Now more than ever, people are scared to say what they really think. Whether at dinner tables, at work, or in classrooms, our social interactions have devolved into fear: fear of what other people will think about what we say. Will I inadvertently offend someone? If I have a different opinion, will I be ostracized and labeled an outcast? Why bother voicing my opinion if no one is really going to listen, and I’ll just be shut down immediately? These questions all stem from the increasing prevalence of “cancel culture” in our society. Although an ambiguous phenomenon, cancel culture can be described as the reluctance to hear and respect differing viewpoints, leading to dangerous self-censorship. A person is said to “be canceled” when their counter-majoritarian actions or opinions are condemned by society, by the community at-large, or by one’s close peer group. Although cancel culture has been used as a mechanism to hold the heinous actions of celebrities accountable, I will be analyzing the political ramifications of cancel culture and how it has morphed into a political term that relates to the suppression of free speech and discourse in our society. It is this suppression of free speech, via self-censorship in our public sphere, that has ultimately caused democratic erosion.
The origins of cancel culture in its current form can be traced back to the rise of the 2017 #MeToo movement. As allegations against celebrities began to surface, popular culture called for seemingly untouchable popular figures to be held accountable for their actions. Through public outcry, powerful people, such as American film producer Harvey Weinstein and comedian Bill Cosby, have been exiled from public life. Through removing their social clout, cancel culture highlights the immoral actions of individuals, putting pressure on businesses, communities, and even institutions such as the courts, to right perceived wrongs. Stemming from a righteous place of public accountability, cancel culture eventually morphed into a political phenomenon designed to silence the opposition. Both President Trump and former President Obama have condemned cancel culture as un-American. In regard to call-out culture, Obama stated, “That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.” In his Independence Day speech at Mount Rushmore, President Trump attacked the left for their use of cancel culture as a method of “driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States.” Although it is apparent that Trump has condemned cancel culture, he is currently one of the most prolific cancelers, showing how cancel culture, although resented, has become an effective political tool for both parties.
Two modern trends that have contributed to the politicization of cancel culture have been increased political polarization and plurality of the media. Over the past 30 years, the social rift between Democrats and Republicans has enlarged; as of 2017, 45% of Republicans view Democrats very unfavorably, while 44% of Democrats view Republicans as such. In 1994, these unfavorability polls were only 17% and 16% respectively. As tribalism in American culture has accelerated over the past decades, our ability to negotiate and respect others opinions has waned. Cancel culture has been used as an effective tool for partisans to silence their opponents in debate, a desire motivated by our increased polarization. Along with our divided political climate, the emergence of social media has facilitated cancel culture. By providing an unobstructed, far reaching medium for all people to voice their opinions, social media has amplified partisan voices. Although social media has increased access to political discussion, these discussions have become toxic and harmful to our discourse.
The toxic discourse stemming from cancel culture ultimately aids democratic erosion through its suppression of free speech via self-censorship in the public sphere. Freedom of speech is necessary for a democracy to function. If the purpose of democracy is for the government to attend to the needs and preferences of its citizenry, then citizens must have open lanes of communication to voice those preferences. For German Philosopher Jürgen Habermas, free-speech coalesces in a place called the public sphere, where individuals can openly debate and discuss their ideas and preferences, ultimately forming public opinion. It is this formation of public opinion which is essential for citizens to mediate government activities. Huq and Ginsberg note how degrading of the public sphere is one of the methods used by would-be authoritarians to facilitate constitutional retrogression or democratic erosion. Although they focus on the degradation of a shared epistemic foundation coming from top-down government actions, I contend the bottom-up suppression of a public sphere from self-censorship is similarly harmful to democracy. If speech is limited though self-censorship, public preferences necessary for democracy cannot be debated and properly communicated to the government. On an individual level, stifling free speech limits people’s exposure to new ideas, thus hurting our rationality and ability to critically analyze complex situations. Democracy requires a well informed and analytical electorate to function properly, a requirement that is made all the more difficult by limiting the flow of information. Despite America’s strong legal protections for freedom of speech, the societal environment people live in has a huge impact on how and what they can say. It is these social pressures evident in cancel culture that can cause democratic erosion. A recent study found that 40% of Americans engage in significant amounts of self-censorship. Although political intolerance has decreased, they found that people hinder their speech based on fear of alienation from close friends or colleagues. It is not macro forces, such as government or media suppression, that are causing self-censorship, but micro environmental factors such as the fear of being canceled by a coworker. Ultimately, cancel-culture has facilitated an environment of self-censorship which has been detrimental to the function of our public sphere, thus facilitating democratic erosion.
Although limiting our ability to have open and respectful discussion, can cancel culture in fact help our democracy? Media plurality and openness of the internet has allowed the dissemination of unobjective information. Biased “fake” news has distorted baseline facts. Without a collective grounding in reality, discussions are bound to become toxic. In order to protect the discourse necessary for democracy to thrive, could limiting bad information actually be beneficial? Unfortunately, with our current polarized media, it is almost impossible for Americans to discern which information is truthful and which is not. Information that is perceived as incorrect may in fact be accurate, but will be censored by opponents in the name of promoting the truth. All information, even that which is blatantly false, should be allowed to circulate in our society. However, through facts and evidence, this false information can and should be confronted. If cancel culture is utilized instead of respectful discourse, false views are only reaffirmed, leading to an increase in partisan entrenchment. Ultimately, although very difficult, we have a duty to listen and view opposing opinions with an open mind. It is only though this way of discourse that our democracy will continue to thrive.
 Merriam Webster Dictionary, “What It Means to Get ‘Canceled” https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/cancel-culture-words-were-watching
 Emily Rueb et al., “Obama on Call-Out Culture: That’s not Activism.” New York Times, Oct. 31, 2019
 Tommy Beer, “Trump Attacks Cancel Culture– But Tried Recently to Cancel These People” Forbes, Sept. 6, 2020
 Iman Ghosh, “Charts: America’s Political Divide 1994-2017.” Visual Capitalist, Sept 25. 2019
 Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, 2.
 Jürgen Habermas, “The public sphere” In Mukerji, C.; Schudson, M.(Ed.): Rethinking popular culture. Contemporary perspectives in cultural studies. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press. 398-404.
 Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsberg, “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy.” 46.
 Sara Savat, “Free Speech? Nearly half of Americans self-censor, study finds.” The Source, Aug. 6. 2020