National FIRE survey: Cancel culture widely viewed as threat to democracy, freedom

January 31, 2022

WASHINGTON, Jan. 31, 2022 – Nearly 6 in 10 Americans feel that our nation’s democracy is threatened because people are afraid to voice their opinions, according to a new survey from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

The nationally representative survey of 2,500 adults examines Americans’ attitudes toward various issues related to free expression, including cancel culture, self-censorship, and the constitutional limits to speech.

“A lot of ink has been spilled debating cancel culture,” said FIRE Vice President of Communications Nico Perrino. “Do Americans see it as a serious cultural phenomenon? What’s its effect on free speech? We aimed to answer some of those questions with actual data. The verdict is in: Americans do see cancel culture as a significant cultural trend that has a real effect on the country’s free speech climate.”

The concept of “cancel culture” has become increasingly prevalent — 73% of respondents have heard the phrase — as people, brands, and cultural works face public repudiation by those who consider them offensive or otherwise problematic. Of those familiar with the concept, almost 60% of respondents said that there is “a growing cancel culture that is a threat to our freedom.” 25% said there is not.

Effects associated with cancel culture have led to various levels of self-censorship and concern, the survey found. 

Nearly one-quarter of people surveyed are “fairly often” or “very often” afraid to state certain opinions for fear of losing their jobs or their standings in school, while 18% are similarly “afraid to say what [they] believe” for fear of the potential consequences. Eight percent admit they often feel pressure to say things they don’t believe “in order to fit in.” 

One especially significant finding from the survey reveals that nearly three-quarters of respondents agreed that people can experience significant stress — even to the point of engaging in self-harm — because of the public backlash against something they said. 

“Cancel culture isn’t just about what gets said and then punished,” said Perrino. “It’s also about what never gets said for fear of punishment. The chilling effect of self-censorship is real — and can have an alarming effect on how Americans communicate.”

However, when asked if they would support behavior often associated with cancel culture, such as the firing or deplatforming of people who say things that are considered hateful, roughly 50% of respondents supported one or more of these actions. 

“A relative uneasiness with defending ‘hateful’ expression is nothing new,” said Perrino, “so these findings may provide a rough ceiling of support for cancel culture behavior, which doesn’t always involve allegedly hateful expression. But before would-be censors get too excited, they should also understand that what one considers ‘hateful’ frequently varies widely based on one’s political views.”

Overall, general support for free speech principles was widespread: 83% of Americans stated that democracy can only thrive if there is free speech, and slightly more than half (51%) said that silencing people’s opinions, even those considered extreme, threatens progress. Meanwhile, 68% of Americans identified with the belief that people are overly sensitive and looking for things to find offensive.

The survey was conducted by the research arm of FIRE’s communications partner, DeVito/Verdi, in support of the organization’s national free speech advertising campaign.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.

CONTACT: 

Katie Kortepeter, Media Relations Associate, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org