“Cancel,” in its verb form, means to decide or announce that something will not take place. “Culture” when used as a noun, means the customs, achievements or arts of social institutions, nations, tribes, people, or other social groups. When combined and used as a phrase, “cancel culture” means the act of cancelling culture.

Is that even possible? And what are the ethics of writing “cancel culture?”

Cancel culture is a political thing and people are talking about it as a real thing. It seems to be a variant of the term “callout culture.” That’s been a thing in the activist and political worlds for a few years. In practical terms, it’s a boycott of anything on the planet you disagree with, dislike, pretend to dislike, claim to be opposed to, or actually hate.

In a more polite setting, “cancel culture” can be weaponized. That makes it handy to point to an individual who has committed the venial sin of acting or speaking in a questionable or controversial manner. If the egregious individual is a friend, dump him or her. If he is an employee, fire him. If she is a politician, vote for whosoever she’s running against. If they won’t behave the way you want them to behave, then cancel their culture and hope they swirl down the virtual toilet with that day’s sewage.

What if it’s not a venial sin by an individual, but a collective mortal sin against a group, tribe, occupation, or ideology? The bigger the target, the bigger the fall from grace. At the venial or mortal level, there are ethical norms. Admittedly, they are rarely given purchase because if one is out to cancel culture, mere ethical concerns are wasteful. Cancelling culture is not for the faint of heart nor the weak of spirit. It’s for culture warriors.

The impetus for this blog is an op-ed piece by a fine writer and thinker, Kathleen Parker. In a July 2020 syndicated op-ed she wrote about “wrong thinking,” “cancel culture” and “falling short of standards.”[1] She offered a sleeker, more focused definition. “The cancel culture has resulted . . . in the intimidation, bullying and sometimes firing of anyone who dares think or speak outside the narrow confines of the new politically correct orthodoxy.”

That is an excellent ethical norm. Writers should not be intimidated, bullied, or fired by writing outside narrow confines squared in political correctness. The second norm is giving way to orthodoxy at the writer’s peril. A different heading of her opinion, as posted in the Albuquerque Journal on July 20, 2020 said, “The truth may set you free, if you don’t get fired first.” It fits nicely as the third ethical norm; employers should not fire writers for writing truth.

Aja Romano, a fine writer for Vox[2] asks, “Is cancel culture a mob mentality, or a long overdue way of speaking truth to power?”[3] She answered her own question. “One of the odder ideas to snowball its way into the zeitgeist during the decade’s turbulent second half is the idea that a person can be canceled—in other words, culturally blocked from having a prominent public platform or career.” This seems a softer view—the writer is not really canceled, as in eliminated, expunged, exterminated, or sent to a Gulag. They are just culturally blocked. That’s a nicer thing, right?

Vox describes Aja Romano as a culture staff writer, reporting on internet culture. She clearly knows of what she speaks. “Within the past five years, the rise of cancel culture and the idea of canceling someone have become polarizing topics of debate as a familiar pattern has emerged: A celebrity or other public figure does or says something offensive. A public backlash, often fueled by politically progressive social media, ensues. Then come the calls to cancel the person — that is, to effectively end their career or revoke their cultural cachet, whether through boycotts of their work or disciplinary action from an employer.”

Ms. Romano’s notion of cancelling people is akin to an ethical norm. It is one thing to write about job loss, reputational harm, backlashes, and career crashes. But to be “cancelled” is a new low. We should be ethically reluctant to call for “cancelling” someone because they wrote something that, in Kathleen Parker’s words, is an outlier vis-à-vis politically correct orthodoxy.

Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, wrote about the phenome in political terms. “[He] condemned ‘woke orthodoxy’ that he said is fueling mass protests and ‘cancel culture’ in the U.S., blaming them on liberal politicians and discrimination against conservative viewpoints at American colleges and universities.”[4]

Looking at cancel culture at scale, Harper’s Magazine published what quickly became known as “The Letter.”  The full title is “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.”[5] It was signed by 153 writers and public intellectuals.[6] They said widespread “cancellation” is chilling the free exchange of ideas. They were not talking about subscriptions or plane flights. They were talking about firing reporters, columnists, opinion writers and other lesser folk. Megan McArdle, a Washington Post columnist, said. “The online ‘cancel culture’ of Twitter mobs, public shamings and the occasional public firing has become pretty unpleasant of late. And unsurprisingly, people whose job it is to say things resent being hushed.”

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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[1] Kathleen Parker, Columnist, “Bari Weiss’s Resignation Letter Showed All That’s Wrong With Modern Newsrooms.” The Washington Post, July 14, 2020 at 4:18 p.m. MDT. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/bari-weisss-resignation-letter-showed-all-thats-wrong-with-modern-newsrooms/2020/07/14/66524a18-c60f-11ea-b037-f9711f89ee46_story.html 

[2] “Vox is an American news and opinion website owned by Vox Media. The website was founded in April 2014 by Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, and Melissa Bell, and is noted for its concept of explanatory journalism.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vox_(website)

[3] By Aja Romano@ajaromano, “Why We Can’t Stop Fighting About Cancel Culture.” Dec 30, 2019, 12:40pm EST. https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/12/30/20879720/what-is-cancel-culture-explained-history-debate 

[4] https://utahpolicy.com/index.php/features/today-at-utah-policy/24290-lee-rips-woke-orthodoxy-and-cancel-culture

[5]The letter was published in the Letters section of Harper’s Magazine’s October issue. July 7, 2020. https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/

[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/07/10/real-problem-with-cancel-culture/