Cancel culture is not an effective way to incite change

Over the past couple of years, several insensitive incidents have caused widespread hurt and led students to speak out about issues ranging from racism to sexual assault on campus. And after each event, students responded with plans to reform campus culture – but some instances also led students to demand that entire groups or students be cut out of the picture.

In February 2018, three members of Alpha Phi were involved with a racist Snapchat that sparked a firestorm on campus. Less than a week later, students were calling for the entire chapter to be removed from campus, and members of the sorority vowed to remove the women from Alpha Phi.

Earlier this semester, students demanded that then-president of Phi Sigma Sigma be removed from her position after she posted a racist Snapchat. A few days later, she resigned from the presidency, and sorority members left the chapter en masse.

Most recently, the Feminist Student Union urged first-year students to avoid the Panhellenic Association and Interfraternity Council rush processes, recounting repeated incidents of sexual assault and racism in Greek chapters on posters scattered throughout campus.

Students responded with the right intentions – they wanted reform and they wanted it immediately. But canceling groups and people entirely because of their actions does not always lead to reform. It often causes division.

Former President Barack Obama has spoken out about cancel culture, particularly on college campuses, saying the issue justifies judging people as a means to create change. Obama is right in that cancel culture prompts people to draw quick conclusions and take sides and conflates larger problems without considering the nuances of particular situations. Most of all, he said cancel culture does not make an honest effort to change the behavior or the group being canceled. The issue walks a fine line between activism and character assassination, and it is often easier to cancel first and ask questions later. Cancel culture is not productive, but using problematic events as a starting point for activism is.

Although student leaders called for expulsions or chapter removals in some instances, they also started a dialogue that was more effective than dismissing the parties involved. Student Association leaders listed action items, like giving multicultural Greek chapters townhouses, that officials acted upon in the aftermath of the event involving Alpha Phi. After an anti-Semitic Snapchat video circulated campus earlier this month, student leaders again worked to address the issue by creating a task force and holding conversations about the presence of hate against Jewish students on campus. It is true that not every response to problematic events qualifies as cancel culture, but students should still recognize what kind of response is productive and what is not.

When students demanded that Alpha Phi be removed from campus, it did not necessarily help solve the widespread problem of racism on campus. It was a knee-jerk reaction that, while calling on officials to take several steps to address racism, was not a productive solution. Student leaders alienated the students who needed to be part of the conversation about racism on campus. They could have better spent the time continuing the conversation they began about race on campus instead of villainizing the entire chapter.

When the Feminist Student Union called on students to reject rush and recruitment through posters hung around campus, it divided students. Students involved with Greek life and students who are not were pitted against one another, and there was no conversation between both parties on how to solve long-running problems within fraternities and sororities. FSU could have pushed for ways to address issues like sexual assault and binge drinking instead of telling people to boycott Panhel and IFC.

It is right to criticize students or organizations and feel hurt by what they said or did, but students can criticize without rallying against people or institutions. Calling to eliminate people or organizations that students find problematic is an easy way to approach situations that spur campus-wide outrage. It is much more difficult to initiate genuine activism – and continue pushing for changes months after something has occurred – to lead reform on campus.

There have been problematic incidents that led to change across the country and on campus. When people came forward with incidents of sexual harassment, the #MeToo movement spread across the country and encouraged other people to speak out about their workplace harassment. On campus, student leaders responded to racist and anti-Semitic incidents with tangible action items to teach others about these issues and created a formalized conversation about words and actions that are not tolerated.

Students should continue using issues as vehicles for change but refrain from shutting out people and institutions entirely. Students have continuously called to rename the Marvin Center and Lisner Auditorium – both named after individuals with racist pasts – which led to the creation of a University task force. Students have pushed for education on racism, and officials implemented diversity trainings and created a bias incident reporting system to handle future events.

Starting conversations surrounding problematic situations or mistaken individuals can bring about systemic change and shine light onto a previously unseen issue. But demanding expulsions and disbandments is ineffective.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Kiran Hoeffner-Shah and contributing opinions editor Hannah Thacker based on conversations with The Hatchet’s editorial board, which is composed of assistant copy editor Natalie Prieb, managing director Leah Potter, design editor Olivia Columbus, sports editor Emily Maise and culture editor Sidney Lee.

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