This was a piece I wrote for an ethics class for my master’s degree in educational technology. The purpose of this assignment was to research a current ethical issue regarding technology and
education, and this could be a current issue faced by an educator in the classroom. After identifying the issue, I designed an educational plan and lesson materials to promote ethical behavior in future similar situations. One of the greatest issues I saw at that time, affecting both students and teachers, was the lack of protection for productive disagreement and the favor of monoculture ideals.
Link to Google Slides
Link to student worksheet
Researching and Addressing the Issue
The rise of social media has given way to a new phenomenon called cancel culture. While sharing some similarities with boycotting, this activity steps beyond the boundaries of addressing truly offensive speech and is treated as a form of activism to remove people with differing perspectives from civil discourse and strip them of their credentials and opportunities. Cancel culture, sometimes referred to as callout culture, receives its name from the way offending individuals are addressed for either real or perceived aggressions towards a particular group. Those on the receiving end are called out for their behavior and calls to cancel support for them are promoted en masse via social media (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). While cancelling can take the form of withdrawing support for public figures to create accountability, it frequently targets regular individuals in the same fashion through doxing and online shaming. Cancel culture negates the humanity of the person being cancelled and offers no hope for redemption. It is akin to cyberbullying and online shaming and threatens the safe functioning of academic institutions and the process of productive disagreement by seeking ideological conformity.
The rise of social media only further exacerbates the problem. Studies have shown that today’s youth are not prepared to handle conflicts or communicate. Soft job skills are at a deficit (Schawbel, 2019). For a generation greatly impacted by technology-induced isolation, cancel culture provides another outlet for ghosting, or severing friendships without conversation or closure, by creating a sense of group belonging through targeting those with different opinions to silence them. Large technology companies contribute by responding to public pressures to remove products or posts seen as offensive, further silencing countering viewpoints (Greene, 2020; Guynn, 2020; Pfefferle, 2020; Shaw, 2020; Shrier, 2020). It also sends a message to other dissenters to be quiet or suffer the consequences.
A distinction must be made between freedom of speech and cancel culture. While people have the freedom to give their perspectives and others have the freedom to reject it, the act of cancelling goes beyond the free exchange of ideas with the expressed purpose to cause harm. Proponents of the act claim that cancel culture does not truly exist (Wright, 2020). Hagi purported this same claim, defending it as a necessary accountability measure (2019). Wright (2020) refuted the argument that calling someone out counterbalances for equity against those who have wealth and privilege. He ventured that the most prominent examples overshadowed thousands of others who became targets for their willingness to speak out against “social justice propaganda.” While this might seem like a highly partisan speculation, the Cato Institute (2020) found that strong liberals were the only demographic to have a majority feeling safe to share their political opinions. Self-censorship occurs at increasing levels the further right one moves on the political spectrum, revealing that 62% of Americans are afraid to share views others might find offensive. Both conservative commentators like Ben Shapiro (2020) and far-left scholars like Noam Chomsky (Ackerman et al., 2020) concur on cancel culture’s threat on free speech and reprisal against those who depart from the consensus. This point was further proven when several people retracted their names from Harper’s open letter because of outside pressures (Adams, 2020).
Cancel culture makes a clear point to openly condemn diversity of opinion, irrespective of science, data, facts, or anything that contradicts the approved narrative. This raises ethical concerns for the future of discourse in education and other related fields. Harper’s open letter described a troubling trend of leaders making panicked decisions in response, creating a chilling effect for discussion from the ground up.
One of these affected populations are students. The act of cancelling does not seek to correct racist or offensive behaviors. Rather, the goal is to make an example of someone, causing irreparable harm to permanently destroy one’s reputation. Many have been on the receiving end for holding mainstream political views, often on the conservative side of the spectrum. Even when actual discriminatory acts have been committed by youth, the practice of cancelling does not provide victims with the ability to recover from their mistakes by learning and growing. Students surveyed overwhelming identified the practice as “toxic” and “unhealthy” (The Learning Network, 2020). Cancelling takes no consideration for the person and instead solidifies a permanent judgment for the world to see and shame.
Educators are another group suffering from cancel culture. Although seen as a student-to-student issue, students may call out teachers to shift power dynamics. This can be seen through student groups on social media with accusatory and defamatory statements about teachers and administrators, often calling for resignations and terminations. Although this does provide an alternate channel in some cases where gross misconduct has been swept under the rug, it is not always used for protected whistleblowing and can be used as an attack on authority. Ultimately, this can destroy a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom, indefinitely deny wages, and deprive one of a livelihood (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). In these cases, there are few avenues for recourse. Few states have laws to address cyberbullying of teachers and most policies focus on disruptions to the learning environment rather than the working environment (Morrison, 2017).
Furthermore, teachers participate in cancelling each other. Teachers constitutionally hold the right to free speech and their opinions outside of their professional lives, and this is tantamount to the free exchange of ideas between professionals in the workplace (Zupkus, 2020). This impacts the ability and willingness of professionals to participate in civil discourse about controversial issues. According to Johnson (2018), leaders need to protect minority views. Dissention can lead to better and more ethical solutions. However, dissention in good faith is not always protected. In the case of evolutionary biologist Colin Wright, PhD, peers labeled him a bigot and a transphobe for arguing against gender identity politics from a scientific standpoint in graduate school. He later published an essay concerning gender, resulting in anonymous activists posting defamatory statements to hamper his chances of being hired and pre-emptive emails being sent to hiring committees. Close friends disowned him to save their own professional reputations when accused of guilt by association. Eventually, Wright, like others under siege for expressing counter points, left academia (Wright, 2020). Cancelling campaigns have been waged against teachers who deviate from progressive ideals and are used to silence dissention.
Schools that operate with politically like-minded individuals give cause for concern that groupthink will proliferate, and thoughtful disagreement will be discouraged depending on the environment fostered by district leadership. Leaders play a critical role in steering schools clear of groupthink. According to Johnson, “Leaders… need to both foster minority opinion and protect dissenters” (2018). Adichie (2009) outlined the danger of a single narrative. Falling prey to groupthink can allow schools to become embroiled in partisan politics and blur the lines between civil rights issues, activism, and advancing partisan agendas. Consequently, without strong leadership defending dissent, followers cave to false agreement, group pressures, self-appointed mind guards, and the illusion of unanimity (Johnson, 2018). These consequences sacrifice productive conflict in favor of loud voices and are evidence of weak or corrupt leaders. Loosened principles can then lead to pressure to maintain numbers and fraudulent data, silencing opposition through fear, and putting school districts through constant innovation attempts to cover up shortcomings.
These issues need to be addressed starting with leadership. Districts should actively train their administrators to protect minority opinions. Building trust is integral to create the safety for dissenters to share their perspectives. Principals should provide staff opportunities to routinely offer anonymous feedback of concerns. Often, these surveys contain ambiguous Likert scales; room must be provided for qualitative feedback. Similarly, opportunities need to be provided for staff to openly share concerns at meetings, sometimes even before addressing the agenda. This offers staff opportunities for input to feel heard and to vocalize concerns, which in turn helps to eliminate self-censorship, groupthink, and coercion. Finally, whistleblower-like protections need to be codified into district policies to offer protection for employees who express differing viewpoints. Schools that unilaterally make decisions based on majority opinions increase their risk of escalating unethical behavior, especially through escalating commitments to policies that show a history of failure (Johnson, 2018).
After addressing ethical issues at the district level and providing thorough protections for employees, school systems need to educate students on the harmful effects of cancel culture and provide alternatives to promote effective communication and conflict resolution. Although these typically arrive as one-off digital citizenship lessons, a more concerted district-wide effort needs to embed expectations for civic engagement throughout all levels of education within curriculum content as appropriate. Teaching communication and conflict resolution skills need to become part of the school’s culture and climate. Laminated graphics and staff resources need to promote positive strategies for interpersonal student interaction in-person and online. Policies need to reflect these expectations and offer a fallback staff can rely on when students fall short of those expectations. Additionally, lessons should be created to address cancel culture, and professional development is necessary to educate staff prior to them delivering lessons to students. Schools need to end the culture of online shaming and facilitate more productive conversational strategies to protect all stakeholders in education and the integrity of the educational system itself.
Ackerman, E., Ambar, S., Amis, M., Applebaum, A., Atwood, M., Banville, J., Bay, M., Begley, L., Berkowitz, R., Berman, P., Berman, S., Betts, R., Blair, N., Blight, D., Boylan, J., Bromwich, D., Brooks, D., Buruma, I., Zakaria, F. (2020, August 21). A letter on justice and open debate. Harper’s Magazine. https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/
Adams, B. (2020, July 10). Harper’s should thank the signatories who bailed on its cancel culture letter. Washington Examiner. https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/harpers-should-thank-the-signatories-who-bailed-on-its-cancel-culture-letter
Adichie, C. N. (n.d.). The danger of a single story [Video]. TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story
Ekins, E. (2020, October 20). Poll: 62% of Americans say they have political views they’re afraid to share. Cato Institute. https://www.cato.org/publications/survey-reports/poll-62-americans-say-they-have-political-views-theyre-afraid-share#liberals-are-divided-political-expression
Greene, J. (2020, July 4). Amazon reverses ban on book critical of coronavirus lockdown after decision is blasted by many, including Elon Musk. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/06/04/amazon-coronavirus-book-ban
Guynn, J. (2020, November 17). ‘You’re the ultimate editor,’ Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg accused of censoring conservatives. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2020/11/17/facebook-twitter-dorsey-zuckerberg-donald-trump-conservative-bias-antitrust/6317585002
Hagi, S. (2019, November 21). Cancel culture is not real-at least not in the way you think. Time. https://time.com/5735403/cancel-culture-is-not-real/
Johnson, C. E. (2018). Meeting the ethical challenges of leadership: Casting light or shadow (6th ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.
The Learning Network. (2020, November 19). What students are saying about cancel culture, friendly celebrity battles and finding escape. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/19/learning/what-students-are-saying-about-cancel-culture-friendly-celebrity-battles-and-finding-escape.html
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.) What it means to get ‘canceled’. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/cancel-culture-words-were-watching
Morrison, S. (2017, June 8). America’s students are cyberbullying their teachers. The Week. https://theweek.com/articles/703780/americas-students-are-cyberbullying-teachers
Pfefferle, S. (2020, July 28). ‘Cancel culture’ crew nearly got me ‘expelled’ before I’d even started college. New York Post. https://nypost.com/2020/07/28/cancel-culture-crew-nearly-got-me-expelled-before-id-even-started-college
Schawbel, D. (n.d.). Why Gen Z is unprepared for the jobs of the future. LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-gen-z-unprepared-jobs-future-dan-schawbel
Shapiro, B. (2020, July 8). Cancel culture comes for us all [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTLZAcWKbFw
Shaw, A. (2020, November 17). Twitter’s Jack Dorsey says it was ‘mistake’ to censor CBP chief over border wall tweet. Fox News. https://www.foxnews.com/politics/twitter-jack-dorsey-censorship-border-wall-tweet
Shrier, A. (2020, June 22). Amazon enforces ‘trans’ orthodoxy. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/amazon-enforces-trans-orthodoxy-11592865818
Wright, C. (2020, August 1). Think cancel culture doesn’t exist? My own ‘lived experience’ says otherwise. Quillette. https://quillette.com/2020/07/30/think-cancel-culture-doesnt-exist-my-own-lived-experience-says-otherwise
Zupkus, K. (2020, July 29). Professor threatens to dox, get teachers fired for pro-police social media posts. Young America’s Foundation. https://www.yaf.org/news/professor-threatens-to-dox-get-teachers-fired-for-pro-police-social-media-posts