When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the prolific feminist writer often referred to as the “Unruly literarily daughter of Achebe,” wrote her three-part essay “It’s Obscene,” it was evident that the cancel culture had gotten out of hand. The Nigerian author outlined how the new generation of individuals have weaponized social media and other digital communication technologies to hijack stories and spew narratives that can easily perpetuate falsehoods. Recently, Dave Chapelle, a standup comedian, came to underheat after his infamous “The Closer” Netflix special show was criticized as insensitive to the transgender community. The case of Adichie and Chapelle, though it occurred at different times, shows how public members can weaponize social media against a public figure. These two isolated events make one wonder what the ideal scenario for American society is regarding mutual respect, tolerance, and freedom of expression. Nevertheless, from different incidences, It is evident the cancel culture is toxic, a recipe for chaos, especially when it involves doxing, criminal threats, spewing alternative facts, and driving individuals to suicidality.
The emergence of cancel culture has adversely impacted social tolerance in American society. The cancel culture continues to fuel intolerance, particularly in the social networking sites. The culture encourages those offended by the comments of another party to denounce them online by those who object to the behavior. The technique is a cultural boycott that isolates the offending party by a group with counter views. Looking at the notion from the group thinking perspective, the concept is driven by political correctness, and when taken to extremes, it can result in bullying behavior. When the two literary stars, Adichie and former student, Akwaeke Emezi over a comment she made about “transgender women not having the same experiences as binary women,” this sparked public outrage on social media as Adichie was accused of using her platform to oppress the queer community (Tsioulcas par 2). Using hashtags such as “#AdichieKilledMe,” Emezi with those who share the same views as she attempted to cancel Adichie, something that compelled her to write the three-part essay, “It’s Obscene,” which illuminated the intolerance fueled by the cancel culture. In the essay, she posits: “We have a generation of young people on social media so terrified of having the wrong opinions that they have robbed themselves of the opportunity to think and to learn and to grow,” she adds. “I have spoken to young people who tell me they are terrified to tweet anything, that they read and re-read their tweets because they fear they will be attacked by their own.” This shows just how intolerant the cancel culture has made many social media users.
Additionally, the cancel culture infringes on individuals’ freedom of expression. In the current progressive “cancel culture,” a society characterized by right-wing politicians and commentators have silenced alternative perspectives and ostracized those who share different opinion eviscerating intellectual debates on the impact of cancel culture on the freedom of expression. From the theoretical lenses of spiral silence proposed by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1984) and the congruence theory, group perceptions influence the communication process and sentiments of being able to express personal opinions confidently or being hesitant to speak up (Norris 8). People’s perceptions of other people’s perspectives, particularly on moral issues where the balance of opinion within groups is strongly divided, influence their readiness to share their views. Those who hold what are considered minority views may be hesitant to express their attitudes and opinions freely in public conversation for fear of breaching group standards and risking social isolation.
The infringement of freedom of expression extends to the field of academia, where scholars and researchers have often been silenced from publishing or articulating views that contradict the popular narrative. According to Norris in his article “closed minds,” the author argues that the movement has gone too far, particularly in the educational sector, as it threatens the classical liberal values at the core of academic excellence. For example, according to John Stuart Mill, liberalism promotes non-conformity and freedom of expression, including the voicing of deeply unpopular and contrarian views. According to studies, we can only become conscious of our values and beliefs through confronting dogma and common wisdom. Mill championed a variety of difficult causes in his writings, from the Fenians organizing an insurgency against British control in Ireland to the women’s suffrage campaign advocating for women’s voting rights. Conservative views have been muted in recent years, posing a serious challenge to liberal hegemony in many cultural spheres, particularly academia. Academic intolerance and self-censorship are created by increasing social pressure for ideological conformity, promoting intellectual exclusion, group-thinking bubbles, and “Us V. Them” political rhetoric. According to Lukianoff and Haidt result is a rush to collective judgment and a new climate of censorship by the “mob,” which magnifies even slight judgmental breaches, something researchers have described as coddling the American brain and setting a generation of individuals up for failure (43).
Additionally, the emergence of the cancel culture has helped promote bullying. Mostly, the victim of the act of bullying is the person who shares contrary views or opinions. The victims of cancel culture, such as prolific writer J.K Rowling, former senator Al Franken, and comedian Louis C.K can only be victims of intense bullying when the phenomenon is looked at from the victim-perpetrator dyad. These individuals’ identities and being were dragged in the mud and tainted by the villains. This view extends to the case of Adichie, where she was accused of “Killing transgender women” by stating in an interview that transgender women do not have the same experiences as binary heterosexual women. Using different hashtags and even writing to the faculty where she works, her bullies left no stone untouched in attacking her intellect and even making efforts to affect her livelihood. Just the same as bullies, the perpetrators of cancel culture will always attack the victims’ most vulnerable aspects. The iconic pop star Demi Lovato, who openly admitted struggling with addiction, was labeled a “Junkie” “crackhead” for making comments on the arrest of 21 Savage. Such labels on someone and call out can drive one to depression and other adverse mental health issues.
Nonetheless, the cancel culture has also helped in enforcing accountability. The strategy has been justified in realizing social justice by victims who have not been able to obtain legal redress or public apology. In the prolific case of Robert Kelly, the RnB hit song singer “I believe I can fly,” the cancel culture dubbed under the hashtag #MeToo yielded when the celebrity was earlier this year charged with sex trafficking and racketeering after almost three decades (Leung and Williams 351). Black Lives Matter was founded on the cancel culture and has often been willing to call out racist organizations and politicians. This is well illustrated by the case of Starbucks, where two black men were arrested for just sitting in the store (Avila et al. ). Through such callouts and other attacks targeted at the powerful people in the society, the current society has managed to achieve and realize sanity in the dynamic and ever-changing society. Nevertheless, it is important to note that while these approaches are effective, they might infringe on the victim’s rights of the backlash, especially when these victims are falsely accused of the supposed infraction.
In summation, the cancel culture is toxic and unacceptable in any society that wants to grow. The practice helps promote self-censorship on people with contradictory views. Moreover, it can be used to spew lies that can adversely impact the supposed victim’s image and even their livelihood. Besides, the approach has been termed to be silencing individuals’ contrary views and opinions on various issues, including politics and gender orientation. Furthermore, as demonstrated by liberal scholars, questioning the dogma has always been the surest way for a society to grow and develop. This is, however, no longer the case as alternative voices are silenced and even coddled off by the majority views, thus advancing conformism. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge the fact that cancel culture has been effective in numerous chases where powerful people have been held accountable, for instance, the famous case of Robert Kelly.
Avila, Monica, et al. “$16.7 Million To Save One Reputation: How Starbucks Responded Amidst a Racial Sensitivity Crisis.” Pepperdine Journal of Communication Research, vol. 7, no. 1, 2019, p. 4.
Leung, Rebecca, and Robert Williams. “# MeToo and Intersectionality: An Examination of The# MeToo Movement through the R. Kelly Scandal.” Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 43, no. 4, SAGE Publications Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA, 2019, pp. 349–71.
Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure. Penguin Books, 2019.
Norris, Pippa. “Cancel Culture: Myth or Reality?” Political Studies, SAGE Publications Sage UK: London, England, 2021, p. 00323217211037023.
—. Closed Minds? Is a ‘Cancel Culture’ Stifling Academic Freedom and Intellectual Debate in Political Science? SSRN Scholarly Paper, ID 3671026, Social Science Research Network, 3 Aug. 2020. papers.ssrn.com, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3671026.
Tsioulcas, Anastasia. “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Directs Fiery Essay At Former Student — And Cancel Culture.” NPR, 17 June 2021. NPR, https://www.npr.org/2021/06/17/1007350665/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-directs-fiery-essay-at-former-student-and-cancel-cultur.