The practice of “cancelling” is becoming increasingly common. By cancelling, I mean the process by which people mark someone as problematic and withdraw any and all prior support to ignore and exclude this person. To a lesser degree, when I talk about “cancel culture” I’m also referring to the broader habit our society has of simply doing away with those it finds undesirable. One way this manifests is when celebrities’ old, problematic tweets resurface and people decide to cancel them in retaliation. It is important to remember that actions do have consequences, and folks absolutely should be held accountable for disrespectful or mean-spirited behavior. However, we should also think about what it means for us to immediately close someone off. I believe it’s worth thinking about what accountability looks like beyond simply exiling someone. In doing so, we can position ourselves more firmly within the values of social justice.
One reason worth giving cancel culture a hard examination is that it doesn’t seem to be working. If cancel culture is meant to be a tool for social justice, cancelling people and not paying them any mind would compel them look at their actions and take the time to understand why what they’ve done or said might not be in good taste. While the idea of cancelling someone might be well-intentioned and intended to inspire some introspection and critical thought on the part of the individual being cancelled, rarely does this learning manifest on its own. For example, this past summer Roseanne Barr had the reboot of her show cancelled by ABC following a racist tweet she made about Valerie Jarrett, a former adviser to former president Barack Obama. As a result, Barr was forced to apologize in hopes of reacquiring a spot in the public’s good graces.
However, in her apologies to Jarrett, it was clear that Barr had not really grasped an understanding of why she had warranted criticism. Further, her apology doesn’t show her raising her critical consciousness or being more mindful with her language. In other words, nowhere in her apology did Barr say that this fiasco prompted a change in her politics, a hard look in the mirror, an interrogation of the ways in which she perpetuated racism or a lifelong commitment to unlearning racial privilege on her part. This is not to question the validity of Barr’s facing consequences for her actions. Rather, I’m arguing that effectively shutting Barr out might provide an immediate band-aid solution to the problem, but it also provides no real impetus for Barr to critically examine and think about why, exactly, her tweet was problematic, why she was criticized and why her show was cancelled.
Recognizing that cancel culture is not resulting in the learning and changed behavior of cancelled individuals is precisely why I propose a shift in how we deal with people who have said or done irresponsible things. Thinking through what it means to hold people accountable is more in line with the social justice ideals that cancel culture is — at its most basic level — rooted in. That cancel culture may simply be brushing aside those individuals who don’t fit into a collective vision of the future is troubling, and may actually be serving as a direct antithesis to the mission of social justice at the end of the day.
I’ll try to flesh this out more. In some ways, cancel culture is exemplified by our prison system. We send people away to prison after they’ve committed a crime. It is somewhat implied that the time individuals spend in prison will turn them into good citizens, the kinds of people who don’t commit crimes. Yet, over a nine-year time period, released prisoners averaged five arrests. Like cancel culture, the prison system punishes people, but doesn’t really provide space for behavioral change. What’s more is that the prison population is disproportionately representative of the black and Latinx population in the United States. Obviously there’s absolutely no moral equivalence between mass incarceration and the efforts by social justice activists to cancel those responsible for bigoted behaviors or statements, and it’s important to recognize that there’s a power disparity between the actors in these situations. But for those of us who seek to uphold social justice ideals, it behooves us to think about what it means for one of the mechanisms we access in the name of social justice — cancelling — to so closely resemble a system that produces negative life outcomes disproportionately for people of color.
Engaging in this thought process and envisioning accountability beyond models evocative of oppressive structures are worthwhile exercises if we seek to live out social justice ideals and frameworks. This is not to say that accountability can’t, in part, look like cancelling. Sometimes, people commit crimes and engage in behavior so harmful and so galling that they don’t deserve a second chance — especially to keep the people around them safe from further harm. But for those who’ve behaved in ways that can be reasonably unlearned, I believe it’s also worth thinking about accountability in terms of restorative justice. In totality, accountability might look like going further than punitive measures to ensure that individuals take active steps to understand the harm they may have perpetuated and develop ways to lead a life in which they’ve given up harmful notions and tendencies. To do this would be to truly commit ourselves to a socially just society.
Quentin Thomas ’21 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.