During a December 2014 episode of the critically unacclaimed VH1 reality show, Love and Hip-Hop: New York, cast member Cisco Rosado, exhausted and finished with the actions of her love member, tells Diamond Strawberry during a fight, “You’re canceled.” Shortly after, a surge of social media members took up the ethos of Cisco, and “cancelling” people became a larger part of the internet lexicon.
Since then, ‘cancel culture’ – an uncoordinated effort to mute, shame, or indefinitely exile a public figure who has acted heinously or espoused offensive rhetoric – has become a common tactic to assign blame. Various comedians, actors, musicians, celebrity chefs, and politicians who committed language malfeasance have experienced attempts to nullify their cultural cache or to squash their careers. Recently, this tactic has catapulted into the mainstream with efforts to axe bakers, electricians, professors, and data scientists.
The number of Americans jumping on the woke wagon, coupled with others making genuine efforts to rectify their ignorance of this nation’s injustice, will undoubtedly proliferate ‘cancel culture’. The allure of being pious with a clapback is high. Displaying digital scorn over someone’s ignorance, as a sign of doing one’s homework, is way too seductive. The shaming and blaming is too great a weapon to pass up in our raging cultural tribal wars.
And that is why this type of social justice warrior makes me a social justice worry-er. This is not the right way to make progress on our most plaguing issues. The shame game of cancel culture is an all-around losing strategy for social reform.
First, cancel culture simply fails. It does not speak truth to power. It does not deter bad behavior. And, it doesn’t shove out obscene practices or harmful rhetoric. Nor does it actually push out someone from the spotlight. Cancel culture results in zero change.
Aaron Rose is a corporate diversity and inclusion consultant who had been a supporter of neutralizing bad actors, until he realized that the method was futile.“ I used to think that those tactics created change, but I realized I was not seeing the true change I desired. We were still sad and mad. And the bad people were still bad,” he noted.
In fact, it can do the opposite. The targets of cancellations have come back with an even greater spotlight: Kevin Hart inked more movie contracts and a book deal after his controversial remarks on homosexuality. Paula Deen’s contracts were more lucrative after her racist comments were discovered. After he was accused of sexual misconduct, Aziz Ansari’s shows (Master of None and Parks and Recreation) were more viewed on Netflix; his latest tour has sold out quicker than any of his previous ones.
As Aja Romana of Vox perfectly underscores, “Continued support for those who have been (attempted to be) canceled demonstrates that instead of costing someone their careers, attempting to cancel someone can encourage sympathy for the offender.”
Further, muting someone can lead to them developing what a behavioral scientist, Karen Stenner, calls an authoritarian predisposition – a personality type that becomes bothered by complexity and is especially enraged by disagreement. By attempting to shun someone, individuals can dig in deeper to their egregious beliefs, Ms. Stenner argues, and drown out opposing thought, stubbornly clinging on to a set belief.
Another problem with cancel culture is that it leaves zero room for teachable moments. Trying to kick someone out never provides a space for anyone to truly understand what’s problematic about the accused’s behavior. It is a missed opportunity for everyone to learn. The masses can pile on without having to confront the dearth or depth of their knowledge about the topic. The woke mob can demand a statement of remorse without demanding actual reflection from the accuser. The important opportunity for someone to examine their own blind spots about their privilege, status, and/or belief system is skipped over to garner groupthink brownie points.
Self-proclaimed Black liberal feminist, Loretta Ross, an admitted former cancel culture warrior, eventually realized this was the case with her efforts to challenge white women on racism and power. In her column I’m a Black Feminist: I Think Call-Out Culture Is Toxic, Ms. Ross explains that she left little room for educating white women on the invisible power they wielded: “They barely understand what it meant to be a white woman in the system of white supremacy. I left them zero opportunity to understand their status or learn from any mistakes they might have made. After understanding this, was it realistic to expect them to comprehend the experiences of black women?”
The biggest gaping hole within the tactic of cancel culture is that it provides no room for contrition or redemption, both which are fundamental to broader systemic justice. In order for the individual to not repeat such egregious behavior one must have room for active growth – the ability to foster self-development through continuous education and admitting shortcomings and, moreover, opportunities where one evolves to understand the pain one causes, why one caused it, and a comprehension why such behavior or rhetoric should not be tolerated.
The conversation around change is moving at warp speed, and that is fantastic – the building blocks of systemic racism should have been bulldozed a long time ago. However, bumping out uncomfortable voices isn’t the optimal way to move forward.
There has to be a better way. A better way to temper vitriolic rhetoric. A better way to examine why such thoughts and biases are originally formed. A better way to forgive and move on. A better way, as Ms. Ross puts it, “to hold each other accountable while doing extremely difficult and risky social justice work.” And, a much better way to inject more equity and fairness into our culture and institutions.
Luckily, there is a movement aiming to shift to a more sagacious approach.
In New York, 400 Black stylists have joined together to advance Blackness in fashion and beauty. Part of their efforts is to build a framework of accountability rather than outrage. Co-founder, Lindsay People Wagner, hopes to move beyond cancel culture to accountability culture. “We want to allow people to rise to the occasion of changing,” she said.
This group plans to partner with organizations in the industry for three years and build a “Quality Index Score” by sharing company information about employee representation and other factors modelled after the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index.
They also plan to publish a digital directory of Black talent to help corporations as they seek to diversify their staff and host quarterly town hall meetings and events for its Black members. Members of this group also seek to counsel and converse with those who are willing to learn more about racism. All of this work is intended to interact with people directly and not behind a computer screen.
This framework is easily transferable to other industries and other civic institutions. But, more importantly, this approach of personal responsibility over blanket derision can be easily taken up by everyone. The far more astute tactic of interacting with someone in person is something we can all adopt more.
We can build more efficient personal restorative justice techniques by fostering awareness of one’s hate, ignorance, and bias along with setting sensible parameters around language and behavior. We can spend less time being keyboard clicktivism warriors and transfer our mental energy into healing and connecting with others. When we physically interact with someone, there is a possibility to hold them accountable for wrongdoing and yet, at the same time, remain in touch with our humanity enough to believe others can alter their behavior.
Effectively and astutely criticizing others is essential to a fairer society. However, our efforts to neutralize perceived isolated injustices should not undermine our broader goal for social justice.
You may not win over the extremes of society, but treating everyone as if they are on the fringes is itself extreme. Being on the constant lookout for toxic language will only inject more toxicity into an already turbulent atmosphere. Adding harm to harm invariably produces more harm.
If we are to spurn completely common approaches of dealing with wrongdoing – apology, atonement, redemption, growth, and forgiveness -, we risk all of those values being cancelled from our culture.