Lessons From the Cancel Culture Era: Is It ‘Shifting the Discomfort’ or ‘A New Kind of Censorship’?

Our four-part series highlighted the complexities of living in a time when social media has intensified the speed and virulence of public censure

Cancel culture (or call-out culture) is a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles — either online on social media, in the physical world, or both. –Wikipedia

After four weeks of listening intently to experts across journalism, film culture, comedy and public relations about the limits and liabilities of cancel culture, I have conflicting emotions. 

I have a bias here. I don’t like cancel culture, and I fear its consequences. I don’t like mobs, anywhere. I despise groupthink. I worry about the self-anointed arbiters of right and wrong passing judgment via Twitter that has consequences in quiet, cowardly corporate suites. 

I worry about permanently damaging our public discourse. About writers self-censoring and journalists pulling their punches. I worry about a society that retreats from truth. Because a society that does so jeopardizes its status as a democracy.  

My First Amendment baseline before embarking on this series was simple: If you don’t like my opinion, make a better argument. Don’t call for my firing. Or my death. 

But I know many people feel otherwise. Meaning, where I see danger, they see progress. And in the interest of fully understanding all aspects of the issue, we at TheWrap decided not to offer an opinion but a platform — a forum for all sides of this conversation. Hence the title “Conversations on Cancel Culture.” 

In the course of these conversations, I learned that for some people — like HuffPost editor Danielle Belton — cancel culture, or “consequence culture,” which is what some prefer to call it, is a welcome corrective to decades if not centuries of a singular perspective: that of the white (mostly male) power structure. And, she said, if this wave of correction occasionally goes too far — deal with it. 

“If you feel you are being unfairly besieged, where you’re being railroaded by people who don’t like your opinion, you have to decide if you’re going to weather the storm or stand up to that,” Belton said. “Or succumb to the masses, even if it’s something you don’t actually believe in. You really have to decide where you’re going to stand your ground.”

The reason Belton speaks as if a Twitter mob doesn’t hurt, is because she’s been the target of racist pushback since she began her career as a journalist. And she learned to stand her ground and let those insults come, while she continued her work. 

Belton is not the only person in our series who expressed a deep understanding of this new wave of progressive orthodoxy, insisting that the current discomfort of some is merely a turning of the tables on those who usually caused discomfort to others. 

“We’re shifting the discomfort,” said Nell Scovell, the veteran comedy writer, director and author who created the TV show “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” “For centuries women and people of color have sucked up all the discomfort of the situations we were put into.” 

She went on: “What’s different now is — who is getting canceled? Hollywood is a place where if you call someone out for bad behavior — you’re the asshole. As someone sexually assaulted by a head writer, I love that we’re at the point where people are speaking out.”

Yeah, it’s been that kind of candor, with someone fairly famous casually dropping their sexual assault into the conversation. (And that was after Scovell repeated a pretty good rape joke.)

At the same time, there was plenty of input from people suffering the consequences of their work or their public standing in being canceled, from their point of view. Daryl Cagle runs a cartoon syndicate that sells editorial cartoons to half of the nation’s newspapers, powered by about 70 cartoonists. One after another, he has watched opinion page editors retreat from publishing the strong views of Cagle’s cartoonists — starting in the age of President Donald Trump through to the present. 

“We’ve noticed editors becoming more and more timid, and rejecting printing cartoons that express opinions,” he said. “It’s very disturbing to our cartoonists. The ones they care most about are the least reprinted. It’s a frustrating time to be a cartoonist.” Instead of publishing a cartoon that comments on Trump, he said, opinion page editors would pick a toothless commentary on parents at the park with their kids. 

Cagle himself gets constant complaints from readers. “They come to me because I’m perceived to be the guy who can fire a cartoonist. They want an apology. And they want the cartoon to be removed,” he said. 

Gerard Biard is the editor of the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, where an Islamic terrorist slaughtered 12 journalists in 2015 after the paper published cartoons of the prophet Mohammad. 

He too has seen the effects of ongoing cancel culture in France: “There is a general fear of what to say, what to think, what to publish,” he said. “Everyone one is afraid of that. For me, it’s a kind of censorship that doesn’t speak its name. An individual, or a group of individuals, often militants, who act in the name of anti-racism, anti-sexism, that is perfectly defensible, but are very radical, and (they) organize with an arm that is very new for journalists: social networks. That gives a distorted view of general opinion.”

We also explored an entirely different aspect of cancel culture — the complexities that arise in this environment around film, both past work as well as new releases. Our panel of film critics entertained a progressively more difficult series of challenges about how to treat films with racist themes, like “Birth of a Nation,” or that gloss over slavery, like “Gone With the Wind.”

Moderator Stephen Galloway, the dean of Chapman University’s Film School, also asked a group of film critics what to do with films by Woody Allen, accused by his daughter of sexual molestation, and Roman Polanski, who has admitted to the sexual assault of a teenager decades ago. 

Some of the critics made clear that they are really struggling with this issue. “There are films I have loved in my past that I can’t see with the same eyes,” Alonso Duralde, TheWrap’s chief film critic, said.

The Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday questioned herself about watching Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” starring then-teenager Mariel Hemingway. “I accepted this relationship as cool for her — she attracted this smart, funny (man)… “ she ruminated. “In intervening years, the lens has changed. But I still watch it. And I still value it for the things it does beautifully. And I sit in discomfort in the things that are uncomfortable.”

A generational issue arose as well. Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips was tripped up showing the Cary Grant classic “Only Angels Have Wings” to his university film class: What students saw was the “white colonial racism of the premise — white Americans swanning around in fake studio-South America dealing with white people problems. All of which I kind of adore.”

But what I most appreciated was the thoughtfulness of the speakers in this series, the nuance each person brought to the subject at hand. In our last panel, we discussed rehabilitation, and how we all need to be mindful of creating a path to forgiveness. 

In fact, this topic arose in many of the other panels as well — comedians and others considered how to treat material did their colleagues did on the stand-up tour years ago, that today feels cringeworthy. 

Many voices in this series referred to the “Twitter mob,” as indeed that is how it feels to those who are under attack, often by faceless strangers, and often for supposed misdeeds that are too vaguely articulated, or little understood. Actually, we talked much more about the individuals in this “mob,” rather than considering what responsibility the tech platforms themselves have in creating this ugly dynamic. 

“We should be the pulse of what’s happening in society,” comedian Suni Reyes said. “We filter what’s happening in society. We should be able to evolve. We should be given that chance.” 

And several people also discussed the idea of grace. Offering it to others, and to oneself.  

I’ll give the last, elegant word to Professor Joan Ball, who teaches marketing at St. John’s University. “What’s on my mind is that these conversations focus on what to do when you’re canceled,” she said. “We don’t talk enough about the canceling behavior itself. We talk about the Twitter mob as if it isn’t us. But it is us. 

“I’ve been having that conversation with my students: How are you communicating? How do we operate as a citizen in social? … I don’t think we think about it. There’s work to be done there … How do we treat one another? Can we be more gracious human beings on the internet?”

Readers are invited to join a discussion about the final panel in the series, “Coming Back From Cancel Culture,” at 4 p.m. PST on Friday June 18, on Clubhouse.

You can watch all of the “Conversations on Cancel Culture” panels below:


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