People Deserve Space To Evolve — But Cancel Culture Doesn't Allow For It
We live in a system of shaming and ridiculing that discourages honest, uncomfortable conversations on how to move forward.
By Candice Frederick | Published Nov. 10, 2023
This story is a part of our weeklong series on cancel culture.
Read the other stories here.
The question that keeps coming to mind is: Where is this all going?
In the early days of accountability discussions, a grim joke circulated that if we rid Hollywood of all the bad apples, there will be no one left. Years later, some of those bad apples remain here and thriving, and we’ve come dangerously close to the unspoken conclusion that all apples are inherently bad and need to go.
It would be one thing if we had a solid plan for how we should move forward, so that we don’t become so intolerant of inherently human flaws that we can’t even live with our own. Or assume such moral superiority that we refuse to see our own shortcomings.
Maybe we’re there already, actually. There’s an overwhelming ickiness in the air whenever a celeb ― or anyone, really ― is relentlessly dragged for a minor offense, too often on the basis of just not agreeing with them. Even something as inconsequential as an unpopular movie opinion is understood as a potential offense.
These kinds of minor transgressions, or even simply outdated philosophies, could sometimes be amended by thoughtfully engaging with the person about why something they said or did was harmful.
But we’re not living at a time when healthy debate and historical context, or even uncomfortable conversations about complex topics, is encouraged and examined. Too many of us enjoy and even participate in the spectacle of relentlessly dragging and even doxxing someone online. But what has that gained us, besides a culture of cruelty and fear?
Too many of us enjoy and even participate in the spectacle of relentlessly dragging and even doxxing someone online. But what has that gained us, besides a culture of cruelty and fear?
In a 2020 New York Times article that grapples with the conditions of today’s cancel culture, a college student shared how she actually refused to buy a T-shirt with a band she liked on it because she wasn’t sure if they had been canceled — or if liking them would get her canceled.
“I was, like, ‘but what if they’ve done something terrible?’” she recalled asking herself at the time. “‘And I just don’t know about it yet? Should I not buy this?’ And so I panicked and I was, like, ‘No, it’s fine. I don’t need it anyway.’”
Having even potentially problematic faves is, apparently, also considered problematic (and often discussed in an oversimplified way). Cancel culture has gone beyond its vital purpose of dismantling detrimental establishments and behavior to become recognized as a system of shaming and ridiculing proposed offenders without offering any tools for them to change.
As we’ve seen, some offenders are not open to evolve or don’t think they’re in the wrong (someone like Dave Chappelle, for instance). They double and triple down on behavior without acknowledging that they could be in the wrong. Meanwhile, others’ offenses are so major (Harvey Weinstein comes to mind) that grace is impractical.
Still, there are people who are open to guidance and more information. And a simple private message to let them know how and where they’ve gone wrong is a more compassionate approach to a possible new way forward.
Loretta J. Ross, an academic and co-founder of the reproductive justice theory, refers to that method as “calling in,” instead of the often more inflammatory habit of calling out someone. “I think you can understand how calling out is toxic,” she told the New York Times for the 2020 piece. “It really does alienate people, and makes them fearful of speaking up.”
Contributing editor Jessica Bennett further explains in the piece: “Calling out assumes the worst. Calling in involves conversation, compassion and context.”
That’s true. We’ve become a culture of bad faith that rules that if someone commits one offense, no matter how minor or subjective, they’re permanently corrupt and are canceled without any chance for that decision to be overturned. While this has been the status quo for several years now, it’s neither sustainable nor realistic.
Because we’ve all said and done things that we’re not proud of, ineloquently spoken on important issues, and most definitely exhibited behavior in our past that was totally ingrained and accepted in the culture then that we might shudder to recall today. Without an appreciation for context or human fallibility, all of this could seem really, really bad.
But many people change, or have a desire to change, and we should allow them the opportunity and space to do so — as we, presumably, have done with ourselves. And we should help them out when they once again stumble on their words or do something else that is less than desired, like when Phylicia Rashad and Jill Scott both struggled with their feelings around the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby, with whom they both have had beneficial relationships.
Months after publicly supporting Cosby in 2021, Scott walked back her thoughts, even admitting that understanding the truth “hurt.” And just days following an online outcry, Rashad reconsidered her support of Cosby’s overturned conviction in 2021 and apologized.
She also vowed to become a better ally to assault survivors.
No one grows or understands something at the same pace and in the exact same way. That’s particularly true when the person is close to the subject.
We’ve become a culture of bad faith that rules that if someone commits one offense, no matter how minor or subjective, they’re permanently corrupt and are canceled without any chance for that decision to be overturned. While this has been the status quo for several years now, it’s neither sustainable nor realistic.
Not even people in the public eye, who are too often held to a higher standard than the rest of us. None got that far by doing and saying everything according to the social standard. They did it in the same way so many of us did: by making a lot of mistakes first.
We need to better appreciate that.
The culture has moved, and continues to move, rapidly, which means not everyone has caught up to it. That’s why patience and dialogue are both so necessary. We need to get better at having honest, knotty conversations about things we may not agree on with people we might not agree with.
For instance, is a certain celebrity actually problematic, or did they say or do a problematic thing? Because those are two different things. Is the person amenable to change or a conversation about it?
Perhaps more pressingly, are you willing to engage about it? Today’s cancel culture often dictates whose behavior or speech is worth castigating — or conveniently ignoring entirely — but doesn’t seem to encourage healthy discourse. How can anyone truly evolve that way?
It creates a landscape where people are constantly feeling defensive not about their actions, but about being dismissed in such a thoughtless way that is designed to shame and not teach. None of that is helpful.
The difficult truth is that people have the capacity and should be able to return from a blunder or some other ill-advised thing they said or did if they put in the work, or are putting in the work, to evolve. But we’re not living in a culture that is willing to accept that, to our own detriment.