Cancel culture is a term reflecting two things, not just one:
- 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
- Its cultural use - The increased use (or perceived increased use, or broader social comfort) of cancelling, in social activism.
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.