses due to the inevitability of huge outrage and reputational damage that is likely to descend. For example, in the 1940s Disney produced a large number of cartoons that today would be seen as extremely racist, and are no longer shown. They too would foreseeably be the subject of extreme censure and social protest, if rebroadcast. (Related: Disney comment on old animated movies which are still available but carry informational warnings).

(A crossover between the two might be the way that in the UK, certain extremely popular old TV shows such as "Jim'll Fix It" and "Top of the Pops" ceased to be offered as repeats when their celebrity presenter was posthumously identified as a prolific paedophile and abuser. At this time, nothing whatsoever featuring that person seems likely to ever be shown on TV again other than discussion of his hidden abusive lifestyle.)

Another example is removal of statues and names related to the slave trade and slave ownership. The issue with these being the scale of social outrage arising from persons who profited from slavery being lauded by a public statue, as heroes, when profiting from slavery is considered heinous.

So in each case we find that cancelling, relates to the same essential thing - widespread social outrage at someone or something embodying (usually) sexism or racism, whose elevated platform combined with that platform's perceived use outrages public sensibility to the point that it results in attempts at forcible removal by social activism

That said, in daily usage, the term is still probably more commonly used for direct social activism that results in forcing (or aiming to force) such an outcome, rather than quiet consensual "behind the scenes" avoidance of a problem. For example if a product rebrands to avoid an old name with historically racist overtones, one would not usually describe that as "cancelling".

The term "Cancel Culture"

The idea of "cancel culture" is a somewhat pejorative term by those opposed to cancelling, or who do not accept/understand the depth of feeling involved. They don't agree that this should happen or see it as overblown and unfair, or socially wrong, or similar.

(Its also used in a non-pejorative sense when the phenomenon of cancelling is discussed and analysed by commentators and critics, such as in social media discussions of BLM. But it seems to be more used by those somewhat or quite against it, hence still feels somewhat of a pejorative way to refer to and dismiss it.)

Such people tend to use the term to reflect their dislike/disapproval of a social culture which sees cancelling as a valid item in the social activism toolbox.

Using Starkey again as an example, a common example might be someone who has never been affected much by racism or sexism, and doesn't "get" why Starkey's comment in June 2020 was so hugely repellant to so many, or that it was just a final straw of many repellant comments over the years, to so many. What they may see is an unruly vigilante-like online mob, that arbitrarily picks out those who dissent from their desired views on racism/sexism and targets them to be socially destroyed.

To such people, cancelling is not a "last resort for extreme cases" tool in a social activism toolkit. Its a culture of destroying those who don't toe the line with neo-left wing views about women and minorities, and its an unfair cultural phenomenon that currently is in vogue and happens repeatedly (or could happen any time) to those who stand up for what they feel and believe, or people who make mistakes and don't deserve such an outcome.

In that sense its able to be perceived by such people as an in-vogue "culture" of accepting and using cancelling to target and enforce protesters' views within society. Hence the name that is sometimes attached to it.

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    I like this answer better than the top voted answer, it has better structure and better definitions. However; It does seem slightly biased: It would be relevant to add examples of cancel culture that highlights the problematic sides and why many see it as a problem. An apparently racist and insensitive podcaster is not the important victim here; but important qualities to have in a society like academic freedom seem at risk. The NY Times op-ed editor was forced out - reading his resignation letter is deeply unsettling. – Stian Yttervik Mar 15 at 14:27
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    This question doesn't ask for a discussion of good sides v problematic sides, but simply a clear description of meaning and significance. What differentiates cancelling from say, boycotting or other responses is part of its meaning. Having said that, I think the 2nd part, about cancel culture, does summarise the serious concerns and reservations that many have about it. – Stilez Mar 15 at 14:33
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    This answer focuses too much on one single "hugely repellant" comment, and ignores what the term cancel culture is used on. Those who talk about cancel culture are raising awareness for people being the targets of mass hate campaigns and getting their careers destroyed for utterly trivial things. Sometimes for merely refusing to declare allegiance to a "social justice" movement. – vsz Mar 15 at 21:02
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    The answer uses the word "widely" way too often. Arguably, the significant difference between the CC and its former iterations such as protests and BDS is exactly that, thanks to the amplification effect of modern media, the "cancelling" group does not need to be big, and the beliefs do not need to be "widely" held, to achieve practical annihilation. – Zeus Mar 16 at 4:38
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    @vsz - Is there an example of that which doesn't fall under the "final straw" line in this answer? That is, a single "trivial" event where someone who has no prior history of 'cancellable' actions has been targeted and suffered? If you have a specific counterexample, then that'd be something that'd be worth adding to the next-to-last paragraph. – Bobson Mar 16 at 22:49
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*Sorry if I ramble; going through groggy pneumonia right now...

While I have the vague idea on what it is about, I am confused on its implication in the social and political arena.

Historically, activists from all sides of the political spectrum have targeted individuals or groups for the positions or opinions they have held. This generally consisted of public awareness campaigns brought to the public through purchased newspaper and/or magazine print ads, purchased television air time, letter writing campaigns, and word-of-mouth.

The aggrieved party would employ these methods to notify the public of their particular claim of injustice, and the public would then be free to either disagree with the claim, or agree with the claim and then attempt to somehow affect the party accused of the particular violation. This could be boycotts, picket lines, demonstrations, or sometimes even more violent means. This would then be covered by the public media, making the majority of the population aware of the situation, and public popular opinion would then prevail in whatever fashion seemed effective at the time. Generally in this time period, the result was some sort of boycott carried out to the extent that individual citizens felt were justified.

Fast forward to today: TV/Radio/Print advertising no longer has to be purchased. Social media can be used to gather huge amounts of individuals into groups. Some individuals may join simply to be "one of the group", others because they genuinely agree with the cause, and some for both reasons. Because of the internet, these numbers can increase incredibly fast, sometimes creating a huge cause literally over night.

Because the internet is such a huge echo-chamber, public and social media will immediately start amplifying this at an exponential rate. Once such huge awareness is achieved, all that is left is the fate of the target.

Historically, this might have resulted in boycotts on businesses, etc. Since the age of the internet, however, information is much more freely and readily available, and when used by huge groups in collaboration, can be used to target individuals or corporations in highly efficient manners.

Historically, the result of the initial public awareness campaign might result in enough of the general population to create an effective boycott. Today, though, the general population isn't required to be on-board for incredibly destructive actions to be enacted.

Through the miracle of the internet, bot-nets can be directed to bombard companies whom are represented by targeted individuals with real or non-real complaints, to the extent that the company is then forced to cut ties with the targeted individual(for reasons of finance or optics) even if the company doesn't agree with the reason the individual is being targeted.

Research can now be done to the degree that any impropriety an individual has ever done in their whole life can be pulled from the depths of the dark past, and cast in Hollywood lights for the whole world to see.

Social media can promote group-think to the extent that huge groups of individuals on the internet can target specific aspects of an individuals life to the extent that they can even cost a target his income, and even prevent them from having an income for some foreseeable future.

While there are many examples, I recall a few years ago the situation where universities had previously contracted to have certain public figures speak to the student body on pre-arranged dates. As could normally be expected, half the students wanted to see the speaker, and the other half did not. Historically, half the students would have gone elsewhere that night while the other half would have attended the speech. In this day and age however, cancel-culture would not permit that to be enough. Instead, they would not only just "not show up" for the speech they didn't want to see, they would scream as loud and as long as they could to completely "cancel" the event altogether, so that even those students that wanted to attend couldn't.

In this age of the internet, in situations where a person or organization historically would have simply been boycotted, today the people or organizations can be completely destroyed almost overnight even if not reasonably justified. Cancelled.

The implication in this day and age is that, while social outrage over an issue could always be made aware to the public, the roll-out took longer so cooler heads prevailed. In the past this would result in dis-favorable light being shed on the target, perhaps persuading said target to change his ways. With today's technology and today's climate, however, a virtual big red "DESTROY" button can be figuratively slammed.

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    This kinda went off the rails at the botnet paragraph. – Jontia Mar 15 at 6:02
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    Indeed. And what about the university speaking thing? It's not that half the population merely "don't want to see the speaker", it's that half the population believe the speaker is dangerous and should not be allowed to speak. If they merely weren't interested in seeing the speaker, then they simply wouldn't go. This has not changed in recent years. – user253751 Mar 15 at 9:49
  • Compare a biology professor coming to talk about the structure of a frog lung, which many students might find boring but probably wouldn't actively oppose, to Adolf Hitler coming to talk about why Jews are bad and should be expelled from the country, which students probably would actively oppose. (Do frogs have lungs? I assume so) – user253751 Mar 17 at 16:03
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The central characteristic of cancel culture is that it substitutes accusations and outrage on social media for investigation and discussion of facts, with the explicit goal of social punishment of the target for the alleged offense. It's typically limited to asking to terminate someone's employment, or cancel an event - calls for violent or otherwise criminal retribution are not considered cancel culture.

The benefits are that it is produces swift results, and can sometimes get results where more traditional approaches like the legal system fall short. The downsides are that it lacks the ability to consider the severity of the offense, that its inherent inability to look at evidence from a neutral perspective will cause innocents to be punished, that it can be weaponized with targeted misinformation, and that those who use it are usually save from repercussions when the accusations are proven to be wrong.

Some make a distinction based on ideology, and only count an incident as cancel culture if it's based on identity politics (usually accusations of racism, sexism or transphobia), but others including myself don't see a meaningful difference.

Proponents of Cancel Culture usually avoid the term, and justify what they are doing as "consequences". It's not unusual for people and groups to be "opposed" to Cancel Culture, and claiming that if they are doing it it isn't Cancel Culture, because it's perfectly justified.

Cancel Culture differs from it's various predecessors mainly by it's spread through social media. Outrage gets amplified by a much larger reach, echo chambers and group think cause the outrage to spread at faster rates than before, and the actual involvement and legal exposure of the people taking part is typically far less than in many of the predecessors (e.g. smear campaigns and lynch mobs).

A pessimistic view of the political and social effect is that people are afraid to speak their minds, and seek refuge in tribal groups with similar values, which encourages increased political polarization, and erodes social trust outside of the tribal group.

An optimistic view of the political and social effects is that it will encourage people to better inform themselves before spreading their misguided opinions, and brings justice by holding people accountable who cannot be held accountable by the flawed legal system.

I am not an optimist.

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    This answer is all right, but I think any discussion on the meaning of cancel culture without mentioning the terms highly partisan usage is incomplete. – MegaCrow Mar 15 at 19:43
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    I think it's more complicated than "highly partisan". My interpretation is that it's most often used by virtue signaling elements of the identity politics crowd, who try to prove how not racist/sexist/etc they are by trying to point the finger everywhere else. The targets are rather evenly distributed in terms of partisanship, since the accusers are not afraid to eat their own, but one ethnicity and one gender is vastly overrepresented among the targets. None of these statements are anywhere near universally accepted, so I left them out, trying for a less controversial answer. – Peter Mar 15 at 21:25
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    "it's most often" – I assume by this you're referring to the actions which are described by some as "cancel culture"? I think MegaCrow is referring to the usage of the term being partisan – meaning that people who complain about "cancel culture" are almost always right-wingers complaining about what the consider "left-wing" values. – divibisan Mar 15 at 21:45
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    @divibisan That makes sense, it seems I misinterpreted the comment. I've seen it used plenty by people who are definitely not Trumpists, but people who use it certainly tend to be opposed to what they consider "cancel culture" to represent. I'll think about it, maybe I'll find a way to work that into the answer – Peter Mar 15 at 21:59
  • @Peter "The benefits are that it is produces swift results" This is what the corporate propaganda system wants people to believe. – FluidCode Mar 16 at 15:41
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Thanks to social media, powerful people and people from privileged groups have suffered negative consequences for their actions and sometimes opinions. That is unusual and a neologism have been coined to describe what they have been subjected to; cancel culture.

For most people, it was never safe to voice political views. In the 1950s in the US, McCarthyism caused a witch hunt on everyone on the left. They were labelled Communists and were blacklisted. This witch hunt wasn't indigenous to the US nor did it end in the 1950s; Communists and suspected Communists were blacklisted in many other parts of the world too. They suffered endless unemployment and many resorted to alcoholism.

Even today, people run the very real risk of getting fired if they, for example, attempt to organize a union at their workplace or if they discuss their compensation with their peers. In the US, it is illegal for employers to forbid employees from discussing compensation but they do it anyway. Losing your livelihood over unionizing work or over discussing compensation is a form of cancelling. Becca Rothfield in Jacobin argues that at-will employment, that is, that the employer can fire the employee for any reason and at any time, is the real cancel culture in the US.

The many #metoo sexual abuse scandals reveal another form of cancelling. For decades it was an open secret that Harvey Weinstein was a sexual predator (and others like Bill Cosby, for example). So why didn't anyone come out and say it? Because they were afraid of being cancelled. That they would never get another job in Hollywood if they accused Weinstein of sexual abuse.

Many others have argued that the #metoo movement was an example of cancel culture and that Weinstein and men like him were being cancelled. Thus, one can argue that cancel culture can be a force of good. Is the cancel culture the culture that keeps women silent about sexual abuse from powerful men or the culture that compels them to speak up about it?

In the US today, Palestine is a hot button issue. An anonymous website called Canary Mission publishes dossiers of American pro-Palestinian activists with the intent of causing them grief. The idea is that future employers will google their names, see their dossiers, and deny them employment. Since people don't want to hurt their future job prospects, Canary Mission works as a deterrent against pro-Palestinian activism.

Murtaza Hussain in The Intercept argues that the Canary Mission is one example of how pro-Palestine speech is cancelled. According to him, this form of cancelling doesn't get much media attention because it targets ordinary people - often young college students - and thus is not a nuisance to the journalists chronicling the cancel culture debate.

My argument is that 1) fear of being cancelled is deeply ingrained in society, 2) that it is so pervasive that we rarely think twice about it, and 3) that this fear is regularly exploited to suppress opposing viewpoints or other forms of dissent.

What differs in my examples and what many right-wingers would call cancel culture is who is doing the cancelling, who is being cancelled, and how it is carried out. But the end result is exactly the same; people losing their livelihood or having their careers ruined for speaking their mind.

See the following links for some in my opinion well-argued left-wing positions on cancel culture:

The right-wing perspective is that cancel culture is only ever practiced by the so called "woke" left. Perhaps they'd argue that my examples aren't really about cancelling, but merely about people making free choices. To me that seems like hypocrisy, but I'm not very familiar with the right-wing perspective so I cannot describe it in detail.

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    I think the Canary Mission example is not suitable here. They don't "take action" or demand anything, they just inform. If that employer who googles the name happens to be pro-Palestinian, it will be of help rather than grief. This is no different to websites that collect, say, racist remarks of other people to expose them. – Zeus Mar 16 at 5:02
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    I would add that nytimes.com/2020/12/03/t-magazine/cancel-culture-history.html is also a good read (and even a bit cross-cultural) but otherwise hardly disagrees with more leftist sources you listed (huck, jacobin etc.) – Fizz Mar 16 at 15:09
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I tend to find confusion over the term "cancel culture" is that there is what Vox called call-out-culture

Cancel culture and call-out culture are often confused not only with each other, but also with broader public shaming trends, as part of a collectivized narrative that all of these things are examples of trolling and harassment. The media sometimes refers to this idea as “outrage culture.”

The United States has always had call-out-culture, if you will. It's simply naming and shaming behavior. Everyone on both sides does it, both in political and social arenas. But cancel culture extends far beyond the mere call-out. If I were proffer a definition it would be

A desire to be seen as supporting a cause by accepting (with little or no critical eye) allegations that can or do lead to serious consequences for the accused

The general ingredients are

  1. A morally upright cause. In current terms, it often means civil rights (racism, LGBT+, etc.), but it's not exclusive to that
  2. An attempt to cast complex issues solely in simple terms, to create a morally superior position that hearkens back to the moral cause (often to limit criticism)
  3. A social outcry about some perceived sight or injustice that may not be as simple as it appears. Social media and protests help amplify the effect.
  4. People in power taking immediate steps to assuage the outcry that often look more interested in public relations than in just dealings with the accusations

For instance, a man observed a San Diego Gas and Electric employee with his index and thumb curled into circle, with his fingers extended. He took a picture and tweeted this gesture at the company itself, which resulted in the SDG&E employee being fired

The motorist, a man named David Bentley, accused Cafferty of displaying the OK hand gesture, which in recent years has become linked to the white power movement (because it can be looked at as the letters W and P). He urged SDG&E to take action.

In a Twitter response, SDG&E wrote, “Please DM us the location so that we can look into it further. We assure you that at SDG&E, we believe strongly there is no place in our society for discrimination of any kind….”

Later

Two days later, after a second interview, SDG&E fired Cafferty for violating the company’s public image policy. Now unemployed and possibly unemployable, Cafferty says that single Twitter post changed his life forever. Left with few options, Cafferty has decided to fight what’s come to be known as “cancel culture.” He has done interviews in national publications, and will be featured in an upcoming HBO documentary.

The problem is that symbol isn't necessarily racist. In fact, the Anti-Defamation League has this warning

Because of the traditional meaning of the “okay” hand gesture, as well as other usages unrelated to white supremacy, particular care must be taken not to jump to conclusions about the intent behind someone who has used the gesture.

Even former President Obama has expressed his displeasure at such things

"If all you're doing is casting stones, you're probably not going to get that far," he told an audience at an event for the Obama Foundation.

He added that he got the sense some young people felt being as "judgmental as possible" was the best way to force change and cautioned them that the world was "messy" and full of "ambiguities".

The root problem is that is leaves no room for people to have changed their views. It casts moral judgment (sometimes for long-past sins), demands immediate action, and fixing the damage is pretty difficult

But in the midst of mass protests against police brutality and systemic anti-Black racism, the reaction from the public was swift. Holy Land was evicted from one location over the posts, where it had a butcher store and deli. It has lost millions of dollars in contracts for its renowned hummus, closed its factory and two other Holy Land locations and laid off at least 46 people, mostly immigrants and people of color, in the face of a boycott campaign.

Only after weeks and months of work did they arrive at this: a detente

While Makram El-Amin said he believes Majdi Wadi's intentions are genuine, there is no path to redemption without concrete action. The people in his community, he said, are not in a space to just forgive and forget.

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    I don't think I agree with the line you're trying to draw here, or perhaps I'm misunderstanding what that line is. Call outs, naming and shaming, etc. all lead to, or are intended to lead to, serious consequences for the accused. So it seems to me that in your argument, the central difference between "call-out" and "cancel" culture is that in "cancel culture" the accusers don't really care about the issue, ie. they're doing what the right calls "virtue signaling". I don't think you can justify that argument in the vast majority of cases which are called "cancel culture". – divibisan Mar 16 at 1:40
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    To be clear, "cancel culture" differs in that a mere call-out is trying to correct something. Cancel Culture is trying to damage or destroy anyone (via mob) whom it deems to be unfit. I expect SDG&E to look at a complaint about their employee. I don't expect said employee to be fired because someone thought he was making a racist symbol, without anything else to back it up. – Machavity Mar 16 at 1:50
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    @divibisan Not quite apples-to-apples. Weinstein promoted real harm to real people and there was an entire ecosystem that enforced his will. Moreover, Weinstein was tried in a court of law, and said ecosystem (at lease ostensibly) was ended. In order to be canceled, you need to inflate something minor to a Weinstein-level event, and then ruin (not just shame) them. Say a small-time producer said something unkind (but not overtly harmful) about an actress and then sees his studio funding pulled and all projects suddenly ended, forcing him to close his doors. That would be a "cancellation". – Machavity Mar 16 at 2:37
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    @FluidCode Having your building lease terminated and millions in contracts canceled or being fired as a racist are publicity stunts? – Machavity Mar 16 at 15:41
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    @Machavity. No, that is creating an excuse. The contracts were already being cancelled for other reasons, the lease was terminated because the business was already failing. – FluidCode Mar 16 at 15:45
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Although the description adds also ostracism in person it is something happening mainly on social media.

It is the new invention of big media, it might have several purposes. An obvious one is letting people think that the role of the individual on social media is more important than what it actually is. But people opinion is actually influenced when the same argument is repeated multiple times in multiple forms by many sources, the single voice, single opinion is easily drowned out, their importance is negligible. When propagandists want to push a certain argument they organise a widespread media campaign, spreading just few slogans would be useless.

Another obvious reason, in the case of the so called influencers/celebrities or companies, is the classic old publicity stunt. If you see a call for a boycott consider carefully the reasons of the boycott and wonder how people would react. If it seems clear that very few people would join then it is very likely that the real purpose is to draw attention on the target of the boycott. The Disney boycott cited in another post is a good example of a publicity stunt.

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There is a lot of confusion about these terms, as different groups define them differently, and argue from a position where their definition is universally accepted. Obviously, that causes miscommunication, as statements that are perfectly reasonable with one definition sound completely ludicrous with another.

Originally, "canceling" is an AAVE term for calling out a person who supposedly acts in the interests of a group, but (instead or additionally) causes harm, so the group must evaluate whether this person speaks for them or should be regarded as a role model.

This is a process that is vital in every group, and e.g. the hacker subculture has had this discussion several times in the past: if someone does a lot of good work but is an intolerable sex pest, do we want this person as part of the hacker community? If the answer is no (as it should be) then we need to somehow communicate that this person is not welcome and not safe to be around, i.e. "cancel" them.

There is a number of people who instead would like to pin status within the group on contributions (often called meritocracy), and their motives vary. For example, some are on the spectrum and find rules around personal behavior hard to navigate even if they are playing it safe and aren't in danger of running afoul of them, it is still a lot of cognitive load to track whether people have been excluded.

With social media, even minority groups are now large and distributed, and it is therefore necessary to have a public and distributed consensus process for what is and what isn't in the best interest of the group.

For example, there is a subgroup of trans people who have had extensive surgery to get close to the desired result, while others cannot afford this, and there is some strife whether that should convey a different status (as it is easily measurable), and how to weigh this against harmful behavior (e.g. a prominent advocate of trans issues is also heavily in favor of bombing the middle east).

As with all political debates, the meta-debate is part of the debate too.

Constructing an argument that it is too easy to be called out for unacceptable behavior is the same as arguing that the behavior wasn't unacceptable (as only a small but vocal subgroup is complaining, and the silent majority doesn't have a problem with it).

The term "cancel culture" was coined as part of constructing that argument.

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My two cents. I think the term is generally understood to refer either as

  1. To shame public figures and/or denying them a platform due to their controversial/offensive/wrong views/statements.

  2. To remove, eradicate, destroy or alter cultural expressions (books, statues, movies etc) under public pressure because they also represent or contain wrong views.

Like other answers point out the term is generally used by conservatives, however there are plenty examples when conservatives are/were (trying to) "cancel-culturing" stuff/people also.

What are it's societal implications?

It is indeed not a total new phenomenon, however the profileration of the Internet/Social media the last decade-and-half has made it much simpler for small, determined groups to start a successful "cancel-something/somebody" campaign. Another factor is that a lot of things/services we consume nowadays are produced by very large companies which are terrified to alienate some of their (potential) consumers.

This has the effect that nowadays sometimes a very small but vocal group gets to decide which cultural expressions can be shown and in what way.

Sometimes something good comes out of it, like presenting Gone with the Wind with a disclaimer that it denies the horrors of slavery. At other times it causes something I personally detest, like preventing me from seeing one of my favorite Community episodes again.

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    The Community episode you reference is, I think, a good example of where the definition of "cancel culture" loses its meaning. There was no "mob" or mass pressure campaign pushing for that episode to be removed, Netflix and Hulu decided not to host it on their own. You could argue that they might have been trying to preempt such a campaign, but now you're getting into the realm of judging business decisions. – divibisan Mar 15 at 19:22
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Cancel culture is recently fashionable term for refusing to give certain people a platform to voice their opinion, reasoned or otherwise. It's also been known as no-platforming for obvious reasons. Although it has some parallels with social ostracism, the latter term is much stronger as people who have been 'cancelled' or 'no-platformed' are usually allowed to go on to have a normal social life.

A number of liberal commentators have argued against such a culture arguing for free speech. However, free speech is not an axiomatic right and nor a panacea. It's often qualified with sensitivity to political or religious culture, and free speech does not mean that anyone has the right to hate speech. It's also qualified with professional codes of speech conduct - for example, scholarly or scientific speech has many codes about respecting what kinds of rationale or reasoning is admissible. In other words, free speech brings along obligations as well as rights.

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An opinion partly arrived at from reading the other answers:

What distinguishes traditional censorship from cancel culture is that in the latter the virtual censor comprises a fluctuating, anxious, and irritated hive mind that's still trying to decide how to best justify its policy of censorship, (that is how to best justify it to the public, and to itself), and is usually also still unsettled as to the nature of what is specifically most offensive about some object of odium, and may be even further unsettled as to the nature of whatever opposing goods the culture ought to value and reward. Therefore cancel culture tends to come with a spirit of opinionated debate and competing didacticism, rather like successive rounds presided over by the amiably preening judges at some bad talent show, as it winds down there is effusive praise for the victors; these successive rounds are absent in tradition-based censorship.

With traditional censorship, there's a long settled tacit agreement as to what's good and what's hated. Therefore its target audience is familiar with the formula of the show they expect to see.

So traditional censors and their audiences needn't think much or hope for miracles. Whereas cancel cultures and their audiences tend to think much more, (albeit with a general obliviousness of the historical dangers, practices and outcomes of censorship), and they hope for more.

Traditional censorship is fairly predictable, even for its transgressors and enemies. Cancel culture is more mercurial; yesterday's ally may be tomorrow's newly articulated offender.


What's common to both traditional censorship and cancel culture is that both sets of practitioners and audiences feel a uniting glow for the problems they believe can best be solved with suppression.

If the above is correct, it suggests that traditional forms of censorship have their origins in generally forgotten cancel cultures.

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  • I’ve got to ask: what do you mean by “cancel cultures” in the plural? I don’t think I’ve ever seen the plural before, so I’m a bit unclear exactly how you’re using it – divibisan Mar 30 at 22:39
  • @divibisan, The plural here signifies the supposed possibility of more than one cancel culture. Entertaining the speculation that cancel culture is just traditional censorship in its infancy, there'd be as many cancel cultures as there are forms of traditional censorship, i.e. thousands. – agc Mar 31 at 14:35

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