The Significance in Diminishing Shame Culture: An Analysis on Cancel Culture

Nadia Jahanbin

Irvine Valley College

Cancel culture or call-out culture refers to the practice of ostracizing someone who has posted, said, or committed a transgression perceived as problematic intended to be a form of punishment; once ostracized that person is known to be ‘canceled’. Social media has fostered a hostile environment in which cancel culture thrives because each user has given themselves the jurisdiction to determine someone’s reputation. The most significant issue with cancel culture is that it reduces one’s character to one defining moment or mistake. Due to this severe judgement, cancel culture leads to tarnished reputations, decreasing mental health, and encourages self-censorship. Cancel culture is primarily perpetuated by psychological components that satisfy innate desires many people have to feel morally superior over their peers and conform to majority opinion. As a result, cancelling someone as a form of punishment is a long-standing practice, only it was known as public shaming. The resurgence of public shaming is greatly due to the increasing use of social media, which provides a platform for more people to both speak out against perceived wrongs, as well as participate in shaming the people who commit those transgressions. While cancel culture has provided a platform for marginalized groups whose voices have been historically suppressed to call out problematic people and behavior, the fear of enduring ridicule has encouraged self-censorship more than it has encouraged freedom of expression. Plausible solutions for decreasing the intensity of cancel culture would involve individual alterations in behavior such as enforcing radical honesty in order to contribute to an overall cultural shift in diminishing shame culture overall.

1. Reducing one’s character to one fatal moment: Why Cancel Culture is an issue

In January 2012, author Jon Ronson recognized a second Twitter account impersonating him began posting an array of random and inappropriate tweets. Determined to maintain the integrity of his character, Jonson decided to reach out to the account personally. The account was unapologetic of their “infomorph” status, claiming it was not stealing Ronson’s identity, but rather repurposing online media data into an infographic aesthetic. After a few months, and the account’s increase in followers, Ronson asked to meet with the content creators behind the account and posted an interview he had with them on Youtube. After a short few minutes, Ronson felt pleasantly surprised with the amount of supportive comments that both empathized with his concern, and shared his frustration; however, as the video gained popularity, Ronson also noticed several comments that greatly insulted, and even wished death upon, the individuals behind the account. Within days of Ronson’s video upload, those running the infomorph account took it down (Ronson). While there was an initial sense of satisfaction for Ronson when he discovered how social media and pressure can influence someone’s decisions, or alter the course of their life, he also recognized the influence social media had in causing the account holders to become increasingly vulnerable to threats and diminishing their character to their peers. What Jon Ronson had failed to realize in the moment, was that he was actively participating in “cancel culture” and initiating public shaming online. Cancel culture is the use of social media in order to publicly shame another individual for a perceived wrong, typically as a way to express disapproval or exert social pressure (Wong). In Ronson’s case, exposing the individuals impersonating him compelled them to take down the account despite their initial uncooperative stance. But what can determine the motivation for this change of heart? Was it the realization of their faults, or rather a result of succumbing to societal pressure in the presence of death threats and various insults? While cancel culture and the weaponization of public shaming has proved successful in deterring some inappropriate behavior, ultimately it has more consequences than it does benefits. Cancel culture can encourage harassment as well as self-censorship, therefore it is unlikely that cancel culture is effective in providing long term solutions and change for controversial behavior online.

As the development of social media continuously grows to become a primary source of communication, connection, and a newsfeed for many, it subjects a greater audience to becoming involved in the pandemic that is cancel culture. Pew Research Center has recorded that in 2020, 44% of Americans had claimed to have heard a great amount of the term ‘cancel culture’ and topics correlating with the term. That number has since increased to 61% in June of 2022. The term is most commonly recognized amongst college graduates from the ages of 18-29. Because of the increasing awareness around cancel culture, it has gained a following in both the acknowledgement of its existence as well as active participants within said culture (either as perpetrators or bystanders of it). These active participants are known as “social justice warriors”, a now derogatory term meant to describe individuals who aggressively promote socially progressive views (Herbst). Often these social justice warriors achieve their goals through non-constructive means, such as utilizing harassment or public shaming rather than attempting to provide constructive criticism or initiate important conversations encompassing the deemed controversial behavior being exhibited. These methods beg the question of whether this is an appropriate or productive use of online media afterall.

[see pdf for figure]

Extracted from Pew Research Center. The graph above illustrates the percentage of U.S adults who admit or claim to be familiar with the term ‘cancel culture’. This exemplifies the wide audience that may consciously or subconsciously participate in cancel culture, especially if they are also active on social media. This demonstrates the relevance of the term, including within a political context.

Some participation in cancel culture are more likely forms of unjustified harassment. In 2014, The Washington Post published an article exposing Justine Sacco (a public relations executive from IAC) for tweeting “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” (Blanchfield). As soon as Sacco’s plane landed, her tweet had gone viral, resulting in her immediate termination at IAC. After taking a year-long break from the public eye, Sacco was interviewed, allowing her to defend her actions. Sacco claimed that her tweet was satire and stated that, “America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the third world. I was making fun of that bubble” (Wagner). Following this, Sacco was welcomed back to her position. Joey Levin, the CEO of her company claimed, “Justine’s track record speaks for itself” (Wagner). While Sacco’s tweet was undeniably offensive, the company’s decision to remove her was most likely due to the social pressure they experienced following the tweet’s trending status. Because many people feel a strong obligation to conform to the opinions or instructions of those online, the integrity of both character judgment and improvement has become threatened. It is possible that Sacco gave the explanation she did in order to appease the thousands of social justice warriors online, just as it is possible that the company IAC did not actually care for her tweet, or knew it was satire; however, none of these instances matter because ultimately the decisions of both parties were fueled by the opinions of the internet – they were consequences of cancel culture. Therefore, was any change actually implemented? Or rather temporary solutions that were merely satisfactory until another trending controversial topic became the center of conversation? In a TIME article, Sarah Hagi states, “[cancel culture] is the idea that if you do something that others deem problematic, you automatically lose all your currency. Your voice is silenced. You’re done” (Hagi). Although Hagi advocates for the idea of cancel culture as it allows for people of power to face consequences, despite typically being exempt from them, she still illustrates an understanding that it is widely accepted to deeply tarnish the reputation and well-being of anyone who finds themselves to be the next victim of cancel culture (even if for misinterpreted reasons – such as Sacco). Through the power of social media, almost all of the users, many of which including total strangers, have given themselves the jurisdiction to dictate one’s moral compass and intentions – which can be overwhelming, and unfair to the person being targeted. This self-induced power has fostered a hostile environment online where many people feel intimidated to freely express their opinion, limiting their first amendment rights; oftentimes this is because they’ve routinely seen the majority of one’s character become reduced to one distinct moment or mistake, and do not wish to endure the same punishment themselves.

Because cancel culture can often make people feel vulnerable to harassment, cyberbullying, and disapproval in their community/online, it can often lead to self-censorship. Abdelmalek El Kadoussi in his article “The Perception of Self-Censorship among Moroccan Journalists” defines self-censorship as, “the deliberate suppression of one’s own right of expression” (Kadoussi). This deliberate suppression can be attributed to various different authorities and anxieties, one of which includes the consequences of cancel culture. In an article by John Horton, Horton discusses the controversy of self-censorship. Horton delves into the psychology and sociology of why people may feel they are victims of self censorship, the core reason that Horton gives is that, “for whatever reason, they do not want to be heard” (Horton). Horton expresses that self-censorship differs from other forms of censorship because it is not necessarily a matter of a group restricting what another group says or does, but rather a self-inflicted practice driven by the fear of expressing one’s own opinions, especially controversial ones. Specifically, the fear that expressing such sentiment may threaten themselves or something they value (such as a job or relationship). Horton further goes on to state that the core of censorship “can relate not only to the content of what is said, but also to the manner, time, or place of expression” (Horton). This rooted cause of self-censorship is essential to note because it considers one integral condition of self-censorship as a consequence of fear of falling victim to cancel culture: that is the place of expression. When the internet becomes the setting for where one expresses their personal sentiments or opinions, there is a new, instilled fear that those expressions will become subject to anyone and everyone’s judgment. As referenced before, it is clear that the societal pressures that come with being in the forefront of a trending hashtag or content with a negative context is detrimental to one’s reputation and valuable possessions. As a result, cancel culture can be considered a mechanism for self-censorship, and ultimately a threat to one’s freedom of speech. Peter Wood contributes to this idea in his article “Self-Censorship and Freedom”. Wood states that, “diversity and performative anger have broken the older restraints that made civil debate on contentious issues possible” (Wood). Wood suggests that the issue with cancel culture is not the platform it gives people to call out others for problematic behavior, rather the issue is that there is a greater value placed on the action of “cancelling” someone than there is on discussing important issues. If the intimidation of being cancelled hinders people from feeling comfortable holding civil debates on controversial issues, then society will become stagnant in comparison to constantly evolving new ideas. The emergence of cancel culture has permanently altered one’s ability to express both authentic and differing opinions. The rise of social justice warriors online or perceived “online police” has increased the amount of online users that feel uncomfortable participating in civil debates, and even sharing their opinions at all in fear that these sentiments will be misinterpreted.

While such misinterpretations may not impact more famous or affluent individuals, lower economic status individuals are more likely to face the consequences of cancel culture. In a New York Times article titled “For Poorer and Richer”, Ross Douthat provides analysis for the disparity in moral obligations between higher and lower class groups in respect to their responsibility to act ‘morally correct’. Douthat reveals that Americans with a lower economic status have a, “much thinner safety net” (Douthat). Part of the reason lower class individuals must be more aware of their actions (and the consequences of them) is that they lack the privilege to exempt themselves from legal punishments (such as affording bail). This reduced protection that less affluent individuals experience makes them much more susceptible to the adverse effects of societal pressure, specifically cancel culture. Douthat argues that it is imperative that people recognize the upper class is often, “failing to take any moral responsibility” (Douthat). The reason for this is that if one attempts to cancel a well-known or more affluent being, their money serves as a way to excuse themselves from punishment or afford some sort of solution for themselves. While this is applicable for any offense, it is also relevant within cancel culture. If someone with a greater reputation or financial situation were to make an offensive comment or post, they would be exempt from the consequences that lower class individuals would not only experience but that would be damaging to their livelihood. This disparity demonstrates a severe folly in the “justice system” that social justice warriors are attempting to implement through social media. J.K Rowling is one instance that exemplifies the privilege the upper class are likely to experience if they ever were to become a victim of public shaming. Following J.K Rowling’s exposure for various reported transphobic views, and few racist comments, Rowling’s net favorably has declined, “23 percentage points since 2018” (Shevenhock). Though Rowling’s reputation had been notably tarnished, according to a new Morning Consult survey, “neither the majority of Harry Potter fans nor Americans in general are likely to boycott any part of the entertainment franchise based on her books” (Shevenhock). It is clear that due to the comments Rowling made, she experienced some backlash, criticism, and damage to her reputation; however, these consequences were not significant enough to stunt her career, salary, or offer a long term punishment for her behavior. Thus, contributing to the idea that the repercussions of cancel culture are likely not effective, and in the instances that they are, it is a result of targeting lower class individuals. The career of another (less notable) author, if they were involved in the same scandals as Rowling, and made similar comments, would be more likely to be permanently ruined. This disparity leaves the lower class at the mercy of the vicious, and often invalid, reformation efforts of cancel culture and social justice warriors online. Cancel culture and the weaponization of public shaming is more likely a form of unjustified punishment and harassment, rather than an effective practice to allow for long-term reformation. Fueled by societal pressure, the consequences of cancel culture influence temporary solutions meant to appease the public until another trending controversy catches their eye. Ultimately, the implications of cancel culture can often lead to self-censorship, disparity of punishment depending on one’s economic class, and calls for unnecessary punishment for those who fall victim to it. Cancel culture is not an effective practice in improving the morality and behavior of the general public, but rather instills fear and has unproportionate consequences to one’s behavior.

2. The Lingering Psychological Influences: The Re-emergence of Public Shaming

Cancel culture is often ineffective in producing long-term change; however, the weaponization of public shaming to express disapproval for a perceived wrong is not a new or solely contemporary practice. Due to strong religious influence, societal pressure, and innate psychological desires, public humiliation has been historically utilized as a perceived effective form of punishment intended to deter people from committing crimes or as a way to condition favorable behavior from others. Additionally, shaming has been used as a method to control populations, such as becoming an instrument for wielding political power. Psychological components such as hive mentality and self-righteous indignation have played the most significant role in the historic use of public shaming and therefore greatly influence the contemporary practice of cancelling others online; social media has revived the practice of shaming others due to the greater accessibility it provides virtually anyone to participate in such practices more accessible.

Public shaming has been historically utilized to exert control over groups as a form of punishment or humiliation. In his book, Systemic Humiliation in America: Finding Dignity Within Systems of Degradations, Daniel Rothbart explores the structural foundation of public shaming and the social conflict that has risen because of it. While there is a history of public shaming being used as a form of punishment for unlawful behavior, Rothbart focuses more on the unjustified humiliation that occurred. In the 1960s, Civil Rights activists and leaders of the movement were subject to such ignominy. Rothbart quotes the writings of James Baldwin revealing his experiences at just ten years old when two policemen approached him; Baldwin states “I was being spat on and defined and described and limited” (quoted in Rothbart). Baldwin illustrates that his experience was dehumanizing as it was one that “limited” him. This was the primary function of shaming and humiliation in the past which was enforced by authorities, as well as the societal hierarchy of the time. Rothbart states that, “Baldwin’s humiliations came with a sense of powerlessness from living precariously at the whim of the police” (Rothbart). Considering Baldwin’s young age and innocent demeanor, he was likely not the perpetrator of any transgressions; rather, the police had chosen to harass Baldwin solely to exert their societal dominance, especially given the time period. Rothbart describes how Baldwin lived “at the whim of the police ”, essentially at their mercy, which further demonstrates how public humiliation was a tool for controlling marginalized groups as well as perpetrators of committed felonies. During the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, individuals within the black community, specifically civil rights protestors and leaders, were the target demographic for public shaming. A notorious way in which control was exerted over the black community during this time, meant to instill fear in hopes of deterring them from participating in protests, included public torture lynchings. Public torture lynching is defined as, “a strategic form of violence in struggles to maintain racial supremacy” (Garland). In Black Woman Reformer: Ida B. Wells, Lynching, and Transatlantic Activism by Sarah Silkey, Silkey states that “Americans claimed the right to employ lynching as a form of extralegal punishment for perceived violations of the community peace” (Silkey). Many white Americans attempted to mask lynching as a form of effective correction, but ultimately public torture lynchings served as evidence of the complete disregard of, and lack of respect for, minority rights. While modern public shaming has deviated from this intensity, some modern public shaming methods are comparable in that they often instill fear in people within the black community. In a New York Times Article titled “High School Students and Alumni Are Using Social Media to Expose Racism” by Taylor Lorenz and Katherine Rosman, Lorenz and Rosman explore how High School students utilize social media to denounce hate speech online. The article quotes sophomore Sophia Gianotti who described how, “People will post videos of people saying the N-word, or videos where they’re being racist or using derogatory words and stuff like that, and they go viral” (quoted in Lorenz and Rosman). While the intended purpose for the repostings of hate speech, police brutality, etc is to inform the public and to support black individuals, it is plausible that the content being shared can often be considered extremely triggering, concerning, and overwhelming for those within the black community. Although the content is not directly attacking them, viewing a concentrated social media feed of violence and hate speech targeted towards black individuals can instill a sense of fear that may inadvertently reinforce the past societal or racial hierarchy during the twentieth century, causing likely comparable psychological harm.

While humiliation has, at times, been used for arbitrary reasons, public shaming has been intentionally used as a form of correction. In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson, Ronson provides an anecdote revealing how Texan Judge and Politician Ted Poe notoriously used extensive shaming as a form of punishment in Houston. Ronson shares the story of Mike Hubacek, a teenager convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter after killing two people while driving intoxicated in 1996. Whether Hubacek should have been punished or pardoned was hardly a controversial debate; however, how he was punished caught national attention. Judge Ted Poe had not simply sentenced Hubacek to prison, but rather gave him a series of punishments which all involved some sort of humiliating component. Poe ordered Hubacek to 110 days of boot camp, to commit for the next ten years to maintain a memorial site for the victims (including sending ten dollars a week to a memorial fund in their name), to examine the autopsy of another drunk-driving incident victim, as well as keeping a photo of the victims he had killed in his wallet. As extensive as that list alone sounds, what Judge Ted Poe is most infamous for ordering Hubacek to do was carrying a sign that read “I KILLED TWO PEOPLE WHILE DRIVING DRUNK” (shown in Figure 1) once every month for ten years in front of bars, high schools, and other popular areas (Ronson).

Figure 1 [see pdf for images]demonstrates Mike Hubacek, as per his punishment, carrying a sign that reads “I killed two people while I was driving drunk on Westheimer” on the same road where the DUI incident took place (Houston rehab).

When interviewing Poe, Ronson asked if he found pleasure or entertainment in taking advantage of the justice system in this way. Poe replied that while the public often found his punishments to be entertaining, they were also successful in that 85% of the unlawful individuals that were publicly shamed had not entered the justice system again (Ronson). Poe admits that a vast majority of people found his punishments to be a form of entertainment – a possible psychological component, or even cause, for this mentality is likely derived from the concept of self-righteous indignation. The psychology of self-righteous indignation is described as being, “not [just] virtuous, but smugly virtuous. It is about feeling superior to someone else” (Kellen). This innate desire for humans to feel morally superior to others may play a significant role in why public shaming has been described as “entertainment” in the past, and why a similar sentiment is held today – there is likely a great level of satisfaction that individuals on social media feel watching others become scrutinized for their mistakes because the viewers themselves are not subject to such criticism. While Poe claimed that a majority of his punishment methods were effective, the intensity of such punishments is likely traumatizing; there may be a correlation between those who have been so severely humiliated and their lack of re-entry into the justice system, but it may not be a causation for more appropriate or desired behavior. Rather, this success rate may be dependent on fear. Nonetheless, this history of weaponizing public shaming as a form of punishment has directly played a role as causation to cancel culture today.

While one may recognize the unjustified torment that is being targeted towards someone subject to cancel culture online, ultimately the psychological desire to belong to a group outweighs the conscious thought to speak out in defense of an individual who is in the process of being ostracized. In their book Identity Theory, Peter J. Burke and Jan E. Stets state that identity is, “the set of meanings that define who one is when one is an occupant of a particular role in society, a member of a particular group” (Burke and Stets). The identity theory reflects possible causes for why many people find themselves additionally attacking a person or idea that they may not be properly informed about, solely to follow the majority. This concept is similar to hive mentality, or the idea that “every decision you make is essentially a committee act” (Castro). Both theory identity and hive mentality involve the psychological fear that many humans innately feel with respect to being rejected within a community; as a result, most opinions, decisions, and ideas that people are likely to champion deeply consider what is most ‘socially acceptable’. Thus, in an effort to prioritize ideologies and stances that would satisfy a community over one’s individual ideas, one has a feeling of self-inflicted shame with respect to sharing one’s religion, ideas, or opinions. These concepts are exemplified through the societal and self-inflicted pressure to be ‘politically correct’. Political correctness, a term coined in the early 1900s, is likely to have contributed to what cancel culture has evolved into today. This initial definition of Political correctness is, “the persistent attempt to suppress the expression of unwelcome beliefs and ideas” (Deresiewicz). In William Deresiewicz’s article titled “On Political Correctness”, Deresiewicz describes how the phenomenon of political correctness has become endemic on elite college campuses. For example, Deresiewicz spent a semester at a selective women’s college in Southern California named Scripps. Here, Deresiewicz met a Chinese-American student who admitted that she quickly learned to be silent about her Christian faith and non-feminist views with respect to marriage. Another student of the same religion had a friend who knew nothing about this essential part of her life because she felt the need to conceal it; when her friend asked her why she responded, “I don’t feel comfortable being out as a religious person here” (Deresiewicz). Other students stated they did not feel comfortable voicing their opinions freely among their peers, one even admitting that she felt safe remaining silent, “because she never knows when she might say something you’re not supposed to” (Deresiewicz). Deresiewicz believes that these circumstances are undoubtedly other elite private institutions, where students feel a societal pressure to self-censor their beliefs out of fear of how they will be judged, categorized, or shunned. Psychologically, there is a strong innate desire to conform and belong within a community; thus, a likely cause for this fear involves the dread of becoming ostracized.

The weaponization of public shaming to express disapproval for a perceived wrong has been utilized throughout history. Primarily innate psychological components (such as hive mentality, self-righteous indignation, and other internal desires) have perpetuated this form of punishment, humiliation, and attempt to control groups over decades. While this practice has evolved, its intent has remained. Social media has provided a platform for public shaming to re-emerge in the form of cancel culture, ultimately expanding the demographic that has access to participate in such practices, as well as amplifying its consequences.

3. The Consequences of Having Copious Amounts of Criticism: Considering Alternate Perspectives of Cancel Culture

Criticism on social media has provided greater accessibility for marginalized groups and underrepresented voices to become heard. Cancel culture in specific has created an environment where bigoted offenses can become subject to public judgement, and result in consequences to the person or persons who behaved in such manner. Some would argue that it is often difficult to convict affluent individuals or those with a more prominent reputation, cancel culture may provide an opportunity to pursue justice for others’ misconduct. Additionally, it fosters an environment where diverse groups may raise awareness for a plethora of global conflicts that have become censored due to their specific government media policies. As a result, cancel culture has been effective in the sense that it grants anyone, despite economic or social status, the power to highlight problematic behavior or legislation to a greater audience. Cancel culture allows for underrepresented opinions to become expressed and may be used (coupled with public shaming) as a way to successfully reform bigoted behavior; however, the overconcentration of criticism online as well as the short-term impact of humiliating others to condition better behavior nullifies the representation both give to valid critiques.

Cancel culture provides a platform in which many people may hold affluent or notable individuals (who are typically exempt from punishment) accountable for their actions. In her Time article “Cancel Culture Is Not Real – At Least Not in the Way People Think” Sarah Hagi admits that participating in behavior that others deem problematic will result in an immediate distruction of one’s reputation. Furthermore, Hagi states that those against cancel culture often contend that it involves arbitrary and unjustified punishments. Hagi responds to this perspective by diluting the percieved intensity she believes is involved with cancel culture by claiming that, “the problem with this perspective is cancel culture isn’t real” (Hagi). Hagi elucidates this claim through her admiration of cancel culture for creating a call out system in which people that hold societal power have become more likely to face proper consequences or criticism for their actions. She supports her claim by stating, “instead, it’s turned into a catch-all for when people in power face consequences’ ‘ (Hagi). Hagi argues that people in power have weaponized the term cancel culture in order to persuade the public that they are being unfairly punished. This is what Hagi is implying when she states that cancel culture does not exist or is not “real” – she is not claiming that the consequences people face from online criticism are non-existent, but rather that the depiction of these consequences as a way of terrorizing people and restricting freedom of speech is not real. Hagi contends that cancel culture is significant in providing privileged groups with proper consequences, given that they are often accustomed to being exempt from being held accountable for their misconduct. Hagi further states that, “I’m a black, Muslim woman, and because of social media, marginalized people like myself can express ourselves in a way that was not possible before” (Hagi). The rise of the digital age and social media has been an effective tool for marginalized to call out bigoted, racist, and sexist behavior online, as well as raising awareness for political issues globally. This unprecedented expansion of accessibility for marginalized groups is significant given that their voices have been historically suppressed. Hagi explains that this ability to freely express one’s opinion plays an important role in initiating essential conversations about disrespectful behavior, especially regarding marginalized groups; however, Hagi states that it is “because of social media” not cancel culture itself that there is greater accessibility for the voices of underrepresented groups to become both heard and addressed. Social media is an integral part in the re-emergence of cancel culture, and therefore it is the evolution of social media that has provided marginalized groups a platform to more freely express their opinion rather than cancel culture itself. Thus, Hagi is correct in her claim that social media has fundamentally changed activism, but less valid in her point that “[privileged groups] rely on phrases like ‘cancel culture’ to delegitimize the criticism” (Hagi). Hagi contends that the phrase “cancel culture”, which holds a negative connotation in contemporary society, is utilzied as a scapegoat for privileged people to imply that critcisms made against them are unjustified. She states that, “racist, sexist, and bigoted behavior or remarks don’t fly like they use to” (Hagi). As a result of this heightened awareness, a cultural shift has occurred which has resulted in privileged people previously protected from public criticism to construct scapegoats such as the term “cancel culture” to deflect these criticisms. However, cancel culture has not delegitimized criticism due to the term’s negative connotation, but rather as a result of there being a higher concentration of critical opinions being shared online. Although many of these claims are valid (as Hagi mentions), there are also a myriad of opinions hoping to “cancel” others for reasons deemed arbitrary. As a result, these arbitrary criticisms are being weaponized to delegitimize rational concerns; ultimately, this overconcentration of corrective content online distracts online users from discriminating valid critiques/issues worthy of informing themselves on from trivial and/or fabricated concerns. Therefore, the chance that cancel culture may provide a sense of justice is inconsistent as the participant level increases in direct correlation with the rising popularity of social media; the increase in participants online results in copious amounts of opinions, including many that contradict each other, ultimately drowning each other out.

Cancel culture encourages the freedom of speech and the freedom to express one’s opinion openly. In their article “‘Cancel Culture’ is Just Free Speech Holding Others Accountable” by Jared Schroeder and Jessica Maddox, Schroeder and Maddox argue in support of cancel culture’s ability to preserve as well as perpetuate the foundation of free speech in America, claiming that it is of a grassroots nature. They state, “cancel culture is not a threat to free speech — it is a manifestation of it” (Schroeder and Maddox). Shroepder and Maddox elucidate this claim by introducing the idea that cancel culture is derived from democratic discourse, where individuals would utilize their right of free speech in order to form masses that exert pressure on certain groups or institutions, and thus argue an apt name for cancel culture would be accountability culture. Not only has free speech been a core value in America since its establishment, but the right to a peaceable assembly as well (both included in the first Amendment). Schroeder and Maddox state that, “Americans have long used their rights to free expression to hold public officials, institutions, and corporations accountable” (Schroeder and Maddox). Part of this free expression involves calling for the resignation of unfavorable public officials or the orchestration of various protests and boycotts; therefore, cancel culture is a digital manifestation of such protests providing public accountability, which is an critical component of democracy. Despite cancel culture’s ability to allow people to express their opinions freely, it poses a greater threat to free speech than it promotes. Cancel culture spurs self-censorship as it provokes fear within many individuals in respect to not behaving or speaking in a ‘politically correct’ manner. This fear that sharing one’s opinion may lead to becoming publicly shamed or ostracized from one’s community deter people from openly expressing their ideas, religion, or organizing protests despite it being well within their First Amendment rights. As a result, cancel culture jeopardizes free speech in more ways than it encourages it. Although Americans have utilized these rights to hold parties accountable in the past, social media has amplified the severity of calling out problematic behavior. Due to these increasing consequences and damage to one’s reputation after sharing a politically incorrect opinion or perspective, many people follow the opinion of a majority to protect themselves, their careers, etc.

Cancel culture provides some benefits especially within marginalized communities. Cancel culture has established an environment where people whose voices have been historically suppressed are given the opportunity to call out problematic, bigoted behavior. Although cancel culture through social media has expanded the accessibility of marginalized groups to speak up, ultimately this access has resulted in the proliferation of shared opinions online. Copious amounts of said opinions have left many people directionless in respect to which issues to focus on, which are rational, and which are arbitrary. Therefore, this confusion has become counterproductive in providing consequences for those who behave problematically because there are various opinions/concerns that contradict one another in respect to what is truly an issue worth acting on, and what is people criticizing others in an “overly sensitive matter”. Additionally, many argue that cancel culture perpetuates and upholds the values of the first amendmendment, specifically free speech; however, cancel culture has played a significant role in self-censorship which in turn has caused various groups to remain silent about their opinions, religious values, and their overall personal perspectives out of fear that they will be “canceled”, shunned, or ostracized for holding such beliefs. Therefore, while cancel culture has various positive attributes, ultimately it remains ineffective in correcting problematic behavior and opinions within society.

4. Diminishing Shame Culture: Introducing Plausible Solutions

Public shaming has been utilized as a correction tool for decades and the manifestation of its re-emergence has been represented through cancel culture online. Social media has tremendously increased the popularity surrounding the shaming method of cancel culture, as well as strengthened its consequences. The long-term effects of public shaming and cancel culture are often severe, ranging from being terminated from one’s career, enduring emotional distress from harassment, or even encouraging self-censorship. It is not plausible to eradicate cancel culture completely due to the significant role psychological components play in perpetuating such culture (especially as it deals with subconscious behaviors and desites, which are difficult to control in others); however, a possible effective, feasible solution for reducing the intensity of cancel culture may include incorporating radical honesty and establishing a more accepting environment in which admitting not being particularly knowledgable on a topic yet is less stigmitized. These individual behavioral changes are likely to initiate an overall cultural shift in which shame culture is minimized rather than simply displacing the consequences from the person/group to the behavior itself.

A feasible solution for addressing the concerns of cancel culture may be to diminish shame culture. In chapter eight of Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson delves into his experience at a shame-eradication workshop and poposes this as a plausible solution for reducing the prevalence of cancel culture. Ronson and twelve other strangers participated in the shame-eradication workshop hosted by psychotherapist Brad Blanton in Chicago. Blanton requested that each participant shared something they were ashamed of or have never admitted before about themselves. Ronson stated that Blanton’s practices stemmed from his belief that, “shame grows when we internalize shame” (Ronson). However, Ronson further described how, “Brad had invented a way for us to eradicate those feelings, he told me. His method was called ‘Radical Honesty’ (Ronson). Radical Honesty is defined as the practice of being honest at all times, regardless of how the truth may affect others (Wong). Blanton championed the belief that most people live their lives in the constant fear of being judged or exposed as immoral. As a result, this fear fuels their behavior. This psychological analysis is especially relevant in how many people on the receiving end of cancel culture may make decisions; many people will self-censor themselves to avoid the judgment of others, as well as harass others in order to achieve the innate desire for self-righteous indignation. In an article written by Alexus Hurtado titled “Has cancel culture become more about shame than accountability?” Hurtado incorporates a quote from journalism and advertising senior Jasmine Langley where she states, “Today, cancel culture is primarily about shaming people” (Quoted in Hurtado). Due to the integral role that both internal and external shame plays in cancel culture (especially given that cancel culture is a modification of the historical weaponization of public shaming), eradicating shame culture is an effective and feasible solution in reducing the prominence of such culture. Blanton believes that through Radical Honesty, it is likely that many people can reduce the experience of internalized shame and thus reduce the impact it has on their participation in cancel culture. Blanton expresses that many people have become “brainwashed” of the various consequences that may occur if one admits to their wrongdoings or controversial ideas. He states, “Yeah, people get mad. People get upset. But people get over stuff” (Ronson). It is likely that taking the pressure of stating controversial ideas may reduce the internal or innate desire to self-censor them, as people would no longer become ostracized or an outlier in their communities (as they fear they may become) for sharing such opinions. As effective as this solution is, one drawback that should be considered is the possibility of racist, sexist, or bigoted opinions being openly expressed without remorse due to a newfound culture of radical honesty.

Similar to eradicating shame culture through radical honesty, fostering an environment where there is less shame in admitting lack of knowledge on a particular subject may propose another feasible solution for reducing the intensity of cancel culture. In an article titled “Simple Ways We Can Fight Cancel Culture and Defend Freedom of Speech in an Interview with Peter Boghossian”, author Ayaan Hirsi discusses with Boghossian an alternate perspective than the one previously discussed on the shame culture people have cultivated in the digital age. Boghossian elaborates on the dangers of shaming others for not being informed or involved enough, especially regarding trending social issues online; he states, “we’ve created a culture in which saying ‘I don’t know’ is met with ridicule” (Quoted in Hirsi). Boghossian establishes that the consequence of this mentality and culture is because most individuals do not want to endure ridicule, people will often pretend to be informed on things they realistically do not know much about. As a result, people are likely to share opinions and ideas that are socially acceptable, or that follow the opinions of a majority. A solution to this aspect of cancel culture would be to operate in increments in order to make saying “I don’t know” a less daunting experience. Boghossian reveals that an essential part of this process is to refrain from controlling the behaviors of others, but rather begin with your own behavior. He states, “start by publicly stating, “I don’t know when you don’t know something, launding others for doing the same” He even goes on to state that people should teach their children similar values and that, “people who treat them negatively for saying they don’t know something are likely insecure” (Quoted in Hirsi). Through consistency, Boghossian hopes the practice will eventually be represented by those in positions of power or authority. Bognossiant states that, “this acts as a modeling behavior, makes it more acceptable and good to state you don’t know, and nudges the culture to view admission of one’s ignorance as a virtue” (Quoted in Hirsi). This solution is plausible because much of cancel culture is spurred by a hive mentality, previously defined as group-decision making. Because admitting one is not yet well educated in a certain topic or trending controversy, people are quick to follow a group consensus without doing their own proper research; doing said research could contribute to understanding the difference between arbitrary public shaming, and necessary call for action for bigoted behavior – which in turn would make cancel culture more effective. While this solution may begin at a smaller, individual level (similar to Radical Honesty), it provides a feasible, effective, and most importantly ethical beginning to a chain reaction of change within cancel culture.

A possible solution that can be deemed as ineffective or less feasible would be to cancel the controversial behavior itself, rather than the person or group exhibiting it. In Mckenna M. Wychunas’s research paper “Cancel the Behavior, Not the Person”, Wychunas establishes the harmful consequences of canceling a person or group, specifically in respect to their reputation and mental health; as a result, Wychunas emphasizes separating the behavior from the perpetrator in order to reduce the possibility of harassment while still calling out bigoted behavior. She writes, “we can hold people accountable without defining them by their mistakes” (Wychunas). Although this is a desired outcome, Wychunas fails to provide a sufficient or clear explanation for how this could actually be achieved. After considering other solution sources, it is evident that even if people began to successfully critique behaviors separate from those displaying it, there would eventually be a point where someone who exhibits that behavior will become ridiculed for not being informed on the behavior’s problematic history. Therefore, only temporary relief would be provided until a new wave of naive social media participants share their opinions online without a full understanding of every single offense that is considered wrong to post outside of the more commonly admonished topics (racism, sexism, etc). Even then, the chances of every online participant becoming informed on every problematic behavior enough so as to avoid offending an entire population, is unlikely. Thus, it is much more feasible to practice the art of radical honesty and admitting not being particularly educated on a niche topic in order to encourage a more accepting/understanding environment. These practices are likely to create a more flexible and adaptable environment to controversial takes where there is a focus on becoming more informed before calling out others, rather than the rigid structure that is set up today, perpetuating shame culture. Repositioning what we cancel simply displaces the ineffective rage from the perpetrator to the behavior itself, it does not reduce it; therefore, eventually when the cycle repeats itself and people begin critiquing the perpetrators once again, there will have been little to no progress made in regards to the hostility the offending person or group may experience (resulting in similar consequences of a tarnished reputation, career, mental state, etc). Therefore, focusing the cancellation onto the behavior rather than the person is not as effective as diminishing shame culture, as the characteristics of cancel culture would remain unchanged if they were simply repositioned from the person to the behavior itself.

Wychunas states that, “As long as social media exists, cancel culture will always exist with it.” While it is true that cancel culture is likely to perpetuate due to the integral role that psychology plays in its existence, there are some plausible solutions that may decrease the intensity of its consequences. Implementing radical honesty as Brad Blanton described, or embracing admission of a lack of knowledge on a particular topic as Peter Boghossian encourages, are effective in fostering an accepting environment. Creating an environment where mistakes are generally more understood as a learning process rather than a rigid telling of one’s character is key to diminishing shame culture. This wane of shame culture is likely to decrease the intensity of the hostility, reputational, and emotional consequences many people experience when on the receiving end of cancel culture. These solutions are more effective than simply displacing said intensity from the person to the behavior; this is because radical honesty and diminishing shame culture deals with cancel culture at its root, whereas repositioning the focus of the intensity provides a temporary solution. It is the collective society’s responsibility to reduce the intensity of cancel culture, as diminishing shame culture can not be done alone.


Cancel culture refers to the practice of ostracizing someone who has committed a transgression, typically on or shared through an online platform, that is perceived as problematic. The method of ostracizing said person is meant to humiliate the person as well as be utilized as a form of punishment, and thus the practice is reminicent of public shaming which was once popular in Colonial America during the late 1830s. The re-emergence of this practice can be attributed to the evolution of the digital age in addition to the growing popularity of social media. In a historical context and in the present, these practices are perpetuated primarily by innate psychological desires, such as identity theory and self-righteous indignation. The main controversies regarding this practice included its influence in encouraging self-censorship, hostile online environments, greatly jeapordizing one’s mental health and career, etc. Although cancel culture has established a platform in which affluent/well-known figures are more likely to be punished for their transgressions, there are more instances in which cancel culture suppresses the voices of many out of fear of being ridiculed or ostracized; ultimately, cancel culture can be deemed as ineffective for these reasons. There are plausible solutions to reduce the intensity of the consequences of cancel culture in which fundamental behavioral changes on an individual level take place. These individual changes are essential in diminishing shame culture and establishing an understanding environment in which ideas are shared, considered, and argued civilly rather than one in which people are met with ridicule and threats of ostracization. Ultimately, it is difficult to eradicate cancel culture entirely as it will always exist within social media; however, individual behavioral and mentality shifts can reduce the consequential intensity victims of cancel culture endure.

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