A sociologist explains the truth about cancel culture
The topic of "cancel culture" has been discussed ad nauseam in the national media. As far as I see it, it goes something like this.
Conservatives believe that progressives are far too sensitive and censorious. According to conservatives, progressive thought police, armed with a notion that "words are violence," patrol social media and bludgeon anyone who says something they deem out of bounds. They may cite attempts to cancel Harry Potter author JK Rowling for making comments that ran afoul of trans rights groups. Or they may point out how internet mobs can take a video or phrase out of context and falsely paint someone as racist, as in the case of Dominique Moran.
Progressives counter by saying that there is no epidemic of cancel culture. Most of the supposedly canceled people are doing quite well, even thriving after the so-called cancellation. The negative publicity around people like Dave Chappelle and Bari Weiss seemed to have increased their relevance rather than erase them from public view.
Moreover, progressives argue, conservatives try and cancel folks, too. One of the more famous cancellations was the blacklisting of the Dixie Chicks by conservative radio stations, because the trio criticized the George W. Bush-led Iraq invasion. They were called "Saddam's Angels." More recently, and more concerning, is the banning of what is being called critical race theory from K-12 schools in many states.
Thinking critically about cancel culture
Cancel culture is, in the abstract, levying negative social sanctions on someone we perceive as doing something out of bounds. This is not new or unusual. Individuals throughout history have found informal ways to express their disapproval of others. Our political ideologies do not exempt us from the human tendency to want to call out the behavior we think is unacceptable.
Technology puts this tendency in hyperdrive, allowing everyone with a social media account to register their disapproval. The wider cleavages in modern society present people with more opportunities to identify behavior deemed "out of bounds." But ultimately, we are using our cell phones to paint modern-day scarlet letters.
Cancel culture arguments are not about free speech. Both "sides" agree in principle that we need free speech in a democracy. The arguments are about the public's response to speech (counter-speech). The crux of the argument is whether people have a right to express their criticism in any way they (legally) can.
Conservatives respond more poorly to cancel culture than progressives, although both are at risk of receiving negative social sanctions. The less you think you need other people, the more likely you are to get upset when the people you think you don't need complain about something you say.
Progressives, on the other hand, need to view public outcry differently. We believe we are in a broad community working to address issues of poverty, oppression and inequality. It is essential to consider public opinion. I think this is especially so for marginalized groups. They are more likely to register a concern because their hold on full citizenship is more tenuous. Transgender people cannot afford to let transphobic jokes by Dave Chappelle go unchallenged. Sometimes a joke is not just a joke. When groups make a stink, progressives need to stick their nose in it and grow.
Using cancel culture to grow
The CBS reality show The Activist illustrates how one can grow through public criticism.The original format of the show was a five-week competition between activists seeking funding for their causes. The activists were to be assisted by the photogenic celebrities Usher, Priyanka Chopra and Julianne Hough.
The reaction to the press releases for The Activist was swift and not kind. Activism is not a game. The causes the contestants would focus on — global health, education and the environment — are matters of life and death. Instead of staging an expensive show, why not simply donate the money to those causes? The show and its photogenic stars are trivializing serious issues.
In response to public outcry, the producers changed the format. According to a statement from CBS, the show will shift from placing activists in competition with each other to highlighting the "tireless work of six activists and the impact they have advocating for causes they deeply believe in … Each activist will be awarded a cash grant for the organization of their choice, as was planned for the original show."
While this was a PR move, I'd like to think the folks at CBS learned something. "Social justice warriors" and "virtue signallers" actually do care about the causes they promote and don't want to see them sullied by a reality show.
Need another example of growth?
Here is a tweet from me a few months ago, where I tweeted that I "understand incels." The reaction to this tweet was swift and not kind. The replies were primarily about me being far too sympathetic to a group of people who actively hate women and propagate ideas about hurting them. It was the replies from women that were the angriest. And I understand now. They did not want incels to be spoken of so sympathetically because women are in harm's way of incel violence.
Had I not received that public criticism and been open to learning from it, I may not have experienced that growth.
The progressive's guide to "cancel culture'
I understand that a mob can be unreasonable. When phrases are taken out of context, it should not be incumbent upon the person mischaracterized to defend themselves against a lie. This essay is not about those situations. Instead, it is about the cases where the public has a legitimate concern about something said or done. This essay is also not for conservatives who do not share assumptions about an individual's obligation to others.
I suggest that instead of scurrying into a bunker labeled "free speech" and howling madly into the moonlit night about "wokism" or "snowflakes," lean into the criticism. The people who share this earth with you are telling you something. Think about why people are registering concern and incorporate their ideas into your future thoughts and communications.
The Activist failed at its initial attempt to do a reality show about social justice, and I fell in my initial attempt to talk about men struggling to gain intimacy. I want to think that both of us learned from that experience. And instead of thinking we were "canceled," we may have been given more information about how to platform our ideas more effectively.
Rod Graham is the Editorial Board's sociologist. A professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University, he researches and teaches courses in the areas of cyber-crime and racial inequality. His work can be found at roderickgraham.com. Follow him @roderickgraham.
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