Cancel Culture and the Power of Words

Key Takeaways:

  • “Cancel culture” is a prominent way of ostracizing those who commit transgressions.
  • The underlying principle beneath this phenomenon though is that words matter.
  • Leaders have an especially strong influence on others so should be particularly thoughtful about the words they use.

Jim Jordan, U.S. representative for Ohio's 4th congressional district, recently said cancel culture is the number one issue facing America right now.  What is cancel culture?  It refers to being ostracized (either socially or professionally) from society or specific groups due to something said (often but not necessarily online).  This movement is related to the #metoo movement (which I have written about here before). And it’s something leaders need to take seriously.

I would not agree that cancel culture is the most pressing issue this country is facing now, but in recent years, we have certainly seen a lot of examples of people being “canceled.”  Is this something we need to be concerned about?  In the context of organizations, do leaders need to be worried about being “canceled” if they say the wrong thing?

Cancel culture has a bad reputation — some people think it’s gone too far, and people are being punished for things that aren’t that bad.  I would argue that what we should be focusing on here is the idea that leaders need to be thoughtful about the words and language they use. 

I’m not here today to argue individual cases with you (or even to argue if “canceling” someone for what they said is or isn’t the appropriate punishment). But instead I argue the general principle underneath this phenomenon, that words matter, is not a bad thing and that good leaders should not have to worry about being canceled if they are thoughtful about their words.

Many argue that cancel culture is just about being politically correct — and in fact, believe that being politically incorrect can be a good thing for leaders because they are seen as more honest, authentic, and “real.” But a study by Mads Arnestad (2019) showed this is not true[1].

Arnestad looked at two different scenarios where a leader said either a politically correct or incorrect statement and measured how others perceived the leader. Rather than seeing the politically incorrect leader as more honest, this leader was actually seen as less trustworthy. It was the politically correct leader who was seen as more trustworthy in both scenarios.

Therefore, if the argument against cancel culture is “it’s just being politically correct, and we should just tell it like it is and not worry about our words,” Arenestad’s study shows us that being leaders who are always politically correct is actually a good thing.

Why is it that being politically correct (and therefore, to some extent, “worrying about our words”) can be a good thing?  Because language and words matter.  Crystal Garcia and colleagues (2020) looked at publicly available documents at 31 U.S. higher education institutions released to communicate about diversity[2]. They found that the language and words that are used have the power to either perpetuate inequality or dismantle it. They also found that there is even power in deciding what to address.  In short, the words and language people use do matter and can have an effect on others.

Furthermore, leaders matter. Faithful readers who follow my work here on Lead Read Today know that I have written about this quite a bit. Leaders have the ability to influence their followers’ support for diversity and diversity training as well as their helping behaviors.  If words matter, then the words of leaders matter even more.

At the end of the day, do I believe leaders should be “canceled” if they say the wrong thing?  Individual cases vary, and I don’t think it makes sense to make broad statements for all situations. 

What I would say, though, is that the cause of cancel culture (i.e., “saying the wrong thing”) is something that deserves consideration. As a leader, you hold a large amount of influence and power over others, and the words you choose are a big part of that.  Be thoughtful in your language so it is a force for good and not inadvertently for bad.

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[1] Arnestad, M. N. (2019). Politically incorrect statements do not make leaders seem more trustworthy: Randomized experiments exploring the perceptual consequences of political incorrectness. Management Communication Quarterly, 33, 363–387.


[2] Garcia, C. E., Arnberg, B., Weise, J., & Winborn, M. (2020). Institutional responses to events challenging campus climates: Examining the power in language. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 13, 345–354.


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February 24, 2021 at 11:50 am

The very phrase "cancel culture" is an invention of the right wing. The fact that you are taking it at face value and not questioning it is all is limiting your analysis. There is no such thing as "cancel culture." The phrase seeks to delegitimize criticism from the public. It is a knee jerk reaction to not being able to get away with saying/doing things people used to be able to get away with. Having to face consequences does not equal "cancel culture."

February 26, 2021 at 6:30 pm

Cancel culture isn't a thing. Accountability and consequences for saying something purposefully derogatory, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist, etc. is certainly a thing. Let's hope that never changes. We can believe in the 1st Amendment and in the accountability for our words. Those who want to say whatever they want without consequence claim 'cancel culture'. It's usually after they realize the gig is up on their privilege to say whatever they want about whomever they want without accountability. If you can't handle the blowback you you shouldn't say it.

March 5, 2021 at 8:42 am

This article is as biased as it comes. Cancel culture IS a thing. Events like Gina Carano's firing from "The Madalorian" due to a tweet that had nothing to do with offensive content, is a prime example. People should be ashamed of themselves if they think it's okay to ruin someone's way of feeding their family or providing for themselves. That kind of pressure to companies to fire people for saying wrong words is abhorrent. You might as well be saying, "This person said something offensive, therefore they should not be able to make money, and they should be thrown on the streets to starve and die." I don't understand why people who support this bigotry do not see that.

March 5, 2021 at 8:45 am

You should spend some time defining "cancelling." What is it? My definition would be something like "de-platforming" i.e., cancelling social media accounts or removing books from distribution. In this context, it is undeniable that there is a recent trend of cancelling voices that platform owners consider offensive or insensitive. I believe this is what people mean by "cancel culture."
The question is not whether public figures should be held accountable for their speech, but whether Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others should censor speech that they deem inappropriate.

March 5, 2021 at 8:47 am
Steve Bennett

Jim Jordan is using the phrase "cancel culture" because it is a cute alliteration and was most likely created by Frank Luntz. Furthermore, Jordan likely is parroting boilerplate from the Republican National Committee.

Republicans like Jordan are supposed to be so very strong, but when someone is dismissive of them (which is what they now term "canceling"), then they are weak and defenseless and need to run to Fox "News" to cry about it.

I am disappointed that this article did not dismiss the made-up concept of "cancel culture".

March 5, 2021 at 8:52 am

This author is focused on one aspect of cancel culture - the importance of the words and actions of our leaders. Certainly, the words and actions of our leaders matter. What's vague, though, is how leadership is defined here. Should we narrow "leadership" in this context to elected leaders? How about leaders at our university? Leaders of our social groups? Leaders of our place of employment? Leaders in our homes?... I could go on.

Aren't we ALL leaders of something?

Then, what the article misses is that cancel culture affects EVERYONE - even if the scope is supposedly limited to "leadership".

Let's re-scope this a little bit and say that, for the sake of this article and the research cited within, that we'll define "leadership" to just the leadership provided by our elected leaders in government. The argument presented still only tackles part of pressing issue of cancel culture. For it is our elected leaders who should be protecting average Americans from cancel culture. So, it is the responsibility of those leaders - as we've narrowly defined them for the time being - to (1) take great care of the words they use and actions they chose AND (2) take great care in protecting average Americans from being canceled. Unfortunately, the article skips right over the second part.

Consider Bill Maher's thoughts on cancel culture (with examples)... "Memo to social justice warriors: when what you're doing sounds like an Onion headline, stop."

Any discussion about cancel culture that stops before addressing the canceling of average Americans is quite short-sighted.

March 5, 2021 at 9:08 am
Paul Gregor

I agree with your thoughts on cancel culture today. I would disagree that the "cancelling" is only taking place with words spoken today. I am more interested in the presentism argument (something notably missing from your work here) where what was said or done before has become unacceptable in today's more diversified world. Today we blame or 'cancel" these people for past transgressions that were perfectly acceptable in a less diverse society. Do we remove any trace of these transgressions at the risk of removing learning opportunities, even if hurtful to people? Of course, I am in total agreement that our leaders today should not say whatever is on their minds. They are leaders for a reason and should always consider how their words will affect all people, but this has not always been the status quo.

March 5, 2021 at 10:17 am

I am shocked and afraid of the two people who have replied here. Words do matter, but so does understanding. Is there no forgiveness or room for discussing understanding? "Cancel Culture" refers to more than an angry mob of faceless masses, it also refers to lost jobs, severed relationships and real world consequences beyond just words. Maybe you're not aware? Or if so, how cruel can you be? This could lead to a quiet, underground uprising as those vocal have muted the other half. And that is also terrifying.

March 5, 2021 at 11:32 am

Someone who has lost income or their voice online based on their Christian and conservative beliefs is very real. Yes we all need to be mindful of our speech and be a loving people. We are called to love one another. I think it's wrong to censor speech, no matter what.

March 5, 2021 at 12:49 pm

And who are these "Angels" in our society that get to decide what is unacceptable and deserves "consequences"? The one with the biggest and fastest autoreply? The one who gets the biggest check/platform from Soros? My button's bigger than yours? I don't feel a need to suppress another's first amendment. Its called a freedom, friends. If its insulting to me, I put on my big boy pants and move on.


Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.