Is “Cancel Culture” Canceling Our Chance to Change?

Cylient Cancel Culture

We’re all familiar with “cancel culture.” Typically, a public figure says a foot-in-mouth comment publicly, somebody notices the wrongdoing, and a massive number of people take a stance on the comment within a 24-hour period. The shaming and blaming that occurs after the comment is posted means the public figure is “canceled”—essentially, people boycott their projects as a way of rejecting their ideas, and often them as well.

Don’t get me wrong, cancel culture can be and has been effective. The most famous example is probably the #MeToo movement, which began when Harvey Weinstein was outed as a sexual predator and later convicted as a sex offender. The #MeToo movement brought awareness to a horrible age-old practice that was rarely spoken about, publicly or privately, and led to real change in policies and behaviors that are still unfolding.

The Problems with Cancel Culture

Outing someone or something in this way can be helpful to quickly bring awareness to an important issue that needs to be addressed. However, using cancel culture as a way to change the underlying culture that is supporting the offensive behavior is counter-productive because:

It silences many voices.

As the rise in cancel culture continues, we tend to cancel more than just public figures and those in power. Have you noticed the trend in social media accounts that expose alumni for racist behaviors? When we cancel those similar to us, it creates a power-dynamic where the people doing the canceling become the self-appointed governors of what’s allowed and what isn’t. At times, this heavy-handed tactic is being used to intimidate and silence people who have different perspectives than those doing the canceling. This is a huge loss because we need new, radical thinking to collectively change our systems of oppression. It is in our shared best interest to encourage heartfelt, insightful conversation rather than blithely or vindictively shut it down.

We don’t leave opportunity for growth.

In most cases where someone is “canceled,” we humiliate them, with the goal of ruining their opportunities and shaming them into withdrawing. This happens when there’s a serial offender, but it also happens when someone makes one off-hand comment. As this behavior becomes more aggressive, it establishes expectations of perfection. The problem is, growth is not perfect. When people try to do better and make the inevitable mistakes that happen when people try new behaviors, they can be shamed all over again. When perceived imperfections of any kind are publicly sanctioned, many people go into protective mode. They don’t share their most creative ideas or risk trying new things. In short, they don’t change. We have to make it safe for people to risk new ways of thinking, sharing ideas and being if we want a new, more compassionate culture.

It reinforces the kind of culture we are trying to change.

Let’s be clear: cancel culture is the use of power to strip other people of their power. The very behaviors we are trying to change with cancel culture are rooted in the use of fear and intimidation to oppress and abuse others. This is just different people wielding the power in a different way, for a different reason. We have to ask ourselves: do we really want to keep promulgating a culture based on fear as the operative power that is used to intimidate people?

Cylient let's connect

Rather than Canceling, Let’s Connect

If we truly want to establish a just and equitable culture, we need to use just and equitable means to do that. As Gandhi wisely said: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” To establish a culture based on compassion and trust, we will need to use compassionate means that build trust. So, before you push “send” on your next cancel culture email, tweet or Facebook post, I request that you honestly reflect upon these three questions:

Is the damage that this message could potentially ignite commensurate with the behavior that I want to change?

Being the target of a cancel culture event can be like having a nuclear bomb blow up in your life. Jobs are lost, opportunities disappear, friends leave—and more. There will likely be a lot of collateral damage that can extend beyond the person being targeted and may potentially go on for years to come. There are times when this is justified, and times where it does more harm than good. You have to decide for yourself which is which.

Drawing attention to how our systems and behaviors cripple and crush opportunities, particularly for people of color, is tough and important work. And, it is probably the easiest part of this evolutionary change process. Building the coalitions of people that we need to envision and build the just and equitable society that we are imagining will likely be a long, probably tough, road. Look around you—there is no organization or network or anything that is going to do this for us. We, the people of this world, are going to have to find ways to collectively work together to make this happen. The more people we have pulling in the same direction, the better. How we go about initiating this change will greatly impact who will be willing to walk this road with us, and who won’t. People are unlikely to join in if doing so puts them at risk of being canceled for their first misstep.

Are there any better, more compassionate ways to effectively address this situation?

Cancel culture is like a hammer that cracks things open. If all you have is a hammer, then that’s all you’re going to be doing. It’s going to take a lot more skill and understanding than that to negotiate and navigate our way to a new way of being together. It’s easy to push “send.” It’s much more challenging to speak with someone directly and help them understand the impact of their behaviors. Check yourself: Do you have the skills to engage others in thoughtful, thought-provoking conversations that invite them to consider new possibilities? If not, it’s time to learn. Perhaps you can begin by learning how hold you center and listen when others have a different perspective than yours. Challenge yourself to be a role model of the kind of world you want for all of us by learning how to cultivate compassion-based growth, in yourself and others.

How can I support the cause that I care about without engaging in cancel culture?

How can you creatively use your gifts to encourage, provoke and invite others to see what they currently are not aware of in ways that engage them to join you? Watch Ava DeVernay’s documentary, 13th or Baratunde Thurston’s TED Talk for examples of art being used to educate others in ways that I imagine are resulting in widespread positive, productive change. We’re going to need to approach making systemic change as a shared creative challenge to truly evolve ourselves and our culture to be just, compassionate, equitable and kind.

Let’s Not Cancel This Opportunity

If we keep canceling people because they didn’t understand something, don’t agree with us or don’t comply with our worldview of what is right, I am concerned that the only thing we will truly end up canceling is the extraordinary opportunity that we have in this moment to build a better future for ourselves and everyone who follows us. Keep in mind, we just need to reach the tipping point to initiate the momentum needed to collectively move in that direction. Research has shown that once a certain percentage of people passionately hold a shared perspective—usually around 10 percent—the rest of the population follows. Then the real work of building our new world truly begins. We will get there faster and more easily if we compassionately learn with and from each other, as we figure this out together.

Be a beautiful, shining example of the change you so passionately believe in and others will join you. That is how I believe we can—and will—cancel out our fear-based culture of oppression and cultivate a just and equitable culture founded with—and on—compassion, trust and love.

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