We have witnessed widely publicised examples of tension between social justice activists and those who advocate for restraint. The most recent example is the Cancel culture movement and its backlash against late-night comedians like Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah.
On the one side, we have people actively seeking to cancel these comedians for jokes that have been deemed offensive; on the other side, we have those who believe that people grow and change and should be allowed to apologise and move on.
As with any cultural shift, there’s more going on than what can be explained by simple headlines like “Social Justice Warriors vs Comedians” or “PC Culture vs Comedy Culture”. To understand this divide better, let’s look at some of these recent events and figure out what each side is trying to accomplish, who is helping achieve that goal, and who might be unintentionally getting in their own way.
The importance of language in the debate around Cancel Culture
One of the most important things to understand about how Cancel Culture can be misconstrued and misunderstood is the language used to describe it and the positive outcomes of its philosophy.
This has been particularly relevant in the debate over the “cancel culture” and its place within leftist activism. To explain what Cancel Culture is, it’s best to start by explaining what it is not. Cancel Culture is not about censorship or about getting people fired. Instead, it is about creating a culture where public figures do not get a free pass for offensive or oppressive language or actions, particularly when those actions and words are used to gain or maintain power.
The idea of “cancelling” a public figure (and the term “cancel culture” itself) comes from the world of internet fandom and fan communities, particularly those surrounding television shows like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. When someone is ” cancelled ” within these communities, they are no longer allowed to participate in the community. Their actions or words are no longer afforded the same “free pass” they previously had.
Cultural differences in animating factors behind PC culture movements
Another important thing to consider when discussing Cancel Culture is that culturally-specific issues may be animating what seems like a universal phenomenon (i.e., PC Culture). This is not to say that all PC Culture movements have the same specific causes, but some general reasons are likely to be present across cultures.
For instance, one of the primary reasons for PC Culture movements is to create visible spaces for marginalised and oppressed people. This is important because these people are not given the same opportunity to speak and be heard as those in dominant groups in many places.
PC Culture ensures that these groups are given the opportunity to speak up about issues relevant to them in a way that is not oppressive to other groups (something often referred to as “intersectionality”).
Another important reason for PC Culture movements is to ensure that marginalised groups are not silenced by members of dominant groups who seek to minimise their experience and pain. This is particularly relevant when the members of dominant groups make the mistake of equating their experience to that of people they cannot understand.
Helping outcomes of Cancel Culture and PC culture discourse
One of the best things Cancel Culture and PC Culture movements can do is to create a shift in the discourse around social justice issues. Instead of a one-sided conversation where dominant groups are allowed to speak over and silence others without consequence, we now have a space where all voices can be heard, and all perspectives are valid. This shift in the discourse is hugely important, particularly for the most vulnerable members of our society, who have been largely ignored or dismissed in the past.
Unintended consequences of Cancel Culture discourse
Unfortunately, while Cancel Culture and PC Culture movements can be very helpful, they can also cause harm when they are not used correctly. As we’ve already discussed, the language of the Cancel Culture is important because it sets the tone for the movement.
When language is not carefully considered and is overly simplistic, it can quickly become oppressive to other groups. For instance, when Cancel Culture activists use the phrase “cancel white people,” they are essentially saying that white people are a monolithic group who are all equally deserving of being cancelled or silenced.
This is a harmful oversimplification of white people, who are a diverse group of people who have varying opinions on social justice issues. This oversimplification disrespects how different groups experience oppression based on factors like race, class, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.
This oversimplification is incredibly dangerous, particularly in the current political climate where misinformation and hate speech is rampant.
We must be careful not to oversimplify or generalise the problems that Cancel Culture and PC Culture movements are trying to solve. All social justice issues are nuanced and complex. Multiple factors contribute to problems (racism, sexism, transphobia, etc.), and numerous factors can help solve them (intersectional activism, education, cultural change).
Above all, we should not allow our differences to get in the way of our ability to communicate with one another. We must recognise that there is no such thing as a “pure” form of activism or discourse. Every movement, every discourse, and person has its own unique set of flaws and merits.