There are countless articles that have analysed what cancel culture is, how people use this term in their discourse on social media to silence dissent or call for responsibility, and what positive/negative implications cancel culture might have, but we still have not reached a shared understanding as of 2022 about what cancel culture means, or if it is a good thing or bad thing for freedom of expression. The aforementioned Pew Research study quotes several different views on cancel culture and analyzes the most common rationales of those who believe cancel culture unfairly punishes people (e.g., context considerations, people overreact, offensiveness is a subjective concept) and those who believe cancel culture is important for holding others accountable (e.g., people should be more careful about the consequences of what they say, and social problems such as racism, sexism, and homophobia are brought to light). Talking about cancel culture can be a genuine expression of concern that some speech in response is disproportionate and outside our societys norms, or it can be a partisan attempt [at] delegitimizing whole areas of conversation--usually race, gender, and sexuality. When others bemoan cancel culture, these different discourse-chilling treatments of others are usually the meaning that Conor Friedersdorf takes them to mean, given the terms ill-defined, applied inconsistently, and occasionally misused.
In other words, the ones decrying the dangers of cancel culture for freedom of expression are actually simply uncomfortable with how others exercise their rights of freedom of expression. In fact, the same people who constantly argue that cancel culture is taking away free speech rights are doing it by appearing on mainstream cable news shows, posting to social media, or taking the floor of the US Senate. A lot of the most egregious examples we are seeing now of people suggesting that they are being overruled or that cancel culture is coming for them, are usually public speakers or authors or journalists--people who really have significant, big voices and platforms within our culture, who they would love to have perhaps more of, or bigger spaces, or do not want to hear the criticism that is being made of their views. Most times, this is the cancellation trend, people jumping on a bandwagon with no clue as to what they are being cancelled for. In reality, very few people who are cancelled by are never kept in this state, and they usually come back into the community life a while later. That may not be true in every instance, but I think that often, canceling enrollments, and canceling students that way, is wrong. People may get fired, and students may have their admissions terminated because of it. There are cases of students--all this does not only happen on college campuses, this happens elsewhere, too, but we are looking at college campuses--feeling like they are going to get shut out if they voice their real views in a classroom or social environment, meaning that people are not going to want to interact with them, or that people are going to assume they are an awful person.
Individuals also expressed concerns that they would be canceled or fired because of being associated with political candidates and causes they supported. At the same time, within liberal democracies, concerns about overreach in cancellations or de-platforming those with controversial views are growing. One of the more difficult questions in freedom of expression is whether and when individuals should feel free to cancel others speech, whether by boycotting them or otherwise exercising their private authority. In "Canceling Culture," Alan Dershowitz--the best-selling New York Times writer and one of the nations most respected legal scholars--makes an argument for freedom of expression, due process, and moderation versus an often rushing urge to completely erase individuals and institutions on the constantly shifting whims of a crowd driven by social media
More attempts to clarify terms and settle on what the American free-speech norms should be are needed: The Cancel Culture debate may be messy, as Katie Young demonstrates in her analysis of the latest skirmishes, but the incidents fueling it are not. By being willing to listen to others perspectives, acknowledge which of the endless social media battles is worth your time, and exercise your First Amendment-given rights to speak freely in ways that heal instead of divide, we might collectively arrive at the moment when cancel culture is just cancel culture. We need to face up to the reality that our current polarized culture has deeper problems, hurting individuals, and leading to fear and self-censorship. Recent abuses and excessive use of our powers of prohibition and cancellation, in simple terms, has at times hurt the continued normalization of the truths that we hold dear.
The problem with this communication style is that, in a world in which every topic is relegated to a binary, under which every perspective, and every individual publicly sharing his thoughts, is expected to either be celebrated or decried, very few are ethically upright enough to challenge this binary, without having his own motivations and prejudices subsequently called into question. Yes, the phenomenon is in and of itself a novel version of that same struggle, a struggle which is--at least as it is exhibited or operated upon on college campuses--that certain members of a college community are eager to invite to or to represent certain ideas which others members find dehumanizing, or else ideologically offensive. Smaller shares described cancel culture as a form of censorship -- such as restricting speech, or like erasing history -- or as mean-spirited attacks used to inflict other harm (14% and 12%, respectively). About one-third of conservative Republicans who had heard the phrase (36%) described it as actions taken to keep people accountable, compared with roughly half or more of moderate or liberal Republicans (51%), conservative or moderate Democrats (54%) and liberal Democrats (59%).