Cancel culture is a phenomenon that has swept through our nation and even swept up a few notable names in recent years. While largely directed at people in the public spotlight, the idea of “canceling” someone enters a large number of spaces, including the workplace.
What actually is cancel culture, though? What does it look like, and what are the effects? Who are we canceling- and are those the right targets?
Your answers to these questions may be complicated, because our life experiences and understandings are not black and white. But interrogating cancel culture in all of its complicated parts can tell us not only about ourselves, but about what we may be seeking to achieve and the possible outcomes.
What is Cancel Culture?
“Cancel Culture” is a relatively recent term that emerged around the 2010s to describe the increasingly prominent practice of seeking accountability by publicly naming & responding to perceived harmful transgressions/unacceptable behaviors. Usually, these are responses to actions by people or companies in visible/public positions of power or celebrity that are particularly harmful and representative of structural biases, stereotypes, and abuses of power.
Cancel culture or “canceling” someone can take on several forms, including:
- Cutting Off Support
- Unsubscribing From Their Platform/Services/Brands
People and brands are starting to feel the actual and sometimes punitive power that cancel culture can wield, ranging from economic loss to pressures to fire employees or walkouts.
The power of cancel culture has gone beyond the canceled and the cancelers. Some bystanders fear expressing themselves openly because of what they see others who have been canceled go through.
Accountability Or Lost Opportunity For Growth?
There have been countless debates around cancel culture. You can even be a voice in the conversation, depending on what side of the fence you’re on. Hashtags such as #cancelculture, #canceled #cancel, and even #cancelcancelculture are being used across the globe to try and cancel brands, celebrities, politicians, and even local businesses, while others are pushing back on the mere notion that cancel culture should even be a thing.
While 44% of Americans have heard at least a fair amount about cancel culture, they don’t all define it the same way. In 2020, Pew Research asked participants to explain the term in their own words. Among the top categories: “mean-spirited actions taken to cause others harm,” “censorship of speech or history,” and–the most common response at 49% –“actions to hold others accountable.”
The key word? Accountability–and how we understand it. This is where we get more complicated. Accountability involves taking responsibility, accepting ownership of actions and consequences, and ensuring a level of trustworthiness to change moving forward. When doing work in diversity, equity, and inclusion, accountability (personal, team-wide, organizational) is a crucial aspect of developing a workplace culture of psychological safety and belonging.
As we can see, for many people, cancel culture is about accountability–which we want. Where it gets thorny is when cancel culture becomes accountability without psychological safety. Remember, psychological safety is NOT a lack of accountability–it is the enforcement of accountability in a way that is non-punitive, non-harmful, and directed toward collective growth.
Think about it like this:
Accountability + Repair & Psychological Safety = Productive Cancel Culture
Accountability – Repair & Psychological Safety = Punitive Cancel Culture
In an effort to hold someone accountable for past misdeeds, canceling someone can create a situation that ostracizes a person for their actions or speech. Without the chance to explain or provide context, canceling someone can be swift with little regard for the whole story.
On the other side, the day of reckoning has come, and people want to hold accountable those who use their voice divisively.
In the internet and social media age, cancel culture has taken on an even more significant, more prominent role and voice as the chief ‘diversity’ officer of all things diversity. Still, is the world ready to cancel, cancel culture?
Social media has made cancel culture accessible to millions, often with little consideration for the potential shadow side of canceling someone. Was the ultimate goal achieved with the ‘cancel’? Does anything change if there isn’t some form of change resulting from the “cancel”?
Calling In vs. Calling Out
Call-ins and call-outs are the other side of the coin of accountability and cancel culture. While there is a time and place for both, taking the approach of “calling-in” is the most aligned with principles of psychological safety and restorative dialogue–especially in the workplace.
When you are in an environment, like work, where teamwork is inevitable, you cannot expect that there will be an absence of conflict. And not everyone will always say or do “the right thing” (intentionally or unintentionally). Harm will happen. Create space to address that harm by calling it in or calling it out.
Calling In invites a one-on-one or small group conversation to bring attention to an individual or group’s harmful words or behavior, including bias, prejudice, microaggressions, and discrimination.
When To Use:
- You have a relationship with the person.
- The person is open to talking/learning.
- You are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Calling Out brings public attention to an individual, group, or organization’s harmful words or behavior.
When you may call out:
- You don’t have a personal connection.
- You’ve made attempts at ‘calling in.’
- The negative actions of the individual are far-reaching and impact many people.
Using Your Voice For Change
There tends to be an underlying storyline that often creates these moments where cancel culture comes into focus. As we all know, stories and situations rarely happen in a vacuum.
Cancel culture risks canceling real understanding because the focus is squarely on the action and behavior and not necessarily the systemic environment that created the conditions for this behavior in the first place. It’s often highly reactive and can decontextualize us from the bigger picture.
There must be more room for compassion, empathy, and understanding; otherwise, the purpose of ‘canceling’ is often lost.
This is not to deny the function that cancel culture plays in attempting to create a sense of control/power over a narrative that has so often left out people’s voices. In a system where high profile companies and individuals dominate visibility and stand in as representations of harmful ingrained systems, to target them is to acknowledge powerlessness over deeply systemic challenges, instead directing frustrations through a person’s behavior.
Yet, when we target harm with more harm, we warp what “accountability” means and may end up participating in the very binary, black-and-white systems that we are trying to dismantle.
The Mirage Of Cancel Culture
We may think everyone should have a basic understanding of race, culture, and gender, but often that isn’t the case. Though a person should know better, often, a person will only do better with the support of community members and co-workers, creating spaces for cultural competency to become a collective focus.
Canceling behaviors versus canceling the person will go a long way to addressing divides, understanding lived experiences, and focusing on the role of systemic societal issues in how we may be conditioned to think and act. What we think we know about a person’s story is seldom accurate. Suppose we allow ourselves to learn about others’ lived experiences and vice versa. In that case, the need to cancel someone will significantly decrease.
We learn very little about a person from canceling them, but we can discover a great deal about them by hearing their story. Slow down the need to cancel long enough to show empathy, and you may find opportunities to educate someone about the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion. You also create an opportunity to share how your own lived experiences and identity inform your reaction to their behaviors.
Allyship and Bystander in the Age of Cancel Culture
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines allyship as “the practice of emphasizing inclusion and human rights by members of an in-group to advance the interests of an oppressed or marginalized out-group.”
Some view the work of allyship as an extension of cancel culture, but if we look further into NIH’s approach to allyship, we can learn how cancel culture often veers from allyship.
NIH goes on to say that:
“Allyship is a lifelong process of building meaningful relationships based on trust and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people.”
NIH explores allyship through the building of relationships. Cancel culture can often alienate those needing exposure to race, culture, and our people’s unique stories.
Engaging in conversations around people’s differences and beliefs can help expose and help those needing that exposure. People don’t know what they don’t know until they’re exposed to something new.
Giving people the opportunity to expand their perspectives can help reshape their beliefs.
To Cancel or Not to Cancel?
Before you hit the ‘post’ button to get the wheels in motion for another #cancelculture moment, ask yourself independently of other people’s opinions and perspectives.
What is the source of harm? Can I separate the person from their actions? Am I seeking accountability directed towards collective understanding and growth? What do I stand to gain? What do I stand to lose?
We are in a world where we want to see real change happen, but if used without care, cancel culture has the risk of not allowing people the space and grace to change and grow.
“We are not canceling people; we are canceling behaviors.” – Love Odih Kumuyi.
Calling In and Calling Out Guide
“Calling In and Calling Out Guide”- https://edib.harvard.edu/files/dib/files/calling_in_and_calling_out_guide_v4.pdf
National Institute of Health. – Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion
https://www.edi.nih.gov/blog/communities/why-allyship-important Pew Research, “Americans and ‘Cancel Culture’: Where Some See Calls for Accountability, Others See Censorship, Punishment” https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/05/19/americans-and-cancel-culture-where-some-see-calls-for-accountability-others-see-censorship-punishment/