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Canceling someone or some organization is easy to do, particularly in this age of online platforms. Creating a momentum in which the accused are publicly outed for their unacceptable behavior and building support for canceling that entity only takes a matter of minutes on a keyboard. In a short period of time, that person’s (or the company’s) life can be significantly altered not just in the present, but forever. Online messages are permanent and can be called up, found and used against a person repeatedly.
What if that person has grown, matured or learned? What if that organization has reformatted, taken on new leadership and built new structures which reflect the change? The ultimate question is whether the past should continue to define that person or group if their present reflects revision. Certainly, through cancel culture, the past defines the person now and forever and is quick retribution for unacceptable behavior. But it doesn’t create authentic change and revision, offering opportunities for people to evolve.
Punishment vs. education
Here’s an example: A 13-year-old eighth-grader used a racial slur at a sleepover. Another girl captured that moment on video and posted it on social media. The 13-year-old apologized after a few of her friends confronted her, but by that time, the video has gone viral throughout her city. She was kicked off of the elite lacrosse team she’s been on for three years. Her acceptance at a private high school was revoked. Her older siblings are being harassed on social media, with some calling for their sister to kill herself. The local store her father owned for 15 years was boycotted and ended up closing. Her mother was asked to take an indefinite leave of absence from her role as vice president of a local business.
Not only was the 13-year-old girl canceled, but so was her entire family.
So what is the purpose of cancel culture? Essentially, it is punishment — delivering retribution for statements or behaviors which are not acceptable by societal standards. In many examples, it seems the goal is to make the person irrelevant. This may be a fair consequence for those who demonstrate no apology or acknowledgment of the negative effects of their behaviors. But what about those individuals who do show genuine remorse?
Consider the case of Alexi McCammond. At 27 years old, she was named editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue. Two weeks later, she resigned due to homophobic and racist tweets she had written as a teenager becoming public. She had already apologized and deleted the tweets in 2019, and apologized again when they resurfaced. Regardless, she was canceled for the horrible comments she made 10 years earlier. But the question becomes who received the consequence — the 17-year-old who made the comments, or the 27-year-old woman who’s already expressed remorse on more than one occasion?
If cancel culture is not about punishment, then is it about education — teaching a person what is unacceptable and allowing them space to grow?
This doesn’t seem to be the case. If a person is ostracized, there is no opportunity to educate that person. Let’s go back to the 13-year-old lacrosse player. She and her family were canceled. Without connections, this girl may have fewer opportunities to grow from her ignorance. She was shunned from her social groups. She lost parts of her identity as a team member, as a student at her chosen school and as an accepted member of society, which might have helped in her positive development. This is where cancel culture is lazy.
The power of revision culture
What if, instead of canceling these individuals, society uses these opportunities to change toxic opinions and perspectives? McCammond could have worked with national organizations to use the publication as a platform for conversations to fight homophobia and racism. With the lacrosse player, connect her to local Black leaders to have one-on-one conversations. Require her to volunteer time in organizations that support BIPOC youth. Have her present her learning experiences to a panel of school administrators and local Black leaders for possible team and school reinstatement.
This approach would take more effort, but it offers the chance to create lasting change. Instead of teaching people to hide their prejudices (which creates covert racism), this type of approach allows them to confront their own racist perspectives, and possibly change them. It avoids setting people adrift with no positive outlets, which could easily lead toward social groups that would nurture racism. In essence, cancel culture may inadvertently add to the growing divides in our society rather than finding ways to bring people together.
How organizations can foster revision culture
There are two ways organizations can create a culture focused on revision rather than cancellation:
- Create protocols. In some situations, cancel culture occurs before an investigation is done and evidence is found. Having a clear protocol established for situations involving accusations of inappropriate and unacceptable behaviors is necessary to allow for a clear procedure in an emotionally-charged situation. The protocol should also include how the organization will address the situation and person if the accusation is based on fact. In what cases will the person be eliminated from the organization because of a lack of remorse or severity of behavior? In what cases will opportunities for rehabilitation be allowed, and what does that entail? These are all decisions to be made prior to any situations arising to avoid impulsive actions.
- Establish resources. This is an essential piece to creating protocols around a revision culture. Organizational leaders must establish genuine connections within their networks and community. First, it creates an organizational culture that reflects the importance of dialogue and interactions with individuals from different backgrounds. Leaders promote the culture of learning from others to build bridges rather than covertly or overtly creating divides. Second, when leaders have these connections within their networks, these connections become resources for change when toxic situations do arise, potentially affording avenues for growth and learning.
Ultimately, a revision culture could be a long-term solution for change. Instead of cancel culture’s punishment reaction to blackballing a person, revision culture can focus on education and rehabilitation of the individual or organization. It could offer healing instead of festering the cancers of hatred and ignorance.