I think when people use the phrase “cancel culture,” more often than not, they have no clue what they are talking about or what sort of problem it really is. Some downplay it as “holding people accountable” for their words and others see it as an assault on our constitutional freedoms. The reality is — it is neither.

The Constitution, through the First Amendment, provides us the freedom to associate or not associate with whomever we choose. If someone says or does things which are offensive to you, you have the legal right to not associate with them. In other words, cancel culture is constitutionally protected.

But that doesn’t make it right.

The problem of cancel culture arises when we adopt a witch-hunt mentality. It starts when someone did or said something which may have been uncontroversial at the time, but because of a shift in thinking, we deny them future employment, business, or any meaningful participation in society by destroying their public image. Our society cannot function well with this toxic culture.

One example would be the firing of James Damore, a former employee at Google. Damore sent out a memo to his fellow employees arguing that Google’s workplace culture has a progressive political bias that prevents open discussion of issues like sex discrimination. Because he didn’t accept the orthodox view at Google, that women aren’t as involved in STEM as men primarily because of sexism, he was fired.

Rather than considering his arguments by presenting counterarguments and giving him the chance to reconsider, the conversation was shut down and he lost his job. Google did nothing illegal, but it did create an environment more hostile to ideas critical of feminist theory.

Another example would be the “canceling” of Amy Cooper. When she went to walk her dog, a video was recorded by a black man named Christian Cooper (no relation) showing her call the police because she claimed she was fearful he was threatening her. In a short time, not only did she lose her job, but she also was pressured to give back her dog to the shelter, even after she publicly apologized.

Although he was the target of injustice, Christian Cooper said he accepted her apology assuming it was genuine, and even stated “I don’t know if her life needed to be torn apart” over the incident. If even the victim of the racist interaction thought the public punishment had gone overboard, how can we claim Amy Cooper’s punishment is perfectly fine?

Few are safe from cancel culture, and the law will do nothing to protect anyone from it, nor should it. When an idea is expressed by someone, it should be subject to the free market of ideas. Bad or dangerous ideas should be ignored or shunned and good ideas should be elevated. The problem with cancel culture is it goes too far and is clearly one-sided.

If the goal of cancel culture is to “hold people accountable,” why is it that people with left-leaning views tend to be safer? President Joe Biden has made many incredibly thoughtless statements which could easily be interpreted as racist. One example is during a town hall, when he suggested that the African American and Hispanic communities don’t “know how to get online” and find a Walgreens which provides the COVID-19 vaccine. In 2006, he stated “You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.” As recently as August 2019, he said that “poor kids are just as bright and talented as white kids.”

Same with progressive intellectual Ibram X. Kendi. In an interview, he stated he would be “horrified” if his daughter wanted to transition to male. Yet instead of calls demanding that his books be banned and he no longer be allowed to give his anti-racism talks, he received virtually no pushback.

Another problem with cancel culture is that the standards of what is “cancelable” change over time. Here on a fairly liberal college campus, we take for granted that people accept gay marriage as a right. Yet, in only 2008, California voters passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriages.

Think about that: Less than 15 years ago, gay marriage couldn’t pass a statewide vote in California. Even as recently as 2019, 37 percent of U.S. adults, including 21 percent of Democrats, do not agree that gay marriage is valid. Many of those Democrats are African American — 41 percent of African Americans didn’t support gay marriage in 2017, and they vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Should we have “canceled” almost 40 percent of American adults in 2019? How will that bring about greater LGBTQ+ acceptance? Canceling people, rather than having honest and sincere conversations, only brings more division, hatred and fear within society: the perfect recipe for bigotry.

Some ideas do not need to be publicly seen as a valid and acceptable viewpoint. But where is the line? If we start making exceptions purely on the basis they sound “too radical,” then what’s to stop cancel culture when it gets out of hand? The fact is, we are discussing culture, not public policy. Unlike a policy such as the tax rate or environmental regulations, culture cannot be shaped with precise numbers or scientific standards.

When you hold people accountable for their views, it means you give them a fair chance to explain themselves and you listen to what they are trying to say. Don’t set them up with “gotcha” questions where they are subjected to momentary emotional weakness, only to be unfairly presented in soundbites as the authentic belief, but patiently engage in respectful dialogue.

Cancel culture is not about holding people accountable. It’s about shutting down conversation and intimidating others from publicly discussing their views. This creates further tribalism which only polarizes our politics more. We must find areas of common ground to build bridges with love and understanding instead of finding new ways of excommunicating people.