A Framework for Understanding Cancel Culture

Mostafa Mohamed, Contributing Writer

Much of the narrative surrounding cancel culture is centered around free speech and censorship. America’s political right characterizes it as totalitarian, and even Pope Francis has expressed fear that it would destroy “all sense of identity.” The youth engaged in the movement are characterized as irrationally aggrieved. It would seem to me, however, that the conversation surrounding cancel culture should be focused on the development of the identity of a generation. That is to say, perhaps, that cancel culture is not about an indignant generation, but rather a generation-wide rejection of values held by our elders.

It is no coincidence that the movement is made up of primarily college students. College is a time that reflects an inflection point in identity development. However, the path of gaining a sense of identity is rarely linear or concrete. It is often easier to decide who you do not want to be than who you would like to be. It is in this negated sense of identity that the key understanding of cancel culture exists. This generation is deciding that it is not the values they are “canceling.” Viewing cancel culture from this framework provides an optimistic view of the future of America.

When J.K. Rowling was “canceled” for her homophobic and transphobic remarks back in 2020, it was not because this generation is too sensitive. Rather, it reflects a wholesale rejection of those ideals. This generation, sort of democratically, decided that that behavior is unacceptable and the protection of the LGBTQ+ community supersedes her status as the writer of a beloved series that defined many of our childhoods. When Piers Morgan was “canceled” for his denial of Meghan Markle’s struggles with depression, this generation rejected the shame surrounding the struggle of mental illness our parents’ generation holds. Ellen DeGeneres’ cancellation represented a rejection of hierarchical disrespect in workplaces.

All cancellations are built upon implicit maxims. In Rowling’s case, the maxim is that gender non-conforming folks ought to be respected as individuals. In the Morgan case — people ought to feel comfortable sharing their struggles with mental illness. And in the DeGeneres case — employers ought to treat their employees with dignity and respect. Our generation’s identity is being developed within these maxims. The common thread here is respect and the rejection of bigotry, and that cannot be considered bad.

This phenomenon is undoubtedly messy as our generation stumbles to form a concrete identity. I have qualms with this practice, and I am sure much of this generation does, too. But when we begin to view it for what it is — a rejection of the worst ideals of our grandparents and parents — the future this generation will build looks agreeable. Those previously marginalized, and the vulnerability that was previously considered taboo, are brought to the forefront of society and embraced. That is our social progress, and I would rather welcome the messiness than remain complacent with bigotry.