OPINION: What national media coverage gets wrong about “cancel culture” on campus

Critics of “cancel culture” on campus are missing the point, writes Gwen Tucker SC ’25. (Liam Brooks • The Student Life)

College campuses are perpetually on the front lines of popular media debate about the presence of so-called “cancel culture”. On March 7, Emma Camp, a senior at the University of Virginia, published a guest editorial in The New York Times claiming that she and her peers have experienced “self-censorship,” often abstaining from sharing their true political opinions out of fear of backlash. And recently, Yale Law School students have been under fire — particularly from The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal — for their choice to protest a controversial speaker at a “free speech” event. This media coverage is especially disappointing, as it represents a fundamental misunderstanding about the purpose of higher education: to be challenged, and to learn to stand up for what you believe in. 

The debate around cancel culture is so complicated because the term means such different things to different people. The term has come to be used primarily by conservative media outlets and personalities, who paint it as the actions of a social media-based mob of “woke liberal snowflakes.” Anyone who is called out for their actions — put “at risk” of taking accountability or facing consequences — is seen as being “canceled” or deplatformed. This is despite the fact that many individuals who have allegedly been “canceled”– such as J.K. Rowling, Louis C.K., and others — retain a significant public platform. This framing of cancel culture is especially problematic because it discounts the experiences of many individuals and activists, usually people with left-wing politics, who have genuinely faced material consequences for their views

On college campuses more specifically, cancel culture has come to be portrayed in the media as two things: pervasive self-censorship, and attacks on free speech. The first side is represented by Camp’s op-ed. She draws on statistics from a 2021 survey by College Pulse that reported that 48 percent of college students felt uncomfortable expressing their views in class, and claims this is because of the intense public shaming students constantly face for addressing views outside of the political norms. But she isn’t able to provide much evidence for how serious these consequences really are.

Camp describes expressing an unpopular opinion in a feminist theory class, which resulted in “the room [feeling] tense”. She also quotes a politically conservative student at University of Virginia, who describes feeling anxiety around sharing his views. In claiming that tense classrooms and anxiety-ridden conversations are inherently negative things, Camp completely mischaracterizes the nature of the issue.

First, she devalues the legitimate consequences students have faced for expressing unpopular views. For some, their opinions don’t just result in them feeling uncomfortable in class, but in being subjected to physical violence and doxxing

Second, she sees discomfort around sharing beliefs as an inherently negative thing. As former student activist Zeeshan Aleem argued in MSNBC, “I learned that meaningful dissent necessarily entails confrontation and discomfort — but that there is dignity and strength to be found in stealing oneself in the face of overwhelming disagreement”. For many, college is a time to be meaningfully challenged in your beliefs, which results in growth, learning from others, and overall greater conviction towards fighting for what you believe in. While Camp claims that she wants “more classrooms full of energetic debate”, her immediate dismissal of anything that causes discomfort is inherently in opposition to any thoughtful discourse. 

The second recent piece in the college campus cancel culture debate concerns alleged attacks on free speech. Just a few days after the publication of Camp’s op-ed, popular media covered  a student protest at Yale University’s law school. On March 10, the Yale Federalist Society hosted an event on free speech and civil liberties, featuring a discussion between panelists from both progressive and conservative organizations. The conservative panelist was Kristen Waggoner, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom who has argued in front of the Supreme Court against LGBTQ+ rights and reproductive freedom

Naturally, students showed up to protest Waggoner, someone who has attempted to, and succeeded in, taking away rights from many marginalized Americans. To me, this seems exactly what the First Amendment protects: the right to free speech and assembly. But coverage in the Wall Street Journal disagrees. A March 20 op-ed referred to the group of students as a “political mob”, and advocated for depriving them of future clerkships with the Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals. This is the real cancel culture. Claiming that students who stand up for what they believe in — human rights — should be rejected from future jobs is a real, material consequence (while Waggoner faced nothing of the sort). Again, this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of free speech in higher education: college is a time for students to learn to stand up for their beliefs, not to be silent to make others feel more comfortable about their own bigotry.

Students on college campuses around the country, including the 5Cs, have a responsibility to dispel these false and harmful narratives about cancel culture. We must continue to engage in open discussion, challenging others and being challenged, accepting discomfort as an expected  and even important outcome. We must stand up for what we believe in through protests and direct action, ignoring the right-wing commentators who claim to be victims of “cancel culture” even as they engage in it themselves. 

Gwen Tucker SC ’25 is from Evanston, Illinois. She is passionate about community organizing, Jewish identity, and showing everyone pictures of her foster dogs.

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