Cancel culture is entering a dangerous new phase. But there is a key to getting out

Some people who have been ‘canceled’ can be reinstated if they make amends. But what of people canceled for an ideal?

After J.K. Rowling got “canceled” for a tweet that was seen as transphobic, Harper’s magazine published a letter in which 150 writers and scholars defended the free exchange of information and ideas.

Afterward, at least two of the signers asked for their names to be removed

Even free speech, one of America’s most cherished values, is controversial within the angry borders of cancel culture, which seeks to censor and punish people whose actions and words have offended others.

“Canceling” someone means to stop giving them attention or money because of something they said or did. Effectively, it is crowd-sourced punishment, and it has grown more prevalent this year as social media use accelerated during the pandemic.

The length and scope of that punishment, however, varies widely.

Comedian Stephen Colbert was briefly canceled in 2014 for a joke that many people found offensive. He remains one of late-night television’s kings.

An accidental celebrity named Carson King was threatened with cancellation last year after a reporter uncovered two racist tweets that King had sent while in high school. King now runs a foundation that has raised millions of dollars for charity.

Rowling, however, may find it more difficult to move past the controversy that engulfed her in June when she posted a tweet that many people considered transphobic. That’s because her “sin” wasn’t something she did in the past, but stemmed from a deeply held value for which she won’t apologize.

In fact, she has doubled down on her position.

In this Nov. 13, 2018 file photo, author J.K. Rowling poses for photographers upon her arrival at the premiere of the film ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’, in London.
Author J.K. Rowling poses for photographers upon her arrival at the premiere of the film “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” on Nov. 13, 2018, in London. | Joel C Ryan, Invision via Associated Press

Jonah Bromwich, a writer for The New York Times who was among the first people to explore the subject, believes that instead of being a passing fad of pop culture, cancel culture is “a new development in how power works.” That power is available to anyone with a Twitter account and a camera. A subsidiary of cancel culture is public shaming: calling out the behavior of others in videos posted to social media.

But what’s often missing in a cancel culture is a keystone virtue in all the major religious traditions: forgiveness. The importance of forgiveness is even articulated in America’s most powerful document, the Constitution, which authorizes the president to grant pardons, notes Angela Sailor, a vice president at the Heritage Foundation, who recently wrote, “Cancel culture is a direct assault on the construct of forgiveness. It seeks not to fix, but to destroy.”

Forgiveness is present in the story of King, the Iowa construction worker whose sign asking for beer money went viral last year; but, it remains elusive in some quarters for Rowling, the British writer. Here’s why, and what needs to happen before cancel culture itself gets the axe.

The power of apology

This time last year, Carson King, 25, was a household name only in his household.

Then he went to a football game and held up a sign on TV that said “Busch Light Supply Needs Replenished” with his Venmo account information.

The sign went viral, and donations began to flow in. At $600, he decided to give the money to University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. Then media started to call, donations topped $1 million, and Anheuser-Busch promised a year of free beer, named after the “Iowa Legend.”

King met the governor and was applauded on the field at a University of Iowa football game. However, when an otherwise positive profile written about him included information about two tweets from when he was 16 years old, the acclaim died down, and Anheuser-Busch withdrew the offer of free beer and its plans to make King an ambassador.

A brief history of ‘cancel culture’


2017: Writer Shanita Hubbard tweets “Let’s talk ‘cancel culture’ with regard to controversy over Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas’s remarks about sexual assault. The term, often used in quotes, began to pop up sporadically on Twitter. At the end of the year, Nylon magazine lists “All the People Who Have Been Cancelled in 2017.”


2018: Attorney Aisha Rimi writes an essay called “Why cancel culture needs to be cancelled.” A few weeks later, Jonah Engel Bromwich publishes “Everyone is Canceled” in The New York Times, noting that rapper Kanye West used the word “canceled” 7 times in an interview, the singer worrying that he would be ‘canceled because I didn’t cancel Trump.”


2019: Google Trends data shows that searches for “cancel culture” begin to rise. Wired magazine, TIME and the Deseret News are among publications discussing the trend.


2020: People upset by J.K. Rowling’s comments about gender identity call for her cancellation. At Mount Rushmore, President Donald Trump compares cancel culture to totalitarianism, saying it is a political weapon that demands “total submission from anyone who disagrees.” Google searches for “cancel culture” spike.


SOURCE: The New York Times, Insider.com, Whitehouse.gov

He was on the verge of being canceled, a term believed to have originated among Black Americans on Twitter, according to Merriam-Webster, and which punched into pop culture vernacular in 2018 when Kanye West spoke about his worry that he would be canceled because of his support for President Donald Trump.

Looking back on those chaotic few weeks a year later, King said that he was not upset about the loss of the free beer and noted that Anheuser-Busch honored its promise to match the donations that came in — donations which now exceed $3 million and set King on a surprising career path: philanthropy.

He now heads the Carson King Foundation, in addition to working two full-time jobs in construction.

King emerged from the controversy without lasting damage in part because of the strength of his apology (He said, “I am embarrassed and stunned to reflect on what I thought was funny when I was 16 years old”) and his humility about the tweets being exposed, analysts say. He was not defensive; in fact, he thanked the newspaper for its “kind” coverage. And he showed a moral arc, Marianne Jennings, professor emeritus of legal and ethical studies in business at Arizona State University, said at the time.

“He went from hitting people up for donations for beer to the realization that such a project may have been slightly vapid and the use of the money a bit hedonistic. That’s not bad progress for a party animal, albeit a creative one,” Jennings said in the Deseret News last year.

King, in short, asked for forgiveness and got it in short order.

“In general, we know that authentic and genuine apologies are one of the most helpful actions that lead toward forgiveness,” said Nathaniel G. Wade, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University who specializes in forgiveness. “Accepting wrongdoing, acknowledging and validating the pain one caused, and pledging to act differently in the future usually lead to being forgiven.”

But that’s something that J.K. Rowling can’t do, because what got her canceled was not an action, but a belief.

Backlash in books

Rowling has been critical about the movement to let people identify themselves by their preferred gender rather than by biological sex. In June of last year, she mocked a publication for saying “people who menstruate” rather than “women,” which has led to people calling her transphobic and calling for a boycott of her books.

Publishers have seen a “remarkably sudden and sharp drop” in sales of “Harry Potter” books this summer, even though sales of fiction overall rose 31%, Variety magazine reported. Some “Harry Potter” fan websites like MuggleNet removed references to the author, and there was even a push to get Rowling prosecuted for a hate crime.

In addition to a good apology, demonstrating empathy for the person or persons who were offended is one of the most important predictors of forgiveness, Wade said.

In a June 10 essay responding to outcry over her earlier tweets, Rowling expressed empathy and she has said “I know and love trans people,” but she primarily wrote about her concern about gender transitioning, further inflaming her critics.

She also continued to defend her position on Twitter, even while interacting with children sending in their drawings in hopes of illustrating her soon-to-be published book “The Ickabog.”

That young audience may ultimately decide how history treats Rowling.

Wade said other factors in forgiveness are how “severe or frequent” the offense and how committed the relationship is between the offender and the offended. “Millennials who grew up with Rowling might be more forgiving than Gen Z who maybe don’t have the same cultural closeness with her,” he said.

Carson King, of Altoona, Iowa, center, waves to patients in the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital at the end of the first quarter of an NCAA college football game between Iowa and Middle Tennessee on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, in Iowa City, Iowa. King plans to donate more than $1 million to charity after his decision to display a hand-written sign before the Sept. 14 Iowa State-Iowa football game seeking money for beer prompted an overwhelming number of donations. | Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project at Stanford University, said that forgiveness often follows the pattern laid out by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her renowned five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Luskin said that forgiveness is a partner to acceptance, important to people on both sides of a public cancellation.

If both sides just say the other is wrong, “this increases disharmony and pushback,” he said. People get increasingly defensive and get stuck in “aggrieved” mode.

But if there is an offer of absolution embedded in the discussion, people are more likely to listen to each other and not just shout at each other, he said.

“Anger is a wonderful spur to action,” he added. But, “while anger is essential for recognizing a problem — it’s essential — it’s not good for solving a problem.”

Sometimes a person is canceled for abhorrent behavior — for example, retweeting racist jokes and or making a false police report, as happened in New York City’s Central Park earlier this year.

But when a difference in beliefs is involved, cancel culture moves into another realm, one that is currently confronting the country as a whole: ideological polarization.

Robb Willer, director of the Polarization and Social Change Lab at Stanford University, contends that people of opposing ideologies should use a strategy called “moral reframing” in conflict. Simply put, this means to consider the values and morals of people with opposing viewpoints when trying to convince them of your view.

This leads to empathy, which in her speech at the Democratic National Convention former first lady Michelle Obama described as, “the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes; the recognition that someone else’s experience has value, too.”

Understanding the moral framework that underpins another person’s beliefs may reduce the vehemence with which other people denounce them, and remind critics that people cannot just abandon their principles because a crowd demands it.

As Douglas Murray wrote in his 2019 book “The Madness of Crowds,” “there is something demeaning and ultimately soul-destroying about being expected to go along with claims you do not believe to be true and cannot hold to be true.”

That’s similar to what Rowling said when she tweeted a quote by the late American playwright Lillian Hellman: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”

‘Own it and grow from it’

Sometimes the ferocity of cancel culture is the best argument against it, as in the case of the New York bird enthusiast Christian Cooper who filmed a woman’s meltdown when he asked her to leash her dog.

After Cooper’s sister posted the video on Twitter on Memorial Day, it went viral, and the woman lost her job and her dog as a result of internet rage. She later got the dog back, but the damage to her reputation is incalculable, and Cooper has said that while he believes the woman’s response was racist, he regrets the extent of what happened to her.

“If our goal is to change the underlying factors, I am not sure that this young woman having her life completely torn apart serves that goal,” Cooper told a reporter for The New York Times. He has said that he’s accepted the woman’s apology.

While its punishments may be outsized, cancel culture may, in fact, serve the purpose of pointing out societal problems, such as racism. And we can learn from its abuses.

For example, Carson says his experience has been a warning to other young people to watch their digital footprints, and to “take it head on like an adult if you make a mistake; own it and grow from it.”

He finds it strange that toddlers who are learning to walk are encouraged and supported when they stumble and fall, “but after a certain point, if you fall along the way, people crucify you for falling.

“The journey — that’s what should be applauded,” he said.