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Canceling someone or some organization is easy to do, especially in this age of online platforms. Creating an impulse in which defendants are publicly denounced for their unacceptable behavior and generating support to cancel this entity only requires a few minutes with a keyboard. In a short period of time, the life of this person (or company) can be significantly altered not only in the present, but forever. Online messages are permanent and can be called, found and used against a person repeatedly.
What if that person has grown, matured, or learned? What if this organization has been reformed, taken on new leadership, and built new structures that reflect change? The ultimate question is whether the past should continue to define that person or group if its present reflects a revision. Undoubtedly, through the culture of cancellation, the past defines the person now and forever and is a quick payback for unacceptable behavior. But it doesn’t create real change and revision, offering opportunities for people to evolve.
Related: How brands deal with online haters, trolls and the culture of cancellation
Punishment vs. education
Here’s an example: A 13-year-old boy used a racial insult at a pajama party. Another girl captured that moment in a video and posted it on social media. The 13-year-old apologized after some of her friends confronted her, but at the time, the video went viral throughout her city. She was expelled from the elite lacrosse team where she has been for three years. His acceptance into a private institute was revoked. Her older siblings are being harassed on social media, and some are calling for her sister to commit suicide. The local store his father owned for 15 years was boycotted and ended up closing. Her mother was asked for 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 canceling culture? Essentially, it is a punishment: retribution for statements or behaviors that are not acceptable by society’s standards. In many examples, it seems that the goal is to make the person irrelevant. This can be a fair consequence for those who do not apologize or acknowledge the negative effects of their behaviors. But what about those individuals who show genuine remorse?
Related: How companies can avoid being canceled
Think of the case of Alexi McCammond. At age 27, she was named editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue. Two weeks later, he resigned because of the homophobic and racist tweets he had written as a teenager and were made public. He had already apologized and deleted the tweets in 2019, and apologized again when they reappeared. Regardless, she was canceled because of the horrible comments she made 10 years earlier. But the question is who received the consequences: the 17-year-old who made the comments or the 27-year-old woman who has already expressed remorse on more than one occasion?
If canceling culture is not about punishment, then it is about education: teaching a person what is unacceptable and allowing them space to grow?
This does not seem to be the case. If a person is ostracized, there is no opportunity to educate them. 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 removed from her social groups. He lost parts of his identity as a team member, as a student at the chosen school, and as an accepted member of society, which could have helped his positive development. This is where the culture of cancellation is lazy.
Related: 10 questions to ask if your reputation is attacked
The power of review culture
What if, instead of canceling these individuals, society takes advantage of 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 with local black leaders to have individual conversations. Require them to volunteer time in organizations that support BIPOC youth. Have him present his learning experiences to a group of school administrators and local black leaders for the possible reinstatement of the team and the school.
This approach would require more effort, but offers the opportunity 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 leaving people adrift with no positive outlets, which could easily lead to social groups that would nurture racism. In essence, canceling culture can inadvertently increase the growing divisions of our society instead of finding ways to bring people together.
Related: The side step Cancel culture: 3 ways to manage your online reputation
How organizations can foster a culture of review
There are two ways in which organizations can create a culture focused on review rather than cancellation:
- Create protocols. In some situations, the culture of cancellation occurs before an investigation is conducted and evidence is found. Having a clear protocol in place for situations involving allegations 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 the person if the allegation is based on facts. In which cases will the person be removed from the organization for lack of remorse or seriousness of conduct? In which cases will rehabilitation opportunities be allowed, and what does this imply? All of these are decisions that must be made before any situation arises to avoid impulsive actions.
- Establish resources. This is an essential piece for creating protocols around a review culture. Leaders of organizations need to establish genuine connections within their networks and community. First, it creates an organizational culture that reflects the importance of dialogue and interactions with people from different backgrounds. Leaders promote the culture of learning from others to build bridges rather than creating divisions covertly or openly. Second, when leaders have these connections within their networks, those connections become resources for change when toxic situations arise, which can provide avenues for growth and learning.
Ultimately, a culture of review could be a long-term solution to change. Instead of nullifying the punitive reaction of culture to a person, the culture of revision can focus on the education and rehabilitation of the individual or organization. It could offer healing instead of suppressing the cancers of hatred and ignorance.