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What We Talk About When We Talk About ‘Cancel Culture’

Twitter branding is displayed ahead of the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Twitter branding is displayed ahead of the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Spend even a little time on social media and you’re likely to come across someone mentioning “canceling” someone, or lamenting being “canceled,” or railing against the concept of “cancel culture.”

At its core, when someone is “canceled,” it means a withdrawal of support for perceived wrongdoing. Naturally, the highest-profile cases usually involve people who are well-known.

But some celebrities, media members, analysts and writers feel as though this culture has gotten out of control. Some think that now anyone who expresses an unpopular opinion will be the subject of an online mob declaring them over.

A group of professors, authors, television personalities and other thought leaders recently signed a letter published by Harper’s. The text decried “calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought,” and addressed what the signatories considered the degradation of free and open debate.

The letter drew immediate backlash. Critics pointed out that its signatories were people in positions of power, with a platform. They added that the comments or behaviors for which they had been canceled for could cause harm. In many cases, they said, these figures hadn’t been cancelled, they simply didn’t like public criticism and its consequences.

Are too many voices and ideas stifled by “cancelation?” Or is this a long-overdue movement calling out the powerful?

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