Cancel Culture Exists When Accountability Doesn't
What do you do when the pastor who helped you discover new spiritual insight turns out to have sexually mistreated multiple women?
When the life-changing author you’ve read for years turns out to have a bunch of racist views?
When the charity you’ve donated to for years has done more harm than good to the people it claimed to help?
Recent occurrences have brought up so many different thoughts about cancel culture and accountability in the past week.
My own thoughts surrounding cancel culture, accountability, and our current moment aren’t exactly clean, but I had to get them out in some way.
On Cancel Culture
First of all, when I say cancel culture, I’m talking about the current moment we’re living in when influential figures can instantaneously find themselves “cancelled” by society, usually because of a sudden discovery made about their past. This includes everything from multiple women coming out with awful stories about Bill Cosby’s sexual harassment to a bunch of racist tweets posted by Josh Hader being discovered as he was pitching during last year’s MLB All Star Game.
So often, somebody getting “cancelled” feels a bit like justice. Like, when I think about how Bill Cosby is finally paying the price for what he seemed to get away with for decades, that seems fair. When I think about how Louis CK no longer has the reach he once had, or how Kevin Spacey won’t be making more movies anytime soon, that also seems fair.
A lot of people feel like cancel culture goes too far. Standup comedians and right-wing shock jocks have become unusual allies when painting a picture of a world of oversensitive audiences. Sarah Silverman describes today as a “mutated McCarthy era, where any comic better watch anything they say.”
On the other hand, a lot of people see the backlash against cancel culture as insensitive to those who have received harm. Tori Williams Douglass makes the case for this much more eloquently than I can:
I wonder if the complaints about so-called cancel culture are primarily driven by those adjacent to power who believe people lower on the social hierarchy shouldn’t have a say regarding what happens to people above them.
I get that. Sometimes the case against cancel culture sounds more like a thinly veiled request to keep being abusive.
My immediate reaction is to think that people with power and privilege shouldn’t be the ones to determine where things go to far. My other reaction is that I don’t want to be the one to determine that either.
A world where everybody’s most careless words will ultimately be turned against them by an angry internet mob seems like one dystopia. A world where people can spew all kinds of racism and misogyny with no consequences whatsoever is another dystopia. Many people would say the world we live in is already one of these two extremes, they just might not agree on which one.
Neither of these is the world we want to live in. And I don’t think we need to settle for one or the other.
On Remorse and Restoration
I question cancel culture’s ability to create actual change for the offender. You typically see one of two things:
Either that person will be driven into the shadows by shame – which isn’t a desirable outcome for believers in nonviolent pathways to justice OR;
That person will double-down on their toxic beliefs and harmful practices, creating an even worse offender than before.
I do acknowledge that publicly shining light on somebody’s misdeeds can accomplish two very important things:
It can show victims that they are not alone, that their stories are legitimate, and their experiences are valid AND;
It can send a cultural message of what is and isn’t acceptable.
Showing solidarity and offering support to people who have been harmed should be the number one priority. So many “apologies” and promises to do better are more focused on the offenders than the victims.
I wrote a book about second chances. I am a big believer in second chances. I agree with Bryan Stevenson when he says “each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done.”
Joseph James Morales tweeted this:
Cancel culture calls people “trash”
Instead let’s put people in the recycling bin for self-improvement, growth, and transformation.
I agree. I should also add that being “recycled” isn’t at all a comfortable process. It involves things being broken down, restructured, and drastically reworked. And it doesn’t really happen publicly.
A process of reconciliation that doesn’t center the victims isn’t real reconciliation
Some people are truly remorseful and wish to change their patterns of behavior. The best place for that to take place is out of the spotlight. The spotlight isn’t an especially healthy place to shape your character.
Cancel Culture exists because Accountability Culture has been eroded.
Long before cancel culture became a buzzword you could easily search, a few things happened to create the conditions for its arrival.
In order to be a reputable news source, before, you needed a lot of journalistic credentials and a proper Editorial Review Board to ensure your practices were ethical. Now? If Uncle Jimmy’s Hot News & Views Blog gets millions of views, it’ll be seen as news by those millions of people.
Being a minister typically used to be a rigorous process, with denominational leadership holding each church’s leaders to high standards? Now? Many independent, nondenominational churches have formed, leaving it up to many pastors to set up their own decision-making structure.
Back in the day, most people would look to work within a larger organization. That organization would be regulated by boards and governments, based on whatever industry they’re in. At the same time that a lot of regulation has been rolled back, more people also seek to work for themselves, creating start-ups and independent projects. All of this results in fewer structures of accountability.
Over the past two or three decades, systems of accountability have been in decline. As more and more people were able to operate without accountability:
there were no clear authority figures for victims of abuse to come out to.
there were no people to help dismantle racist or misogynistic ideas before they did public damage.
toxic workplaces were allowed to persist.
conditions of trust were broken.
Prevention is better than cure and that’s what accountability is to cancel culture. Whether you believe cancel culture is a toxic landscape or a necessary adaptation, we can probably agree that things are better if they don’t have to come to that point.
In almost every case of somebody being “cancelled,” I’ve realized that they’ve put themselves into a position of almost no accountability. In some cases they established a reputation that seemed too big to take down, in some cases they filled a board of directors with only yes-men. In other cases, they went without a board of directors altogether.
Someone with a good system of accountability should be able to answer these questions:
Ultimately, who am I accountable to?
Who makes sure that I do my job to the highest standards, no matter what that job is?
Before I hit send or publish, who looks over my work?
If I were causing harm to somebody who works with me, who would they be able to report to?
Are the people I’ve trusted to hold me accountable simply protecting my reputation, or making sure the best interests of others are represented?
If somebody were to support my work (as a donor, patron, subscriber, client, etc.), how could they learn about the way I worked with others in the process?
Is my system of accountability heterogeneous? In other words, if I have a board of directors, are they all the same, race, gender, economic class, etc?
How are people without systemic power represented in my system of accountability?
If you don’t have answers to these questions, don’t waste time in trying to make some. Action without accountability creates a huge possibility of risk. True accountability demonstrates love for yourself and the people you seek to serve.