Past mistakes should be a chance to learn instead of being an exile from society
Hassan Merali // Contributor
Valeriya Kim // Illustrator
Earlier this year, Alexi McCammond, a political reporter in the United States, was named the new editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue. It was a strange choice from the start, as McCammond didn’t have magazine experience, and was dating a member of the Biden administration. McCammond was a rising star, and her competence wasn’t the issue—it was her past tweets.
Ten years ago, when she was 17, McCammond published racist and homophobic tweets, although the language was more common and undisputed back then. After the tweets re-surfaced, a backlash ensued. McCammond took full responsibility for the tweets; she said all the right things, apologized sincerely, and committed to doing the work of learning and making amends. Still, staff protested, and McCammond resigned before her first day.
Many aptly pointed out that this was indicative of a larger problem with cancel culture. “Cancel culture” refers to the phenomenon of people with power or fame falling from grace through deplatforming, boycotting, or loss of their positions of power. This has been seen time and again with various stars. Kevin Spacey lost parts in movies after being accused of sexual assault and Mike Richards was turfed as host and executive producer of Jeopardy! after anti-semitic comments.
But this is not just happening to the rich and famous; in every sector of society, people are scared to express themselves honestly for fear of getting “cancelled” by friends and colleagues. In academia and in journalism—two sections of society known most for their proclivity for tolerating difference and debate—some are starting to self-censor, fearing a backlash that could cost them their job or social standing. So, is it time we cancel cancel-culture?
On the one hand, the rising tide of social justice movements seeking to correct past and present injustices like racism and antagonism to 2SLGBTQQIA+ people has found its way to the masses. People are increasingly unwilling to continue to lend their monetary or political support to public figures who have abused or exploited others. Many people don’t want to listen to R. Kelly anymore. In this case, people are simply removing their support for someone based on new information available to them. They’re voting with their dollar, their attention, and their approval (or lack thereof). People exercising their free-will to decide what they want and don’t want to support, is a key part of freedom of speech.
On the other hand, the barrage of social media outrage at everybody from celebrities to minor public figures has mob-like qualities. Statements from years ago are often dredged up, and force people to be tried in the court of public opinion on their past statements against the social mores of the present. In this puritanical culture devoid of understanding or forgiveness, people are raked over the coals for their mistakes. Forgiveness is little, mercy is scarce, and patience is non-existent.
Should we abandon trying to hold people accountable for their actions? Should we just dump the chumps who screwed up, and pick from the crowd of others who haven’t (that we know of)? Or should we seek some kind of balance between the two?
We should opt for a more nuanced culture of accountability. Holding people accountable for their actions is critical to challenging the culture of covering up abuse by the powerful against the powerless. But holding out understanding, compassion, and even grace for those in the public eye who have made understandable mistakes is important for our cultural fabric.
Who among us hasn’t said or done something racist, sexist, or homophobic? Especially in our youth? Not only do people make mistakes, but social norms change. In the previous century, it was the norm to call Indigenous people “Indians.” Was it wrong then? Of course. It would also be wrong to refuse to talk to your grandparents based on how they spoke without knowing the politically correct terms. If your grandparents still talk this way—that’s a different conversation (and hopefully one that doesn’t happen over a big family dinner).
We need a culture of openness—a culture that is willing to engage in more debate, not less. A culture that is more willing to engage, than to shun. A culture that is more willing to forgive, than to cast aside. A culture that saves deplatforming for the most toxic and heinous people who cause harm, and accepts the apologies of those who made mistakes and are willing to learn from them.