by Dawn Wiese
Andi Moritz – a name you’ve likely never heard. While a freshman at Bryn Mawr in 2016, she posted on a college ride-share board that she was seeking transportation to a political rally. She didn’t get the ride; instead, she was excoriated by her peers for wanting to attend the rally. As a student already struggling with anxiety and depression, she dropped out of school two days later, never returning. She was canceled (Zimmerman, 2019).
Keziah Daum, a Utah high school student, decided on a vintage dress for her prom in 2018. She found a Chinese cheongsam. Posting pictures on Twitter that night, she set off a social media storm with one man’s tweet accusing her of cultural appropriation which was then shared and angrily responded to more than 42,000 times. She was canceled (Schmidt, 2018).
Or, consider this Facebook post I saw just the other day: “I am Facebook friends with an acquaintance whose husband is racist. I’ve already unfriended him. Should I unfriend her too?” Canceling behavior.
So, what is “being canceled?” Being canceled is when someone or a group decides to stop supporting a person, place, or thing due to a negative event or action (Douglas, 2019). Cancel culture teaches one thing: if someone does something wrong, stop supporting them. An apology? A behavior correction? It doesn’t matter; they should’ve known better. There is no doubt that some behaviors should be confronted: sexual assault and deviance, racism, discrimination, to name a few. But, the problem with outright “canceling” behavior is that it can be detrimental to mental health. It does not allow people to be human and make mistakes. It does not allow for second chances and forgiveness (Douglas, 2019). It is toxic for the canceled, for those who fear being canceled, and or the canceler.
You likely didn’t need me to introduce you to the concept of cancel culture; you’ve likely heard about it. Why do I feel the need to write about it? I write because I work with people who work with college students and perpetuating cancel culture in our language, practices, and policies does not serve any of our students well. Our current generation of college students need our assistance and social science informs us what we can do about it.
Cancel culture emerged through the power of social media. At no other time in history can an individual, who does not normally have power, receive endorsement from 42,000 people, as in confronting Keziah Daum on her choice of prom dress. Social media allows those who have not historically had a microphone to have a platform from which to address critical issues. It can easily be argued that this is a good thing – a flattening of the curve, so to speak, as to who has the ability to share perspectives. But, it is important to remember: power itself is neutral. Power can be used justly and wisely. Power can also be used unjustly and unwisely for harmful purposes. Depending on the situation, the unjust and unwise use of power can be called a variety of things: intimidation, abuse, bullying, fraud, discrimination, tyranny, and canceling, to name a few (Hanson, 2018).
Anxiety and depression among college students is at an all-time high (LeBlanc and Marques, 2019; Seemiller and Grace, 2019; The Jed Foundation, 2020). Cancel culture plays into that as the act of being canceled is both isolating and lonely, feeling as if everyone might give up on you before you can even apologize or correct your mistakes.
For those doing the canceling? The same holds true. Canceling holds only temporary satisfaction as it corrects what is seen as an immediate wrong but does not normally change the mind of the individual (or concept or organization) that has been canceled – it only serves to silence and often that silence is only temporary. The overall goal is not achieved. For the enablers of canceler, they quickly find that what they offer is not enough. The “win” for the canceler is hollow. Cancelers seek resolution to a perceived or real conflict and this requires engagement. Thus, no one is served by simple gestures or statements. Such attempts do not change the minds of all stakeholders. Educators must manage conflict resolution, not enable.
Then, there are those who live in fear of being canceled – this too is an anxiety producing byproduct that stifles speech, healthy risk taking, and confidence.
So, for those facing “demands” at the threat of being canceled and, more importantly, those who lead campuses or organizations that are facing demands: What message are you providing your students if you immediately give in to canceling? You’re telling students that they cannot make a mistake or else, their life as they know it, may end. You’re telling students you must sometimes compromise what you believe because someone else doesn’t like it and they might make you “look bad.” You’re telling students that someone who is louder has power over them. You’re telling those who are doing the canceling that, if they yell loud enough, they will get their way. You are reinforcing with cancelers that debate, exchange of ideas, and differing points of view are unimportant. You are reinforcing the anxiety/depression cycle that is crippling today’s college students.
Depression and Anxiety Among College Students. The Jed Foundation. At: https://www.jedfoundation.org/depresion-and-anxiety-among-college-students/
Douglas, P. N. (July 1, 2019). How the cancel culture is toxic for out mental health. At: https://medium.com/@patricendouglas/how-the-cancel-culture-is-toxic-for-our-mental-health-c4864e409ccf
Hanson, R. (April 9, 2018). Stand up to bullies: Bullying at all scales causes much suffering – what can we do? https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-wise-brain/201804/stand-bullies
LeBlanc, N. and Marques, L. (August 27, 2019). Anxiety in college: What we know and how to cope. Harvard Health Publishing. At: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/anxiety-in-college-what-we-know-and-how-to-cope-2019052816729.
Seemiller, C. and Grace, M. (2019). Generation Z: A century in the making. New York: Routledge.
Schmidt, S. (May 1, 2018). ’It’s just a dress’: Teen’s Chinese prom attire stirs cultural appropriation debate. The Washington Post.
Zimmerman, J. (November 4, 2019). Cancel culture punishes young people for speaking their minds. The Philadelphia Inquirer.