What counts as cancel culture?

March 17, 2022

~ 6 minutes read

The term “cancel culture” was a mere blip on the radar before 2018. But since then, the concept has forcefully entered the mainstream and its use is almost considered trite.

Generally defined, cancel culture is a public expression of disapproval for a specific point of view that is perceived as harmful or offensive, that leads to content removal, a person’s suspension from a platform, or a person’s exclusion from professional or social circles. 

The bottom line: We are more likely to label a reaction as cancel culture when the targeted speech or actions reflect our values, but are more accepting of consequences for speech or actions that agitate our worldview.

Below, we present two hypothetical instances of cancel culture — rooted in real-life examples — along with example reactions. This exercise isn’t meant to change your mind on cancel culture or the issues raised, but to foster clarity around why we disagree. Your view may differ.

What does cancel culture look like?

Although we generally define cancel culture in a similar way, the left and right often disagree about when it’s okay to censor specific ideas through widespread social shaming or concrete consequences. People on the left are also more likely to perceive cancel culture as a way to “hold people accountable,” while people on the right more often see it as a way to “punish people.”

Both sides generally agree that a wide variety of opinions and perspectives is beneficial. But when we look at concrete situations with real people and real consequences, our tolerances often change.

Let’s look at a couple of scenarios to illustrate how the left and right may react to the idea of cancel culture and offense.

Scenario 1

A speaker has been invited to hold a guest lecture on a college campus. Shortly before the event, controversial comments from the speaker surface online. Some people perceive the comments as racist, and a group of students file a petition to cancel the event and plan a protest to block the event if it moves forward.

To people on the left, bigoted comments have no place in society and people expressing those views should not be permitted to speak on campus because it creates a hostile environment for minority groups.

Temporarily setting aside your own views about this example, if the left’s assumptions are true and the comments harm people of color by normalizing racism, is it reasonable to cancel the lecture?

To people on the right, the left is incorrectly labeling conservative speech as hostile and racist because it doesn’t conform to their worldview. Instead of canceling events by controversial speakers, they should counter ideas they reject with better ideas. 

Temporarily setting aside your own views about this example, if the right’s assumptions are true and open debate is the best way to counter controversial ideas, is it reasonable to allow the lecture to take place?

Scenario 2

During a school board meeting, a group of parents voice concern about some of the books their children read at school because they include content the parents perceive as inappropriate for children. The parents file a motion to remove the books from the curriculum.

To people on the left, allowing children to read books from diverse perspectives will help them better understand the world and prepare them to become active and informed citizens.

Temporarily setting aside your own views on this issue, if the left’s assumptions are true and exposure to a variety of perspectives leads to a more informed citizenry, is it reasonable to keep the books in circulation?

To people on the right, these books include sexual, gender identity, and LGBTQ content that is inappropriate for children and harmful to their natural development.  

Temporarily setting aside your own views on this issue, if the right’s assumptions are true and the books’ sexualizing content harms children’s development, is it reasonable to remove them from schools?

In these scenarios, each side perceives content and speech differently based on their distinct values, while also wanting to give space for a wide variety of voices and protect people from harm. But because people on the left and right enter these specific conversations with distinct values and worldviews, they reach different conclusions.


Our tendency to support ideas that align with our values and censor ideas that don’t stems from how our brains process new data. Recognizing how our values and worldviews impact our perspective on instances of cancel culture can help us notice when we automatically dismiss new information when it doesn’t fit with what we already believe (or when we accept information just because it feels right). So when we see someone or something getting canceled online, our brains are primed to react strongly.

Our brains also instinctively hold onto the first set of “facts” that align with our values, even if new information emerges. As such, we develop an internally valid, yet limited and incomplete narrative of what happened — which we then amplify on social media. Limited and incomplete narratives are nothing new, but the ability for everyday people to rapidly share them on social media is. 

Cancel culture is a result of social media’s empowerment of everyday people to sanction speech and dole out judgment. This decentralization of power isn’t necessarily a bad development, but because we have different values and worldviews, we often arrive at very different conclusions about what speech should result in real-life consequences.  

This difference isn’t a bad thing. Tolerating worldviews that are different from our own doesn’t mean we can’t believe certain ideas are false or hateful. But it does require mindful consideration of whether a worldview is truly dangerous, or if we merely disagree with it.


To further reflect on our individual role in cancel culture and censorship mechanisms, consider the following questions:

  • Do I want to live in a world where disagreement is permissible? 
  • What type of disagreement should not be permissible? 
  • Should disagreement about what is permissible be permissible?
  • What is my responsibility as one voice in a larger, more powerful crowd?

Further reading

The Narratives Project has also written about cancel culture in relation to Whoopi Goldberg, Joe Rogan, Dave Chappelle, and the University of Austin.

What do you think? Do you agree with one side, or do you fall somewhere in between? Give us feedback on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook, or by emailing info@narrativesproject.com.