Over the last decade a term has entered the popular vocabulary, cancel culture. As political polarization and identity politics have reached a fever pitch, more and more speakers have been uninvited from colleges campuses, seminaries and public forums when stakeholders protest their presence because they find the speaker’s ideas incompatible with their own. Often times this form of cancel culture is defended as a means of protecting marginalized groups from hearing ideas that may challenge their existence or their understandings of themselves. Another reason for canceling opposing ideas is if a person within a particular group begins to challenge concepts that help to construct the identity of that group. Today, it is truly and equal opportunity activity. The practice of canceling dissenting voices is practiced by the religious, social and political, left and right.
On social media cancel culture is practiced daily when users cancel each other because of positions taken on various platforms. In this atmosphere, canceling is quite easy. Users can defriend others, stop following twitter and Instagram feeds. For the more energetic, canceling a dissenting voice can be done by trolling the person who promotes it or by publically shaming those who hold to certain views until they lose their influence or even their livelihoods. Canceling someone has become an easy way to virtue signal for the flavors of the day. We have now entered a phase where social media companies will cancel certain people for posting beliefs that the company does not approve of.
After the storming of the Capitol on January 6th new debates have raged over how much free speech people should have on social media. Questions such as, should people be allowed to post conspiracy theories online or antivax videos or videos about Covid 19 being a hoax? Debates such as these harken back to the conversations we used to have concerning free speech before the internet about a person being allowed to yell fire in a crowded movie theater. So Americans have always wrestled with how much free speech is good for the republic. No two presidents clamped down on free speech more than Lincoln and Wilson during war time. But recently, cancel culture has had more to do with ideas being canceled because others disagree with them, that is something that has reemerged in American society.
It is not new for people to tune out dissenting voices or for people to violently attempt to silence voices that they do not agree with, it’s just easier now, more complex and dangerous in light of the technology we use to communicate. During the Reformation, the English authorities attempted to cancel William Tyndale’s voice by trying to prevent him from smuggling English language Bibles into the country. Eventually he lost his life for his message. In 1837 Abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy was murdered by a proslavery mob as he attempted to protect his printing press. Around the same time the U.S. Congress enacted the Gag Act which prevented the topic of slavery from being discussed in Congress. What all of these cancelations have in common is the medium Tyndale, Lovejoy and Abolitionists used, paper. Because they used this medium it was much harder to cancel them and people who wanted to seek out their ideas could do so even if it was technically illegal. We can still read writings from these people today. Anachronistically, had Tyndale, Lovejoy and the abolitionists used online tools to get their messages out it would have been much easier to cancel them. This is because whoever controls the servers where information is stored has the ability to merely turn off the servers. I run this risk of having this message canceled since it is being posted on a server I do not own.
The reason Cancel Culture is more dangerous today is due to the medium most people are using to communicate in the public square, social media. Social media is owned and operated by private companies who can choose what can and what not can be posted on their servers. But the internet and social media have helped to change how people form communities. People are far less involved in fraternal groups, PTA’s and Churches where historically, humans have had to negotiated their beliefs. But now we can construct a pseudo community of likeminded people online. In addition, the algorithms of social media encourage that. Therefore, if social media companies can control what messages get through to people they have a great deal of power. Social media companies have more power to cancel messages than any other institution in the country right now. Since social media operates like this we need the truly public spaces like college campuses, seminaries, libraries etc. more than ever to have an exchange of ideas and to have people who according to algorithms would never be in the same chat room, physically sit next each other in actual rooms.
The American republic was founded on the idea that there would a space in the public square for an exchange of ideas. These exchanges were to impact the decisions made by elected officials. If the public square is controlled by monopolies like the news media used to be, the republic suffers and one must wonder how long the republic can last in that atmosphere.
There is a lot more that can be said about social media serving as the public square but since this is a blog entry and people have a limited attention span online, I will end here. But there is more to come on the dangers of cancel culture and the ill effects when we only consume social media to negotiate life in the city of man.