The Cost of Cancel Culture

My professor for my Issues in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies class this semester opened up our first day of class with a simple proposition: what would it look like to call people in rather than to call people out? What if, instead of shaming someone for having a different viewpoint than ours, we ask: what makes you think that? What are your experiences or beliefs that have led to you developing this assumption? In our current climate of growing political polarization as we approach the presidential election, we continue to see many around us, and maybe even ourselves at times, giving into “cancel culture.” This shuts out opinions that are different from one’s own and leads individuals to “cancel,” or disassociate, with anyone who holds views they don’t agree with. But at what cost does this response to disagreement come? 

Although cancel culture began as a Twitter trend intended to hold celebrities and brands accountable for problematic behaviors or ideologies, it has evolved to become increasingly present in personal relationships and day-to-day interactions. There is no doubt that there is a necessity to acknowledge these instances of offensive or problematic behavior and to hold individuals responsible, because this is an important part of changing a culture of systemic racism, misogyny, and many other pressing issues. However, when this becomes “cancelling” individuals as a whole because of their point of view, there is no room for listening, learning, or examining perspectives. Cancel culture has become a lack of willingness to hear people out and an inability to give individuals the space to critically examine their point of views for fear of being shut down. Contributing to this environment is also not an effective form of activism. As former President Barack Obama told a group of supporters at a recent event, “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re not going to get that far.” If you truly care about the issues you are advocating for, change is never going to be made by shutting others down and creating a culture of shame, judgment, and intolerance. 

Calling people “in” instead of out is a common tactic used in Gender Studies and other classes to create an inclusive and safe space where everyone feels free to share their mind and contribute to creating a meaningful discussion. This does not assume the notion that we should not address problematic behavior or language when it occurs, but just the opposite. We should acknowledge it, and then we should strive to understand where that idea is coming from. As described by Seed the Way, an educational consulting organization with tools on justice and equity education, “calling in” relies on reflection and not reaction. It interrupts bias to find a common ground and make meaning between the opposing points of view. “Calling in” provides a space for multiple perspectives to influence one another and creates an incredible opportunity for learning and growth on both parts of the discussion. Some examples of this kind of language might include: “How might the impact of your words/actions differ from your intent?” or “Why do you think that this is the case? Why do you believe this to be true?” Using this form of discourse allows problematic behavior to be called out, while allowing the individual person to be called into discussion and have an opportunity to reflect on their point of view.  

It’s all too easy these days to see some of the major issues we are facing as a country and our peers’ responses to these issues as black and white. I’ve heard and seen it so many times: “If you are voting for Donald Trump, you are not my friend.” “If you believe xyz, please unfollow me. I do not want to hear from you.” But this kind of language and behavior is altogether unproductive. We’re not going to get any closer to solving issues that we care about by shutting other people down and furthering the bipartisan divide in our country. Everyone has the right to voice their own opinion, not just those we agree with. We have so much more to gain from listening than we do from imposing our own views onto others and assuming that we know the best way to solve a problem or achieve the outcome that we want. Furthermore, understanding different perspectives is an important part of becoming both a well-rounded person and a well-informed citizen. And at the very least, listening to a point of view that differs from our own could serve to further solidify our beliefs and create an even stronger foundation for voicing our opinions on issues that matter to us. An opinion is always stronger after having considered the opposing points and coming back to the original stance. 

The next time you’re tempted to close the door on someone who voices a stance that you don’t agree with, consider what you have to gain from doing so. The likelihood of you or the other person in this situation having the opportunity to critically reflect on and consider your perspectives without having a respectful conversation is slim. But if you call them into a meaningful discussion, trying to understand where they might be coming from, there might just be a potential for growth. And growth, after all, is the precursor to change.