When mass outrage is weaponised and encouraged, it can become more of a threat to the powerless than to those it’s intended to hold to account. 

In 2017, comedian Louis C.K. was accused of several instances of sexual misconduct, to which he later admitted in full. This was followed by a few cancelled movies, shows and appearances before he stepped away from public life for a few years.  

In 2022, lecturer Ilya Shapiro was put on leave following a tweet he posted a few days before he was employed. Shapiro contended that the university failed in its commitment to free expression by investigating his actions for four months, before reinstating him under the reason that he was not accountable to the university for actions taken before his employment started. 

These are both instances of what some people would call “cancel culture”, yet they involve very different issues. To unpack them, we first need to define what we mean by cancel culture.  

From around 2015 onwards, the term started gaining mainstream traction, eventually being named Word of the Year by Macquarie Dictionary in 2019:  

“The attitudes within a community which call for or bring about the withdrawal of support from a public figure, such as cancellation of an acting role, a ban on playing an artist’s music, removal from social media, etc., usually in response to an accusation of a socially unacceptable action or comment by the figure.”

The quintessential examples of cancel culture are calls from groups of people online for various public figures to be stripped of support, their work boycotted, or their positions removed following perceived moral transgressions. These transgressions can be anything from a rogue tweet to sexual assault allegations, but the common theme is that they are deemed to be harmful and warrant some kind of reaction. 

A notoriously contentious concept, cancel culture is defined, or at least perceived, differently based on the social, cultural and political influences of whom you ask. Though its roots are in social justice, some believe that it lacks the nuance needed to meet the ends it claims to serve, and it has been politicised to such an extent that it has become almost meaningless. 

Defenders of accountability

The ethical dimensions of this phenomenon become clear when we look at the various ways that cancel culture is understood and perceived by different groups of people. Where some people see accountability, others see punishment. 

Defenders of cancel culture, or even those who argue that it doesn’t exist, say that what this culture really promotes is accountability. While there are examples of celebrities being shamed for what might be conceived as a simple faux pas, they say that the intent of most people who engage in this action is for powerful to be held accountable for words and actions that are deemed seriously harmful.  

This usually involves calls to boycott, like the ongoing attempts to boycott J.K. Rowling’s books, movies and derivative games and shows because of her vocal criticism of transgender politics since 2019, or like the many attempts to discourage people from supporting various comedians because of issues ranging from discriminatory sets to sexual misconduct and harassment. 

Those who view cancel culture practices as modes of justice feel that these are legitimate responses to wrongdoings that help to hold people with power accountable and discourage further abuses of power. 

In the case of Louis C.K., it was widely viewed that his sexual misconduct warranted his shunning and removal from upcoming media productions.  

Public figures are not owed unconditional support.

While it’s not clear that this kind of boycotting does anything significant to remove any power from these people (they all usually go on to profit even further from the controversy), it’s difficult to argue that this sort of action is unethical. Public figures are in their positions because of the support of the public and it could be considered a violation of the autonomy we expect as human beings to say that people should not be allowed to withdraw that support when they choose. 

Where this gets sticky, even for supporters of cancel culture, is when people with relatively little power become the targets of mass social pressure. This can lead to employers distancing themselves from the person, sometimes ending in job loss, to protect the organisation’s reputation. This is disproportionately harmful for disadvantaged people who don’t have the power or resources to ignore, fight, or capitalise on the attention.  

This is an even further problem when we consider how it can cause a sense of fear to creep into our everyday relationships. While people in power might be able to shrug off or shield themselves from mass criticism, it’s more difficult for the average person to ignore the effects of closed or uncharitable social climates.  

When people perceive a threat of being ostracised by friends, family or strangers because of one wrong step they begin to censor themselves, which leads to insular bubbles of thoughts and ideas and resistance to learning through discussion. 

Whether this is a significant active concern is still unclear, though there is some evidence that it is an increasing phenomenon.  

Defenders of free speech

Given this, it’s no surprise that the prevailing opposition to cancel culture is framed as a free speech and censorship issue, viewed by detractors as an affront to liberty, constructive debate, social and even scientific progress

Combined with this is a contention that cancelling someone is often a disproportionate punishment and therefore unjust – with people sometimes arguing that punishment wasn’t warranted at all. As we saw earlier, this is particularly a problem when the punishments are directed at disadvantaged, non-public figures, though this position often overstates the effect the punishments have on celebrities and others in significant power. 

A problem with the claim that cancel culture is inherently anti-free speech is that, especially when applied to celebrities, it relies on a misconception that a right to free speech entails a right to speak uncontested or entitlement to be platformed.  

In fact, similar to boycotting people we disagree with, publicly voicing concerns with the intention of putting pressure on public figures is an exercise in free speech itself. 

Accountable free speech

An important way forward for both sides of issue is the recognition that while free speech is important, the limits of it are equally so.  

One way we can do this is by emphasising the difference between bad faith and good faith discussion. As philosopher Dr Tim Dean has said, not all speech can or should be treated equally. Sometimes it is logical and ethical to be intolerant of intolerance, especially the types of intolerance that use obfuscating and bad faith rhetoric, to ensure that free speech maintains the power to seek truth. 

Focusing on whether a discussion is being had in bad faith or good faith can differentiate public and private discourse in a way that protects the much-needed charitability of conversations between friends and acquaintances. 

While this raises questions, like whether public figures should be held to a higher standard, it does seem intuitive and ethical to at least assume the best of our friends and family when having a discussion. We are in the best place to be charitable with our interpretations of their opinions by virtue of our relationships with them, so if we can’t hold space for understanding, respectful disagreement and learning, then who can? 

Another method for easing the pressures that public censures can have on private discourse is by providing and practicing clear ways to publicly forgive. This provides a blueprint for people to understand that while there will be consequences for consistent or shameless moral transgressions, there is also room for mistakes and learning. 


For a deeper dive on Cancel Culture, David Baddiel, Roxane Gay, Andy Mills, Megan Phelps-Roper and Tim Dean present Uncancelled Culture as part of Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2024. Tickets on sale now. 

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