As humans: life is messy, we have flaws, we make mistakes and let’s face it, we don’t know everything.
Whether you’re a celebrity or operating within a business; we are all humans. The vast majority of us are also trying to do our best to be better everyday.
In a world of instant communication, screenshots, and the quick fingers of digital natives; one mistake can render you or your business ‘cancelled’: dismissed, unworthy and devoid of rehabilitation. We have an online economy of outrage which rewards negativity. It is a culture of quick criticism where our fingers fire off half-baked ideas almost faster than our minds can generate them.
Cancel culture is an offshoot of the call-out culture, a form of public humiliation that holds individuals and groups accountable for problematic actions, utterances and opinions, by calling them out, usually on social media. It is humiliating for the individual but it seems to work.
Now although similar, the cancel culture takes things up a few notches; it depicts a scenario in which a person (usually a celebrity, but frequently businesses, brands & individuals within organisations too) has shared a questionable or unpopular opinion or has behaved in a way that does not reflect the popular expectation, is called out for it, and subsequently ‘cancelled’ or boycotted by their followers, supporters, affiliate brands and the general public. It also renders those who continue to support them, cancelled themselves.
The difference between call-out and cancel culture is the latter looks to punish the offender, usually financially harm or publicly oust them; never to return. Cancel culture takes the notion of a ‘life defining moment’ to a damning and negative extreme.
“Cancel culture defies the oneness of our shared experience and seeks to separate and radicalize us. It’s about control rather than flow. Denying versus accepting. Destroying versus building.” Thom Pulliam writes for Forbes.
It is commonplace to address grievances with businesses via social media. It’s incredibly effective in getting their attention; it hits them where it hurts the most – reputation and public perception.
Accountability is fundamental; I don’t think anyone can argue with that. But let’s consider these questions:
- Why are we so quick to cancel and dismiss?
- Are we cancelling people and groups that could exemplify listening, hearing, seeing and changing?
- Is judgement really an effective tool for change?
- Has cancel culture damaged our ability to be accountable and do better?
- Is there another way to make change?
People Feel More Powerless Than Ever
Cancel culture is a reactive, not proactive, force.
Born out of a continuous feeling of being “under attack”; people are, in many ways understandably, lashing out.
It’s a direct reaction to a host of overwhelming concerns, including but by no means limited to: governments not really looking out for you, big businesses profiteering without reinvesting in society & community and tech platforms purporting to democratise society whilst having continuous data privacy issues.
People feel more powerless than ever and whilst many will look at cancel culture as an attack; it is more likely a defence.
Sit with that for a moment. Can you relate? I know I can.
The capacity to do better
The irony of cancel culture is that we are simultaneously cancelling and demanding better. This may sound dismissively simple but if cancelled, how can we do better?
In an extreme world, that tends to ignore nuance, we are attempting to operate at different levels at the same time.
Speaking at the Obama Foundation summit, former US president Barack Obama told the audience: “The cancel culture is predicated on this idea of purity; the illusion that you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff.
“You should get over that quickly. The world is messy, there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids. And share certain things with you.”
Humans, alone or within organisations, have the capacity to listen, hear, see and do better. We have the capacity to change and we should celebrate that when it happens. We believe it about ourselves, so why don’t we think others can?
Judgement as a tool for change?
The hostility that cancel culture encourages is damaging to effective and long lasting change.
Munroe Bergdorf has discussed this topic widely in her transgender activism:
“What’s the gameplan with cancel culture because we want people to be growing and learning and admitting their mistakes, and having the humility to recognise how they’ve grown and where they fell down, then educate other people.
“Falling down is how we grow as people, and if we’re stopping each other from building, what’s the point?
“You can’t just cancel somebody. If anything, cancel culture radicalises people more.”
What is it we are doing when we cancel a person, a group or a business? We are stifling their ability to change and create change.
Call out culture isn’t the problem in and of itself but the way we currently approach it (cancelling) has undermined its importance. Calling out is a necessary and effective way of highlighting oppressive privilege, misinformed or offensive statements and poor working practices, but there is a real danger that in doing so we shut down further conversation.
If we simply cancel or write people off, how can anything be resolved and move forward? We are stifling our own ability to create a better world.
Accountable Culture, not Cancel Culture:
Accountability is an odd concept. It has been defined as having the responsibility and authority to act and fully accept the natural and logical consequences for the results of those actions.
Cancellation could be argued as a logical extension of this. But does it really reflect the accountability we want?
And what’s more, cancellation has a tendency to focus on immediate interactions, statements and comments. Without intending to seem frivolous, a global corporation is more likely to be cancelled for a tweet or social media post than they are for exploiting child labour for profit continuously over many years.
Accountability requires thought, consideration and an understanding of what course of action we would prefer to see for that person or business to operate more effectively in society. That happens in conversation and open dialogue; not instant dismissal. It can be uncomfortable but it’s important if we want to see any real change.
Proactive & Positive Change
Thom Pullian continues his discussion focussed on the workplace, but as a metaphor for society more widely:
“Life exists in our conversations, and our power as social creatures is available only while in relationship with one another. So let’s own it. All of it. Especially the breakdowns. Let’s take 100% responsibility for everything, as if our lives and jobs depend on it — because they do.”
Creating an accountable culture, in any social setting (business, family, friendship, community etc), based on trust, kindness and dialogue can be a real force for change. How do we do it?
- Be open to discussion
- By all means call-out, but with a proposal and openness for change
- Consider, reflect on, know, live and stand by your core values consistently
- Try not to think in extremes (I know I can be guilty of this!) and consider nuance and context
Most importantly, there is a gargantuan space for us to celebrate when people and businesses are doing better, are continuously learning and educating others in a hope to create change.
Proactively and positively turning your attention to those doing good can have an immense impact on how businesses compete and grow, how people interact and ultimately can shape change in society.
Let’s turn the reactive to proactive:
Instead of ‘boycotting’, spend your money with businesses you believe reflect your values.
Instead of ‘shaming’, amplify voices of people looking for change that align with your values.
Instead of ‘cancelling’, use your voice to educate on why and how things can be done better.
And always, always vote.
At The Good Fight, we advocate for a better world, a fairer world and an accountable world.
Our goal is to create and cultivate a culture of recognition and accountability for our roles in society and celebrate those doing more for better. Specifically for us, we see a self-seeking element of modern business (advertising) that is considered untrustworthy and disingenuous; and we propose and enable a better way without compromising business goals.
We believe that all businesses and people can do better from this moment forward. Do you?