Arianna Mbunwe said she was fed up when her school appeared to remain silent last year during protests that followed the death of African American George Floyd in police custody in Minnesota.
Mbunwe, a junior at the University of Georgia (UGA), ignited a debate over so-called "cancel culture" when she opened a Twitter account called "ariexposesuga" to call attention to what she perceived as racially offensive incidents on campus.
In September 2020, she posted screenshots of messages from a group chat among University of Georgia Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity members. One fraternity brother posted: "Lord give me the strength to not call that woman [Mbunwe] a racial slur."
The fraternity chapter self-suspended indefinitely in response.
"I just wanted people to realize what they were doing was wrong and change their behavior for the better," Mbunwe said through email. "Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't, but that's their own free will."
Not all of Mbunwe's classmates saw it that way. Some accused Mbunwe of perpetuating cancel culture, a pattern of ostracizing, boycotting and publicly shaming people or organizations over perceived offenses.
"It created, especially at UGA, an anti-cancel culture," said sophomore Patrick Mosley, political affairs director of his school's chapter of College Democrats. "Especially if you're outside of that more liberal sector of UGA."
Meredith Clark, assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia-Charlottesville, defends cancel culture as "an expression of agency, a choice to withdraw one's attention from someone or something whose values, (in)action, or speech are so offensive, one no longer wishes to grace them with their presence, time, and money," she wrote in the journal Communication and the Public in October 2020.
But canceling, which usually targets celebrities, politicians and companies, tends to drive a wedge between progressive liberals and social conservatives, according to Pippa Norris of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
"The public outing of heretics and dissenters is nothing new, as exemplified by the fanatical prosecution of religious nonconformists, the medieval punishment by stocks and pillory in the town square, or the notorious Salem witch trials," Norris wrote in August 2020.
In today's context, there is genuine concern if legitimate criticism has morphed into "a tidal wave eroding tolerance of … free speech, and enforcing a progressive or left-wing orthodoxy among professors, administrators, and student," she continued.
"But is there evidence, beyond some specific anecdotes, that this has actually occurred?"
Poll: Threat to freedom
A majority of Americans — both liberal and conservative — think so: A new Harvard CAPS-Harris poll shared exclusively with The Hill newspaper found 64% of Americans perceive cancel culture as a threat to freedom. Many students complain on social media that cancel culture has gone too far, dividing people on lines of race, gender, political views, age and class.
Mimi Groves, an incoming freshman at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, was pressured to withdraw after a Snapchat video circulated of her when she was 15, using a word considered a racial slur. The video was three seconds long and three years old.
The controversy didn't erupt until May 2020 when Groves urged people in a tweet to "protest, donate, sign a petition, rally, do something" in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, as reported by The New York Times. A former classmate objected to her tweet, citing the three-year-old slur, and recirculated the video.
Groves was swiftly removed from her university's cheer team and soon withdrew from the school after receiving pressure from admissions officials, she told The New York Times. VOA's attempts to reach her were unsuccessful.
Professors also get canceled, critics say.
Georgetown Law School fired adjunct professor Sandra Sellers in March over a widely viewed video that showed her making what were considered racially insensitive comments about her Black students.
And at Duke University in North Carolina, biostatistics professor Megan Neely was forced to resign in January 2019 after an outcry ensued over an email she sent, asking Chinese international students to speak English in department buildings.
'No room for discussion'
Some students say their political beliefs will get them canceled for being in the minority on college campuses, which have largely leaned liberal and Democrat.
"It's not an explicit cancel culture, like Twitter going after a person, but a social cancel culture where if you're a conservative, we're not going to support you or hear out your ideas," said Andrew Waldman, a Pennsylvania State University freshman involved with his campus's College Republicans.
"You'll see people isolate conservatives and refuse to work with conservatives because they are conservative and no other reason," he said. "That's one of the issues with cancel culture, in my opinion: It's canceling their ability to help students."
Dan Mills, a freshman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and communications director of College Republicans, said he is also discouraged by cancel culture on his campus.
"I'll be in a class and I'll have an idea that I want to say, but I'll think it's something that I can't say in a Zoom of 150 people," Mills said. "So, it can be frustrating because you hear the same ideas over and over again in the class, and there's really no room for discussion of it. Sometimes even if I really want to say something, I will, but I'll really have to skirt around what I want to say and leave people to figure it out."
Waldman said his philosophy is that "if you don't like what someone is saying, then you should engage in a discussion with them. To prevent that conversation from happening in the first place is how you get an ignorant and uninformed population, and I think that's one of the things that causes the political polarization that happens in our society today because we're not allowed to have those discussions."
In response to fears of "cancel culture" in higher education, the Florida House of Representatives passed a bill in late March that would require institutions to survey "viewpoint diversity" on their campuses and prohibit universities from banning controversial speakers. Opponents, including university faculty leaders, fear a "chilling effect" on campus speech.
While most Americans see "cancel culture" as a problem, according to the Harvard poll, there is disagreement about how to curtail it.
"In most instances of cancel culture that we see, these people are good people and they make a mistake," said Waldman. "The questions should be, 'How can we help these people and teach them that saying things like this isn't OK anymore?' and, 'How can we expand the conversation without closing it down?"
Others see exposing wrongdoing through social media as a means to bring about social justice. While Mbunwe says she does not see her posts as "canceling" anyone, she says that she uses her platform to bring awareness to social justice and health and safety issues that impact her community.
"The people who complain about cancel culture are those who are scared of accountability and are scared they are going to have some of their past mistakes brought to light," Mbunwe said. "Instead of welcoming accountability, a lot of people are scared of it, and I think that needs to change."