Mo and I devote 30 minutes at the end of every day to decompressing and talking about the news. A topic that has popped up more than once in the last few months is “cancel culture” and what it means to society. Getting “canceled” means you have committed an infraction so egregious that you should be erased from the public eye forever. Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby currently headline an inglorious list of cancelled Hollywood figures.
I am 100% in support of people who have done bad things having to face the consequences of their actions. Depending on the circumstances, the consequences should include arrests, fines, and public apologies. However, I am afraid that the cancellation process lacks foresight and nuance in many cases and applies a one-size-fits all approach to cases of varying severity. Once a person has been cancelled, it is expected that any trace of their existence needs to disappear. In essence, their ability to atone for their mistakes has been canceled, as well. It would be irresponsible to proceed with habitual bad actors as if nothing ever happened. Banishment is clearly warranted in those cases. However, after a period of banishment, it may be important to see reformed bad actors in the public sector bringing time, resources, and voice to programs that empower those they have wronged. A “canceled” individual isn’t welcomed to return in any space, and that may be an opportunity cost that eradicates valuable teaching tools.
I don’t believe that cancelation or utter destruction of every wrong doer serves the greater good. We all have different starting points and crossroads in our journeys. People should be held accountable for previous infractions, but we should allow some room for those who recognize their mistakes to have reasonable accommodation to atone. Growth in in the area of malfeasance, positive evolution as a person, and actions of penance should be celebrated. In my personal life I’ve had 180 degree changes on issues. In my youth I held beliefs that I no longer hold and did things that I now regret. However, I’ve had the benefit of life experiences and interactions with great humans to serve as a great teacher. None of us are perfect and all have fallen short in areas. Although we should all strive for perfection, none of us can reasonably expect to be our best selves at all times. In an age of 24 hour news and social media, mistakes are more visible than any time in history. This is a blessing and a curse. Bad actors can no longer cloak their misdeeds in darkness. Previously marginalized people now have outlets to share their pain, avenues to get justice, and support. However, your worst moment can be your legacy.
If you are willing to grow, your worst moment shouldn’t define you. However, if that one moment is indicative of larger character flaws, then it should be the quality associated with who you are. Weinstein terrorized women for years. Cosby was proven to be a serial rapist. Their punishments fit the crime. But I’m also reminded of Chris Hemsworth, and his apology to people of indigenous descent. When confronted about dressing up as Native Americans Chris expressed his deep regret by saying he would like to take the opportunity to confront the larger issues surrounding the mistake. He explained that he, “was stupidly unaware of the offense this may have caused and the sensitivity around this issue.” Chris sincerely and unreservedly apologized to all First Nations people for his ignorance and thoughtless actions. He ended his apology by adding: “I now appreciate that there is a great need for a deeper understanding of the complex and extensive issues facing indigenous communities. I hope that in highlighting my own ignorance I can help in some small way.” Although he did a bad thing, he grew in a way that birthed positivity. In fact, he did not stop with an apology. He then threw his celebrity, resources, and platform to endorse issues plaguing indigenous communities. Canceling him before he had that opportunity would have removed an outcome where goodness prevails. It also removes any incentive for people who can change to behave better.
We have seen this in other instances, too. Dr. Seuss spent the end of his career devoting his literary talent to promote diversity. Many believe this was to make up for the offensive nature of his early work. The David depicted in the Old Testament of scripture spent his latter years in penance for mistakes made in his earlier years of leadership. The key designation is not that they were given a pass for their mistakes. Their mistakes were places where they found room to grow and do better after being taken to task for their errors. Folks who can accept that they committed a wrong, and find ways to rectify those ills deserve a place in society. Complete banishment should be reserved for those who do not demonstrate a desire or ability to serve penance to the communities or people they’ve hurt.
The best apology is changed behavior. If your words and actions do harm, you should be held accountable. If you say and do things that show growth and promote true healing, you can do real good despite past mistakes. You may not be able to return to places you once occupied, but you can learn to be a better person in a different space. There should be room to make mistakes. Also, there should be room to grow. It takes nuance to abhor injustice while celebrating growth and progress. Our perspectives change with new knowledge and experience. If we can demonstrate growth, we are worthy to be forgiven before we are cancelled completely.