The topic of “cancel culture” is not new in the public discourse. But Sergei A. Samoilenko, an assistant professor of communication at George Mason University, believes he can take the discussion in a new direction.
Samoilenko, co-founder of Mason’s Character Assassination and Reputation Politics (CARP) research lab, teaches a COMM 386 Special Topics in Political Communication course titled “Cancel Culture in Public and Political Communication.”
Samoilenko said the course was designed from scratch, and believes it is one of only a few special-topic courses offered anywhere nationally that examines cancel culture in a systematic and scholarly manner.
The topic has even more resonance for him as a foreign national because he said he sees it as something embedded in the American culture.
“I view cancel culture as a social conflict that involves discussion and reexamination of some moral values and views on history,” Samoilenko said. “The goals of the course were to understand cancel culture as a sociological and communication phenomenon. I structured the class to give students a chance to voice their opinions.”
“I really learned a lot from my fellow students because they would ask great questions,” said Deirdre Jane Prigge, who is majoring in communication with a concentration in public relations. “People shared personal stories where they had experienced public shaming and ostracism.”
Students were also asked to write reflective papers on such topics as cancel culture and celebrities, cancel culture as a social justice movement, or cancel culture as a social media phenomenon.
“We are all equally impacted by things like public shaming or bullying,” said Prigge. “We had to carefully consider whether shaming was morally wrong or morally right.”
The Pew Research Center reports that Americans are split about cancel culture.
“Some people think it’s a form of punishment, others think it’s a form of social justice, and there are those who believe it doesn’t exist.” Samoilenko said.
Elise Hall, a senior communication major concentrating on political communication, said her biggest takeaway from the class is that “cancel culture oftentimes gets taken too far, social media and band-wagoning makes for a dangerous mix. Social media requires little effort to spread information to our audience—whether that’s facts, opinions, or misinformation.”
“I enjoyed a discussion we had about moral entrepreneurs—people who have a certain moral idea, or an opinion about what’s right and wrong,” Prigge said. “They feel so strongly and go around trying to enforce it.”
Samoilenko said the concept of cancel culture was essentially brought to prominence by social activists promoting movement campaigns #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. “Both viral hashtag campaigns called for social justice and strived to mobilize supporters around two fundamental social issues: sexual abuse and racism.”
“This course raised more questions than provided answers, which is great because we are still learning and shaping our opinion about cancel culture,” said Samoilenko, who is offering the class again in summer 2022. “We are feeling the pulse of the society here.”
Prigge created the student-driven CARP radio hour on iTunes, Apple Podcast and Spotify. “I was actually preparing for the launch of CARP Radio while taking Professor Samoilenko class, so our in-class discussions gave me great ideas for topics to cover on the podcast,” Prigge said.
“We can’t predict the future of cancel culture, but we can discuss what makes someone vulnerable to attacks, and how we can strengthen our reputations,” Prigge said.