culture/society // The Deep

Cancel Culture. You’ve probably heard of it. A quick Google search reveals thousands of articles on it. Depending on who you ask, people will tell you it’s either a positive or negative phenomenon; will disagree about what its goals are; and will give you very different opinions about the effect Cancel Culture might ultimately have on the way we communicate — or don't communicate — as a society. 

Given its importance to the current social and political climate (it was a central component of Donald Trump’s reelection campaign), we decided to ask 1,000 Americans their opinions about Cancel Culture.

Our goal: to find out what people really think about “canceling” those they strongly disagree with (or whose views they see as morally or ethically compromised). 

For the purposes of uniformity and clarity here,  we defined Cancel Culture as:

Cancel Culture, often interchanged with “call out culture”, is the act of boycotting and publicly shaming the individual, organization, or company in question. Cancel Culture is a modern form of ostracism in which the subject is deemed to have acted or spoken in a controversial manner. In turn, they are “cancelled” and thrust out of social or professional circles online and/or in the real world.

The responses we received revealed that people’s feelings about Cancel Culture are very strong, and that people are as divided about Cancel Culture as they are on many of the most controversial political issues of our day (you’re shocked, we’re sure!). 

Our questions asked people to consider: 

 What the true intent of Cancel Culture is, and whether its intent mirrors its real-world application;

• Whether Cancel Culture is an effective means of enacting the change that its proponents claim to want;

• Whether Cancel Culture and free speech are antithetical;

• Whether Cancel Culture is fundamentally changing the way we communicate in the present, and whether those changes will become more glaring over time.

There is no shortage of worthwhile discussion points when it comes to Cancel Culture. Just Google “2020 Presidential Elections” and “Cancel Culture” and you’ll find Cancel Culture’s effects on free speech and censorship are hotly debated.  

However, we are releasing this  2020 Cancel Culture Report with the aim of bringing you unfettered views from Americans across the political spectrum about the origins, merits, and dangers of Cancel Culture. We’ve also added a few of our own insights along the way.


Deep Dive #1: Accountability

One of the themes that comes up when diving deep into Cancel Culture is accountability. On this note, we wanted to know:

• How do we hold people accountable for their behavior, and who is responsible for deciding which behavior is immoral if the behavior is not illegal? Those who espouse the merits of Cancel Culture believe that they have a moral responsibility to hold others accountable for behavior they personally deem as immoral.  

• Are Cancelers justified in the way that they mete out accountability to those they disagree with? Some say yes, while others vehemently disagree with their methods and motives.

• Who will ultimately be accountable for the intended and unintended consequences of Cancel Culture itself? While the targets of Cancel Culture are undoubtedly held responsible, is there any accountability for those doing the canceling, particularly when they get it wrong?

• And where does accountability for one’s actions, often in the form of a public apology, open the door for redemption? How do we decide who should be canceled permanently, vs. who should receive a slap on the wrist and a swift return to society’s good graces?

    Comedian Ricky Gervais has joked about how social media in particular lends itself to outrage. Those targeted by the social media mob may be asked to take accountability for slights that have been greatly exaggerated. 

    “Social media amplifies everything. If you’re mildly left wing on Twitter you’re suddenly Trotsky,” Gervais said. “If you’re mildly conservative you’re Hitler, and if you’re centrist and you look at both arguments, you’re a coward and they both hate you.” 

    What Our Survey Found

    Respondents were divided when it came to cancel culture and accountability.

    When asked “Is Cancel Culture an effective means to hold businesses and individuals accountable for their actions?”, nearly half (48%) of all respondents said ‘yes’. Just under a third of respondents (31.4%) said ‘no’, while the remainder did not have a definitive opinion.

    Is Cancel Culture an effective means to hold businesses and individuals accountable for their actions?

    Just under half (48%) of respondents said that it was “acceptable to cancel or publicly shame” someone if that person “is seriously harming other people.”  

    An additional 44.7% of respondents said it was acceptable to cancel or publicly shame someone whose behavior was “wrong” or “immoral.” The percentage of respondents who endorsed canceling people for wrong/immoral behavior was greater than the percentage of respondents who opposed it (39%). 

    If you genuinely believe that someone else's behavior is wrong/immoral, is it acceptable to "cancel" or publicly shame them?

    Our Takeaway

    The fact that nearly half of all survey respondents felt Canceling is a morally acceptable means of responding to other people's bad behavior has us wondering: What does “holding someone accountable” mean within the context of Cancel Culture?

    Is the goal to extract an apology (and is an apology made under pressure genuine enough?) ... or is the goal to punish the target? If it's the latter, is punishment meted out for the purpose of learning and redemption, or is the punishment meted out to permanently "mark" the target as bad/wrong? For example, if Canceling someone permanently destroys their career or reputation ... is that right? Is that fair? 

    While there is obvious support for using Cancel Culture to hold individuals accountable for bad behavior, this area clearly requires greater exploration. 

    Former President Barack Obama, for example, believes there is a lack of nuance and empathy within Cancel Culture:

    “The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws,” Obama said. “There is this sense sometimes of, ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people...Like if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself. ‘Cause, ‘Man, you see how woke I was? I called you out.'"


    Deep Dive #2: Freedom of Speech

    The second issue we decided to explore was freedom of speech. The question of free speech is right at the heart of Cancel Culture: If someone can be “cancelled” because of the things they say, how are we supposed to say what we really think/feel? And if a group of people is successful in silencing speech that is legally allowed, is that a violation of our first amendment? 

    To put the question simply: is Cancel Culture directly opposed to freedom of speech, either in theory or in practice? 

    [A side note: It is important to understand from a legal perspective what is allowed under the First Amendment and what is not. Speech that is illegal is speech that leads directly to physical harm against someone else, and typically includes an immediate and specific threat of physical violence. However, many forms of reprehensible speech (e.g., neo-Nazi propaganda) is legally allowed because, although abhorrent, it does not constitute an immediate and specific threat of bodily harm against another person.]

    Take, for example, the case of comedian Jessica Moore. Online cancellers badgered Moore into issuing an apology for a joke she made. Their argument: Moore's characterization of Sikhs perpetuated harmful attitudes toward this specific group of people. Although Moore's comments were made in jest, her Cancelers argued that her characterization of Sikhs was truly dangerous and therefore did not deserve the normal protections of free speech. 

    So can a joke (or a serious comment made in poor taste) actually put people in danger? And how dangerous does a comment have to be to merit punishment?

    We wanted to find out how Americans feel about the intersection of free speech and Cancel Culture, so we asked them to weigh in. 

    What Our Survey Found

    Given that nearly half of all respondents said it was acceptable to cancel someone if their behavior is wrong or immoral, you might be surprised to learn that nearly the same percentage (46.9%) said that Cancel Culture inhibits freedom of speech. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said that it does not inhibit free speech, while 15.4% were not sure.

    Does Cancel Culture inhibit freedom of speech?

    Respondents were even more sharply divided in their opinion of whether hateful speech should be protected. Just under 44% of respondents said that freedom of speech should include the freedom to speak in a way that may be offensive or even hateful. Almost the exact same percentage of people (42.8%) said that offensive or hateful speech should not be protected by the First Amendment.

    Should our right to free speech allow for speech that might be offensive (including hate speech)?

    Our findings show that people are almost evenly split between those who believe that hateful speech should be protected and those who believe that hateful speech should be illegal.

    Our Takeaway 

    There are arguments to be made both for and against hate speech being illegal, and according to our results Americans are nearly evenly split on whether it should be illegal.

    For those who believe hate speech should be illegal, we would pose the following questions: 

    • If we are going to impose more limits on speech that “incites harm," how should we define harm? 
    • The courts currently prohibit free speech that is an immediate and real threat of physical harm to another person. But should we also ban less immediate threats to people’s physical safety? Should we include emotional or psychological harm? And if so, how do we legally define what is hateful and threatening vs. hateful but not threatening? 
    • Most importantly: Who gets to define what is considered too hateful, offensive or threatening? Does opening the door to some censorship open the door to censorship that ultimately could be harmful to our society?

    And to those who argue that hateful speech should be protected under First Amendment rights:

    • Is it possible for hateful speech to become so popular that it becomes threatening? And if hateful speech becomes overwhelmingly popular, does its popularity make it inherently threatening? For example, let's say that .0001% of the population identifies as neo-Nazis and would like to see all Jews deported from the U.S. immediately. This view is abhorrent, but probably not an imminent physical threat. But what if 10% of the population says the same thing? Or 50%? 

    It's a slippery slope indeed.


    Deep Dive #3: Open Exchange of Ideas

    In 2020, thought-leaders around the world (including Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem, Salman Rushdie and more) signed a collective letter, published in Harper’s Magazine, warning that Cancel Culture represents a serious and immediate  threat to the open exchange of ideas. "The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” it stated.

    So does Cancel Culture restrict the free exchange of ideas and inhibit civil discourse? Does it silence individuals whose views are provocative or unpopular?  Perhaps more importantly, does it prevent people from speaking up about their true opinions for fear of being cancelled? 


    What Our Survey Found

    Of the 1,000 Americans we polled, respondents were (you guessed it!) at odds when it comes to Cancel Culture’s effect on the free exchange of ideas. 

    The largest share of respondents (43.7%) said that Cancel Culture inhibits the honest and open exchange of ideas. Still, just over a third of respondents (35.2%) said that Cancel Culture does actually facilitate the exchange of ideas.

    Does Cancel Culture facilitate the honest/open exchange of ideas?

    According to the people we surveyed, social media plays a large role in Cancel Culture. About 60% of respondents said they do not believe Cancel Culture would exist without social media. In contrast, just over 25% of respondents believe that Cancel Culture would exist independent of platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

    Without social media, do you think Cancel Culture would exist?


    Our Takeaway

    In this survey (and in the less formal polls and questions we've posed on our Instagram account), we heard from people whose views on Cancel Culture ranged from extremely negative to extremely positive.

    Some people feel that, while it can be harsh, Cancel Culture is also a quick and effective way of creating progress because it allows people to call attention to behavior that is immoral, unacceptable or misguided. People on this side of the debate feel that Cancel Culture is helpful because it forces people to think twice about what they say or do; in other words, it almost forces empathy and perspective-taking.

    Other people feel that Cancel Culture is the modern form of a "witch-hunt" ... that it's a way of trolling people, rather than engaging in the more difficult and important work of debate, civil discourse, logical reasoning and persuasion. People on this side of the debate see Cancel Culture as immature, self-righteous and often unnecessarily punitive of its targets.

    So where do we stand? We believe that, as a society, we must behave in a way that facilitates constructive, open-minded dialogue between people with different views and beliefs. Our ability to engage in civil discourse is one of the rare and precious gifts afforded to us by our democracy. Refusing to engage in civil discourse is dangerous not only on an interpersonal level, but on a societal level. 



    Where Do We Go From Here?

    Our survey shows that our country is divided not only with regard to the content of our beliefs, but also with regard to the kind of behavior we think is acceptable when we disagree with each other. Notably, this divide is not a matter of age, race, gender, location, etc.

    Our data indicates that people's views on Cancel Culture may reflect a fundamental rift (or possibly a fundamental shift?) in how we believe we should communicate as Americans. 

    So where are we supposed to go from here? How are we supposed to speak to each other about difficult topics if we can't even agree on how to speak to each other? How are we supposed to engage with people whose views or behaviors offend us? And how are we supposed to speak freely if we're worried about being cancelled or punished for our honesty? 

    At The Deep, we believe it's time for a new form of communication. Our content is designed to spark the kind of fun, deep and surprisingly meaningful conversation that helps people from all walks of life see the humanity in each other — even when they fundamentally disagree with one another.

    While we offer 99% of our content for free (through our Instagram and our email newsletters), we've also released of a new card game that brings these deeper conversations into people's homes (and helps individuals sidestep the "usual" conversations they have, whether that's small talk, gossip or partisan bickering). With questions designed to get you thinking, wondering, and talking in a new way to the people in your life, our hope is that The Deep will change the way you look at the world and engage with the people around you.

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