‘Cancel Culture’ is just free speech holding others accountable

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Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) is concerned cancel culture will have “long-term consequences to our democracy.” We can only hope he’s right. 

Jordan wrote about his fears in a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) last week. The letter raises concerns about the First Amendment and the marketplace of ideas, citing Twitter and Facebook’s decisions to remove former President Trump from their platforms. In other words, Jordan got everything wrong about cancel culture.

Of course, holding Jordan accountable for mischaracterizing cancel culture could lead to accusations that he is being canceled. Getting it right wasn’t the point anyway. Cancel culture — a term used to provoke fear that “others” are coming for traditional values — has become the right’s latest bogeyman. The truth is quite different.

Cancel culture is not a threat to free speech — it is a manifestation of it. Cancel culture is an evolving form of democratic discourse where individuals use their free speech rights to form masses. These masses exert pressure on people and institutions. A better term for it would be “accountability culture.” 

Americans have long used their rights to free expression to hold public officials, institutions and corporations accountable. Groups, including conservatives, have organized boycotts. They have called for people to resign. They have protested.

No one complained this was a marketplace-of-ideas-killing, First Amendment danger. No one claimed it was an attack on freedom. Accountability culture existed long before its iteration on the internet. Public accountability is part of democracy.

What makes Jordan’s and others’ fears any different? The only reasonable explanation is how this accountability is taking place and who is doling it out. Cancel culture is powered by social media. Groups that have traditionally struggled to find any foothold of power are using social media to organize individuals’ ideas into mass protests.

Social media allows those who do not have a seat at the table, access to mass media or the money required to reach mass audiences to participate.

This has manifested into more women and people of color organizing and using social media to call traditionally privileged groups to be more accountable. These privileged groups have often been insulated from these types of mass criticisms and pressures, creating “how dare they?” reactions. In other words, those who decry the free speech dangers of cancel culture really just don’t like how other people are using their free speech rights.

Social media has made cancel culture possible because they have removed, or at least diminished, many of these traditional barriers that kept people from democratic participation. The Supreme Court recognized this in its first internet-related First Amendment case in 1997. 

The court wrote, “any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.”

That’s what cancel culture is doing. It is people leveraging emerging communication tools to apply pressure to individuals and organizations. Many in power are not used to receiving such criticism, having their words and actions publicly scrutinized without the often more polished gatekeeping veneer of traditional news media. They don’t appreciate the feedback.

The speed and grassroots nature of accountability culture is also new. Social media is ubiquitous so cancel culture may seem more prevalent, fast-moving and all-encompassing than it actually is. In reality, few people who are “cancelled,” ever stay that way and often return to public life after a certain amount of time. 

In fact, those who continually claim they are losing their free speech rights to cancel culture do so while appearing on major cable news shows, posting on social media or addressing the floor of the U.S. Senate. It’s a mix of contradiction and irony that they are essentially reaching millions of people with their complaint that they can’t reach millions of people.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) wrote an op-ed about the “muzzling of America” after Simon & Schuster canceled his book deal in January. Less than two weeks later, Hawley had a new publisher for the same book.

Many have fretted over Dr. Seuss being canceled. Six of the beloved children’s author’s works won’t be published anymore due to racist and insensitive imagery.

The decision came from the estate of Theodor Geisel, the man who wrote under the Dr. Seuss pen name for more than 50 years. The move was to protect the author’s legacy and make sure his stories were supportive for all communities and families. This is self-accountability, not mass grassroots accountability. 

Jordan and others contend cancel culture leads to censorship and is a threat to the First Amendment. As long as the government is not limiting free expression, cancel culture has nothing to do with the First Amendment. 

Instead, accountability culture is a new tool for accomplishing old, cherished American ideals, such as free speech, public participation and efforts to create a more perfect union.

Jared Schroeder is an associate professor of journalism at Southern Methodist University where he specializes in First Amendment law. He is the author of “The Press Clause and Digital Technology’s Fourth Wave.”

Jessica Maddox is an assistant professor of digital media technology at the University of Alabama where she specializes in social media, platform governance and their impacts on society.

Tags Accountability Cancel culture Donald Trump Dr. Seuss first amendment First Amendment rights Freedom of speech freedom on expression Jerry Nadler Jim Jordan Josh Hawley Social media

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