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Moral Outrage, Social Accountability And Political Theater: What Is 'Cancel Culture'?

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Throughout American history, boycotting has been used to withhold support or sponsorship for centuries, but in the current age, it's taken on new forms: the publicly calling out or so-called "canceling" of an offending individual or entity.

Prominent examples of "cancel culture" — also known as "call-out culture" — include during the Me Too Movement when women came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment, calling out their abusers by name and deed.

People can also be "canceled" for being racist, sexist, transphobic, violent, abusive or otherwise offensive. These kinds of "call outs" usually originate in the digital sphere, but can result in serious real-world repercussions.

In right-wing media, the same term is used to push back against what's seen as the unwarranted or unnecessary calling out of someone or thing that's undeserving of moral outrage and public condemnation.

In a recent Harvard poll, 36% of Americans said cancel culture is a "big problem," while 32% called it a "moderate problem." Sixty-four percent of respondents said they view "cancel culture" as a threat to their freedom.

Is "canceling" a meaningful tool for social accountability? Does it actually work? Can there be unintended consequences?

What are the most common misconceptions about "cancel culture"? What was the original goal of this "movement" and how has the concept evolved and been appropriated since?

What are the potential implications for social justice, free speech, academic freedom, politics and society at large?


  • Loretta Ross, visiting professor at Smith College and author of the forthcoming book “Calling In the Calling Out Culture"
  • Allissa Richardson, Ph.D., professor of journalism and communication at USC Annenberg, and author of "Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest Journalism" and the forthcoming "Canceled: How Smartphones & Social Media Democratized Public Shaming"
  • Matthew Sheffield, former conservative political consultant and co-founder of right-wing site Newsbusters; now editor and publisher of Flux -- an online magazine about politics, religion, and media

"The Source" is a live call-in program airing Mondays through Thursdays from 12-1 p.m. Leave a message before the program at (210) 615-8982. During the live show, call 833-877-8255, email thesource@tpr.org or tweet @TPRSource.

*This interview was recorded on Wednesday, April 7.

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