Breaking Down the Anatomy of Cancel Culture

A photo of several people sitting on chairs on a stage, discussing a topic with papers in their laps.
Assistant Professor Franciska Coleman (second from right) helps kick off the State Bar of Wisconsin’s 2023 Meeting and Conference in Milwaukee in June.

It’s no shock to Assistant Profes­sor Franciska Coleman that the “cancel culture” debate has been highly visible in higher education.

Coleman, who has been re­searching the social regulation of speech for the past eight years, said universities are both engines for the production of knowledge and norms in society and vehicles of ra­cial integration and class mobility.

“Unsurprisingly, in times of hyperpolarization underscored by unprecedented demographic change, those twin goals seem to be in deep tension,” she said.

Coleman’s work made her a natural choice to serve on the advisory board for the University of Wisconsin System’s Student Views on Freedom of Speech survey, which reported its find­ings in February. More than half of students reported wanting to express their views about a controversial topic in class but deciding not to, mostly due to worry that other students would disagree with them. A strong ma­jority of students said faculty and instructors “sometimes,” “often” or “extremely often” encourage them to explore a wide range of viewpoints.

Coleman was pleased that the survey, which originally only referred to offensive speech, was updated to also ask about inju­rious speech as a result of her feedback.

“When students are calling for sanctions, they are asking you to hold people accountable for harm,” she said. To these students, harm is more than offensiveness.

In her first paper, “They Should Be Fired: The Social Regu­lation of Free Speech in the U.S.,” Coleman identified three catego­ries of speech that are sanctioned as harmful. These categories are:

  • Censorable: defined by a strong (multi-racial, cross-party) consensus that it is harmful speech
  • Contested: speech considered high-value and protected by a sizable group but low-value and harmful by a competing group
  • Discreditable: speech people agree is callous but still dis­agree over whether it should be sanctioned

Coleman’s concern in this paper was that “there was no dis­tinction made between uttering a racial slur and just being rude.” Both types of speech led to job loss.

The term “cancel culture” itself has become negative, Coleman explained. It is used by people who view the social regu­lation of speech, a neutral term, as something that silences dissent rather than holds people account­able. To them, it is something that makes ordinary Americans live in fear of being fired for not being politically correct enough. To others, she noted, “consequence culture” is an important way for individuals to challenge the type of racist speech that can be a pre­lude to violence.

In her second paper, “Anato­my of Cancel Culture,” published this March, Coleman discussed these two competing narratives: cancel culture and consequence culture. She found that while neither is fully false, neither fully reflects reality. Instead, she noted that social regulation plays out across five phases in ways that both affirm and contradict these narratives. The five phases she identified are:

  1. Publication and dissemination
  2. Accusation
  3. Pillory
  4. Sanctions
  5. Direct action

Coleman wants universities to adopt policies in advance on how they will respond to social regulation of speech as it plays out in each of these phases. As a result, in her next paper, she aims to use her phases as a framework to ground a set of best practices for university administrators.

“It’s hard to teach free speech principles when students are hurt and angry,” she said, noting we need to have these discussions and set student expectations in advance.

Coleman also believes it’s crit­ical for universities to combine both free speech and inclusion training.

“We have to find a way to do those trainings together. Students need to understand that, as a soci­ety, we care about your ability to speak, and we also care about the impact of your speech,” she said.

By Jennie Broecker