Suddenly Awake. About ‘Cancel’ And ‘Woke’ Culture

Viewpoint by Jan Servaes

BRUSSELS (IDN) — Several years ago, when I provoked a discussion about the word “ho” during my hitherto popular “Hip hop for social change” course at the University of Massachusetts, nearly half of the enrolled students immediately cancelled me. They didn’t show up again the following week. “How could I, a straight white male, have dared to use the ‘slang’ word for ‘whore/bitch’?” I was told, as it appeared in the conversations of both ‘white’ and ‘black’ students (they/them/their) all the time and was central to most hip-hop and rap music.

A debate about cancel culture also arose at the KU Leuven after Rector Sels expressed his concerns about it on 27 September 2021 in his opening speech for the new academic year. “Cancel culture puts a strain on academic freedom,” he stated, and academics are said to be deterred by intimidating responses and engage in self-censorship.

Silent or wide awake?

Cancel culture‘ is very much in vogue along with ‘woke‘. Originating on American university campuses, the ‘fashion’ has spread everywhere and contributes to what is called ‘polarization’ in society. They both refer to forms of ‘ostracism’, ignoring someone socially or keeping silent.

The phenomenon of inclusion and of exclusion is part of group formation. In the cancel culture, ostracism means publicly expelling someone from social or professional circles. This can be online, on social media or in person. Those who are subject to this ostracism are thus ‘cancelled’. Being excluded, and no longer belonging, becomes unbearable when the perpetrators express stereotypical suspicions via social media. To silence someone because he is a bad parent, snitch, racist, paedophile, misogynist, Marxist or Salafist.

The literal meaning of woke is the past tense of ‘to wake up’. This indicates that the person is ‘awake’, alert to social abuses, inequality, racism, discrimination or polarisation. Supporters of the woke movement draw attention to social injustice and try to stop it. Being woke, or wokeness, is especially popular among young people.

Woke owes its popularity partly to the widespread use of the term by the Black Lives Matter movement, which gained momentum in the spring of 2020 after the death of George Floyd, the black who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for minutes at an arrest in Minneapolis. The video footage of the violent arrest caused quite a stir. That started on the streets of Minneapolis, the city where Floyd’s murder took place, but quickly spread around the world. People also took to the streets in various Dutch and Belgian cities, carrying banners with ‘Black Lives Matter (BLM)’ and ‘I can’t breathe’.  The BLM demonstrations put racism and police brutality high on the political and social agenda. The debate about structural racism and the colonial past also gained momentum. Meanwhile, the term is also regularly used in reference to climate change, discrimination against the LGTBQ community, immigrants and other minorities in society.

The broader and more indirect goals of this strategy are to share collective displays of moral outrage, mobilize public opinion and demand action from decision-makers. Some of the best-known cases are campaigns that have sought official hearings, prosecutions, or regulatory reforms to review penalties for sexual misconduct in the workplace, sexual harassment in the military, sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and the like.

The strategy has been followed by people of all ideological persuasions. For example, right-wing digital activists and media commentators have fueled conspiracy theories condemning the moral behaviour of liberal icons such as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, George Soros or Bill Gates, as well as mobilizing support for US lawmakers teaching Critical Race Theory, or the Hungarian and Polish government’s restrictions on homosexuality or abortion, and the British Conservative government legislation tightening protection of free speech in higher education. Technology companies like Facebook and Twitter have responded to digital activism on their platforms by reviewing acceptable use policies, banning the spread of disinformation and fake news, and condemning incitement to violence and hate speech.

Actions rather than words?

Eve Ng, a senior lecturer at the Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, defines cancellation culture from a critical media and cultural perspective as cancellation practices, where actions are taken against a cancellation target—that could be an individual, brand or companyand cancellation discourses. She explored discourses on social media platforms, commentaries in news and opinion articles, commentaries on celebrity and fan cultures, black communication practices and digital activism, American conservative critiques of cancel culture and digital nationalist cancellations in China. This material provides an interesting yet complex genealogy of the different but overlapping areas of popular culture, digital activism and national politics.

There’s quite a bit of commentary on cancel or woke culture in news and popular media, she says, but such content by itself doesn’t provide a clear picture of the most relevant phenomena. For example, what should we think about both progressive and conservative commentators in the US and elsewhere who have condemned the cancel culture? Also, cancelling has happened in many social and cultural domains. Are these essentially examples of the same thing? If not, what are the critical differences, and yet are there any underlying similarities between contextually different cancellations? If we can determine where and when cancellation practices originated, what has been their evolution?

These questions, and other related problems to better understand the complexity and relevance of cancel culture in media and culture, are answered in this book in an interesting and clear way.

The book is written from a critical media and cultural science perspective. For example, it is attentive to the dynamics of cultural and political power in media production, distribution, and consumption. Media use reflects and contributes to larger patterns of social hierarchy, including gender, class, race, nation and other axes of inequality.

In addition, it takes social and historical contexts into account, even when examining contemporary media. That is, what may appear superficially in similar phenomena or instances of the same phenomenon are often not the same or equivalent. For example, controversies have emphasized the ways in which hiring a white actor to play a character who is a person of colour in the source text is not the same as choosing a person of colour to play a character who is white in the source text (or white in previous edits of that text).

Because the dominant US media employs a disproportionate amount of white actors, the first kind of casting represents a problematic “whitewashing” that confirms racial inequalities and media representations, while the second casting is a way of partially redressing these imbalances. It is therefore important to recognize the context and to understand from which specific position of relative empowerment one works.

Also, unlike several recently published books with cancel culture in the title, this book is not a report on the effects of cancellation on “freedom of speech.” The author argues that the concept of free speech itself is fraught with assumptions that reflect certain views on the dynamics of power in the media domain and beyond. Instead, taking a critical media studies approach focuses on how the practices and discourses associated with a cancel culture emerged. The political implications of these developments are thus viewed through a broader lens on power and society.

Who or what is eligible for ‘cancellation’?

The cancel target can be an individual, brand, or company. Some cancellation practices revolve around messages on (social) media that explicitly use the term ‘cancelled’, as in #Youarecancelled. Other cancellation practices include withdrawing public support for the cancellation target, such as: unfollowing “celebrities” on social media, no longer purchasing the brands they promote, or no longer watching the television/movies or listening to the music they are associated with. At the institutional level, cancellation practices can mean literal cancellation, such as the “closure” of networks or television shows of stars who have “behaved wrongly”.

Conversely, celebrities can end their sponsorship or association with companies that are considered problematic. State-level actors may also be involved in cancellation practices, such as when, in 2016, the Chinese government banned Lady Gaga from performing in China after meeting the Dalai Lama.

Eve Ng is most familiar with culture and politics in the USA and China. It should therefore come as no surprise that her selection of the detailed cancellation cases come from these countries. Still, these cases can serve as snapshots illustrative of more common problems. Her choice of subjects and theoretical perspectives is a conscious choice and is limited to subjects she feels thematically and methodically engrossed in.

Chapter 2, “Culture, Popular Media, and Fandom Cancellation”, examines cancellation practices among celebrities and fan cultures, focusing on cancellations primarily due to whether or not they are ‘correct’ or ‘favoured’ media content. . These cancellations often result in the loss of a large number of followers on social media, but the decrease is usually temporary, and the controversy often generates additional discourse and ‘hype’. Even ‘fans’ understand the financial value of their digital participation, and how, as a collective power, they can influence data-driven statistics.

Chapter 3, “Culture, Black Cultural Practice, and Digital Cancel Activism,” takes a closer look at the cancellation of black culture and social media activism. Black digital practices, best known as “Black Twitter,” black musicians and personalities helped promoting the language of cancellation in popular media, with a confluence of trending topics on Twitter and hashtag movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.

Ng, however, explicitly states that excesses of political expression are not limited to progressive activism but should also be seen in the context of widespread hate speech and online far-right alt-right activism.

Chapter 4, “Culture Cancellation, American Conservatism, and Nation”, takes a closer look at this for the USA, particularly during the aftermath of the 2020 George Floyd protests and President Donald Trump’s electoral defeat. Ng’s analysis describes how conservatives view expressions of progressive criticism of racism and structural inequalities as an attack on core American values and identity. She contextualizes this discourse against the cancel culture within historical associations between American conservatism, nationalism, and white supremacist ideologies.

In particular, the rise of the alt-right during Trump’s 2016 election campaign and subsequent victory made the Republican Party’s base in white identity politics more explicit and reinforced their grievances that they have fallen victim to left-wing “Democrats.” Conservatives view the modification of media texts with racially problematic depictions and the removal of statues of historical ‘heroes’ who had engaged in racially oppressive practices as examples of cancel culture.

Chapter 5, “Canceling Culture and Digital Nationalism in Mainland China,” considers another context where cancellation and national politics have become entwined. Recent cases of individuals, brands and media texts being cancelled in the People’s Republic of China for allegedly denigrating the Chinese people or the authority of the government.

The chapter outlines a longer history of nationalism and nationalist protest in the country, shaped by China’s “Age of Humiliation” experiences with foreign powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the government’s establishment of nationalist education in the wake of the student-led protests in 1989 that resulted in China’s still ‘cancelled’ Tiannanmen ‘incident’. Multiple major cancellation events involved not only grassroots mobilizations on social media but also state commentary, some in support of cancellation campaigns and others seeking to quell nationalist outrage.

In 2021, for example, China ‘cancelled’ a number of Western clothing brands for their statements against forced labor in cotton production and processing in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, which several outside observers have judged to be gross human rights violations.

Controversies over the status of Hong Kong and Taiwan have also led to cancellations, as has the phenomenon of “fan nationalism,” which the government sometimes openly supports when it accords with official positions, such as the ‘One China principle’.

Myth or reality?

Pippa Norris, professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, offers additional analysis in the authoritative academic journal Political Studies under the telling headline: “Cancel Culture: Myth or Reality?” She uses the results of a large-scale study from 2019, the World of Political Science (WPS), which involved nearly 2,500 scientists from more than 100 countries.

The building blocks for her arguments are based on insights derived from various theoretical perspectives, including Noelle-Neumann‘s ‘spiral of silence’ thesis, which assumes the great power of the media, which discourages dissent and allows it to die out in a spiral of silence. In general, people are afraid to express their opinion when it differs from that of the perceived majority (public opinion). The majority will always follow the opinion leaders and agree with them.

Conservatives argue that in recent years more and more dissenting voices have been silenced, limiting freedom of expression and increasing social pressure for ideological conformity, resulting in intellectual exclusion, groupthink, “us-them” segregation, academic bigotry and self-censorship.

The processes of group communication examined by Norris and Inglehart and modernization theories of cultural change regarding the balance between liberal and conservative moral values in society are also included for an explanation. Thus, perceptions of cancel culture in academia will depend to a large extent on the congruence of the ideological values of individual scientists with the dominant culture in their society. In post-industrial societies, characterized by predominantly liberal social cultures, such as the US, Great Britain or Sweden, right-wing academics were most critical of the impact of the cancel culture.

By contrast, in developing countries with more traditional moral cultures, such as Nigeria, it was left-wing scholars who reported that the cancel culture had deteriorated. The climate of public opinion in developing countries remains more traditional on moral issues, such as the importance of religion, the maintenance of a clear role for women and men, and fixed binary gender and sexual identities. So, in this context, the congruence theory suggests that liberal academics are probably silenced by predominant mores in highly conservative societies. In other words, the context depends on the dominant culture in each society.

Ng’s studies on the social characteristics of digital networks and the role of information technology are also explicitly mentioned. After all, studies of online communication have attributed the intensification and polarization in society, and thus cancel culture, to the rise of activists who are connected through digital social networks such as Twitter or Facebook. However, social media is not alone in this regard. Online tweets are enhanced for the wider public through interpersonal communication, elite rhetoric such as speeches from leaders, as well as journalists and commentators working in traditional news media.

In an era of rapidly changing moral standards and heightened cultural sensitivities surrounding the construction of social identities, well-known figures are seen being held accountable by the public for their words and actions (or their inaction in them). From this perspective, public shaming plays a legitimate role when criticizing the use of derogatory and offensive language, such as racist or homophobic statements.

On the other hand, both conservative and liberal critics argue that the practice has gone too far, especially on college campuses. It’s a slippery slope that leads to a variety of racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic or xenophobic views. Norris, therefore, argues that a lack of academic freedom is detrimental to scientific progress because researchers are unable to explore all perspectives.

These findings suggest that the cancel culture is not just a rhetorical myth. Academics may be less willing to speak out about their moral beliefs if they believe that their views are not widely shared by colleagues or the rest of the society to which they belong.

Further research needed

The research underlying this WPS study builds on a long tradition in political science. It is unclear whether similar generalizations can be observed in related social sciences, such as sociology, economics, and social psychology, as well as in the humanities and natural sciences. Norris believes that more international comparative research remains necessary.

Also, the observed social contrasts can be attributed to several other potential explanations, such as the role of freedom of expression, the degree of democratization, the type of regime in each society, the degree of polarization of ideological positions and the role of political partisanship, the impact of long-standing cultural and religious traditions, and structural contrasts in higher education institutions and policies.

A substantial research agenda using multiple methods and datasets can enhance our understanding of this phenomenon. Certainly, if important problems with the validity of the measurements can be solved.

However, Pippa Norris’ research seriously questioned the assertion defended by right-wing politicians and commentators that in recent years a progressive cancel culture has silenced alternative perspectives and made broad intellectual debate impossible. They are rhetorical slogans with no substantive meaning; myths designed to pep up the MAGA (Make America Great Again) stalwarts and divert attention from the more pressing problems of the real world. A conclusion that also emerges from Ng’s book. [IDN-InDepthNews – 02 June 2022]

*Jan Servaes was UNESCO-Chair in Communication for Sustainable Social Change at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He taught ‘international communication’ in Australia, Belgium, China, Hong Kong, the US, Netherlands and Thailand, in addition to short-term projects at about 120 universities in 55 countries. He is the

editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change

Image: Cartoonist GAL (Gerard Alsteens)

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

We believe in the free flow of information. Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International, except for articles that are republished with permission.

Eve Ng (2022), Cancel Culture. A Critical Analysis. Palgrave MacMillan, Cham
Pippa Norris (2021), Cancel Culture: Myth or Reality? Political Studies. August 2021.
doi: 10.1177/00323217211037023

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