It’s Not “Cancel Culture;” It’s “Accountability Culture”

On the eve of Trump’s second acquittal, my 15 year old daughter and I had a meaningful conversation about “cancel culture” (some call it “call out culture.”) Siena had just heard that Gina Carano, the star of one of her favorite shows The Mandalorian, got “cancelled” because of social media posts deemed to be anti-Semitic, trans-phobic, anti-mask, and QAnon-adjacent. Comparing being a Republican today to being Jewish during the Holocaust was apparently the final straw for LucasFilms after previous tweets about election fraud. She tweeted, “Because history is edited, most people today don’t realize that to get to the point where Nazi soldiers could easily round up thousands of Jews, the government first made their own neighbors hate them simply for being Jews. How is that any different than hating someone for their political views?”

When she heard about this, my daughter shook her head and said, “No wonder.” She totally understood why the star of her favorite show got cancelled, but it gave us a chance to talk about her feelings about “cancel culture”- and mine. While she has a right to have her own opinions kept private, I told her that my opinion is that getting “cancelled” is simply a risk public figures, myself included, take any time we take a firm stand about something the culture is reckoning with morally and ethically. I told her that I’m all for speaking your truth, but when you have a public platform- and you use it to make a public statement- then if you wind up on the wrong side of what the evolution of culture deems acceptable, truthful, or aligned with the integrity of our constantly changing morals, you risk getting cancelled. All of us do. And it’s not just public figures. Think of how many peers you’ve unfriended because they wound up on what you judged to be the wrong side of history.

I explained that I’ve already been cancelled by a huge percentage of my previous “fans,” who insisted on letting me know, often in very abusive ways, that they were canceling me (and unfollowing me after a spew of expletives.) I’ve cancelled followers too- for not abiding by my very clear boundaries.

If You Get In The Arena, You Might Be Held Accountable

Because I’m taking firm stands in favor of #BlackLivesMatter, in favor of believing #MeToo victims and encouraging them to press charges, in favor of science, public health guidelines and mass vaccination, in favor of impeaching Trump for inciting an insurrection, and against any “pastel Q” anti-Semitic, fascist, right wing, cultic, spiritual bypassing “Great Awakening” conspiracy theories thrown about by spiritual teachers, yoga folks, and wellness influencers, I explained to Siena that I put myself in the “arena” that Teddy Roosevelt and Brene Brown talk about.

I told her that, although it gets a bad rap among some of the young people in her circles who want to feel free to be as careless as they feel like being without being held accountable, I don’t think “cancel culture” is a bad thing. In fact, I don’t even like calling it getting “cancelled.” I told her I think it’s the natural consequence of making choices that harm others or being on the wrong side of groundswells of change in public opinion. Is it bad to cancel Nazis? Is there anything wrong with cancelling police who show no remorse for killing innocent, unarmed Black men? Is it unjust to cancel Harvey Weinstein? Let’s not even call it getting cancelled. Let’s replace the question with “Is there anything wrong with holding those people accountable- and enforcing consequences- for their free will choices that hurt other people?” Let’s call it what it really is- accountability culture. For way too long, our culture has been sloppy, not holding people in power accountable for their abusive or insensitive words or behaviors. That is changing- and thank God! It’s WAY past time, or as Oprah said, #TimesUp.

This is not to justify dehumanizing these people. And it’s not to ask humans to be perfect (Lord knows that’s not possible!) It’s okay to make mistakes, as long as we recognize we’re mistaken and respond appropriately to the call out. If someone is called out, expresses remorse, accepts the consequences of their abusive behavior, even if that means jail time, then we need to give people an on ramp back into the culture. People do change, and making mistakes humbles some people. If someone apologize and asks for forgiveness, if they get therapy and treat the traumas that cause abusers to cause harm, if they pay their debt to society and serve jail time with a repentant heart when found guilty of crimes, if they do their best to make it right with those they’ve hurt, then we can always welcome them back into the fold- and I DO think we should pave a path that lets those who have been cancelled find a way to be welcomed back when they’ve been reformed. If we exile them forever, if they’ll forever be punished by public opinion, why would they ever be motivated to grow, learn, change and make things right?

But to rail against cancel culture without acknowledging that harmful behaviors have public consequences seems like a way to try to get off the hook about not being careful with how you wield your power when you’re in the public eye. It seems like an entitled way of expecting a hall pass for not doing the hard work of anti-racism, reading and learning to interpret good science from pseudoscience, doing your own trauma healing so you don’t impose your traumas on innocent people, staying in your lane of expertise and not spouting off about things you’re not an expert in, and taking responsibility for your behaviors in society, especially when you’re privileged to have a lot of power.

Accountability Without Dehumanization

So, yes, let’s hold people accountable without dehumanizing them. Should we hold accountable a President who lies, incites violence, promotes unfounded conspiracy theories, and makes violent threats against people he doesn’t like? Yes- although this past weekend’s acquittal by the Senate (again) clearly shows this isn’t happening. Should we hold the gurus who raped their vulnerable students accountable? Yes. Should we hold accountable doctors like Christiane Northrup and Kelly Brogan, who are betraying their professional oath by promoting Covid denialism, anti-vaccination lies and misinformation, and fascist propaganda? Yes. Should we hold accountable people in positions of power who abuse their power for personal, sexual, and financial gain? Yes. Should we hold accountable Hollywood stars who make racist, anti-Semitic, trans-phobic, anti-public health guideline public statements? Yes. Should we hold accountable any Republican Senator who does what helps them politically or financially over what’s best for the future of democracy in this country? Hell yes. We must hold accountable EVERY Republican Senator who did not hold Trump accountable in the 2022 election. Cancelled!

Let’s not diminish the importance of natural consequences and holding people accountable for causing harm to others by diminishing it to a “cancel culture” meme. I get that it’s tough to keep up with the wave of empathy and awareness the past few years have brought us around how power gets abused in the world. But if you don’t want to risk getting cancelled, get out of the arena! It’s freakin’ hard work to try to practice right use of power, to be socially aware, racially sensitive, caring towards people who are not heterosexual or cis-gender, up to date on the constantly evolving science in the midst of a pandemic, sensitive to the elderly and disabled, and open to mystery without being delusional or indulging in magical thinking. “Don’t cancel me” seems to be a cry mostly from those behaving badly and wanting to get away with it.

Read The First Amendment

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for free speech and the right to non-violent protest. Thank God we live in a country where nobody is going to arrest Gina Carano for making insensitive remarks and nobody is going to come after me if I question some aspects of public health guidelines, like why the CDC isn’t recommending Vitamin C, Vitamin D, or zinc for Covid prevention and treatment. But that doesn’t mean Gina shouldn’t lose her job or I shouldn’t lose followers and book deals if we turn out to be giving unsound advice or making hateful statements that harm others. But if you make it on the news for joining a white supremacist rally, don’t be surprised if you lose your job or your book deal. You’re free to express yourself, but there might be consequences and you might be held accountable for your choice to assert your point of view. Nothing wrong with that. Freedom of speech has never been the same as freedom from accountability.

Freedom of speech is about government control and doesn’t apply one bit to private companies or personal relationships. Twitter or LucasFilms- or me- are entirely free to set boundaries around someone who doesn’t uphold their professional standards or use their platform respectfully in ways that comply with the rules any private company is free to set around what is and is not allowed to be said. And when it comes to jobs, no- most of us are not just free to say whatever we want without consequences- nor should we be! We’re also not free to say anything we want in our personal relationships. If we say mean stuff or start shitposting about the Holocaust on social media, people are likely to abandon us. That’s the natural consequence of being an asshole. So yes- I 100% support our first amendment right but it simply does not apply to private companies or personal relationships. Read it. It’s very clear. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

There’s A Difference Between Being Held Accountable & Being Cancelled

I really resonated with one comment from a Facebook follower who read this post when I put it up. Jeanette Marcotte very eloquently wrote:

I think there is a difference between being held accountable and being cancelled, in that they come from different intents. Cancel culture is harmful. Canceling is reactive and, as you noted, offers no way back for those who have caused harm. It’s when we push people away rather than have those difficult conversations… It’s avoidance of true accountability. Accountability and good boundaries, on the other hand, come from a place of harm prevention and educating. No, you may not continue to do things that harm the community. Here are the rules. Here are the consequences of your actions. Here is the way back when you have paid your dues/expressed appropriate understanding and remorse for the harm caused.

We are in a societal transition, trying to find our way (back to?) to accountability.

But we’ve been cancelling one another for so long, we don’t entirely know how to set good boundaries, so the reactivity is all over the charts.  This particular example is good accountability and boundary setting, and I agree with all of your thoughts around that. It’s getting lumped in with cancel culture because those who are not used to having boundaries set and enforced feel as thought they are ‘unjustly put upon’ when subjected to consequences to their own actions.

In short: Cancel culture is real and gross. Accountability is it’s own thing and necessary. Sometimes we confuse the two, but they are most definitely not the same thing. Thank you for coming to my Ted talk.

The Absence of Boundaries & Consequences Does NOT Equal Love

Another commenter said something I did not agree with. She wrote:

I strongly disagree with you because cancel culture depends on the judgment, values and opinions of the person that practices it. Just because a person decides to cancel somebody or something does not mean, by any means, that the person or thing is bad. I believe cancel culture is a sign of weakness and of not being able to accept the other. It’s just saying to a person, ”I’ll remove you from my life if you don’t behave as I want you to behave.” It’s a highly controlling behavior and people who have a need to control usually do this because they are feeling very vulnerable and consider that if they don’t control what they are trying to control, they are under threat.

And as I don’t agree with a lot of your opinions, especially on Covid, there are many things that you are condemning that I’m not condemning. Does this make you right and me wrong? I don’t think so. We just have very differing opinions and everybody is entitled to their own opinion. But cancel culture just rejects the other and tries to make the other wrong. It is not a loving attitude. Yes, sure, people should be held accountable if they have hurt another person, but what happens when your judgment tells you that a person did something wrong and that my judgment tells me otherwise? Who has the right to impose their will onto the other? And for what purpose?

I responded by saying this:

I accept your point of view, but let me challenge you on it. You say, “It’s a highly controlling behavior and people who have a need to control, usually do this because they are feeling very vulnerable and consider that if they don’t control what they are trying to control they are under threat.” Sure- I get this at its most extreme, that if I don’t like how someone is behaving, I have the option of threatening abandonment if I want to get someone to behave a certain way- and that could be manipulative on a personal level. It could also be a totally legitimate boundary to give someone a heads up that if they don’t stop doing the thing that feels abusive, I’m leaving. The latter is not a manipulation; it’s just a way to clearly communicate the consequence someone will incur if they keep doing the abusive thing.

But I’m not talking about my personal life here. I’m talking about my responsibility as a public figure with power, privilege, and a large platform. I am not trying to control those in my platform. You all are free to do whatever you want. I’m trying to protect the oppressed and take a stand with them- out of my love and choice to stand in solidarity with those who our culture typically oppresses. You say people try to control others when they feel threatened, but why wouldn’t they? Would you try to make someone stop hurting you if you were repetitively threatened? If not, then what are you supposed to do? Just tolerate abuse in the name of love and acceptance (which would be a spiritual bypass and conflict avoidant behavior, which is a legitimate trauma symptom, but not a healthy behavior?)

What about people who actually ARE under threat- like Jews in Nazi Germany or BIPOC in the US or women who are being “grabbed by the pussy?” And you say “It is not a loving attitude,” but this makes me crazy when people use “let’s just love each other” as a way not to hold accountable those who are causing others harm with their insensitivity, abuse, and hurtful words or behaviors. Let us not invoke love here in this way. Love has a fierce face too, not just a gentle one. Love can be firmly compassionate, the way parents set boundaries- out of love for their kids. I think it IS loving to say HELL NO to abusive, disrespectful, racist, sexist, trans-phobic, insulting behavior- but that’s just my point of view. It’s a way of expressing love for the oppressed to impose consequences on the oppressor. It is not a loving society if we just tolerate whatever ugly behavior powerful people feeling like spewing without holding people accountable when they’re behaving in hateful ways. But that’s just my two cents. Of course you’re free to disagree with me.

As we wrapped up our conversation, I told my daughter, words matter, and the more power you have, the more your words matter. Choose your words with care, not because you’re afraid of getting cancelled, but because you care about being a benevolent force in the world who is at least trying not to cause undue harm when so many are suffering.

– Lissa

PS. If you’re interested in having potentially triggering conversations about things like “cancel culture” in a safe container- with clear boundaries intended to keep the community safe but with a wide berth to have differing points of view and permission to be imperfect, make mistakes, make repairs, and make amends, we’d welcome you in Healing With The Muse.

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