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Cancel culture as social exclusion

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The “cancel culture” debate is at the forefront of America’s culture wars — one that is becoming a key theme in the presidential campaign. 

Cancel culture refers to the public condemnation and punishment of people whose words or deeds are considered immoral or inappropriate. Viewed through a sociological lens, the controversy is a signature instance of social exclusion — a process that restricts full participation in society and access to its opportunities, rights and resources — in the service of social inclusion. Yet this paradox can only be resolved in the final analysis with deliberately inclusive practices that abolish long standing exclusionary institutions.

Cancel culture is extremely divisive and highly partisan. A Politico/Morning Consult poll recently reported that 46 percent of Americans believed that cancel culture has “gone too far,” with 49 percent believing that it has a negative impact on society. More than half of Americans believe that social repercussions should be expected for expressing unpopular opinions. 

The poll also found that Democrats shared their dislike for a public figure who did something objectionable more often than Republicans did. Conservative and older academics likewise report that cancel culture on campus has worsened over time.

For years now, conservatives have attacked progressives for their alleged “political correctness,” “identity politics” and purportedly silencing disagreeable opinions. In his 2020 convention acceptance speech, Donald Trump proclaimed that cancel culture instils fear, shame and humiliation and forces Americans to be “driven from society as we know it.” 

In July, liberal intellectuals too decried cancel culture with a “Justice and Open Debate” letter in Harper’s magazine. Echoing Justice Brandeis’ counterspeech doctrine, the signatories wrote that bad ideas need to be exposed, not silenced or wished away. Singling out Donald Trump as “a real threat to democracy,” they called for more civility, tolerance and compromise in public discourse.  

Defenders of cancelling, in contrast, point to the abuse of power with which the president himself gags critics and has called bans companies. They document the rarity and impotence of left-wing cancelling incidents, the relative powerlessness of the protagonists, and the inclusive intent of these practices. By disgracing powerful individuals who committed sexual assault and other heinous acts, cancelling reaffirms the rule of law and protects the dignity of the vulnerable. Rather than censorship, it demands accountability for hurting or dehumanizing others. At the foundation of cancel culture is protest against an unjust power structure. 

Pew Research reports that there has been an increase over the last five years in the share of Americans, especially African Americans, who say that people should be more mindful of what they say in an effort not to offend people of different backgrounds. In contrast, 80 percent of Republicans say that people are “too easily offended.” 

Partisan polarization over free expression is severe. Left-wing critics condemned Harper’s letter for “compulsive symmetrization,” false equivalency, or Third Way thinking, devoid of content and commitment. They accused “Reactionary Liberals” of conveniently invoking the First Amendment’s freedom of speech over the right of group association and collective protest.

Historians liken the current “tribal moment” to the colonial era, while psychologists see it as a “tightening” of American culture. Sociologists approach the debate in relational terms, as interaction between protagonists and opponents. Cancelling is a weapon of the weak. Traced to its civil rights movement roots, cancelling is akin to a boycott, but of a person rather than a business. Calling out a famous individual is actually speaking truth to society as a whole. Right-wing pushback reflects “discomfort” with those with the audacity to criticize powerful figures in order to enforce social norms.

Sociology points to a paradox in this controversy. Cancelling uses an exclusionary method to demand social inclusion. Society surely has many exclusionary structures that, often impersonally and imperceptibly, block full participation in American life. Occupational credentials, large lot zoning, credit ratings, SAT scores, criminal background checks, eligibility rules for benefits and other seemingly neutral policies selectively screen out some groups more than others. Such structural barriers reduce competition and create privileges for insiders who hoard opportunities and profit at outsiders’ expense. These institutions give rise to a durable inequality between social categories. 

Cancelling is thus an expression of a more generic process of social exclusion that takes many familiar forms. Take gossip. Its actual content is irrelevant to its social function of ensuring compliance with group norms. Ostracism, excommunication and shunning are literally Biblical forms of social control. From Hester Prynne’s Scarlet Letter to the president’s Twitter feed, branding opponents as unworthy of membership in the community is an age-old method of enforcing conformity. It is necessary for social life, whatever one’s ideology.

At the extreme, social exclusion is coercive, ending in imprisonment, exile and even extermination. The fact that the exclusion process is so generic and multidimensional helps account for the rhetorical conflation of cancel culture with more excessive practices like these.  

Social exclusion is more effective at changing behavior in particular circumstances. It is hard to walk away from egregious violations of principles that are widely shared, rather than disputed. Similarly, gossip and shaming have little impact on those who do not wish to belong to a community in the first place. Cancel campaigns have more bite if they entail significant embarrassment. Even if regular people can be cancelled, celebrities, whose position in society largely rests upon their reputation, are at greater risk.  

Efforts at social control like cancelling become strenuous precisely at times when the norms they aim to enforce are under stress. When social movements are demanding our institutions live up to promised ideals of equality and social inclusion, there is less forgiveness of intolerant remarks.  

To resolve the paradoxical relation of using exclusionary methods to demand inclusive recognition, powerful insiders and the system that benefits them must be allowed to change.  Rather than pursuing “dual closure” — in which opposing communities turn their backs on one another — we need more “calling-in.” 

Cancelling and criticism must give way to efforts to heal deep social wounds, reknit the social fabric and bring practice in line with ideals. For guilty conduct, there is atonement, but the resolution of shame, a quintessentially social emotion, calls for re-establishment of the social bond. There has to be a way back in. 

Ending social exclusion does not on its own achieve social inclusion, even though these terms sound like logical antonyms. Although the system still has exclusionary institutions to overcome,  social inclusion requires active welcoming of outsiders and positive efforts to close gaps in outcomes.  Moral leadership and restorative justice can reaffirm our common humanity, shared values and intrinsic social interdependency. 

Hilary Silver is a professor of Sociology, International Affairs and Public Policy at the George Washington University and professor Emerita at Brown University. Follow her on Twitter @hilary_silver.

Tags Cancel culture celebrities Democrats Donald Trump hateful rhetoric politically correct Politically Incorrect politicians presidential campaign Republicans Rhetoric Social exclusion Social movements

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