What can we do about “cancel culture”?

The premise of my newsletter is that our political polarization is tearing apart our relationships. We each contribute to our political polarization every time we shun or shame or yell or cancel.

We won’t solve political polarization until we can learn to talk to each other in a new way. And a great place to start is in our relationships with people we love and care about. That gives us two wins: Not only can we mend important relationships that act as our anchors, but we can also practice those skills in a relatively safe space. Then we can take it outside, into the world.  

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I use examples in this newsletter to make the tools that I’m talking about feel real and achievable. But besides those examples, I want to talk about why we don’t use these tools. I hear resistance in the questions I get after the talks I give. The objections range are usually along the lines of “I’m only speaking truth to power,” “I’m only providing factual information,” and “But what I am saying is Biblical.”

Similarly, we have a cultural movement of cancel culture. Other terms used are call-out culture, social media shaming, trashing, and shunning. You know what I mean.

Although there’s starting to be a backlash against cancel culture, we keep doing it. Why? This newsletter will explore the reasons it’s so sticky.

First, let’s just acknowledge that it’s hard to change. It’s scary. We don’t know how it will turn out and we feel incompetent when we try something new. That’s a big barrier. Of course, if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll continue to get what we’ve always gotten.

Second, we feel powerful doing it. After all, women haven’t been allowed to express themselves, to “speak truth to power” until recently. It is seductive. And it does have an effect. The men who were cancelled as part of the MeToo movement haven’t resurfaced. This might not have happened if it wasn’t for cancel culture.

Third, we may feel pride at standing up for what we believe. I know I did when I told my aunt she was rude for talking about immigrants when her immigrant caregiver was in the room.

Also, we may want to protect ourselves. We feel fragile.

But the underlying, unrecognized reason we do this is to feel like we belong. Cancel culture is a way that people use to signal the group they belong to. And that’s the hardest motivator to overcome. After all, we all need to belong to a group. Evolutionarily, if we didn’t belong to a group, we would die. People with the lowest levels of social connections are more likely to die. Belonging is an important, unrecognized force in driving our behavior.

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But the cancel culture form of belonging is based on the idea of duality, that we’re different from others. Groups that define themselves by who they aren’t have what Brené Brown called the “fast food” of belonging. It’s better than no food, but it isn’t nutritious. It doesn’t feed your soul.

How can we overcome the stickiness of the type of belonging that defines itself by who it isn’t? In her book, “Braving the Wilderness,” shame researcher Brené Brown called for us to be brave to overcome this, to go it alone. I disagree with that as a viable path forward because we need to belong for survival.

In her class at Smith College, Professor Loretta Ross calls for us to “call in” those who disagree with us, to invite others to join our group. That could be viable, but we have barriers. In their book, “Coddling the American Mind,” Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff call for us to not allow others to indulge in cancel culture because it isn’t healthy.

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My call is different. My call is that what we’re doing isn’t working long term. The feeling of powerfulness is seductive but wrong. We aren’t weak, and we can feel pride for doing something differently. We can change if we’re committed to it and support each other.

And my answer is to focus on the belonging of humanity. That’s the group we need to want to belong to, one that transcends our petty differences. My role model is Black congresswoman and presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm who reached out to white supremacist and presidential opponent George Wallace in the hospital after he was shot, even canceling a day’s worth of campaigning to do it. Her visit is credited with Wallace working against white supremacy afterwards.

That is how we can heal our relationships and our nation and the world.