Cancel Culture and the Freedom of Expression

Published with permission by Ralph Scharnau

The term cancel culture or call-out culture denotes a modern form of ostracism where someone is cast out of social or professional circles online, on social media, or in person. The phrase is commonly used in debates on free speech and censorship.

Americans have debated the parameters of free speech from First Amendment protections to political correctness and now cancel culture The internet has intensified these debates and raised concerns about tone and tenor.

In a September 2020 Pew Research Center poll, about 56% of respondents said they were mostly unfamiliar with the phrase cancel culture. The polling data also shows differences based on age, gender, education, and political affiliation.

Roughly two-thirds of adults under age 30 knew about cancel culture compared to 46% of those 30 to 49 and only 34% of those 50 and older. Men were more likely than women to be familiar with the term as were those with bachelor’s or advanced degrees. Political affiliation findings indicate a rather even split among Democrats, Republicans and Independents. But ideological differences within the two major parties reveal that about 60% of liberal Democrats show greater awareness of cancel culture than moderates or conservatives in their own party or among Republicans.

Cancel culture needs to be viewed in the context of the nation’s founding documents and freedom of speech values. Our country continues the ongoing struggles to provide equal opportunities for all people. The history of this republic can indeed be traced in the expanding freedoms for more and more people, women, racial and ethnic minorities, workers, the poor, and LGBTQ people. These folks have mounted movements to demand full participation in society as a human right.

The drive for opportunity and equality has coexisted with persistent efforts to deny or limit freedom and civil rights by race, gender, class, and in other ways. Republicans, led by former president Trump’s incendiary attacks on certain minority groups and segments of the press, have orchestrated a series of voter suppression laws and ordinances in cities and states they control. Examples include putting restrictions on early voting, eliminating same day registration. and shortening polling hours. These measures limit electoral activities among Democrats’ traditional constituencies, blacks, Hispanics, women, organized labor, poor people, and college students.

Yet, the promise of American freedom leaves no one out. The realization of this goal remains an ongoing struggle. All Americans should have the right to pursue their dreams, regardless of their skin color. sexual orientation/identity, and economic status. True American loyalty embraces the ideals of equality, pluralism, and an openness to dissent.
We have to rediscover the power of dialog for bridging divisions, for using peaceful protest to bring about change, and for upholding the ideals of freedom. democracy, and equality to inspire. The struggle against bigotry and intolerance need not—and must not—come at the expense of our foundational freedom of speech.

We live in a diverse, digital, and conflicted society. But we should care about both free speech and equality. While championing free speech, we should also be guardians of open discourse. We need dissenting voices, even ones that are offensive and shocking to others.
Speech must be protected in everyday life, in communities, and on social media. Freedom of expression promotes personal autonomy and tolerance, reduces violence and is a catalyst for progressive change.

Freedom of expression acts as the framework for all other freedoms. It is both a cherished ideal and a contested ideal. Like democracy itself, one that remains forever a work in progress.

Ralph Scharnau
September 29, 2021

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