"Should I write my paper about this topic, or is it too risky?" In a perfect world, such a question should never come into your head. As long as you investigate your topic according to scientific standards and research ethics, there are no questions that are too dangerous to ask. That's the role of research and higher education. However, academic freedom is often sacrificed out of fear of offending or, worse, being canceled for it.
Over the last few years, cancel culture was discussed so much that even seeing this expression probably made you yawn. However, regardless of the voiced concerns, the influence of cancel culture grows and becomes increasingly disturbing. Like so many things nowadays, it escalated quickly and spiraled out of control. Some time ago, we could speak of "call-out culture" and "accountability culture" that pointed out individual blunders for the wider audience to see and highlighted the underlying societal problems. Now, it seems, it's all about shutting dissent down and hounding people for every error of judgment. It makes people self-censor their words to the extent it harms open discussions on campuses – the very places that were supposed to foster it.
What Is Cancel Culture?
Cancelling didn't always mean boycotting or shaming. In its modern social and cultural meaning, the term originates in the 1981 song Your Love is Cancelled by CHIC. The lyrics describe an unsuccessful date with a presumptuous person, so the protagonist says that because of this behavior, any further development of this relationship is impossible and therefore canceled:
It's the truth, you're not the one
I shouldn't have begun
No, your love is canceled.
This meaning gained life in music culture and was used over the years by other artists, including rappers like 50cents and Lil Wayne, until finally becoming part of the AAVE and later – popular on Twitter.
However, even on the infamously inflammatory platform, "canceled" didn't mean someone should be shunned or held accountable. It conveyed personal feelings: "This sitcom is canceled from my heart," as in "I cannot watch and enjoy it after screenwriters made this iffy decision." However, social media drastically changed power dynamics, and now stepping out of line could mean real consequences: losing audience, income, contracts, and even being de-platformed. This can be a positive transformative power, like in the case of Harvey Weinstein and other notorious personalities.
How Cancel Culture Is Dangerous
What makes this "grassroots justice" problematic is the disconnect between the intended interpretation and the actual interpretation – often intentional misinterpretation. This shows up more often as if people were seeking out whom to nominate the next villain of the day. Even worse, there is often a gaping chasm between the gravity of the crime and the severity of the punishment. For something uninformed, tone-deaf, unfortunately worded, or just taken out of context, people get the level of chastising fitting something intentionally malignant.
This often follows the same script. A person says something stupid. People get offended. The person gets defensive. This only spurs outrage, and people dig out some old things this person said 10 years ago to prove that no, this is not a one-off, this person was always secretly bad. The overwhelmed OP deletes the account/withdraws from public life/gets fired/etc., and the curtain falls. The mob gleefully celebrates another small victory for justice and sets out to seek another rotten apple to cast out from their midst, hoping they won't be the next to say something stupid.
The point I am trying to make here is that the internet didn't invent the angry mob, but it sure made it easier to call it in – and at the speed of light. This digital "way of doing things" is often carried on into the real world, which becomes increasingly problematic, especially when young people start "canceling" each other instead of trying to reach an agreement.
Cancel culture manipulates our desire for approval, which is particularly strong in young people. Quickly taking offense – often on behalf of some marginalized group – allows you to show that you are one of the "good ones," you are an ally. And people often jump on this opportunity, even engaging in the deliberate misreading for the sake of virtue-signaling.
Social media contributed to this problem and continue to make it worse exponentially. The speed with which discussions progress into conflict, which then escalates into verbal flogging and expulsion from society, just doesn't allow for any nuanced investigation. In the words of Sam Biddle, a journalist who inhabited both roles, the calling out and being called out, "Jokes are complicated, context is hard. Rage is easy." Yet isn't it the kind of knee-jerk reaction that people should strive to progress from, especially when entering the world of academia?
What About Campus?
The question with which I started this post is not an idle one. Not being published, invited, asked into a partnership, not getting renewed funding, or even demotion, suspension, and termination are all possible consequences of the "wrong topic."
According to the survey conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, there have been 426 cases of scholars targeted for ideological reasons since 2015. The authors point out that such cases are "on the rise," with half of them occurring because of a scholar's scientific inquiry or teaching practices. Nearly three-quarters of these cases resulted in some form of sanction for the faculty member.
For example, two cases that garnered the most attention lately. First, Greg Patton, an instructor from the University of Southern California, who talked about filler words in his business communication class, used a phrase in Chinese that sounded very similar to the N-word. The Dean's response to students' complaints about this example being "hurtful and unacceptable" was to replace Patton immediately and hire another instructor for this course. Patton was eventually reinstated after a petition in his favor by students and alumni gathered thousands of signatures.
Another recent case involved Bright Sheng, a composer, conductor, pianist, and an esteemed professor at the University of Michigan. Sheng used a 1965 version of Shakespeare's Othello during his music composition class in order to demonstrate how Giuseppe Verdi's music transformed Shakespeare's play into an opera. However, students took issue with Laurence Olivier's performance of the titular role covered in dark face paint. The Dean's and later Sheng's apologies didn't help, and the latter chose to voluntarily step down from the class following the outrage.
Although the university has assured that this was done to foster a "positive learning environment," many have pointed out that such overreaction enabled by academic bureaucrats poses an existential threat to American academia. What academic freedom can we speak of when you have no right to a mistake without career consequences? Such consequences also have a ripple effect on the entire faculty that begins to censor themselves and second-guess the reaction this or that piece of their course material might bring.
Moreover, students themselves aren't immune. A 2020 survey shows that nearly half of campus Republicans and a third of Democrats say they are reluctant to speak their mind. Students choose self-censorship instead of open discussion on hot-button topics out of fear of being ostracized by their peers. This fear isn't baseless. Sometimes teenagers find themselves blocked and "canceled" from their friends' lives without even being told what their transgression was in the first place.
This climate is anything but intellectually stimulating. It's stifling. As David Wippman and Glenn C. Altschuler write in their piece for Inside Higher Ed, "Constraints on discussions of important social issues, however sensitive, subvert the goals of a liberal arts education."
What can we do about it?
On the one hand, we want to have an accountability culture. If people in a position of power say something offensive, inflammatory, or damaging, they can be called out and take responsibility for the harm their words cause. On the other hand, we want to foster discussion, where opinions can be exchanged without the fear of immediate ostracism if someone's sensibilities are rubbed the wrong way. Hitting this balance was always hard, even when the discourse was less volatile.
Cancel culture in its current hyperbolized form locks us in the binary opposition – crime and punishment, good and evil, right and wrong. Instead, why can't we make it not about holding each other accountable but about dialogue, growth, and forgiveness?
In fact, more and more students understand that truth sparks when opposing ideas collide and choose to come together for lively, even if uncomfortable, discussions. The New York Times has published a selection of student responses to their prompts about cancel culture, with the overwhelming majority expressing their profound concern for its impact on their life, education, and society at large. They have called it "unhealthy practice," "toxic," and "ineffective." Even those who defended cancel culture to some extent stressed the importance of growth and learning from one's mistakes. Most students agree that canceling someone stops discussion and buries the issues without a chance to face, investigate, and resolve them.
For example, wouldn't it be better to allow Bright Sheng to explain why he chose this particular version of Othello? Instead of refusing to learn from him, why not advise him on how to lessen the negative impact on students who might be offended? For example, he could have provided some context before the screening or offered a trigger warning, at least. After all, instructors are there to learn from their students too! However, this teachable moment was canceled, which is a great shame, in my opinion.
How can universities help students and encourage dialogue across differences? Some measures that Wippman and Altschuler suggest include sponsoring debate teams and supporting campus publications and programs that feature opposing viewpoints. However, most importantly, I think faculty and administrators must be unafraid to speak out and encourage dialogue instead of cowering at the first sign of outrage over sensitive topics. They must set the example and use their authority and experience to facilitate difficult conversations instead of sweeping uncomfortable issues under the rug. This is not easy, but that's the purpose of academia.