The End of "Cancel Culture"?
Young Americans may return us to a culture of compassion and forgiveness.
In their book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff speculate that a specific cohort of young Americans is driving rising hypersensitivity towards political differences and skepticism about free speech.
They point to Americans born in and after 1995—whom the psychologist Jean Twenge calls “iGen,” short for the “internet Generation”—as the group whose members, once they reached college age, began pushing for a radical restructuring of academic life. They note in the book that “requests for safe spaces and trigger warnings” began “to spread only when iGen began arriving on campus, around 2013.”
For those of us concerned about pluralism and free speech, it is unfortunate that this youngest cohort of Americans seems to have gone on, after graduation, to increasingly enforce their new norms in a range of institutions, from leading publications to the Fortune 500. In organization after organization, you would find a cohort of young people eager to demonize their colleagues over political differences and shun or shame people for transgressions that previously would’ve been handled with a polite conversation.
This new set of norms has been dubbed “cancel culture” by some, an inexact term that often confuses as much as it clarifies. Whatever you call it, this stultifying approach to the world has had a chilling effect on political speech: A poll by the Cato Institute found that 62 percent of Americans say they have political views they’re afraid to share.
The good news is that this cultural shift may not be as permanent as we had feared.
The firm Morning Consult polled a range of Americans about their views on cancel culture, looking at different generational cohorts: Generation Z (Americans born in the years 1997 through 2008), millennials (1981 through 1996), Generation X (1965 through 1980), and the baby boomers (1946 through 1964). Of course, polls should not be treated as definitive on their own, as they are imperfect snapshots in time, and opinions can certainly change.
Nevertheless, this new data is a hopeful indication that cancel culture may have peaked. Overall, cancel culture is quite unpopular among all cohorts, with each generation viewing it more negatively than positively. Millennials appeared to be most supportive of cancel culture: 19 percent said they had a positive view of it, while 22 percent were neutral, 36 percent were opposed to it, and 22 percent said they had no opinion.
Perhaps surprisingly, given its progressive leanings and similar social and political beliefs to the millennial generation, Gen Z was the cohort most opposed to cancel culture: 55 percent said they had a negative view of cancel culture, 8 percent were supportive of it, 18 percent were neutral, and 19 percent had no opinion. Moreover, it’s the youngest cohort within Gen Z—currently ages 13 to 16—who are most opposed to cancel culture, with 59 percent having a negative view of it. That number falls to 48 percent for the oldest cohort within Gen Z—ages 21 through 24.
Morning Consult didn’t offer any theories about why this sizable split may exist between and within the generations. One possible explanation is that hypersensitivity may simply be a fad that is starting to burn itself out. Moral panics about such pressing topics as Halloween costumes may have consumed students at America’s most elite campuses during the mid-2010s, but no social or political trend lasts forever. Just as Gen X did not simply inherit the most pressing concerns of the baby boomers, Gen Z may very well be developing its concerns independently.
Another explanation would be to look at the environment in which Gen Z has grown up. Millennials came of age at a time when the internet was slowly introduced into every facet of our lives. They still have a bit of separation between the internet and the real world. When someone is piled on or even fired for an embarrassing old tweet or Facebook status, a millennial’s first impulse is often to think that this person simply shouldn’t have shared that thought online. It’s easy enough for them to shrug off these events as simply a matter of personal failings.
Gen Z, on the other hand, has grown up immersed in the internet and social media. To them, the barrier between what’s personal and what’s public is fluid, and many Americans of this age don’t find it particularly unusual to broadcast everyday life and thoughts to the entire world. A puritanical mindset that seeks to persecute people over the expression of their beliefs is hard to reconcile with a world where so much of what was once private is now public.
The teens in this generation have also had to deal with the ever-present reality of their peers being dogpiled for their social media posts. A teacher I met recently described to me how her classroom’s entire climate would be affected by events that had occurred earlier that day on social media. Gen Z has first-hand knowledge of this Panopticon-like environment and how suffocating it can be.
Whatever the reason for the gap in beliefs between Gen Z and their older counterparts, Morning Consult’s poll should offer those of us who want to see a more compassionate and less judgmental world some much-needed hope. It’s possible that the same thing that pulled us into the current culture of censorship, intolerance, and polarization—generational change—will be the thing that pulls us out of it. Perhaps the kids are all right after all.
Zaid Jilani is a frequent contributor to Persuasion. He maintains his own newsletter where he writes about current affairs at inquiremore.com.