Is Cancel Culture Really a Threat to Free Speech?
An in-depth analysis from a writer's perspective
I never heard the term, “cancel culture,” until 2020.
To me, cancel culture was a bit like Critical Race Theory; I couldn’t understand what the hubbub was about and had to Google the term for some general background.
I quickly learned both terms were used more frequently in right-leaning media outlets, which is why I never heard of them until recently. But the more I dug into cancel culture, the more I understood the honest debate:
Will society’s pressure to be politically correct inhibit a writer’s free speech and creativity?
First, the U.S. Constitution
The First Amendment in the United States Constitution prohibits the government from punishing its citizens and residents for speaking freely, including criticizing the government. However, the Constitution says nothing about preventing private institutions from taking action, such as firing someone for a racist statement, or refusing to publish an author’s book after an anti-Semitic tirade. Cancel culture revolves around the private world—businesses and consumers. Unless “cancelling” involves the government punishing a private citizen or resident for speaking freely, then the Constitution is a moot point here.
Now, Changing Social Norms
I am about to show my age here, so be nice.
My boyfriend and I have recently enjoyed re-watching old movies from childhood or adolescence, like Splash with Tom Hanks and American Pie. I have not seen these movies in 20 years or more, and I noticed something as I watched them again.
Both movies (which I still love, by the way) highlight characters or actions that would never fly today. In fact, they would be canceled.
In Splash, John Candy played the perverted older brother who always dropped change on the ground to peek up women’s skirts.
In American Pie, a group of teenage boys set up a hidden webcam in the main character’s bedroom to watch his sexual exploits with the beautiful, female, foreign exchange student.
When I was a kid, and then a teenager in high school, both of those situations were funny. Society considered them lighthearted and innocent, and so did I. The old me still laughs at those scenarios, but the enlightened adult sees how much society has changed, and why.
Much like we no longer publish ads with men spanking their wives for disobeying, we now no longer accept non-consent. We no longer laugh at a man violating a woman in any way. Because, especially after the Me Too movement, we realized how harmful those social norms were in real life.
Is this a bad thing? No. This is the human species evolving. If Splash or American Pie were written today, I believe they would still be funny and creative, just written a little differently.
Moving on to Censorship
With this understanding of changing social norms, the “free speech” question then arises: should we censor older films, books or artwork that violate today’s social norms by removing them completely?
You might be wondering why I take this stance. Past artwork, literature, and films are, in essence, a historical archive of our human species. They do not record facts and dates and names, but rather a collective mindset. They allow future generations a peek into the emotions, thoughts, and lifestyles of what once was. This widely available access is important to ensure we never revert back to old, harmful social norms.
Now, if a film, book or piece of artwork was made deliberately to incite violence or spread propaganda that targets and hurts a specific group (think Mein Kampf or Birth of a Nation), then these older works should be limited to ensure public safety. However, eliminating them completely is dangerous as well. For example, we want to ensure the public never forgets the psychology of how a cancer like Nazism spreads, and Mein Kampf lets us hack into the mind of Hitler and understand how he brainwashed an entire nation. How can we prevent evil from resurfacing, if we never know what evil looks like?
What About ‘Labeling’?
I will never understand critics of cancel culture calling out “free speech violations” for companies like Disney when they label older movies that display outdated or harmful social norms.
In this 2020 article from NPR, “Disney Warns Viewers of Racism in Some Classic Movies with Strengthened Label,” Disney acknowledges that we cannot change the past, but we can instead “learn from it and move forward together.”
Labeling is not censoring.
The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word censor as, “to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable.”
Disney is not suppressing or deleting anything. Instead, it’s giving viewers more information and letting them decide for themselves whether to watch. How is this censorship, and subsequently, the stifling of free speech?
Let’s Talk About Cultural Appropriation
As a writer, one aspect of cancel culture that makes my knees buckle when it comes to free speech is this gray area between creativity, telling your own story, and telling a story outside your range of personal experience.
As an American Jew, I understand what it feels like to have your culture appropriated by the majority culture. It’s infuriating and gaslighting.
So much internal conflict! So much complexity! No wonder I’m tired.
In the publishing world, a major call for increasing diversity has surfaced these past few years. And rightfully so. A study conducted and published by the New York Times in 2020 found that 95 percent of the of 7,000+ books it analyzed were written by white people.
Personally, I don’t feel comfortable writing a protagonist who is a black woman in America. I’m a white, Jewish woman in America, and the Black experience is not mine to tell. Rather, a Black, female writer in America should be able to snag a publishing deal for her book and share her story. Unfortunately, the publishing industry needs some serious D.E.I. first.
But does this mean I can only write from the perspective of white, female, Jewish Americans? And should Black men only write about Black men, and should Hispanic immigrants only write about Hispanic immigrants?
This question came to a head with the controversy surrounding the novel by Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt. This appears to be less of a free speech issue, and more of a diversity issue within the publishing world. If publishers wanted a thrilling adventure story about the immigrant experience from Mexico to the U.S., they should have looked for a Mexican immigrant writer to amplify that voice. Plenty exist.
Some critics of American Dirt have accused Cummins of cultural appropriation. I have not read the book so I cannot comment, but what caught my attention was the almost complete consensus that Cummins is too white to write an adventure book about the immigrant experience, even though she has a Puerto Rican grandparent. Taking the various caveats and emotions out of this controversy, let’s examine the implication of this assertation for a moment:
Are we entering a realm where writers are limited to writing only about their immediate circle of identity?
Growing up, one of the great joys of creative writing was the encouragement from teachers to write about something outside of myself.
If you’re white (or any other race), and challenged to write a story from the perspective of a Black American (or any race different than yours), it forces you to learn someone else’s experience. Of course, you need to take the time to actually learn. If you do, writing from another perspective teaches empathy.
I am aware that this might be an innocent and naïve perspective. Minority writers have been forced to sit back and watch white writers tell their stories, accurate or not, for decades (and in some cases, for centuries). In essence, the white world has cancelled minority voices for eons. There’s a term for that: colonialism.
Colonialism is enraging and heartbreaking, and it’s the reason why minority voices today are telling white people, “No more! We’re taking our stories back!”
But I want to challenge the mindset that people may only write about their immediate circle of identity. Do we really want to muffle each other’s voices as we move past this horrible wrong? Is the future we desire one where we pigeonhole ourselves into branded identities, even if one grandparent is Jewish and another one is Black, and one parent is Hispanic and the other is white?
Writing from different perspectives brings us together and encourages imagination. If we want to support the effort to recognize and heal the effects of colonialism in the writing world, then we need to pressure the publishing industry to give more minorities a platform to tell their stories.
Morality and the Role of Writers
The second part of this massive discussion on cancel culture that makes my knees buckle is the role of writers when it comes to morality.
I consider myself a liberal and a feminist. In my first novel, The Apollo Illusion, one of the main characters is a 19-year-old young man named Andrew who womanizes. He also (gasp!) thinks about sex a lot. Yet, he never tries to control women or prey on them for non-consensual acts.
As the story unfolds, Andrew matures and begins to understand the wrongs of his past actions. He even apologizes.
One of the reviewers of my book called Andrew a misogynist and a disgusting pig. The reviewer further criticized me for writing such a character, and implied I was actively writing traits that go against feminism.
This caught me off-guard. What bothered me wasn’t this reviewer’s distaste for Andrew’s character. That’s her prerogative. What bothered me was her implication that I have somehow internalized misogyny, and her insinuated suggestion that I should write characters more morally appropriate in the future.
I wrote an imperfect character because in life, people are imperfect. I like writing in the grays. Otherwise, stories would be boring. This will never change for me.
Like all artwork, stories are meant to entertain, soothe, challenge, enlighten, provoke, provide solidarity, or instigate change. Stories cannot accomplish these goals if they are morally appropriate every time. Besides, morality is fluid, changing with time and society.
While writers play a role in reflecting society’s morals, it is not our job to set the moral code. If we are held to that standard, society will find itself repressed and devoid of emotional outlets, with mediocre or drab art, literature, and music.
Nonetheless, as a lesser-known writer, the fear of an online mob trying to end my writing career for a moral slight is real and intimidating.
Ultimately, is Cancel Culture a Threat to Free Speech?
Here’s my conclusion: only if we let it.
I do not mean we join the far right in screaming about the “fascist left” trying to stifle free speech. Such an accusation is hysterical and extreme, and only feeds into fear of the other.
Some of what the right labels as cancel culture is simply society progressing and moving past outdated, harmful social norms. As Maya Angelou once famously said, “When you know better, do better.” Don’t we, as a society, want to improve and do better?
Instead, if writers want to ensure cancel culture doesn’t spiral out of control and threaten free speech, we need to understand that with great freedom comes great responsibility.
How can writers be responsible? We need to strike a balance between respect and creativity by:
Researching appropriately and thoroughly when writing about other cultures than our own, to avoid cultural appropriation.
Asking ourselves why we want to write from another perspective before doing it. If the reason is for artistic creativity, plot-point emphasis, an internal fire to write the story, or social commentary, we should move forward. However, if the reason is for personal or financial gain, we should stop.
Hiring sensitivity readers from other cultures represented in our writing to ensure we are not perpetuating harmful stereotypes or inaccurate information.
Ensuring we are not writing bigoted, racist, or misogynistic characters into our stories with the intention of harming another community. If we are writing uncomfortable characters, we should have a clear, artistic reason for their flaws (e.g. to encourage thought and discussion, to show a character arc, or to illustrate the varying caveats of human character).
Continuing to pressure the publishing industry to diversify and amplify minority voices.
As writers, if we are responsible, we will have a clear and coherent defense should any critics try to “cancel” us for unfounded reasons.
Is the online mob scary? Of course. I’d be lying if I said the fear of accidentally saying the wrong thing out of pure ignorance doesn’t affect me (I recently learned that white supremacists hijacked the “OK” hand signal and made it their own; like, WTF?).
However, I still have faith that the public can decipher between a ridiculous accusation and someone spreading true hateful rhetoric. Be the change. And cancel the need for cancel culture.
If you liked this article, don’t miss the next one! Sign up for Shari Lopatin’s weekly e-newsletter, Rogue Writer, now:
If this article provoked you to think deeply about cancel culture and/or how writers should approach it, help spread the discussion and share it with your circle!