Cancel culture: Why not just have the hard, controversial conversation?

By Hunter McCoy
Staff Writer

TUSCALOOSA – Experts say cancel culture is difficult to define and a better alternative concept would be “community censorship.” 

However, to take it a step further, instead of throwing out the term “cancel culture” every time we disagree with someone, one expert says we should be having the controversial conversation of the topic that is driving someone to be canceled.

Dr. Andrew Bauer, assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at The University of Alabama, says cancel culture resembles another concept – community censorship. That concept, he believes, is a better way to describe the “canceling” that is actually happening.

“Cancel culture has some similarities to the legal concept called ‘community censorship,’ which is censorship not by some kind of official body or organization – it’s more informal,” Bauer says. “It’s peer pressure, people making decisions to support or not support another person.”

However, Bauer’s colleague has a slightly different perspective of the hard-to-define term.

Dr. Jessica Maddox, cancel culture researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at The University of Alabama, says there is no set definition for the term “cancel culture,” rather it is a term that holds people accountable.

“More so than anything, cancel culture has become a buzzword that is increasingly invoked but rarely defined,” she says. “So-called ‘cancel culture’ is really a culture of accountability, which individuals harness grassroots power, often through social media, to hold people in positions of power accountable and demand better.”

Because of the term lacking a set definition, Bauer believes instead of trying to figure out what the term means for everyone, society should just face the controversial topic at play.

He says society would be better off if we stop using cancel culture to avoid the tough conversations that we are all trying to avoid having.

“One thing that would be beneficial would be to rather than using cancel culture, we need to be really specific about what we are mad about,” he says. “I think the term ‘cancel culture’ has muddled the actual critiques and the actual conversations that we should be having about these things – which is where is too far?”

“What sorts of speech puts you in a bad place? What sorts of speech should be allowed? These are the types of questions that would be much better and clarifying to have as opposed to trying to figure out what everybody else means by cancel culture.”

Our society is full of opinionated people, so why do those types of conversations not happen more often?

The reality is that our society is afraid to have the hard conversations that could spark some form of dialogue that consists of conflict, according to Bauer.

“I think we as a society are afraid of conflict and that we have a dream of a society without conflict – a society where everybody agrees with us,” he says. “I think we don’t have those conversations, because it will reveal that we actually have very fundamental differences of opinions in this country around controversial issues. Cancel culture is a way to get around having to engage in the messiness of that.”

Brianna Duncan, a senior majoring in news media at The University of Alabama, says the hard conversations must happen because they provide an opportunity for growth.

“People won’t grow if we continually attack them,” she says. “They will grow if we educate them on why they are being ‘canceled.’”

Maddox has a similar perspective to Bauer and Duncan, in which she believes cancel culture exists so that we as a society can improve.

“Cancel culture does not harm society,” she says. “It pushes society to advance, change, and be better. All cultures change over time and there will always be people who resistant to that change.”

However, one thing that is impacting society is the false labeling of cancel culture.

False labeling has occurred quite a bit in society recently, according to Maddox and Bauer.

“The buzzword nature of ‘cancel culture’ has led to many wielding the term when it is not actually what is happening at all,” Maddox says.

She explains that the recent decision made by the estate of Theodor Geisel (Dr. Suess) to stop publishing particular books was is being labeled as cancel culture. Yet, that is the complete opposite of what happened.

“No one pressured the estate to do this,” Maddox says. “There were no outcries of public opinion. The business made a free-market decision to stop making certain products available. Libraries will still carry these books. Bookstores that have copies of them will still sell them. No one will storm anyone’s house to take them away from individual citizens.”

Bauer says Hasbro, the company that makes Mr. Potato Head made the decision to drop Mr. and Mrs. from the kid’s toy. The decision had nothing to do with public pressure. 

However, instead of having the tough conversation about gender, people began plastering the term “cancel culture” onto the decision, according to Bauer. 

“We just need to talk about the controversial stuff,” he says.