What does the term “cancel culture” really mean? What power does it have in our society? When is it accurately used and when it is overblown? These were just a few questions panelists attempted to answer at “Speech Impacts: ‘Cancel Culture’ and the Consequences of Our Words,” held on Nov. 4 as a part of a yearlong series on free speech and expression hosted by the Office of the Provost and Center on Religion and Culture.

The panel featured Meredith Clark, Ph.D., associate professor and founding director of the new Center for Communication, Media Innovation, and Social Change at Northeastern University; Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America; and Cornell Belcher, president of Brilliant Corners Research & Strategies and political contributor for MSNBC. Jessica Baldwin-Philippi, associate professor of communications and media studies at Fordham, served as moderator.

What is ‘Cancel Culture?’

After studying Black Twitter for some time, Clark noticed that over the past few years the community as a whole has started “using its collective power on the site” to demand accountability from people for racist or offensive behavior. She cited the example of media mogul Russell Simmons, who made an offensive video “spoof” of Harriet Tubman having sex with her slave holder.

“The resounding pressure was such that he issued an apology,” she said, adding that he removed the video from his collection. “He said that apologizing was something that he would never otherwise do, but the outcry had been so loud.”

Belcher said this type of calling someone out isn’t new.He referred to it as “checking” someone.

“What we call checking people—I think that’s as old and American as apple pie,” he said. “What I think is dramatically different is the vehicle that it has, and the power of that vehicle to mobilize and spread it and actually give it more power.”

Belcher gave the example of Amy Cooper, the white woman in Central Park who called police on Christian Cooper, a Black birdwatcher.

“Once upon a time when a woman said some crazy racist [stuff]to a Black guy watching birds in Central Park, he might check her and say something about it, but that would be the end of it,” he said. “Now when that crazy person said some racist [stuff]to the birdwatcher in the park—there’s now a

mob. So there’s more consequences … I think there’s a downside and an upside to that.”

With so many more people witnessing these events and cancelations, Nossel said, their impact can be multiplied in a way that worries her.
“My concern is about the way in which these particular cancellations can deepen divisions and polarization—a phenomenon I’ve witnessed of cascading cancellations where someone is called out, is out of bounds, and that even if you just defend them, you too can be sort of swept up in that,” she said.

On the flip side, the people doing the “calling out” can also be “shunned and stigmatized,” she said. “It can just escalate a battle instead of offering enlightened discourse.”

Separating Cancel Culture from Accountability

Both Clark and Nossel noted that there should be a difference between holding people accountable, such as the movement to hold R. Kelly accountable for his actions, and canceling someone for having an opinion you don’t agree with. But the two are often conflated, Clark said.

“The assumption that there’s a culture around it really does speak to some racialized origins— it throws back to the idea of the culture wars, that there are multiple groups in this country that are fighting to sort of set the ground rules of how we relate to one another and how discourse is supposed to flow,” she said.

Nossel said that it’s one thing when celebrities come under fire; they often have the resources to bounce back. But when a less famous person, like a journalist or professor, gets canceled, it can be hard for them to weather the storm.

“Individuals are within their rights to withhold their ticket-buying market power from a celebrity, or to tweet their outrage at something—that’s free speech,” she said. “But in our jet-fueled social media landscape … when you are under fire, it just feels thunderous and overwhelming. And what I have witnessed on multiple occasions is how institutional leaders, they just crack, they can’t take it.”

Possible Solutions and ‘Presumption of Innocence’

One possible way to address the under-fire feeling is to examine what the company is under fire about.

“I think one of the things that we need to look to institutions to do … is start thinking very seriously and very critically about how we’re going to address loud and outside demands for some sort of accountability, or how we’re going to address what is just noise,” Clark said.

Another possible solution raised by Belcher was “calling out cancel culture.” He cited the example of comedian Dave Chapelle, who made controversial comments related to the trans community in a comedy special. Right after he made it, he alluded to the fact that he’d probably get canceled.

“I’m not so sure Dave Chappelle hasn’t just killed cancel culture,” Belcher said. “He relished in it. And after the concert, he actually said, ‘Do you think they’ll cancel me?’ And he smiled, and dropped the mic. He’s calling out the canceled culture … that is probably the greatest sort of critique of canceled culture that I’ve ever seen.”

Still, Clark raised a few concerns about this method, particularly since a similar one had been employed by right wing speakers, such as Richard Spencer, who would work to get invited and then disinvited from a college—and use the outrage over that to fundraise or enhance their image.

Nossel said that we should try and move back to a place where there’s at least a “presumption of innocence” against those being called out and give them a chance to defend themselves.

“I think there’s something very fundamental to the fabric of our society that hinges on the idea that you’ll have an opportunity to defend yourself,” she said. “If you’re innocent, you’ll have a chance to prove that—you won’t receive a punishment based on a sort of speculation or innuendo, that there will actually be an inquiry.”