Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.
When you hear the terms “canceled” or “cancel culture,” what comes to mind?
According to Dictionary.com, “cancel culture refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive.”
But these days, the phenomenon can apply to personal relationships, too. Have you had an experience with canceling someone — whether a friend or family member, a celebrity, or someone in your school community — or being canceled yourself? Would you say that cancel culture is prevalent at your school?
In the 2019 Style article “Tales From the Teenage Cancel Culture,” Sanam Yar and Jonah Engel Bromwich share six stories of cancel culture from high school and college students.
In one, a teenager grapples with what she sees as a classmate’s problematic music choices:
A few weeks ago, Neelam, a high school senior, was sitting in class at her Catholic school in Chicago. After her teacher left the room, a classmate began playing “Bump N’ Grind,” an R. Kelly song.
Neelam, 17, had recently watched the documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly” with her mother. She said it had been “emotional to take in as a black woman.”
Neelam asked the boy and his cluster of friends to stop playing the track, but he shrugged off the request. “‘It’s just a song,’” she said he replied. “‘We understand he’s in jail and known for being a pedophile, but I still like his music.’”
She was appalled. They were in a class about social justice. They had spent the afternoon talking about Catholicism, the common good and morality. The song continued to play.
That classmate, who is white, had done things in the past that Neelam described as problematic, like casually using racist slurs — not name-calling — among friends. After class, she decided he was “canceled,” at least to her.
Her decision didn’t stay private; she told a friend that week that she had canceled him. She told her mother too. She said that this meant she would avoid speaking or engaging with him in the future, that she didn’t care to hear what he had to say, because he wouldn’t change his mind and was beyond reason.
“When it comes to cancel culture, it’s a way to take away someone’s power and call out the individual for being problematic in a situation,” Neelam said. “I don’t think it’s being sensitive. I think it’s just having a sense of being observant and aware of what’s going on around you.”
In another, a young person describes her own experience of being “canceled”:
It took some time for L to understand that she had been canceled. She was 15 and had just returned to a school she used to attend. “All the friends I had previously had through middle school completely cut me off,” she said. “Ignored me, blocked me on everything, would not look at me.”
Months went by. Toward the end of sophomore year, she reached out over Instagram to a former friend, asking why people were not talking to her. It was lunchtime; the person she asked was sitting in the cafeteria with lots of people and so they all piled on. It was like an avalanche, L said.
Within a few minutes she got a torrent of direct messages from the former friend on Instagram, relaying what they had said. One said she was a mooch. One said she was annoying and petty. One person said that she had ruined her self-esteem. Another said that L was an emotional leech who was thirsty for validation.
“This put me in a situation where I thought I had done all these things,” L said. “I was bad. I deserved what was happening.”
Two years have passed since then. “You can do something stupid when you’re 15, say one thing and 10 years later that shapes how people perceive you,” she said. “We all do cringey things and make dumb mistakes and whatever. But social media’s existence has brought that into a place where people can take something you did back then and make it who you are now.”
In her junior year, L said, things got better. Still, that rush of messages and that social isolation have left a lasting impact. “I’m very prone to questioning everything I do,” she said. “‘Is this annoying someone?’ ‘Is this upsetting someone?’”
“I have issues with trusting perfectly normal things,” she said. “That sense of me being some sort of monster, terrible person, burden to everyone, has stayed with me to some extent. There’s still this sort of lingering sense of: What if I am?”
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
Which of the stories in this article resonated with or stood out to you most? Why? Do you have any examples like these from your own school?
Have you ever “canceled” a classmate? Family member? Friend? Celebrity? What led you to that decision? Looking back, do you think it was the right choice? Why or why not?
Have you ever been canceled? Or have people ever been upset or offended by something you said or did? How did it feel? How did you react? Did you take responsibility and apologize? Did you ask for more information? Or did you feel you were wrongly accused of something?
What do you think about being “called out” versus being “called in” as a way to address problematic or harmful actions? (As the article defines it, “‘Called in’ means to be gently led to understand your error; call-outs are more aggressive.”) Have you ever witnessed one or both of these approaches? Do you think one is more effective than the other? Should different responses be used for different situations — for example, for a celebrity versus a family member? Why?
What do you think is the best response to being called out? Should the person take responsibility? If so, what should that look and sound like? Should they apologize publicly or privately? Or should they just step back from the person or community that was harmed?
What is your opinion of cancel culture as a whole? In a 2019 interview, Barack Obama challenged youth activists on their “purity” and “judgmentalism,” saying, “That’s not activism.” But in an Opinion essay, Ernest Owens, a journalist, wrote that Mr. Obama’s comments reflected a very “boomer view of cancel culture,” one in which older and more powerful people seem to be “more upset by online criticism than they are by injustice.” What do you think? Has cancel culture gone too far and become unproductive? Or is it a necessary and effective response to perceived wrongdoing?