Ethics & Public Policy Center

Seen, Not Heard: The Challenges of Cancel Culture for Women

Published in Verily on October 29, 2020

Most of us are still struggling our way through a difficult year, trying to adapt to a rapidly changing world. Each of us, no doubt, has faced a host of unique and formidable challenges—loneliness, separation from family and friends, health concerns, working from home in isolation, trying to help children continue to learn while not in school, perhaps losing a job or, worst of all, losing loved ones.

The year has presented difficulties and unhappiness for many of us; we’ve all seen it, and we’ve all felt the effects.

As most of us have been learning to cope with spending so much time at home and isolated from our communities, we’ve sought connection and support where we can—especially through social media. While the pressures exerting themselves on us as individuals have spilled out into the public realm, where economic crisis, cultural uproar, and political chaos have reigned, they’ve also shown up online.

Instagram, which tends to be a female-dominated social media space, has been one unfortunate victim of this problem. Over the course of the year, the app has become an increasingly stultifying place to spend time—something of a microcosm of “cancel culture”—and a potent example of how its negative effects often can harm women in a unique way.

Cancel culture betrays our understanding of acceptance and unconditional love

“Cancel culture” is the sinister notion that some ideas are out of bounds in polite company, that some people should be silenced by others who “know better,” that some kinds of open discussion are no longer acceptable depending on the ideas you wish to express.

This silencing of dialogue isn’t conducive to personal growth or community advancement. One of my favorite maxims when it comes to speech is that we should always strive to respond to ideas we dislike by offering our own ideas; the solution to “bad” speech, in other words, is better speech, not silencing the people with whom we disagree.

Everyone suffers when we don’t feel free to speak our minds, think out loud, or have honest conversations about things that are most important to us.

If we reflect on the closest friendships in our lives, we’ll likely find that most of them were premised on loving acceptance. Certainly, our best friendships feature many occasions where we need to challenge one another or express disagreement—that’s a huge part of their value—but the strongest friendships bring about character growth because they are rooted in the knowledge that both parties are first and foremost cherished for who they are.

Think of the family, a place where, ideally, husband and wife work through disagreements on the foundation of kindness and respect, strengthening their marriage by complementing one another and encouraging personal improvement and growth. Think of how children profit when they are raised to think critically and speak honestly, to seek the truth in an environment where they will be guided, accepted, encouraged, and challenged.

Relationships flourish when the participants remain free to disagree, to do so passionately at times, and to grow closer to a truer understanding through those honest conversations and open discussion. If we aren’t comfortable speaking our minds for fear of harsh judgment or condemnation, it will be difficult to be vulnerable with our hearts, and we will struggle not only to find true community but also to find the personal growth made possible by coming to know the people around us.

This is true not only in families, in friendships, or within close communities. In the academic setting, for instance, the ability of each student to speak freely and find himself met with compassion and understanding, even in the midst of strong disagreement, is an essential component of true learning. Seeking the truth—which is the purpose of education—becomes far more difficult when students feel unable to offer ideas they’re working through or to discuss a topic before they’ve settled on their opinion (yet, cancel culture has a strong foothold in higher education, too).

The complex issues we face today deserve more than the instant opinions expected online

Over the last several years, we’ve witnessed how individuals and institutions that hold cultural power are swift to condemn those who say the “wrong” thing or who share opinions that contradict the prevailing views of a vocal minority, especially on issues dealing with religion, race, and gender.

As a result, many of us live in understandable fear of sharing our views in public spaces, in new friendships, in the classroom, and on social media, because our society now seems to demand ideological conformity. Especially on the internet, many of our attempts at discussion take place in a reductive, simplistic manner that leaves out important context and that can leave parties less satisfied than when they began.

Speaking for myself, and judging from the experience of friends, it has been on the platform of Instagram in particular, where many of us began to feel strong social pressure to parrot the exact same select few opinions that those around us are already sharing. For several months, I deleted the app entirely, because as I was trying to process everything happening around us during this year, I noticed that huge numbers of people were posting and reposting the same few slogans rather than being open and honest and vulnerable about how they were doing and what they were thinking.

Instead of feeling as if we will be respected when we express ourselves and connect with others by presenting our honest thoughts, we’re afraid to share our unique views. Because, for most of us, our actual thoughts are complex and nuanced. Our hearts don’t fit into the box of the few things being shared on social media, so in order to be honest, we’d have to conflict with what everyone else is sharing. Offering a belief that goes against the current is no longer seen as a simple difference of opinion; it can mean losing the respect of people we know personally, receiving a barrage of angry messages from people you barely know, or even putting good friendships at risk.

As commentary about racial injustice brewed on social media, for instance, many women felt unsure if what they wanted to say would be “the right thing” to say or “received well.” Meanwhile, along with the intense pressure to refrain from vocalizing seemingly unpopular opinions, there’s an accompanying sense that we must always have something to say online when controversial events are taking place.

Remaining silent on any given issue for whatever reason—whether we want to take time for reflection before speaking or we simply prefer not to share our thoughts online—doesn’t seem to be an option anymore. When we aren’t adding to the noise, we risk being accused of not caring, of being silent for the sake of convenience, of failing to use our voices and our platforms for the sake of justice.

I think this unfair pressure to speak, and the related pressure to self-censor, is bad for society as a whole, and it’s difficult in a particular way for women. Most of us have a strong yearning for close relationships, for people with whom we can share our struggles and our hearts. In this climate, instead of finding safety in one another, we are often made to feel as if we can’t be present online at all if we disagree with our peers and the most prominent opinions present in our popular culture.

For many women, there is more at stake in speaking out than we know

Women face a particular type of pressure, especially from our fellow women, to champion progressive social views.

I write full-time about the pro-life movement and the ethics of abortion policy, and one of the most common responses I receive from readers who disagree with my pro-life views is along the lines of, “If you oppose abortion, you’re betraying your fellow women.” I am told that because I oppose abortion, I am a “gender traitor” and a “fake woman”—as if there’s something uniquely harmful about being a woman who believes in the intrinsic dignity and value of every human life, who believes that women deserve better options than abortion.

What’s most interesting is that these sorts of harsh comments almost always are directed at me by women who call themselves feminists.

We’ve witnessed something similar taking place with Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling, who has been willing to speak boldly on behalf of women and girls in the realm of radical gender ideology. Rowling is one of many who believe that it can be harmful to women when law and policy embrace the notion that biological men can in some sense be women. As a result of having taken this public stance in favor of women’s privacy rights, Rowling has been the victim of intense attacks from progressive activists, many of whom have abandoned reading her work or acknowledging her success, and they insist that their allies do the same.

I admire Rowling for withstanding these attacks, and I’m grateful to her for using her platform to speak about this issue despite the blowback she’s received. But countless women here in the United States have far less cultural influence and staying power than Rowling.

For many women, it’s not merely a matter of facing the social stigma of being branded “backwards.” More and more people are having to pay real costs, losing friendships over political disagreements or losing their employment because of private social media posts or having taken a public stance that contradicts culturally venerated ideas.

On our small platforms and in our own ways, we face intense pressure never to speak about issues as controversial as gender identity or abortion or our religious beliefs, even if they are among the most important things in the world to us.

Of course, perhaps our social media platforms aren’t the best place to dialogue. But regardless of whether you think it’s the right place for debates, “cancel culture” on Instagram threatens authentic progress on ideas that are so central to womanhood.

It would be better for all of us if we worked to foster an online atmosphere where each woman feels welcome and safe in speaking the truth from her heart.

Alexandra DeSanctis is a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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