In June 2020, cancel culture claimed its latest victim: the popular children's television show Paw Patrol. People claimed that its protagonists - animated dogs who operate as police in a fictional universe - were being derided. These pieces said critics saw its positive portrayal of law enforcement strengthened a culture of deference to the police. Headlines around the world stated cancel culture had gone mad. But none of this was true. What began as a joke about cancel culture had grown into a conspiracy tearing across the internet. This crisis underpinned the bigger picture: anyone can be cancelled, and it has gone so far it can reach the international news without questioning. In recent years, the practice of withdrawing support for public figures who hold controversial views has exploded. And not just amongst the cartoons. Michael Jackson, JK Rowling, Louis CK, Woody Allen: the list of its celebrity victims is growing. The boom has divided opinion. Some believe it is a form of online activism that helps the marginalised hold the powerful to account. Their opponents see it as a devastating attack on civil liberties. So, what are the pros and cons of cancel culture?
Cancel culture is critical for democracy
This approach argues that cancel culture empowers marginalised groups. It understands that society is built in institutionalised hierarchies that cut across social identities. The de-platforming of offensive views is therefore an important type of activism. Cancel culture has become an important tool to redress these inequalities.
Cancel culture redresses systemic oppression
Cancel culture empowers marginalised individuals to fight back against structural inequalities that have traditionally held them back.
Cancel culture is being weaponised by a privileged elite
Critics of cancel culture are largely made up of society's traditional beneficiaries; influencers who are in a position of power. They fear that, by being cancelled, they will lose their power, fame, or wealth. Those who are cancelled are people who use their privileges to gain unfair advantages, or even cause harm to others, either directly or indirectly. Cancel culture is critical for ensuring that these corrupt individuals do not get to rule the world.
Cancel culture is a valuable form of protest that asks society to prioritize justice for victims over perpetrators’ comfort
In a democracy, citizens have the right to peaceably protest ideas or institutions that they find harmful. Cancel culture gives marginalized voices a platform, and allows society to progress by educating themselves about historical violence. Rather than threatening free speech, it asks for society to prioritize ethics.
This approach argues that society is always changing, and culture adapts with it. Cancel culture has not emerged from historical power relationships. It has grown out of internet culture, produced by changing public attitudes.
Cancel culture typifies the snowflake mentality
Cancel culture is just one element of the ongoing millennial campaign for a more anodyne world. Injustice exists.
How widespread is cancel culture? What is its impact? How often are people cancelled? It is possible the cancel culture debate is more hysteria than reality. Without data, it is hard to know. The validity of arguments for and against cancel culture are hard to assess with understanding how real cancel culture is.
This approach argues that cancel culture exposes a crisis of individual liberty. It considers freedom of expression to be an inalienable right. Disagreement is being weaponised to silence those who hold unpopular views.
Cancel culture discourages dialogue and creates a climate of fear
Cancel culture threatens to destroy the lives and livelihoods of its victims for holding unpopular views. In this, it creates a social environment in which few have the courage to express themselves for fear of being attacked.
Cancel culture incorrectly assumes that morality is binary
Cancel culture assumes that morals and people are either good or bad, right or wrong. In reality, ideals and people are more nuanced than that, but cancel culture doesn't allow anyone to understand that.
Cancel culture is a form of ideological policing. Social media has reduced privacy. Simultaneously, trust in the state is being fast eroded. Truth is increasingly elusive in our news, our media and our politics. This crisis of authenticity, and what to believe, means there is no longer a set of agreed upon facts about how to engage with each other, or draw conclusions from what we see. The combination of these two factors has turned us all into informants. In this case, cancel culture is a survival strategy. One built on individual performance of the surveillance state. Proponents include author Kat Rosenfield and key figures in the left wing press including New Republic reporter Osita Nwanevu.