Sociologist sheds light on the origins and effects of cancel culture while emphasizing the need for constructive dialogue.


Cancel culture has become a prevalent topic, and the recent decision by MinterEllison, a major law firm, to sever ties with the Adelaide Festival over two Palestinian writers has fueled the debate. This incident is just one example of the growing trend of cancel culture, where individuals and organizations face backlash for their perceived offensive actions or views.

According to a recent essay from sociologist Alan Peterson from Monash University, cancel culture can take various forms, like canceling concerts of bands accused of far-right sympathies or bands themselves canceling shows due to allegations of sexism, racism, or other objectionable behavior. These acts serve as a way for people to take a stand against harmful views or actions and have a strong symbolic impact.

However, cancel culture has real-world consequences too. The Adelaide Festival faced financial consequences due to their association with the writers, and three other writers withdrew from the event, with Marie Tumarkin publicly explaining their decision.

Cancel culture often involves piling on, where a large group collectively attacks the target. This behavior is frequently observed on social media platforms, especially Twitter, and can cause significant harm to those on the receiving end.

Despite the ongoing discussion, cancel culture lacks a clear definition and there is little examination of its origins and how we should respond to it. Broadly speaking, cancel culture refers to withdrawing support for public figures or companies after they have expressed objectionable or offensive views.

Cancel culture is not limited to famous individuals or corporations; it can also permeate communities of regular people who come together based on shared interests or identities. These communities, often emotional in nature, use social media platforms to shame and marginalize individuals or groups who are perceived to have violated societal norms.

Shaming, a form of social control, has found new ground on social media, where it can be more destructive and long-lasting. Online information lingers, intensifying its impact.

Surprisingly, cancel culture can emerge within communities that advocate for tolerance or have faced historical discrimination. An example is Kathleen Stock, a philosopher at the University of Sussex, who faced cancellation for opposing proposed reforms on transgender self-identification. The resulting intolerance and shaming led to Stock's resignation in 2021.

These incidents highlight the potential harm caused by cancel culture, as it stifles open discussion and deliberation on important issues. They also underline the role of social media platforms in reinforcing echo chambers and spreading harmful information, contributing to the polarization of public discourse.

Addressing the challenges posed by cancel culture requires informed and respectful conversations that promote acceptance of diverse identities and viewpoints, as long as they do not harm others. Determining what constitutes harm is a complex task that should be part of ongoing discussions.

Encouraging respectful disagreement and actively listening to different perspectives can foster understanding, even if a complete agreement is not reached. This approach promotes an inclusive and empathetic society that allows for diverse opinions while holding individuals accountable for genuinely harmful actions.

As cancel culture continues to shape public discourse, it is crucial to strike a balance between accountability and creating a space for constructive dialogue and the exchange of ideas. By nurturing open and respectful conversations, we can navigate cancel culture's complexities while maintaining a healthy and inclusive public sphere.

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