Many people engage in cancel culture as a way to protest or send a message to someone that what they have done is not appropriate and breaks some type of societal norm and expectation. In fact, if you look at the latest research from PEW Research Center, when asked what is cancel culture, “the most common responses by far centered around accountability. Some 49% of those familiar with the term said it describes actions people take to hold others accountable.2”
What is Cancel Culture?
Cancel culture — the phenomenon of promoting the “canceling” of people, brands, and even shows and movies due to what some consider to be offensive or problematic remarks or ideologies — isn’t all that new. Other words we would use in the past might include: boycott, as well as blacklist, expel, shame, banish, ostracize, blackball.
Eliminates the Opportunity for Dialogue
A great example of the challenge with Cancel Culture is Chrissy Teigen. It is important to call people out however, the real question is what happens next. Many of Chrissy Teigen’s worst tweets were from 2011 and 2012. She is being dropped by several brands (the latest were Macy’s and Bloomingdale's) dropping her. Does this provide a space for dialogue and real accountability? These are real consequences, however, how do we leverage Chrissy’s platform to apologize in a meaningful way? Her long Tweet apology was not really what constitutes an apology… We do not know what made her say these things at the time. Either way, they were awful. No one should be able to read those today and think they are okay.
Could brands have seen this as an opportunity? The broader dialogue could be for experts to chime in about online bullying and how to help people navigate it. Clearly what Chrissy tweeted was unacceptable, but why was she not held accountable then? What does accountability look like once someone has been called out? This is a delayed punishment, which may work to remind people to be nice. Brands clearly fear backlash as well. It is true that what was acceptable 20 years ago is not acceptable now (does that mean we really go back and litigate every single example?). In this case, Chrissy is facing consequences for actions a decade ago.
Now more than ever we need people to unify around a common purpose, like unifying our country, and cancel culture halts that ability. People cannot apologize for their behavior, they cannot learn from their mistakes, they cannot learn from each other. When we squash dialogue, we squash the ability to understand each other by listening and asking questions. If people are afraid to speak up then how can we progress? People avoid saying something for fear of being canceled. The cancel culture actually inhibits people from expressing themselves. Our ideas make up our identity, if we cannot express them, can we truly be ourselves? This is one of the reasons I wrote my book, Listen. To highlight that we must be able to have difficult conversations if we want to move forward on many of the challenges facing society.
The Easy Button to Avoid Difficult Conversations
To cancel someone is to halt a conversation and simply paint the world in black and white. They are bad, they must be canceled. In reality, the world is very gray and the issues that come up need to be discussed, not swept under the rug or deleted from movies (like many of the Disney movies). That is not to say that things should not evolve, we should learn more about our past and make improvements. However, canceling Dr. Suess or editing Disney movies is not the answer to the broader problem of racism. There still needs to be a conversation about why changes are being made and where else do we see those same issues. If we delete things from history, that may help the reader/viewer who feels attacked, however, it also loses the ability to be a learning moment. We need ideas on solving both problems. For example, should every “canceled” book or movie have a statement about what has been learned or what was edited out and why? If we edit films or books and provided a learning intro or section would that be another way forward?
False Sense of Control and Empowerment
When people “cancel” others it creates a false sense of control and empowerment. It is a power move that anyone on social media can join in and bully someone else. For many people who want to make a difference, engaging in “cancel culture” is a short-term dopamine hit, and not part of the bigger picture where change can actually occur. We should hold people accountable for injustices and wrongdoing, however, it can be done without this “mob justice” approach. Kimberley Wilson, the author of How to Build a Healthy Brain, says “canceling is not about morality; it is about dominance.” People who cancel others want to control them. Just because you decide to cancel someone, it does not give you the moral high ground. Canceling is just another word for bullying.
Cancel Culture Removes the Opportunity for Redemption
The way cancel culture is utilized today is not helpful. It is relatively anonymous, it is collective bullying and does not provide a space for anyone to grow or evolve. We are all flawed, the idea that people will not make mistakes is ridiculous. One mistake does not justify being canceled in most cases. Many people avoid these topics all together now because they are afraid of being shamed or ostracized. The ramifications more broadly of cancel culture is that none of us truly learn from each other and instead we avoid anything that could be challenging to talk about. Some people feel like everything now falls into that category.
Although we may think that canceling someone is the only option, if we truly are trying to drive change, then we also have to have a path for learning and redemption. Otherwise, true change can never happen. As Seth Godin says, “If our ideas are equated to our identity, then talking about ideas is very much the act of talking about yourself.” If we do not give people space to share their ideas, then we do not give their identity a chance to evolve and learn.
In Chrissy’s case, should brands have dropped her? There was a missed opportunity for brands to elevate the conversation and expand the discussion on cyberbullying. Maybe all proceeds from Teigen’s latest book could have gone to anti-cyberbullying campaigns. Then let consumers decide if they want to purchase her books.
What do you think?