This is the phrase a celebrity might wake up to flooding their Twitter feed—or that a teenager might hear from peers after an embarrassing social misstep.
Cancel culture has become a ubiquitous part of our lives over the past few years—and for good reason. For too long, people in positions of power have not been held accountable for their actions.
But sometimes, cancel culture veers into outright toxicity, even when intentions are good. At what point does it cross the line?
What is Cancel Culture?
Not familiar with cancel culture? Basically, it is the process by which people attempt to pull social and financial support from an individual or corporation in response to perceived wrongdoing.
Sometimes the person being “canceled” is a public figure; other times they might just be an ordinary member of a local community.
“You’re canceled” could mean deciding not to purchase someone’s products, read their books, speak to them, or something else altogether.
In a sense, this is the modern equivalent to driving someone out of the tribe to ostracize them. The goal is to throw them out into the wild, without the comfort and safety of the community.
Is Cancel Culture About Accountability or Punishment?
Cancel culture claims to be dedicated to accountability, but a fierce debate rages about whether or not it truly is.
One thing we do not hear about as much is what accountability is, and how it differs from punishment.
The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance says, “In this country, we often think accountability and punishment are interchangeable. We say, ‘that person needs to be held accountable for the violence they committed’ when we mean, ‘that person needs to be punished,’ but this is a mistake.”
The site points out that punishment is about retribution, and is coerced and passive. Accountability, on the other hand, is an active process by which a person recognizes their harmful actions, assumes responsibility for them, and works to stop them. The focus is on healing the survivor and redeeming the aggressor.
When we “cancel” someone, we are trying to interfere with their livelihood and shut down their social prospects. Canceling someone is not an attempt to educate or rehabilitate them; it is an attempt to destroy them. That is punishment, not accountability.
Often, that attempt does not succeed; the careers of rich and famous offenders frequently continue even after backlash.
But an act that is supposed to be so final does nothing to help transgressors understand the hurt they have caused. It is an effort to shut them out of society, not teach them to become kinder participants in it.
So, just as their careers are likely to continue, so are their transgressions.
Cancel Culture vs. Call-Out Culture
While many people know the phrase “cancel culture,” fewer are familiar with the phrase “call-out culture.”
If cancel culture is about punishment, call-out culture is actually about accountability. Instead of trying to ostracize people who upset us, we “call them out.” We tell them what they did or said that offended us, why we feel hurt by it, and what its consequences are for society.
If we can identify errors in their thinking, we can address them, providing real information and insights.
Do people always come around after we call them out? No—some are intransigent. But many admit to their mistakes, explain them, and vow never to repeat them.
When Does Cancel Culture Become a Mask for Bullying?
While cancel culture is often well-intentioned, in the worst cases, it is not. Cyber-bullies and even high school bullies will now “cancel” someone for the slightest of infractions—just being “annoying” is often justification enough.
In situations such as those, teens can find themselves isolated from their peers, even while sitting next to them in class. Young people in particular are at a vulnerable, developing stage. When their peers ostracize them instead of educating them about their mistakes or offering them alternatives, they are denied a chance to learn and grow.
What is the Way Forward? Education, Redemption, and True Accountability
There are good things about cancel culture. In some situations, it may also be entirely appropriate. Sometimes even after a call-out, a celebrity or businessperson might simply refuse to reconsider their actions. At that point, canceling might be the only answer.
But for most situations, call-out culture presents a kinder and more constructive approach. Many people can learn, given a fresh perspective.
When we emphasize accountability over punishment, we focus on the future instead of the past. In doing so, we give those who have contributed negatively to society the opportunity to contribute positively instead.
Oftentimes, the most powerful advocate for societal change is someone who has been on both sides of the fence. That person has learned why change is important, but can also empathize with those who are lagging behind. So, let us work on creating allies when we can. The person we call out constructively today could be the one calling someone else out tomorrow.