Roseanne Barr has largely disappeared from public life after being both literally and metaphorically canceled.
Roseanne Barr has largely disappeared from public life after being both literally and metaphorically canceled. Rachel Luna / Getty Images

What is cancel culture, and is it improving society or making it worse?

The answer to those questions largely depends on who you ask. Some people, particularly those who consider themselves targets or victims of cancelation campaigns, argue that it is a dangerous trend in American culture, one that is actively stifling art, media, science, education, and free thought. Others argue that cancel culture is just another term for accountability, and that invoking the spectre of cancel culture is just a way of dodging responsibility for one’s actions.

But what is cancelation, exactly? There’s no one answer to this—the definition, it turns out, is largely in the eye of the beholder—but I think of it as a form of social and cultural boycott. The goal isn’t restoration or even analysis; it’s excommunication.

I suspect some of the problems with defining the term is that some people think of it as literal and others do not. I’m in the latter camp. Although there are a few notable incidents of people being literally canceled after social media backlash—for instance, Roseanne Barr and James Gunn—I think of “cancelation” as a catchier term for public call-outs, a principle that originated in activist circles to confront wrongdoing in their own communities.

Call-outs began as a utopian ideal, a way of extracting justice and change without cops or courts. But then came the internet. Activist Loretta Ross wrote about this recently in the New York Times: “My experiences with call-outs began in the 1970s as a young black feminist activist,” she wrote. “I sharply criticized white women for not understanding women of color. I called them out while trying to explain intersectionality and white supremacy.” Forty years later, after watching call-outs migrate from in-person to online, Ross has come to the conclusion that this trend isn’t just counterproductive but actually toxic.

“Call-outs are justified to challenge provocateurs who deliberately hurt others, or for powerful people beyond our reach,” Ross writes. “Effectively criticizing such people is an important tactic for achieving justice. But most public shaming is horizontal and done by those who believe they have greater integrity or more sophisticated analyses. They become the self-appointed guardians of political purity.”

The New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, however, sees the emergence of call-outs and cancelations as a positive development, if not a new one. “There have always been these negotiations in the public sphere about what people can say, and those have always been mediated by who has power and who doesn’t,” he told me. “What I think is novel about the present is that it's people who, under ordinary circumstances, may not necessarily have power. That, I think, is what's freaking people out—that a bunch of people who, 20 years ago, may have been voiceless all of a sudden have a forum for voicing displeasure and that actually has weight on the institution.”

So what is the difference between cancelation and critique? “That’s the thing,” says Vox senior politics editor Jane Coaston. “I have no idea. Did Roseanne lose her job because of ‘cancel culture,’ or because she said something stupid and got punished for it? Did God, The Devil and Bob get canceled because of ‘cancel culture,’ or is it only ‘cancel culture’ when the left is doing it?”

As for how effective cancelation campaigns are, that’s debatable, too.

“In internet culture, being canceled is only good for your career,” says Taylor Lorenz, a staff writer at the New York Times who covers internet culture. “It usually results in going viral, which is default good in today's broken world. It makes your fans stan you harder and it makes more people have an opinion of you, which is usually good because that results in more followers.”

Lorenz is talking specifically about Instagram and YouTube influencers, but the same could be said of those in traditional media.

Take New York Times columnist Bari Weiss. The outsize and largely negative reaction to her work (and her tweets) is a big part of why she has the massive profile she has now. It’s why she’s now a regular on Bill Maher (a man who is seemingly immune from being canceled, even after he was literally canceled by ABC) and why people who don’t read the Times Opinion pages still know who she is.

But even if cancelation can boost your public profile, as in the case of Bari Weiss, notoriety isn't the end-all, be-all of success, and there are real social and emotional downsides to being canceled. This is especially true when it comes from your own tribe.

“Maybe one crucial aspect of canceling is that it only really works if it comes from your own ideological side, maybe even members of your own profession,” says essayist Meghan Daum, whose latest book The Problem with Everything, touches on this very subject.

“Louis CK’s cancelation was led not just by the left but by other comics. Insufficiently woke young adult novelists are canceled by other young adult novelists—or they even self-cancel! Milo Yiannopoulis was finally canceled, but only after his right-wing fans decided his pederasty remarks were a bridge too far. The left couldn’t have canceled him, since they already hated him and it would have had no impact.”

That, I think, is key. For cancelation to have any impact, it must come from inside the house. This is why Shane Gillis—the comic who SNL fired this week after massive outcry after a journalist posted footage of him telling anti-Asian and anti-gay jokes—could be canceled, but Sarah Jeong, the New York Times editor with a history of tweeting anti-white jokes, could not. Gillis’s critics where fellow comics as well as fans of SNL. Jeong’s were mostly people who voted for Donald Trump. Who cares what they think?

But cancelation isn’t just limited to public figures. Sure, Bari Weiss has far more prominence than she did before people on the internet decided she was trash, but there are other cases in which people who don't have institutional support are rendered unemployable.

Art Tavana, a former columnist at LA Weekly and Playboy was canceled (for the first time) after writing a column about his obsession with Sky Ferreira (mostly her aesthetic, but there was a line about her body) that generated widespread outrage online, in no small part because the actress herself seemed deeply offended by it. Art was canceled, first metaphorically and then literally when his column was dropped. He still writes—he’s working on a book about Guns N Roses—but his income comes from working at an arcade at the mall.

“Being canceled is really no different from being the weird, uncool kid in high school,” Tavana told me. “Canceled people tend to be individuals who belong to this weird sort of subgenre, at least those of us in media. There is an aspect to our machinery that is very similar: We're all kind of outsiders and contrarians who are stuck in this weird, homogenized, Instagram monoculture of fake happiness, and we are the bitter, angry, goth people in the corner. We're very alienated, and we're suffering social and economic consequences.”

Tavana doesn’t seem all that concerned about his own cancelation—he says he never expected to make money writing, so the inability to do so isn’t a big shock—but, as he noted, sometimes those who are are canceled can end up becoming cancelers themselves.

“I was part of a ‘canceled people’ text group for a while, and I realized we were exhibiting the same behavior as the people who canceled us,” he said. “It was like, ‘Oh, fuck these people, let's take them down..’ I got disgusted by the group and said I didn't want to be a part of it anymore so I got canceled by the canceled. Or maybe I canceled them.”

What Tavana is concerned about it the effect this is having on art, music, and the media, and he’s not alone. Heather Heying, the former Evergreen State College professor who, with her husband Bret Weinstein, was targeted by student protesters and later stepped down, calls cancel culture “mob rule.”

“People join mobs for a variety of reasons, some of them honorable,” Heying says. “Usually those with honorable intentions can’t see that it is a mob they are joining. Cancel culture is a bastardization of protest, and of revolution, both of which democratic systems need, but cancel culture seeks to destroy and banish all those who disagree with some new orthodoxy.”

That, to Heying, is the difference between cancelation and critique. “Critique involves listening and understanding, and then perhaps trying to change the minds of those who disagree. Instead of trying to change people’s minds, the mob removes them from view.” This can lead to shunning, not only from strangers, but from colleagues and friends, as Heying and her husband experienced in the aftermath of the scandal at Evergreen.

“It's one of the worst things that can happen to a person, to be ostracized from society,” says Meghan Murphy, a Candian feminist and writer who was permanently banned from Twitter after she misgendered Jessica Yaniv, the now notorious trans woman who filed human rights complaints against female estheticians who refused to wax her ball sack. (Perhaps ironically, Yaniv has since been called out herself, both for racism and allegedly sexually harassing minors.)

“Most people join in on the ostracization not because they really understand the 'crime' or believe the canceled individual is truly bad and irredeemable, but because they are following the crowd,” Murphy continues. “Either they feel they must, in order to avoid being canceled themselves, or they simply believe second-hand information without investigating the situation themselves.”

Others, however, argue that this trend is necessary for social progress.

“Shame and stigma have always been a way to enforce social norms,” says James Hamblin, a writer for The Atlantic and a cancel-culture skeptic. As an example, he cites homophobia. There was no court ruling or mandate that homophobia is no longer acceptable in society, but Hamblin says that by shaming homophobic viewpoints, they became less acceptable to express, and so society became less homophobic. (I think he’s probably right about this to some degree, but large numbers of people coming out to their families and friends might have had more to do with it than simply shaming, and Hamblin agrees.)

To most of us, homophobia is obviously negative and less of it in society is obviously a net good. But one of the problems with cancel culture is that allegations often spread before they’re inspected for truth. An accusation is made and instead of waiting for facts to emerge, it’s just assumed to be fact.

This appears to be what happened in the case of a Yale Ph.D. student Sarah Braasch, a former international human rights lawyer who worked primarily with African Muslim women in France. In 2018, Braasch became famous after calling the police on a black student who was sleeping in a common area near her dorm room, an incident that became known as “napping while black.”

The story of Braasch that spread online was cut and dry: This was a racist woman who called the cops on a black student. The outcry was enormous. Journalist Cathy Young wrote of the aftermath:

“Before long, the deluge of anger had a target with a name and a face. Anti-police violence activist Brittany Packnett, who has more than 200,000 Twitter followers, denounced Braasch as a ‘danger to black students’ and urged Yale to take action; there were calls for her to be not only expelled but criminally charged. Best-selling author Ijeoma Oluo tweeted a de facto call to harassment, suggesting black students should camp out by Braasch’s door every night. The fact that the Bigot of the Week was identified as a civil rights activist in her bio on the Yale website was mentioned only as evidence that white allies can be as bad as any white supremacist. ‘Sarah Braasch even looks like a Nazi,’ wrote one Twitter leftist.”

This story was picked up by the national media, including CNN and the New York Times, and anger continued to mount. Braasch ended up fleeing her home, and nearly 3,000 people signed a petition demanding that she be “removed” from campus. While a complaint against her was ultimately withdrawn, she lost her housing, her reputation, and now needs special permission to visit campus.

If Braasch were actually guilty of racism, perhaps social alienation would be a fair price to pay. But when Young investigated this incident a year after it took place, she found that the accusations against Braasch did not stand up to scrutiny. What happened that night was more likely more a byproduct of Braasch’s documented mental health issues than implicit or explicit bigotry. The truth, as always, is far more complex than the narrative that spread online. Of course, by then it was too late. Despite Young’s reporting, there has been little redemption for Braasch.

Braasch may have been a victim of cancel culture gone wrong. But is her case the exception or the rule? Like the definition of cancel culture itself, it depends on who you ask.

“I think the way people use ‘cancel culture’ is this shorthand way of dismissing whatever accusations are against them,” says the Times’ Taylor Lorenz. “My general take on it is that it's very toxic but also necessary. We are in the correction phase right now and everyone is indiscriminately calling each other out, and that's because we're working to set new standards and norms as a society.”

Whether cancel culture is a correction or an over-correction, the impact it is having on people and society is not a myth, says Mike Pesca, host of the Gist podcast. “It’s real. It tends to get exaggerated by interested parties and downplayed by others, but jobs have been lost, and people have been threatened, and projects have been scrapped. I don’t know if it’s an epidemic, but there’s a chill, and oftentimes that chill is illiberal. That's the big difference between cancelation and critique, I say. Legit critique is liberal, arguing that Dave Chapelle's special was bad or didn’t work for specific reasons. Illegitimate critique is illiberal, which is arguing that works shouldn't exist or that arguments shouldn't be made.”

One problem with cancel culture is that there is no statute of limitations or mechanism for renewal. “What you’ve said or done can haunt you for the rest of your life,” says Peter Boghossian, the author of just-out book How to Have Impossible Conversations. Boghossian is also one of the masterminds behind the “grievance studies hoax,” in which he and two others submitted outlandish and entirely made-up studies to academic journals to demonstrate the flaws in these fields of study. (Seven of them were accepted for publication.) In response, 12 of Boghossian’s colleagues at Portland State University published an anonymous letter condemning his work and he was later banned from doing human studies research by the college.

“Cultural norms and values are constantly in flux, so you could be punished for a cultural belief you never reflected upon but just took for granted. In the recent past, it was gay marriage; in the near future it may be meat-eating.” He calls this trend “a recipe for alienation, loneliness, inauthenticity, and unfairness.”

Whatever you call it—public shaming, call-out culture, or cancelation—what’s happening now is in no way a new phenomenon. The Dixie Chicks were canceled during the Iraq War for simply saying they were ashamed of George W. Bush. The Hollywood blacklist is another obvious example of cancelation before the term existed.

But what is new is the scale of it all. This isn't just happening to public figures; it's happening everywhere that social media exists, and you no longer have to be powerful, or even notable, to get canceled. And sometimes the offense was committed when the guilty party was just a kid.

"The ubiquity of smart phones means that everybody's statements are permanently recorded—sometimes on video," says Robby Soave, an editor at Reason and the author of Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump. "Every living person has done or said things they regret, that they would not like to revisit, and wish would just go aaway. But now, the evidence doesn't just go away. It exists forever. Primarily, this is a problem for kids and teenagers, or people who used to be kids—i.e., everyone!—and are now being held accountable for unwise statements that should have remained in the past."

As for how long this particular moment will last, who knows, but as Meghan Daum told me, “I hope cancel culture keeps expanding and more and more people get canceled, because then eventually everyone will get canceled and it will mean nothing and we’ll just have a reset. Cancel culture is inevitably a self-canceling proposition.”

Note: This piece has been updated to reflect that James Hamblin agrees that large numbers of people coming out of the closet were integral to shifting attitudes on homosexuality.