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Cancel Culture vs. Boycotts: What Is the Difference?

I have been writing for several years about my passions and my observations of our society and culture.


Defining Boycotts and Cancel Culture

If you pay attention to the news, you may have heard about attempts to cancel Spotify podcaster Joe Rogan by the Left or calls to boycott Disney for its opposition to Florida's Parental Rights in Education bill (HB 1557) from the Right.

Cancel culture and boycotts seem similar because there is some overlap between them. But there are also some differences. These are the definitions of "boycott" and "cancel culture," according to Wikipedia:

A boycott is an act of nonviolent, voluntary abstention from a product, person, organization, or country as an expression of protest. The purpose of a boycott is to inflict some economic loss on the target, or to indicate a moral outrage, to try to compel the target to alter an objectionable behavior.

Cancel culture or call-out culture is a contemporary phrase used to refer to a form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles – whether it be online, on social media, or in person.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a foundational event in the civil rights movement

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a foundational event in the civil rights movement

A boycott is economic in nature while cancel culture involves social ostracism. That ostracism often includes inflicting economic harm but it isn't a necessary component.

In his book So You've Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson interviewed individuals who had their lives destroyed over often minor transgressions. Ronson highlights how "faceless commenters wield the power to destroy lives and careers, where the punishments often outweigh the crimes."

Targeted individuals are "torn apart by an angry mob, jeered at, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job." This canceling of imperfect individuals takes on the form of mass bullying.

"We are mercilessly finding people's faults. We are defining the boundaries of normality by ruining the lives of those outside it."

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), cancel culture is a threat to freedom and democracy.

"Nearly 6 in 10 Americans feel that our nation’s democracy is threatened because people are afraid to voice their opinions, according to a new survey."

Unlike boycotters who "try to compel the target to alter an objectionable behavior," cancellers aren't always interested in changing behavior. They often seek to completely and utterly destroy lives. There is usually no forgiveness or redemption, nothing the canceled can do to reverse their cancellation.

Participants in cancel culture mobs believe only their views and opinions have validity. Since they seek to destroy individuals for expressing views held by tens of millions of people, concerns are being raised that cancel culture is bad for mental health.

"If patients’ self-expression runs the risk of them losing jobs or friends, it’s hard to argue that they should share their thoughts. Yet as therapists, we know that staying silent leads to distance in relationships and harms people’s self-esteem."
-- NBC News, Cancel culture has reached the therapist’s couch

"After seeing so many people being canceled, some bystanders are plagued with fear. They become overwhelmed with anxiety that people will turn on them if they fully express themselves."
-- Very Well Mind, The Mental Health Effects of Cancel Culture

Cancel culture is the digital equivalent of the medieval mob roaming the streets looking for someone to burn.

— Comedian Rowan Atkinson

Oberlin College vs. Gibson's Bakery

Boycotts and cancel culture often go hand-in-hand, as the 2016 clash between Oberlin College and Gibson's Bakery demonstrates. When three black students from Oberlin College attempted to use fake IDs to buy alcohol from Gibson's Bakery in Oberlin, Ohio, the fallout from their arrest led to retaliation from administrators and students.

Activists insisted that Gibson's had a long history of racist profiling even though only six out of 40 arrests for the prior five years relating to crimes at Gibson's involved African Americans.

Oberlin College representatives handed out hundreds of flyers accusing Gibson's Bakery of racial profiling to faculty, staff, and students, as well as members of the Oberlin community, and media representatives. The flyer listed 10 alternate businesses where potential Gibson's customers could go instead.

College staff and students participated in demonstrations in front of the bakery, shouting statements through a bullhorn that Gibson's owners claimed were defamatory. Oberlin College went so far as to suspend classes to allow students to attend protests and offered them credit to do so. Oberlin staff provided free food and drinks to the protestors.

Bon Appetit Management Company, a food services subcontractor for Oberlin College, was pressured to terminate its contract with Gibson's Bakery, "which it reluctantly did." According to a lawsuit, the college encouraged professors, staff, students, and third-party contractors to use a parking lot owned by the Gibson family that obstructed access to parking spaces for patrons of their bakery.

The owners and employees of Gibson's Bakery experienced harassment and threats including having their tires punctured and houses damaged. An elderly member of the Gibson family was so startled by "banging on his door and windows" that he fell and suffered "a broken neck and multiple fractured vertebrae."

Oberlin students who supported the bakery also claimed they were harassed and threatened. Clearly, activism in the case of Gibson's Bakery went beyond an economic boycott to involve harassment, threats, and intimidation.

In a lawsuit filed against the school, Gibson's owners accused Oberlin of promoting "fake facts and fake news...for Oberlin's own financial and public relations benefit and to the detriment of Gibson's Bakery and the Gibsons."

In 2019, a jury determined that Oberlin College defamed, inflicted distress, and illegally interfered with Gibson's Bakery. They awarded the bakery $25 million in total damages and an additional $6 million for legal fees.

When you're dealing with boycotts, you don't need everyone. You just need enough to be effective.

— Reverend Al Sharpton

Boycotts and Cancellations Can Backfire

When Goya Foods’ CEO Robert Unanue praised President Donald Trump at a White House event, calls for a boycott from liberal activists backfired. Media attention led to an increase in sales. The boycott became a buycott, according to Unanue.

"We did well because the restaurant business declined 70%, but we also did well because of the backlash of a boycott to a buycott. We have our traditional customers, we kept them, but we also have new customers."

Attempts to cancel feminist artist Jess de Wahls also backfired. When the Royal Academy of Arts announced it had removed her artwork from its gift shop due to allegations of transphobia, the media firestorm proved to be beneficial for de Wahls.

"There’s been a massive spike in demand. Just about all my stock has gone."

Cancel Culture | Mental Health & Personality

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 LT Wright