What’s ‘cancel culture’? Only 52% of Americans know

February 17, 2021

Does your friend always renege on lunch dates after you’re already at the restaurant? Well that may be unkind, self-centered, or disorganized—but it’s not “cancel culture.”

In fact, a newly released HuffPost/YouGov poll, conducted in late January, has found that only 52% of Americans even have heard of the term “cancel culture”—a number that’s virtually unchanged since last fall.

Only 22% of those who have heard the term―roughly one-tenth of the public―say they’ve ever used it, themselves. But, among those who are familiar with the term, 67% say it is a “very” or “somewhat” serious problem.

So what is it, really?

According to HuffPost, conservatives use the term to describe what they see as an increasing clamor in recent years aimed at silencing public figures for breaking with progressive orthodoxies—arguing the political left is aiming to silence conservatives and stifle public debate.

It’s been used to describe everything from actress Gina Carano’s dismissal from “Star Wars” following her controversial social media posts about the San Francisco Board of Education’s decision to rename schools that had been named for historical figures it deemed racist; to comedian Louis C.K.’s departure from mainstream public view following disclosures of sexual harassment.

One of former President Donald Trump’s lawyers described his second impeachment trial as “constitutional cancel culture.” Representative Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a leading voice among the most conservative members of the House, told a Fox News audience that fighting cancel culture is “the number one issue for the country to address today.”

The theme of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC 2021)? “America Uncanceled.”

Many liberals have argued “cancel culture” is not particularly novel—noting that public figures of all ideologies have always faced societal sanction for expressing unpopular viewpoints. They argue that conservatives who complain about the term are trying to neutralize fair-minded criticisms of racism and sexism.

Familiarity with the concept is especially high among self-described liberals— people with college degrees and those who say they regularly follow politics. Democrats and Republicans are about equally likely to express familiarity with the term. But they express vastly different outlooks about the seriousness of cancel culture and the sort of people it affects.

A 57% majority of Republicans who’ve heard of “cancel culture” describe it as a very serious problem, compared with just 11% of Democrats who’ve heard the term. Two-thirds of those Republicans say that conservatives are more likely than liberals to be negatively affected. The Democrats are most likely to say both ideological groups are equally affected.

As noted in September, polling on cancel culture is complicated by its nebulousness. There’s frequent debate about the precise definition of the term and on whether various events do or do not count as examples of its practice.

The HuffPost/YouGov survey didn’t try to define “cancel culture,” instead allowing Americans who’d heard of it to rely on their own impressions of what the term meant.

Research contact: @HuffPost

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