By: Yasmin Vejs Simsek, Staff Writer
Content warning: mention of suicide
Cancel culture at its core is a beautiful concept: if you’re found to be behaving in a way that hurts others, people stop supporting you. But what the cancel culture era needs now is a way of accounting for personal growth.
The last half-decade has been vital for our collective learning. I cringe at stuff I said just five years ago when I wasn’t as aware of ableist language. I’ve come a long way in unlearning things I used to think nothing of, but I still have ways to go. I never made public, less-than-woke comments — partly because of my socio-economic position — so I haven’t ventured close to cancellation. I’ve been able to learn and adjust my language without it affecting my reputation. As a result, I improved my speech and moved on.
It’s that desire to learn and change that cancel culture needs to start identifying.
Now, it’s important to say here that it’s often privileged people who get cancelled. When celebrities have a big enough platform, people feel they merit cancellation when that platform is misused. Right-wingers thrive in spreading the idea that lower-income folks will be afraid of being “cancelled.” They decry cancel culture as a way to make us believe that we’re going to be axed from society. However, if someone makes a mistake, it’s important that we offer the “cancelled” a chance back, because they’re human, too.
Regret, and a sincere desire to learn, are fairly easy to identify. Let’s compare the cancellation of author JK Rowling to the cancellation of model Chrissy Teigan. Rowling has doubled down, time and time again, on transphobic remarks. That she continues to do so, in spite of widespread condemnation, even from the cast of the Harry Potter movies, justifies a continuous campaign. It also shows a lack of desire on Rowling’s part to learn from her mistakes. On the other hand, Teigan, who told media personality Courtney Stodden to kill themselves a decade ago, issued what seemed like a sincere apology. Despite Stodden accepting the apology, Teigen’s products were dropped by three department store giants in the US What helped Teigan come back, it seems, was that her apology suggested a sincere desire to learn, rather than just attempting to excuse her comments.
By creating a perpetual cancel culture, we don’t allow for learning. And what are we as humans if we are not learning? YouTuber Jenna Marbles made some extremely problematic content in the early 2010s, where she did blackface (allegedly unintentionally) and removed that content as soon as she grew wiser. After apologizing, she held herself accountable by giving up her platform of 10 years. Does she deserve a second chance?
This is in no way chalking cancel culture up to sensitivity. A little fear of consequence that improves behaviour towards marginalized communities is important. It’s also important on the part of the cancelled to acknowledge the privilege of being forgiven. But having a version of cancel culture that doesn’t account for growth on the part of the cancelled is problematic. To be clear, this encompasses growth on learning about communities outside your own, and not things like blatantly violent sexism, racism, or homophobia. People should largely know better than that. However, by reflecting on whether post-cancellation apologies and comments show a sincere desire to learn about how people were hurt, we can start to provide a path back for the people who’re earnestly trying. I am all for cancelling the bad folks — let’s just make sure we don’t take some of the learning folks down with them.