Can we please cancel “cancel culture?”

Call-out and cancel culture is the dark side of the social justice movement. It is toxic, unproductive, and an inefficient form of activism, twisting learning opportunities into performative battles. Even in the face of the incomprehensible, we can call people in. In this post, I offer encouragement to operate from a place of kindness and inclusivity, and tips on how to do so.  

Nobody likes to be called out for something, even if you are super self-aware and eternally open to feedback. Calling someone out, by nature, is somewhat cruel and judgmental. It’s meant to put someone on the spot and let them know they are wrong. 

I grew up in a culture steeped in judgment, and how that manifested was not kindness or inclusivity. To a large degree, I feel like I’ve spent the last decade unlearning that behavior and way of thinking. It is my goal to be a kind and inclusive person, helping others on their journeys to becoming kind and inclusive people. Calling people out for anything, whether in the present or in the past, isn’t an inclusive teaching strategy.

It seems that calling people out has led to what we now deem “cancel culture.” It is a pervasive, damaging, and ineffective approach to activism. Cancel culture, generally led by some “woke” people, is a form of ostracism or the exclusion from a society or group. 

A "woke" person is aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues, especially issues of racial and social justice.

WOKE

Now, I firmly believe that we must hold people accountable for their words and actions. However, we can respectfully do that and progress the movement rather than shun more people to the margins. 

Politically Correct or Inclusively Kind?

Cancel culture fuels the “politically correct (PC) movement.” I hear this all the time when teaching. People lament that they don’t want to bother with being PC all the time because it’s impossible to please everyone. That’s not the point!

In my workshops, people learn how to create and contribute to inclusive environments so that everyone can succeed. Participants learn how to remove barriers so that marginalized and minoritized individuals have an equal opportunity to succeed. At the end of the day, I feel like I’m teaching people how to be good humans who are kind, respectful, and inclusive of everyone. If one is these things, they would never want to use language that is so often deemed as “PC.” 

My calling to the work is not because I’m such an extraordinary human but because this is my journey, too. To be a better leader, educator, engineer, human… I must continuously increase my awareness and take action that leads to positive change.

Does history always predict the future? 

Sometimes, I look back on the first ~30 years of my life with shame. I wasn’t woke. I wasn’t aware. I didn’t know my privilege, and I didn’t know how I benefited from and contributed to systems that oppress others. I didn’t understand the constructs of gender and race. The religion of my family led me to be homophobic. The culture of my community reinforced racist ideals. All beliefs of which I am actively working to unwind from my brain. 

Interested to learn more about how prejudice and discrimination function in our brains? Access our free, on-demand course. 

Cultural appropriation is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.

CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

Two examples from the past.

My mom made us Native American Indian costumes as kids for a school play, and we wore them a lot over the years. Now people are shunned for this form of cultural appropriation as a child. This is ridiculous. I didn’t know that I was appropriating. In fact, we thought we were celebrating Native Americans. Like Elizabeth Warren, I was told my whole life that I was 1/16th Cherokee. My family truly believed this. Somewhere there was evidence; my family was sure of it. A year ago, I took a 23andme DNA test, and the results revealed that I do not, in fact, have any indigenous genetics. 

Now, I know better. I won’t ever dress up as an indigenous person again, because I want to respect and not trivialize the cultural significance of indigenous dress.  

Blackface is the practice of wearing makeup to imitate the appearance of a black person. Such makeup was associated with minstrel shows in the United States from the 1830s until the mid 20th century; it is regarded as highly offensive.

BLACKFACE

I’m pretty sure I never dressed in blackface, but honestly, I wouldn’t put it past something that would have occurred in my family or my community. My hometown is a deeply segregated community, practically divided by a railroad track. I am confident, though, that I was absolutely complicit in racist language and behaviors, as modeled by others around me. This makes me so sad, and the sorrow is a propellant to my efforts to improve myself and help others. 

Because of such examples, if someone keen to cancel others were to examine my past, I’d be canceled in a heartbeat. Ostracized and practically stripped of my professional identity. What’s the point of this action? Is it to teach people a lesson? As a trained educator, I assure you, the lesson is lost.

I’ve committed my life to the atonement of those wrongdoings, and I am effective at helping others in their journey, too. If we canceled everyone who did something dumb earlier in their life or who says something unintentionally offensive, who’s left to lead change? No one is spotless, and that’s an impossible standard in which to hold people, anyways.  

The journey is ongoing, so invite others to join you.

When it comes to being a kind and inclusive human, I didn’t get to where I am on my own, it didn’t happen overnight, and I’m certainly not done. People in my life invest in my journey. They are patient with me as I find my awakening or enlightenment to privilege and oppression. They encourage me as I unpack and reconfigure the prejudice and bias mapped into my brain. They hold me accountable when I’m not making appropriate progress. They call me IN… not OUT. They don’t cancel me. They teach me, or perhaps guide me, because at the end of the day, we have to do our own work. 

The antidote

Call-out culture is the act of publicly shaming another person for behavior deemed unacceptable. It takes learning opportunities and turns them into performative fights to prove their commitment to social justice. Call-outs fuel outrage on both ends. 

“The antidote to that outrage cycle, Professor Loretta Ross believes, is “calling in.” Calling in is like calling out, but done privately and with respect. “It’s a call-out done with love,” she said. That may mean simply sending someone a private message, or even ringing them on the telephone (!) to discuss the matter, or simply taking a breath before commenting, screen-shotting or demanding one “do better” without explaining how. Calling out assumes the worst. Calling in involves conversation, compassion and context. It doesn’t mean a person should ignore harm, slight or damage, but nor should she, he or they exaggerate it.” (Source)

Meet people where they are.

Keep in mind that many people have not begun to fully understand privilege and bias, much less the social constructs of race and gender. We don’t know where people are in their journey, or if they’ve begun at all. We want to encourage them to start or to keep learning and growing. Otherwise, it’s like asking someone who doesn’t have any of the prerequisites to suddenly understand and do advanced calculus and differential equations. 

I am not suggesting we walk on egg-shells to keep people comfortable. I am suggesting we operate from a place of kindness and inclusivity, invite them to grow and learn with us, and provide language and guidance to better understand. 

It’s true that many people are utterly resistant to equality, for fear they will lose something in the process, or for shear obstinance to change. No matter how frustrating, discouraging, and debilitating this may be, everyone can change. 

What I am certain of is, if the call-out and cancel cultures persist, we are harming the movement more than we are helping it. 

What can we do?

Take a beat.

Next time you find yourself bothered or outraged by an error, either small or egregious, I encourage you to pause and consider: can I do or say something that addresses the issue, and serves as an invitation to speak and act in a more kind and inclusive way?

If someone offers you feedback on your language or actions, don’t get defensive. Don’t start saying things like, “I’m not racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.,” or “I have black or gay friends,” or “I treat everyone the same,” or “I’m a good person,” or “You knew what I meant.” Take what is offered to you, say “thank you for the feedback,” and then reflect on it and do some research to learn more.

Move from debate to dialogue. 

In an already divided world, we need a way of talking about ideas that don’t drive us further apart. Debate and discussion position us as adversaries, where dialogue centers on community and humanity. Practicing dialogue and improving our ability to do so can bring us together. Learn more or download a PDF handout here.

* This can be a challenge and it takes practice.

Put your money where your mouth is.

There are some companies and industries that I choose not to patronize because of their public beliefs or systemic harm. I don’t feel like I’ve canceled them or even that I boycott them; I just don’t want to support them.  

I don’t support politicians, leaders, and celebrities that consistently do or say things that harm marginalized and minoritized people. To me, this is different than the cancel culture trend. 

The call-out or cancel culture tends to capture one thing that someone does or says and crucify them because of it. My choices are driven by patterns. If there is a pattern of behavior that does not align with kindness, respect, and inclusivity, then I make these choices for my own conscience. 

Thus, since I have no other way to call these organizations or people IN, I do so with my dollars or my votes. The efforts may feel like a drop in the ocean, but it’s a little step of activism that helps me sleep at night. 

Further Reading

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Meagan Pollock, PhD

Dr. Meagan Pollock envisions a world where personal and social circumstances are not obstacles to achieving potential, and where kindness, inclusivity, and conservation prevail.

An international speaker, teacher, engineer, and equity leader, her mission is to provide services, tools, and resources that inspire awareness and initiate action.

As an engineer turned educator, Meagan Pollock is focused on engineering equity into education and the workforce.

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