How do we get from Cancel Culture to Creative Conversation?

I recently received an email from OZY Presents called Elevate the Conversation. It is so current and relevant I feel the need to pass it on. I could not find it on the OZY website, so I’m including it here in full.

What’s behind the movement to “cancel” people or ideas? Not too long ago, the only things you could cancel were your credit cards, gym membership or those plans you made that you really didn’t want to do anyway. These days it seems like no one (or no thing) is immune from being canceled or coming under fire, with scandals enveloping figures ranging from Mr. Potato Head and Pepé Le Pew to Aaron RodgersChrissy Teigen and Dave Chapelle. Are we just getting better at holding people accountable for their conduct or simply whipping up online mobs to punish those we disapprove of before giving them a chance to explain or reform? As the recent controversies surrounding celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg and Joe Rogan, as well as renewed attempts to ban books and boycott companies indicate, the number of targets and incidents seems only to be growing.

In this issue of Elevate the Conversation, we take a deep dive into the concept of cancel culture. And we ask you: How should we think about redemption and forgiveness in light of very public mistakes? Is there room to hold both people and organizations accountable while still making room to forgive? Can we create new ethical and collective norms to address these violations? Can we give people a chance to explain, learn and atone?

“Cancel culture” is a way of stigmatizing or ostracizing an individual or organization because they’ve done something considered unacceptable or inappropriate by the broader society. Initially, it resulted in a backlash or boycott of a famous individual or organization so they could no longer benefit financially or professionally from their status. Now anyone can be the target of “cancel culture,” with the same ruinous results.
A number of prominent men, including Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly, Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K, were all “canceled” due to allegations of sexual misconduct or crimes. Some very public female figures have also felt its wrath: Roseanne Barr lost her hit TV show after a racist tweet, author J.K. Rowling was shamed after voicing transphobic views and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres’ glowing reputation was greatly tarnished following allegations of a toxic workplace.

Public shaming has a rich and lengthy history even before cancel culture entered the social discourse. From medieval punishments, like putting the accused in the stocks, to Puritanic morality policing (remember The Scarlet Letter?), public shaming has long been used to enforce social norms. French women deemed to be traitors during World War II even had their heads shaved.

How can we as a society use cancel culture responsibly? What do we think about the balance of accountability and undue punishment? In March 2020, at a time when racial tension was high and anti-Asian sentiment was escalating in the U.S. —in part due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in China) — there’s a case to consider. Alexi McCammond, editor of Teen Vogue, became embroiled in controversy as decade-old racist and homophobic tweets resurfaced. Although she repeatedly apologized, acknowledging her wrongdoing during her youth, she was ultimately forced to resign due to pressure from at least two advertisers as well as internal staff. We must wonder, was there anything she could have done to redeem herself from past indiscretions? Was there anything she could have done to “show the world” she was no longer that person? Was the punishment of losing her job over disavowed tweets a just retribution?

In a move reflecting grace and forgiveness, her former employer Axios welcomed her back with these words from an internal memo: 
“What’s unchanged is the Lexi we know, the one many of us worked with for four years, who should not be defined by a mistake from college,” wrote Axios Editor-in-Chief Nick Johnston. “That’s not to diminish the tweets. They were racist and dead wrong.” 
He continued: 
“The bottom line: Most importantly, the initial attacks on Lexi were not about justice or equity. They were motivated by the mob. And as I have said before, the mob does not run this newsroom. We have your back. And though the internet does not grant forgiveness, we do.”

The #MeToo movement is one example of how publicly calling out powerful individuals can lead to a widespread cultural shift. Seeing offenders like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Matt Lauer go to prison or be blacklisted for their conduct empowers other victims to come forward and hold those in positions of power accountable for their crimes.

In some ways, cancel culture is just a new form of boycott, a tactic used to pursue social justice by the civil rights movement and other activists throughout history. Drawing attention to systemic inequalities by calling them out remains an effective path to reform. For example, the #OscarsSoWhite movement and Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith’s boycott of the 2016 Academy Awards, when every actor nominated for a lead or supporting role was white, prompted reflection that helped result in the most wins by Black nominees ever in 2019.

When performed in good faith, canceling someone really boils down to making sure that society … whether through commerce or institutions … holds wrongdoers accountable for their actions. According to a recent Pew Research survey, 58% of American adults agree that calling out others on social media is more likely to hold people accountable, though a much higher proportion of Democrats believe this than Republicans (75% vs. 39%).

As with any form of social shaming, cancel culture can become a weapon in the wrong hands. It can be used to stir up angry mobs on social media that are more concerned with inflicting punishment than ensuring accountability. Former President Barack Obama has criticized this brand of overly “woke” politics. “That’s not activism,” he said in 2019, it’s just people acting “as judgmental as possible about other people.”

Liberal and conservative critics alike have pointed out the dangers that cancel culture poses to free expression and the exchange of ideas. Does ABC’s suspension of Whoopi Goldberg from The View for saying that the Holocaust was “not about race” deter others from engaging such challenging topics on air rather than using the moment as an opportunity to engage the issue? Such actions can stifle the speech of noncelebrities too. “I constantly encounter students who are so fearful of being subjected to the Twitter mob that they are engaging in self-censorship,” says Former ACLU president Nadine Strossen.

Despite widespread concerns over cancel culture in conservative media, a number of Republican politicians have started to pursue their own type of cancellation, from attempts to punish Major League Baseball for opposing Georgia voting restrictions to a Tennessee school board’s decision to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus from classrooms over its “unnecessary use of profanity and nudity.”

In some cases, including with Maus, being “canceled” can create a backlash of attention or sympathy for the target of the cancellation. Sales of books by both Dr. Seuss and J.K. Rowling increased after their authors were enveloped in controversy. The outrage sparked by Rowling’s airing of transphobic views undoubtedly cost her many fans, but did not stop her latest book from becoming a bestseller or receiving rave reviews.

How can we move forward as our best selves and jettison the most destructive elements of cancel culture? One way to start would be to rebrand the entire enterprise. Former Reading Rainbow host and actor LeVar Burton has suggested reframing it as “consequence culture,” emphasizing the positive aspects of holding everyone, including the rich and powerful, to account for their actions.

Rehabilitation may be better than punishment in many cases. Would any of us want to be judged irrevocably for our worst moment? Is every ill-conceived comment rightly punishable by a suspension or job loss? When longtime Bachelor host Chris Harrison was sidelined over racially insensitive comments, he consulted with faith leaders, educators and scholars like Michael Eric Dyson about a “counsel, not cancel” approach to working through self-improvement and personal accountability. What would it look like if we had more stories and examples of transformation, instead of stories of punishment and excommunication?

Comments like Whoopi Goldberg’s about the Holocaust raise the broader question: How do we punish people for something we don’t teach? In a country where many schoolchildren do not learn much about race, racism or the Holocaust, how do we expect to hold people accountable for inaccurate or inappropriate statements about the roles of race and racism in the Holocaust? A fully functional system of social accountability begins with a better-educated populace. Professor Jaqueline Mattis of Rutgers University concurs, “We’ve got to rethink our strategy. We must figure out how to respond in these circumstances in a much more nuanced, thoughtful, humane and compassionate way,” she said in a recent interview with OZY.

Let’s make room for messier conversations, where we can approach difficult, yet crucial, topics with grace, as we seek to exchange, learn and grow. As Grammy award-winning musician India.Arie said in a recent interview with Trevor Noah, “ We need to have messier conversations, get some stuff kinda wrong, and some right, and be able to talk it through because in the end people can act like we are individuals but we really are interconnected humanity. The thing that fixes things is talking.”

Is there someone you know who was rightly or wrongly canceled? Join the conversation and share with us on FB, IGTwitter with the hashtag #ElevatetheConversation #OZY #CancelCulture 

Audience quotes: “With cancel culture, I find it frightening that you either agree with me completely or you’re my enemy. And there’s no room for a conversation. And to figure out how much of the disagreement is just fundamentally, we don’t live the same life.”-J.M. 

“Thank you!! I appreciate your offer to engage in a real conversation. When [information] is presented and discussed with patience, love, and nuance, there may be some hope of understanding.”-Gary


We want to hear from you!  Do you think cancel culture has gone too far or is it a helpful accountability tool? We’d love to hear your thoughts of when society has gotten cancel culture right or when they have gotten it wrong. Share your opinion at and Take our Poll.