Pro and Con: Cancel Culture

This article was published on August 5, 2020, at Britannica’s ProCon.org, a nonpartisan issue-information source. Go to ProCon.org to learn more.

Cancel culture, also known as callout culture, is the removal (“canceling”) of support for individuals and their work due to an opinion or action on their part deemed objectionable to the parties “calling” them out.

The individuals are typically first called out on social media to magnify the public knowledge of their perceived offense, whereupon the campaign to cancel ensues. The canceling can take several forms, including the exerting of pressure on organizations to cancel the individual’s public appearances or speaking engagements and, in the case of businesses deemed offensive, organizing boycotts of their products. 

Celebrities and social and political leaders are frequently the targets of cancel campaigns.  Actor and comedian Bill Cosby, who was found guilty in 2018 of drugging and sexually assaulting a woman and accused of assault by more than 50 women, is only one of many, recent, high-profile examples. But everyday people can be caught in the crosshairs as well. A public relations executive, for example, tweeted an offensive joke about AIDS before boarding a plane in London and traveling to South Africa. An uproar on Twitter followed, and by the time her plane landed, she had been “called out,” “canceled,” and fired. 

The cancel campaigns are not always so successful or one-sided. In July 2020, after Goya Foods CEO Robert Unanue praised President Trump for promoting an Hispanic prosperity initiative, liberal Latino leaders organized a boycott of Goya products despite Unanue’s similar praise of President Obama. Instead of bankrupting the company, the callout prompted the Bodega and Small Business Association to come to the company’s defense with a “buycott” to support the more than 13,000 shops that sell Goya products and thousands of black and Latino Goya employees. 

Anyone who remembers reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter knows callout culture is not new. What is new, however, is social media’s ability to boost the speed, scope, and impact of a call out and the influence this has had on traditional bastions of free speech, such as college campuses.

Pro

  • Callout culture allows marginalized people to seek accountability where the justice system fails.
  • Callout culture gives a voice to disenfranchised or less powerful people.
  • Callout culture is simply a new form of boycott, a cherished tactic in the civil rights movement, to bring about social change.

Con

  • Callout culture amounts to online bullying, and can incite violence and threats even worse than the original offense being called out.
  • Callout culture is not productive and does not bring about social change.
  • Callout culture is a slippery slope and leads to intolerance in democratic societies as people systematically exclude anyone who disagrees with their views.

To access extended pro and con arguments, sources, discussion questions, and ways to take action on the issue of whether cancel culture is good for society, go to ProCon.org.

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