“Wokeness” and “Cancel Culture” are popular terms in our modern political and social parlance, but what do they actually mean? How should we think about the concept of “canceling” – is it behavior gone too far, or is it just about accountability?
Discussion of these issues relates to the notion of free speech itself, a right that is very much misunderstood by most Americans. Free speech doesn’t mean speech doesn’t have consequences – the question is whether these consequences are justified or not.
In most contexts, “wokeness” is just a broader recognition of social inequities such as racism, sexism, and other forms of social injustice. However, the term “cancel culture” is often thrown around as a political cudgel to stop debate on critical issues. This cudgel is used by both the left and the right, but it’s seen much more in conservative circles where some are trying to preserve the status quo.
One can’t discuss these issues without discussing the very notion of accountability more broadly in society, which is partly enforced by laws, but more often enforced by informal social and community networks.
The biggest problem with these terms are that they are broad pejoratives that ignore context. “Cancellation” is very different if it’s related to someone’s speech or behavior in a public or private context, whether it’s a business or an individual, or even if it’s in the context of artistic expression such as comedy. We also reflect on the debate about tearing down statues and examining historical figures through a modern lens.