“Cancel culture” has become one of the most divisive terms in America, stoking a moral panic and even sparking calls from Republican lawmakers to make it illegal. Now, a major survey reveals how many Americans feel about the term and its power to hold people accountable.
Although the phrase has existed for decades, the past several years has seen cancel culture become an increasingly politicized topic, according to the Pew Research Center, who released the findings of a survey of more than 10,000 US adults on Wednesday.
The survey, conducted in September 2020, asked respondents to define cancel culture in their own words, and found many were deeply divided over its meaning.
One representative response from a conservative Republican said cancel culture is “destroying a person’s career or reputation based on past events in which that person participated, or past statements that person has made, even if their beliefs or opinions have changed”, the study found.
Conversely, another respondent who described herself as a “moderate Democrat” said it was “a method of withdrawing support for public figures or companies”.
Five other distinct descriptions of the term “cancel culture” also appeared in Americans’ responses: “people canceling anyone they disagree with”, “consequences for those who have been challenged, an attack on traditional American values”, “a way to call out issues like racism or sexism”, or a “misrepresentation of people’s actions”.
With the rise of social media, the #MeToo movement and recent reckonings on racism, many forms of accountability have been summarized as cancel culture – while others say critics of such reckonings are upholding toxic power structures.
Cancel culture was condemned in 2020 in a letter from 150 academics, writers and activists on the left and right in Harper’s magazine. It was cited in a 2020 antitrust hearing by representative Jim Jordan who forced each technology executive to state whether he believed it was good or bad. Last week, a Republican operative founded a counter group to cancel cancel culture.
Yet despite its dominance in national discourse, a large number of respondents said they are not familiar with the issue. Pew concedes the survey was fielded before “a string of recent conversations and controversies about cancel culture”. But still the majority – 56% – say they have heard nothing or not too much about it, including 38% who have heard nothing at all.
Familiarity with the term varies with age. While 64% of adults under 30 say they have heard a great deal or fair amount about cancel culture, that share drops to 46% among those ages 30 to 49 and 34% among those 50 and older. Overall, 44% of Americans say they have heard at least a fair amount about the phrase, including 22% who have heard “a great deal”.
Pew also surveyed people for their broader thoughts on the act of calling out others on social media, asking whether this kind of behavior is more likely to hold people accountable or punish those who don’t deserve it.
More than half – 58% of US adults – say in general calling out others on social media is more likely to hold people accountable, while only 38% say it is more likely to punish people who don’t deserve it.
“I think people need to be called out when they say something offensive on social media, because if you’re brave enough to say it then you should be brave enough to be accountable for your actions and be able to deal with whatever happens because of it,” one surveyed woman said.