Here’s a phrase you’ve probably encountered in the news lately – “cancel culture.” You may have heard it used with Mr. Potato Head, Dr. Seuss, Gina Carano, Colin Kaepernick, The Dixie Chicks, or any number of other people. But what exactly is cancel culture?
According to Wikipedia, “Cancel culture (or call-out culture) is a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles – whether it be online, on social media, or in person. Those who are subject to this ostracism are said to have been ‘cancelled’.”
Ostracism isn’t New.
One of the harshest forms of punishment over the course of human history has been to ostracize individuals. In the most extreme form, it was excommunication from religious organizations or banishment from tribes. Because religious institutions and tribes were central to social life, banishment would result in severe hardship and possibly death.
Other forms of ostracism start during childhood when kids are excluded from teams, peer groups and certain organizations. Sometimes exclusion comes at the hands of peers but other times it’s a selection process facilitated by adults. Either way, some kids are excluded and it’s painful.
Physical and Emotional Pain.
You may have been taught, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” It turns out broken bones usually heal faster and more fully than the emotional scars we suffer from name calling, ostracism and other types of social interaction.
I encourage you to watch this short video where Dr. Robert Cialdini talks about the origin of pain in the human brain as he discusses the famous conformity experiments conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950s. Spoiler alert: your brain doesn’t differentiate between physical and emotional pain.
Isn’t All Social Pressure Cancel Culture?
Aren’t boycotts the same as cancel culture? After all, it’s a group of people trying to use social pressure to bring about change. Groups of people have always tried to use their influence to bring about change. Boycotts are one example, but others include protests and unionization.
Quite often the power of the crowd has done much good. Protests got women the right to vote and have brought about better civil rights. Unions helped make many workplaces safer, protected children and ushered in other labor laws.
I wouldn’t call boycotts, protests or union pressure cancel culture because their motive is usually change within a system. For example, unions aren’t trying to get rid of the businesses they work for. Boycotts often seek to get companies to change their products, services or business practices.
The Danger with Current Cancel Culture.
Cancel culture, as noted in the opening, is usually directed at individuals. It seeks to marginalize or silence people from the public discourse and/or seeks to punish them by removing opportunities. In that regard it’s not unlike banishment or excommunication.
It’s usually appropriate for someone to lose opportunities when they break a law. However, it’s entirely different when a person’s actions or views (past or present) are found distasteful or out of step with current ways of thinking. Those are called differences.
No One is Immune.
I can only speak for myself but if I were a betting man, I’d say every person could relate to this: I’ve said and done things in my life that I’m ashamed of. I’ve also said and done things, with no malice intended, that could now be considered offensive because norms have changed over time. I’m fortunate the internet wasn’t around when I was a stupid kid and during my early adult years. Despite having done a lot of good for many people, if enough people found me offensive they could invoke cancel culture on me.
But here’s the thing; no one is immune because there’s no guarantee what’s acceptable today will be acceptable tomorrow. People who feel so enlightened right now will be out of step with the culture at some point in the future. For example, what if 50 years from now people look at the destruction that happened during 2020 protests and deem it barbaric because society has found more peaceful ways to resolve conflict? It’s possible and it wouldn’t matter that the underlying motives were good or that the change brought about was needed. Future generations may look back and say, “It doesn’t matter, it’s unacceptable by today’s standards. How could you?”
Suggestion: Replace Cancel with Conversation
Here’s my suggestion: replace cancel with conversation. If a black man can convert 200 KKK members through dialog, then nothing is impossible. I spend a lot of time talking to my black friends on a regular basis. They share their life experiences and it’s been eye opening. I listen and ask questions. I don’t need to worry about saying the wrong thing or having my questions or views misinterpreted. It’s a learning process for everyone involved and we all are better off for it. I encourage you to give it a try with people who are different than you.
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An author, TEDx speaker, international trainer, coach, and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., the most cited living social psychologist on the science of ethical influence.
Brian’s first book, Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical, was named one of the 100 Best Influence Books of All Time by BookAuthority. His second book, Persuasive Selling for Relationship Driven Insurance Agents, was a new release bestseller in several Amazon categories.
Brian’s LinkedIn Learning courses on the application of persuasion in sales and coaching have been viewed by more than 350,000 people around the world.