“It Isn’t Hate to Speak the Truth.” Cancel culture or call-out culture is a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles whether it be online, on social media, or in person. The expression “cancel culture” has mostly negative connotations and is commonly used in debates on free speech and censorship. The notion of cancel culture is a variant on the term call-out culture and constitutes a form of boycotting or shunning involving an individual (often a celebrity) who is deemed to have acted or spoken in a questionable or controversial manner. The concept of cancel culture has been criticized on the grounds that people claiming to have been “cancelled” often remain in power and continue their careers as before. The practice has also been defended as an exercise of free speech.

To many people, this process of publicly calling for accountability, and boycotting if nothing else seems to work, has become an important tool of social justice — a way of combatting, through collective action, some of the huge power imbalances that often exist between public figures with far-reaching platforms and audiences, and the people and communities their words and actions may harm. But conservative politicians and pundits have increasingly embraced the argument that cancel culture, rather than being a way of speaking truth to power, has spun out of control and become a senseless form of social media mob rule. At the 2020 Republican National Convention, for example, numerous speakers, including President Trump, addressed cancel culture directly, and one delegate resolution even explicitly targeted the phenomenon, describing it as having “grown into erasing of history, encouraging lawlessness, muting citizens, and violating free exchange of ideas, thoughts, and speech.” Actually ending someone’s career through the power of public backlash is difficult. Few entertainers or other public figures have truly been canceled — that is, while they may have faced considerable negative criticism and calls to be held accountable for their statements and actions, very few of them have truly experienced career-ending repercussions. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, for example, has faced intense criticism from her own fans since she began to voice transphobic beliefs, making her one of the most prominently “canceled” individuals at the center of the cancel culture debate. But following Rowling’s publication, in June 2020, of a transphobic manifesto, sales of the author’s books actually increased tremendously in her home country of Great Britain. As ideological divides seem more and more insurmountable, the line between the personal and the political is vanishing for many people. Even though cancel culture seems to generate few lasting consequences for celebrities and their careers, some people view it as part of a broader trend they find deeply disturbing: an inability to forgive and move on.

Nonetheless, that divide seems to be widening and growing more visible. And it isn’t purely a divide between ideologies, but also between tactical approaches in navigating ideological differences and dealing with wrongdoing. The view that a traditional approach — apology, atonement, and forgiveness — is no longer enough might be startling. But to those who think of cancel culture as an extension of civil rights activists’ push for meaningful change, it’s an important tool. And it’s clear that, controversial as cancel culture is, it is here to stay.

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