From Aristotle to Dr. Seuss to an editor-in-chief at Teen Vogue, it would seem that anyone, dead or alive, can fall victim to cancel culture. But what exactly is cancel culture? Is it a phrase employed by the far right to portray the far left as intolerant? Or is it a profound generational shift in culture that reexamines outdated values once considered normal? These were just a few of the questions raised by panelists on March 11 at a discussion sponsored by Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture and the Center for Community Engaged Learning titled “Cancel Culture: Safety or Censorship.”
The panelists were Laura Specker Sullivan, Ph.D., assistant professor of philosophy at Fordham and a bioethicist specializing in culture and neuroethics; Jon Baskin, Ph.D., associate director of the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism master’s program at The New School for Social Research; and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and culture critic Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times. David Gibson, director of the center, moderated.
“If you look around it seems that cancel culture is everywhere, along with its siblings callout culture and de-platforming,” said Gibson.
Initially, the panelists attempted, with no small amount of difficulty, to define cancel culture. Some argued that it’s difficult to generalize about what is being canceled as there are far too many nuances and variables at play to determine whether someone should or should not be canceled. For example, the 27-year-old editor of Teen Vogue Alexi McCammond has faced pressure to step down for racist and homophobic tweets she made when she was 17. Should something someone tweeted when they were a teen disqualify for a job when they are in their twenties, panelists asked?
“Should there be a statute of limitations for stupidity?” asked Gibson. “Should you be given a pass after you apologize?”
Calling Out Hate Speech and Lies
McNamara said that people need to navigate the distinction between people’s opinions and the danger of causing real harm.
“Hate speech is hate speech, if you’re trying to raise an army of neo-Nazis you probably should be banned from Facebook because you would certainly not be able to do that in other media platforms,” she said, adding that people spreading dangerous falsehoods also need to be sanctioned. “Donald Trump was removed from Twitter because he was relentlessly promoting a lie with the office of the presidency behind him, which was the election was stolen. Talk about cancel culture, they tried to cancel the election.”
Specker Sullivan said that the right has set up cancel culture to be their new straw man, which is a philosophical term for an imagined interlocutor constructed by an opposition to be obviously wrong and therefore easy to defeat, she said.
“[In this case] the straw man is an imagined stand-in for a generic so-called social justice warrior who is criticizing someone on the grounds of political correctness,” she said.
She added that while cancel culture is often cast as being in opposition to free speech, its role in criticizing the influential and powerful is important for democracy and healthy for debate. She doesn’t see such criticism as shutting anyone down; if anything, she said, it may help pull certain influencers down from pedestals they had no business climbing in the first place.
“It’s precisely the people who are used to getting a free and easy pass to their pedestal that are so upset about the rise of public criticism,” she said.
Baskin expressed a concern that the tactics of cancel culture have resulted in discomfort and anxiety, and not just for people living a public life, but also for non-famous people like parents who disagree at a local PTA meeting.
He questioned whether the new egalitarian culture being put forth is actually as inclusive as its proponents say it is. He allowed that his students have a far more charitable understanding of each other than when he was in college, but he said there are still people whose viewpoints they don’t necessarily want to hear, such as certain dead old-white-male philosophers.
A Difference Between Disagreement and Judgment
“The idea of being exposed to philosophers who have views that many of the students today may find repugnant, is not only that those philosophers have shaped our world but that they may be right,” he said. “You actually have to keep open the possibility … that the supremacy of our own views today could be wrong.”
While Specker Sullivan applauded students standing up to injustice, she made a distinction between disagreeing with someone and judging them. She said students need a better understanding of ethics.
“One thing I have to work at with my students, especially the one from the United States, is to explain to them that when philosophers are talking about ethics they’re talking about individuals deciding what the right thing is to do for themselves, they’re not talking about judging other people,” she said to smiles and nods from her fellow panelists. “But students always want to go to the judgment. … No! This is all about you and your agency. If anything, we have an unfortunate culture of judgment in the U.S. right now.”
Gibson questioned whether the cultural left was being unfairly branded with the term cancel culture, when for years many on the right, including some in the Catholic Church, had “done pretty well at canceling people.” McNamara said she could not agree more.
“When I hear the term ‘woke mob’ I’m like, ‘Who are you talking about?’ I mean the mob I saw take over the U.S. Capitol building was not in any definition woke,” she said. “But there is this notion that is put out there that there’s … these wild-eyed liberals that are trying to destroy marriage and society as we know it.”
Impact of Social Media
She said the negative attitude toward cancel culture is similar to a recent past when the term politically correct was used to label people who were merely trying to be inclusive. She added that part of the problem is a lack of understanding of the true nature of social media, which she said has evolved into a professional platform for the media as a whole, even as it remains a space to share baby photos.
“People take to social media and don’t understand that they’re basically going on there to write an editorial or like going on television,” she said.
However, she said that the medium—and the public sphere in general—should not be scrubbed clean of conflict.
“The pushback against classics, the canon of western literature, that’s been going on a long time and it’s an important thing to do,” she said. “It’s important to argue about Aristotle; it’s important to argue about Thomas Jefferson; and it’s important to argue about the fact that you look at a syllabus still and it’s white man, white man, white man. … If we are going to be talking about ideas, it’s important to say, ‘Where are the other voices?’”