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Students Wary of “Cancel Culture” and Its Potential Impact on Their Freedom of Expression

By Meaghan Doherty

While many Adelphi University students say they don’t participate in or agree with “cancel culture,” a campus survey found the vast majority say they worry about being canceled themselves and fear the trend will continue or worsen in the future.

Cancel culture, also known as call-out culture, itself is a tricky term to define. Some experts connected it with the #MeToo movement, which coincided with the rise of the term's popularity online. The #MeToo movement came from the term “Me Too” coined by activist Tarana Burke in 2006 to raise awareness about women who had been abused. The movement went viral and became a globally recognized term in 2017 after actress Alyssa Milano, who was among many women who accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, shared a Tweet. She asked her followers to respond with a “me too” if any of them had been sexually harassed or assaulted. New allegations of sexual harassment and assault perpetrated by prominent men in the media, movie and TV industries against their female colleagues seemed to come out daily in 2017 and 2018 and public opinion quickly shifted against the accused.

Over the years the concept of cancel culture appears to have morphed, and many people, including former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, have criticized the phenomenon for harshly punishing people for simply having a disagreeable opinion.

According to cancel culture is defined as “the phenomenon or practice of publicly rejecting, boycotting or ending support for particular people or groups because of their socially or morally unacceptable views or actions.”

Paul Thaler, a professor in the Communications Department who teaches a course on free speech, said, “I believe cancel culture was born in response to social inequities that have become even more prominent in recent years. But the consequences from this movement have created their own chilling effect, and we see these repressive elements across the board from the entertainment industry to our university classroom.”

One prominent example is author J.K. Rowling. Fans of the popular author believed based on characters she created and her own liberal politics that she supported the trans community. But after she made what they considered to be transphobic statements in June 2020, the outcry from fans was so far reaching that she wasn’t invited to participate in the 20th-anniversary special of the Harry Potter movie franchise that aired on Jan. 1, 2022.

Another recent example is country singer Morgan Wallen who was suspended from his record label, barred from the Academy of Country Music Awards as well as the Country Music Association Awards, made ineligible for any awards and taken off the radio after making a racial slur in a video that surfaced in February 2021.

And comedian Dave Chapelle came under fire for his latest comedy special “The Closer,” which aired on Netflix in October. In it, Chapelle made jokes that were considered by some to be transphobic and racist.

AU Student Responses

So how does the Adelphi student population feel about the cancel culture and its impact? In a survey conducted by this reporter in November 2021 of a diverse representation of 40 AU students to assess their perception of cancel culture, only 22.5 percent said they stop consuming the media of canceled celebrities. Meaning 77.5 percent continue to watch, listen to or read the work of creators even after they have been held accountable by the public for problematic behavior.

According to the survey, a majority of students believe the term could be summed up as “demanding people be fired or boycotted for saying or doing offensive things” (75 percent) and “holding others accountable for bad behavior and remarks” (72.5 percent).

Around half of the students surveyed believe it is “a way to call out racism and sexism” (55 percent). Less than half, but still a substantial percentage of students, believe cancel culture is “being intolerant of different opinions” (42.5 percent) and “censoring speech or history” (35 percent).

When an artist or celebrity is canceled, only 22.5 percent of students surveyed said they stop consuming the media from that celebrity.

“The poll doesn’t surprise me. But that’s not the image of students on campus,” said Salvatore J. Fallica, a senior adjunct professor in the Communications Department. “If you listen to Bill Maher or some of these podcasts, they have this idea that students are being sort of like stormtroopers for anti-racism or similar issues. This obviously tells me students are thinking a lot more clearly than the chattering classes give them credit for. So I feel good about that. And frankly, that poll really reflects my own experience with my students. They would also follow this trend.”

According to the results of the survey, 82.5 percent of students take precautions in their own lives to avoid being "canceled" themselves.

Diana-Nicole Ramirez, a senior communications major, said, “I’m nervous to post on social media knowing that it could backfire on me one day. Nowadays any misstep could screw you, and it’s really scary to think about. I don’t think I’ll ever be carefree with the internet and social media, even if cancel culture slowly dies out. I’ll always be cautious.”

With concerns of cancel culture and finding jobs in the future, it’s no wonder why students are being cautious with what they say or post on the internet. Many argue the initial intent of cancel culture was beneficial as a way to call out the bad behavior of individuals such as sexual harassment in Hollywood but has since strayed off course.

“The original idea of cancel culture [was] something that reflected holding individuals responsible for their wrongdoings, [but] has become more brutal and harsh in what the public/media deems as appropriate punishments for their actions,” said Jessica Diaz, a freshman psychology major.

Saeef Hossain, a senior psychology major, said, “Cancel culture definitely has its place in calling out things like prejudice, racism, homophobia, transphobia and sexism (amongst other major contemporary social issues). Holding people who express such hatred towards certain groups accountable is absolutely necessary.”

But now many in the Adelphi community believe the movement has suffered from mission creep.

“Cancel culture is a complicated issue because people have made it complicated,” said Ana Rodriquez, a senior communications major. “Rather than just holding people accountable and making sure they meet standards or follow rules, things have gone gray. It’s now become a case-by-case type of issue, which leaves the public unsure of how to go about things.”

Fallica agreed that most people are aware these are words that can be taken out of context. “One of the most important things to understand about language is whether you call it cancel culture, whether you call it woke, whether you call it liberal, whether you call it politically correct, really depends on the context in which it is used,” he said. “People recognize, depending on who’s using the term, depending on the context in which you are hearing the term and the venue permitting this messaging all has to be taken into account.”

Students' responses certainly take this approach as well, which is why for many the entire topic presents challenges with all of the grey areas that arise.

“​​I think cancel culture is very subjective and really depends on the nature of someone's opinions,” Hossain added.

Garrett Lavelle, a junior history major, agreed. “I also feel cancel culture only becomes applicable for certain people in certain situations.” But, he added, “I disagree with cancel culture because it can ruin people’s lives for something they said or did in the past. If a person has changed from the time of the incident and apologizes for their actions, they should be able to move on. However, if they don’t change or apologize their actions should just be held against them.”

Echoing many students’ sentiments, Lavelle wondered aloud, “If someone has a good track record and is helpful in the community, but has one or two slip-ups, does that erase all the good they have done?”

Skylar Reiner, a junior communications major, put it simply: “Cancel culture does not let people grow.”

Other students were flat-out opposed to it. “Cancel culture sucks and doesn’t accomplish anything. It just ruins people’s lives for opinions or mistakes,” said Michael Ruiz, a junior sport management major.

Although younger generations are often scrutinized by the ones that came before and Generation Z is often accused of being oversensitive, politically correct “snowflakes,” Fallica argues that’s an unfair stereotype.

“My current undergraduates are a little bit more sophisticated about it,” he said. “They’re wary of these terms being thrown around. I think they are more mature about social media than previous generations have been.”

He added, “The poll tells me 77.5 percent of folks are being rational. It makes me feel good. It tells me students are not just following the BS.”

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