34 Cancel Cancel Culture

Alex Herne

First, I want to thank everyone who has helped me get to a point where I can formulate coherent arguments pertaining to topics that I am passionate about. Most importantly, I want to thank those who have instilled in me a passion to defend fleeting freedoms…

Keywords: Canceling, Silencing, Morality, Values, Conversation


How do you choose what to say and what not to say? Anyone who communicates with others and has individual agency has grappled with this question before due to the fact that what you choose to say has consequences. On an interpersonal level, you may choose not to say something because you know that the person listening to you would not react positively to what you might choose to say. On this scale, the arbiter of whether or not you should say something is a combination of your own perception and that of the individual you are communicating with because, through conversation, you can immediately address the implications of your communication. For instance, if you’re talking to your friend and you make a comment generalizing an aspect of your friend’s identity, your friend can quickly correct you and suggest how to make your claim in a manner more considerate to his or her identity. Individual empowerment in the realm of mass communication due to large scale social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter has changed the way in which people communicate and hence, how people choose what to say and what not to say. The foremost complication that his novel method of communication presents is that there is no true force or institution that decides the implications of what people say on these platforms given that they reach so many different people who likely have countless different reactions. This predicament has introduced a new concept called “cancel culture” which is essentially a “solution” to the lack of an arbiter on these platforms. I argue that this “solution” has incredibly destructive effects on society because it inherently removes a foundational element of rhetoric and persuasion itself and what I believe the solution to the lack of an arbiter should be: conversation. This chapter will aim at examining the widely felt effects cancel culture has had on public discourse, on an individual and group level, and emphasize the importance of conversation as the true remedy to disagreement.


Cancel Culture, variations of which include “to cancel” “to be canceled” and “canceling” is a digital phenomenon which has come to the public spotlight only recently due to a tense political climate facilitated by social media. Some examples from the seemingly endlessly long list of recently canceled phenomena and individuals include Mike Lindell, J.K. Rowling, Goya Foods, and even Presidents Washington, Lincoln and, Jefferson (Sadler). In my primary source “DRAG THEM: A brief etymology of so-called “cancel culture,”” being canceled is defined in simpler terms by Jonah Engel Bromwich, a New York Times writer, as a “total disinvestment in something (anything)” (Clark 88). He takes the definition one step further to note a crucial point which is that canceling has to do with individual agency. It’s an active choice “to withdraw one’s attention from someone or something whose values, (in)action, or speech are so offensive, one no longer wishes to grace them with their presence, time, and money” (88). Thus, the act of canceling can be considered a “discursive accountability praxis” that is engaged when a group of people disagree with or are offended by communication or any other form of media released into the public sphere (88). The part of Clark’s explanation of Cancel Culture that sticks out to me most, and that I think has the most destructive implications, is that the party that is being offended or that disagrees with whatever is being released into the public sphere is the unequivocal arbiter of the person or entity who released it. Citing Meraz & Papacharissi, 2013, she calls this act “networked framing” which is “a process by which collective experiences of an offending party’s (or their proxy’s) unjust behavior is discussed, morally evaluated, and prescribed a remedy—such as being fired or choosing to resign—through the collective reasoning of culturally aligned online crowds” (89). What this demonstrates is that canceling occurs when a person or group of people decide that their subjective interpretation of a piece of communication is what ultimately should decide how the public interprets what is being canceled. Moreover, the process that generates this perception of superiority in one’s subjective interpretation, I believe is closely tied to a perception of moral superiority. I argue that examining where people believe that this superiority comes from is at the foundation of what motivates those who cancel. Where this notion becomes increasingly complex is in determining whether that morality is rooted in an objective basis or in opinion, especially when dealing with emotional topics that are of great consequence to us.


The reason that I believe networked framing in cancel culture is so destructive is because of the unjustified designation of an arbiter which is decided on the basis of group identity or “culturally aligned online crowds.” On twitter, Instagram, Facebook and other online platforms, no institution or authority decided their appointment to the position of arbiter, it’s blatant self-appointment by one group that claims moral superiority on the basis of their disagreement. In other words, they are right because they are offended. What makes this self-appointment so easy is the absence of conversation. There is no room for persuasion in the canceling dynamic because there is no room for conversation when there is only one perspective dominating arbitration. If anyone were to present an argument for the side of that or who is being canceled, then they too will be considered morally abhorrent by the arbitrating group and, in turn, will suffer the same “remedies.” Moreover, I argue that these culturally aligned crowds have become so powerful that often their remedies don’t even need to be prescribed for a transgressor to be canceled. Often, people who have different opinions than those represented by the self-appointed arbiters will self-censor out of fear of the consequences that come with being canceled. On a broader/societal scale, the paramount consequence that these acts of self-censorship present, is the active discouragement of ideological diversity. If one is afraid to utter any opinion different than that of what the culturally aligned crowds hold, not only is there is no need for persuasion because there are no other valid opinions, but there is no mechanism to monitor or validate the opinions the that majority holds.


I believe it is also quite crucial to examine the motivations behind canceling and consider whether or not there are any situations in which canceling someone outright is completely justified. It may seem very reasonable in instances where blatant hatred, racism, xenophobia, sexism or any other kind of morally abhorrent behavior or communication is released into the public sphere that the offender should not be given a platform and should be canceled. When something is objectively morally abhorrent, I’m compelled to think that there is a social responsibility to remove whoever performs this transgression. Yet, who is to judge whether or not the transgression is indeed objectively morally abhorrent and how do we know that this morality is objective? I believe that this is an impossible question to answer without knowing whether or not we consider morality subjective or objective, especially when considering a communication sphere like social media where countless different moral frameworks exist. Therefore, I hold that the most diplomatic solution would be to approach every case in the same way by having conversation as a necessary rule, even in cases where what is said may seem truly morally abhorrent. I believe this would be most effective for the purposes of creating a just arbiter, focused merely on the preservation of dialogue, as well as educating because open discourse is the only to get to the root of how a piece of media released into the public sphere is interpreted by people with different backgrounds and moral frameworks. Thus, rhetoric is the solution, not canceling.


It’s very easy to disagree on topics that are of no consequence to either party involved in a discussion. It’s a whole lot harder to disagree on topics that matter very much to us. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t disagree on those topics out of fear of upsetting or offending one another. If anything, if the topic means a lot to us and we’re disagreeing with someone, all the more reason to talk to them about it and see why they think the way they do. As Robert H. Jackson, former Justice of the United States Supreme Court once claimed, “freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much” (Scalia 335). Disagreement can be healthy if a conversation ensues. Cancel culture fundamentally challenges conversation and finding a middle ground; it fundamentally challenges persuasion and rhetoric.


Works Cited


Bouvier, Gwen. “Racist call-outs and cancel culture on Twitter: The limitations of the platform’s ability to define issues of social justice.” Discourse, Context & Media 38 (2020): 100431.

  1. Clark, Meredith. “DRAG THEM: A Brief Etymology of so-Called ‘Cancel Culture.’” Cornell Hospitality Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 3–4, Sept. 2020.

Duque, Richard B., Robert Rivera, and E. J. LeBlanc. “The Active Shooter Paradox: Why the rise of Cancel Culture, “Me Too”, ANTIFA and Black Lives Matter… Matters.” Aggression and Violent Behavior (2020): 101544.

Ng, Eve. “No grand pronouncements here…: Reflections on cancel culture and digital media participation.” Television & New Media 21.6 (2020): 621-627.

Sadler, Kelly. “Top 10 Recent Examples of Cancel Culture.” The Washington Times, The Washington Times, 16 Feb. 2021, www.washingtontimes.com/news/2021/feb/16/top-10-recent-examples-cancel-culture/.

Scalia, Eugene. “John Adams, Legal Representation, and the” Cancel Culture”.” Harv. JL & Pub.Pol’y 44 (2021): 333-.


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Rhetoric in Everyday Life by Alex Herne is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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