Cancel culture emerged in the past decade as a means to hold public figures accountable for controversial, questionable, or troubling words or actions. Some examples in recent years include the #TaylorSwiftisOverParty trend and the boycott of Louis C.K. following revelations of his sexual misconduct and harassment. Cancelling included a concerted effort to boycott them, block them on social media, and report their social media accounts to get them shut down and removed from public discourse. In this original form, cancel culture had mixed results but proliferated because it was seen as the only option for dealing with celebrities so removed from us that we could have no other impact on them.
As terrible as this may sound in execution, the idea behind cancelling someone is not so misguided. By those who practice it, cancelling was seen as a way to remove an aspect of society we found troubling rather than removing a person. Though it was originally directed towards celebrities who appeared outside of the reach of society’s standard behavior-correcting mechanisms (e.g. legal repercussions, job loss, etc.) it became a way to hold anyone accountable for views or actions that are deemed bad for society.
Over time, cancel culture evolved from punishment for faceless celebrities to young people ‘canceling’ their friends and classmates. In these cases, an individual in a social group would say or do something, intentionally or unintentionally, that annoyed or hurt one or more members of the group. A decision would be made to ‘cancel’ that person and they would be cut off from the rest of the group, usually without warning or explanation. Once cancelled, this person, for all intents and purposes, would no longer exist to the rest of the group - they would be ignored, have their number deleted and messages not replied to, and their social media accounts blocked.
Teens have used this form of cancel culture as a means to diminish the views and prominence of those who espouse racism, sexism, gun violence and rape culture. The result is national movements that brought about social and behavioral change. That is the positive. The negative is that cancelling is often done impulsively, abruptly, and for purely subjective reasons. Though not always permanent, it can have lasting psychological impact and is viewed by many as a form of bullying. The person being cancelled may have no idea what they have done and thus have no opportunity to correct their behaviour. They are just excluded and shunned.
In the world of conflict resolution, this form of cancel culture would be considered ‘avoiding’ behavior. In its original form, cancel culture seems to have been intended to create consequences for those immune to ordinary repercussions. However, as it has expanded in both scope and application, it is now being used to avoid people we are capable of speaking to but would prefer not to engage with. There are times when ignoring or avoiding a problem or problematic person can be appropriate. But in the interpersonal context, this does little to change the person’s opinion or actions. When you have the ability to talk, you can make real progress by letting the person know why what they did or said bothered you. This is where we, at mediation, can help.
Mediation is a collaborative process that brings people together to discuss what caused the dispute, in this case the reason for the cancelling. The mediator is neutral and does not take sides or place blame. Their role is to create a safe space and to ask questions to help the parties to understand each other. The party that did the cancelling can explain why, and the party that was cancelled can provide context for their actions and explain their side. Oftentimes underlying issues can surface, misunderstandings are clarified, and apologies are exchanged. But most importantly, mediation offers a chance to preserve the relationship by addressing each party's needs. And once both parties understand each other, there is a possibility of making real changes and reconciling.
If you have cancelled someone or you or someone you know has been cancelled, you may wish to request or suggest a mediation to discuss what caused the cancellation in the first place. You can address the original problem and gain understanding and the benefit of someone else’s perspective. Remember that you were once friends for a reason. With mediation, you could be friends again.