ColumnsSmart Health

To Cancel or Not to Cancel?

A closer look at call-out culture reveals the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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By now, we should all recognize the pattern:

Step 1: A person says or posts something that sounds ignorant or thoughtless.

Step 2: That person’s followers are insulted or offended. Tweets, retweets, and Facebook comments go viral. More outrage follows.

Step 3: The person is “canceled,” and their posts are removed. An apology is offered, but it’s deemed to be weak and insincere. The person is banished from social media by offended followers who feel justified and vindicated.

Step 4: Days, weeks, or months pass. The canceled person gradually re-emerges, chastened. Perhaps they have learned something from the incident. Former followers have collectively forgotten why the person was canceled in the first place—that is, if they ever knew to begin with.

Step 5: Life continues. Then another unfortunate person posts something offensive and begins the cycle of outrage all over again. 

Sound familiar?

The Tribal Roots of Cancellation

While the concept of “cancel culture” is new, humans have shunned their fellow humans for various kinds of social infractions since the dawn of time. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense. Communities were safer when all members agreed and exhibited similar behavior. If an individual’s thoughts or actions were too far out of line, they might well have been ostracized and left to fend for themselves.

Today, we can see that “cancel culture” is a byproduct of the Internet. Dissatisfaction with personal friends and celebrities alike can be easily communicated across multiple platforms. Individual decisions to criticize someone can quickly grow into widespread calls for the person’s complete social obliteration. Public opinion, amplified by social media and the erosion of civility in our public discourse, now wields a new kind of power in our daily lives.

The LGBTQ Community and Cancel Culture

Offensive language is often weaponized against the LGBTQ community, and jokes are frequently made at the expense of queer people. So to what extent should we be willing to participate in and support cancel culture?

It is important to consider that canceling can sometimes be a valid option for marginalized people who need to forcefully voice their opposition to injustice and exploitation. Even if this angry rhetoric does not match your particular style of communication, you can still try to understand the perspective being voiced. Why might this individual feel the need to call for change in this particular way?

This also brings up the question of how far one should go in calling out offensive behavior. For example, it’s easy to stop following a celebrity on social media. It’s much harder, but not impossible, to persuade the public to give up that person’s movies or music. Boycotting, or refusing to support businesses with beliefs or values contrary to your own, can also be a valid means of influencing a company’s business practices. Rather than focusing solely on the offending entity, calling attention to those who are being harmed radically shifts the emotional tenor of our societal response. Purchasing according to your principles is ultimately a good thing, as is divesting from companies in an effort to hold them accountable.

If you don’t think the calls for cancellation and boycotts have any real impact, you need only think back to some recent prominent examples. After making anti-gay comments in a 2010 stand-up routine and a 2011 Twitter post, comedian Kevin Hart was not allowed to host the 2018 Academy Awards ceremony. When word of Ellen DeGeneres’ toxic workplace culture spread like wildfire in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the nationwide reckoning with institutional racism, she suffered great damage to her “nice gal” image and a huge drop in ratings and advertising revenue. Notably, this isn’t the first time DeGeneres has been canceled. In 2019, she came under fire for sitting next to and joking with former president George W. Bush during a football game. Angered fans even began questioning her “loyalty” to the community.

Most recently, openly gay comedian and Internet star Randy Rainbow has been called out for cancellation. Following his nomination for an Emmy Award last month, a number of racist, sexist, and transphobic Twitter posts from the 2000s resurfaced. Rainbow admitted to making the comments, but in his apology he denied ever being racist and stated that his comedy has “evolved” with the times. The extent to which he will be believed and supported in the future remains to be seen.

Moving beyond Cancel Culture

While it may feel personally and emotionally gratifying to cancel someone, the actual impact on the person may be quite limited. To what extent does cancellation deter the behavior of sexists and racists? It’s hard to know. Does cancellation lead to behavioral change? More importantly, can it bring about changes of heart and mind?

Ultimately, whether or not you believe cancel culture works depends on what you think canceling someone can achieve. If the intent is to hold people accountable for their behavior in the public realm, then it works fairly well. As a social deterrent, it can prevent others from behaving in a similar manner. However, it may be overly optimistic to think that canceling people who enjoy demonizing and belittling others will somehow reform their antisocial behavior.

Applying the principles of restorative justice can help us navigate in this angry and divisive time. Rather than calling for social eradication as punishment “to teach people a lesson,” engaging people in purposeful conversation can create opportunities for education and developing mutual understanding.

In cases where people have erred, how can we work to repair the harm caused by their offensive behavior? How can we educate ourselves and the community about the issues being raised? Meetings between offenders and their victims have been shown to increase empathy and promote lasting changes in behavior.

Investing our emotional energy in real-life interactions with people outside of our own echo chambers can help us move beyond cancel culture toward the more meaningful goals of healing and reconciliation. We all need to hold on to the hope that even hate-filled people are capable of change. By offering forgiveness and grace to someone who may not seem like they deserve it, we can all learn and work toward creating a better society.

This article appears in the September 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Daryl Shorter, MD

Daryl Shorter, MD, is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is board certified in both general and addiction psychiatry. His clinical practice focuses on veteran care, and he lectures widely on LGBTQ mental health. Dr. Shorter can be reached at [email protected]

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