Cancel culture is the practice of repudiating public figures who have said or done something offensive. It gives people a voice and the power to hold others accountable. It has had a positive impact by ensuring that people who engage in racist, sexist, or homophobic behavior face consequences. For instance, Shane Gillis, a comedian, was fired from Saturday Night Live for racist and homophobic jokes he had previously made. In addition, powerful people accused of sexual misconduct have lost their jobs or even been edited out of movies, such as Matt Lauer and Kevin Spacey.
However, cancel culture is not confined to the obvious ethical lapses of celebrities; it is seeping into the newsroom and stifling the integrity of journalism. Writers have had their articles canceled, and editors have been fired for publishing controversial opinions, or even just controversial headlines.
For instance, James Bennet, an editor at the New York Times, published an op-ed written by Republican Senator Tom Cotton, which argued that military troops should be used to curb riots. This was part of an effort to incorporate a greater diversity of viewpoints in the opinion pages, but many members of the staff found the editorial factually inaccurate and offensive, so Bennet was forced to resign a few days later.
Another incident involved an editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was ousted for running a story about property damage during riots with the insensitive headline “Buildings Matter, Too,” in reference to the Black Lives Matter movement. This is not meant to suggest that the editors’ decisions were without fault. In fact, in both cases, the editors admitted their errors and apologized. However, these events are creating a culture of fear among writers and editors that may ultimately endanger journalism.
As a result of this fear, cancel culture stunts debate. It is necessary to be able to have candid and open discussions with people who hold diverging viewpoints in order to gain a more complete understanding. Cancel culture cuts off those conversations before they even begin, because people are too afraid to engage in honest discussion. This discourages writers from addressing controversial topics for fear that they will be shunned. That is why 153 renowned authors and intellectuals on all sides of the political spectrum, including Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem, and Cornel West, signed a letter on justice and open debate speaking out against cancel culture. They emphasized: “As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.”
Furthermore, cancel culture paints the world in a way that is far too simplistic. People are not binary. They are multifaceted, composed of both good and evil. One thoughtless mistake shouldn’t erase a lifetime of work or define someone. We should be able to acknowledge people’s contributions, while also recognizing their shortcomings. In school, we’ve been taught to believe in a growth mindset and learning from your mistakes, but cancel culture doesn’t seem to permit the potential for self-improvement. Some acts merit cancellation, but maybe others deserve the possibility of atonement and redemption.
Ultimately, cancel culture has many merits, but it may have dire consequences for journalism, instilling fear in writers and constraining them to express only popular opinions. Genuine journalism requires the space to offer honest opinions, not just what you think others want to hear. Rather than not publishing controversial articles or being so quick to cancel editors, perhaps we should take into account the diversity of opinions and complexity of people.