Cancel Culture and Calling-In: A Continuum of Response

This content was previously shared for the A Clear Vision of Life Program. 

Cancel Culture has taken root in our society, but should it? When do we call people out, and when do we call them in? Are mistakes an end—or are they a start of growth and change? Who makes that decision? Consider the implications, both positive and negative of Cancel Culture. Speak with those you care about using the prompting questions included below to create dialog.  

We first need to understand what Cancel Culture is—the definition for this challenge is from and while other versions exist, they are all relatively similar:

Cancel Culture refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel Culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.

Generally speaking, most people (if anyone) cannot do or say exactly what they want without repercussion for those actions, especially if what is being said is in relation to a marginalized population. However, there is a difference between holding someone accountable for their words and actions and “cancelling” them. Cancelling is perceived to be specifically in relation to a person’s reputation or their employment. Being insulted or trashed on the internet isn’t quite the same as someone who has a following that is calling for them to be cancelled. This can be an especially powerful force when it’s coming from those on the inside—think shared profession, customers, employees, etc.

So this is where things get tricky—when someone makes an egregious, offensive error, how does a society hold them accountable for it? Or should we at all? Most would argue that there are just some things that should just be off limits, but who makes those decisions and who decides if the offense requires “cancelling” or, on the other end of the spectrum, calling-in? Calling-in dates back to the 1400s when it was used to seek help from others (Think “call in the reinforcements!” for a mental image). Calling-in works well for people you are already close with (family, close friends, networks like places of worship or even your profession). At the heart of it, think about the end goal—when you have a relationship with someone, it’s easier to hold them accountable for problematic behavior and find a solution. If the end goal is to punish, shame, or call-out, then calling-in is not the answer.

Calling people in sounds nice. It sounds like the responsible, empathetic, teaching path towards helping someone grow and learn from their mistakes. And, sometimes it is. Sometimes it is not the right choice:

  • Calling-in doesn't mean that anyone has to tolerate threats to their identity, race, gender, or other personal and non-malicious characteristics. It also doesn't mean expecting that a pleasant conversation will address centuries of oppression.

Our world is a complex place filled with complex people and complex ideas. Cancel culture is a complex construct that has a place in our society. Whether we employ it in our own lives is our choice. Social media allows news, both accurate and inaccurate, to travel quickly and there are repercussions for those who are in its way (rightfully or not). How will you talk to your loved ones about this challenging topic? Consider starting with the four questions below and see where it leads you:

  • What is the real issue we are looking to address with the person/company/statement?

  • What is the threshold for you when deciding between calling someone in or calling them out/cancelling?

  • Cancel culture aside, what are ways we can advocate on behalf of people/things/issues that we find are being pushed against by others?

  • How can we recognize cancel culture when we see it? What are the factors to consider when deciding to support cancelling someone or something?