The idea that a person can be “canceled” is relatively new in contemporary society. Emerging over the past decade, the expression refers to being stigmatized or ostracized—usually on social media—often denied a public platform, public support, or even work opportunities. Defenders of the phenomenon tend to see it mainly as accountability for harmful actions or statements—the justified consequence of bad behavior. Critics tend to see it as having led to reactive criticism, self-censorship, ideological conformity, and purity politics—what they often refer to as “cancel culture,” a phenomenon that’s harmed online communication by creating a climate of fear that imperils not just the powerful but the powerless, any among whom might be one viral tweet away from getting swept up in a life-altering controversy. What are the insights and limits of “cancel culture” criticism?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy, a senior editor with The Signal, has written about the phenomenon, including for The Washington Post after she signed the “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in Harper’s this past July, which generated a good amount of controversy in American media and beyond. Like many of the letter’s signatories, Bovy is a liberal who worries about illiberalism on the left as well as the right, as well as the vulnerability of ordinary people to public shaming. She believes that many who talk about “cancel culture” are attempting to describe a real and troubling social dynamic—but wonders whether the increasingly broad range of meanings they intend by the expression is turning it into noise.

Graham Vyse: What do you mean when you invoke “cancel culture”?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: It’s a fraught term, and I don’t like to use it without explanation, but what I understand it to mean is the phenomenon of random people getting held accountable at a level appropriate to and associated with politicians. These are people who are not public figures, but if somebody has a grudge against them or disagrees with their views, then suddenly a tweet from 2012 will resurface and they’ll become a story. They’ll become a liability. Their company will fire them. These are the kind of cases the British journalist Jon Ronson wrote about in So You've Been Publicly Shamed. The broader cultural aspect of this is the pervasive sense many people have that they’re one misstep or one person with a grudge away from being ostracized or fired.

Vyse: You signed the “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in Harper’s this past July, which did not include the term “cancel culture” but criticized “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” Why did you sign the letter?

Bovy: I signed it basically because I read it as in support of free speech and coming from an explicitly liberal or left, anti-Trump position. If it hadn’t been for that piece—the anti-Trump piece—I don’t think I would have signed. That made clear to me that this was not some sort of Trumpian vision of “cancel culture.” One quote from the letter was “The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy.”

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