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<xTITLE>Why Cancel When You Can Mediate</xTITLE>

Why Cancel When You Can Mediate

by Alnoor Maherali, Ehsan Ali
August 2020

Article originally published here.

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.


Alnoor Maherali is a highly skilled diplomat, dispute resolution specialist, and certified mediator. He resides in New York City and mediates for the New York Peace Institute and Venn Mediation. A ‘student of the world’ his personal and professional travel has taken him to almost 50 different countries, making him especially adept at navigating cultural, ethnic, and racial differences. During his time in the foreign service, he worked overseas in Afghanistan and Bangladesh, specializing in conflict resolution, political dynamics, human rights, and disaster response. He studied Mathematics at Queen’s University in Canada and has a Master in Public Administration (MPA) from the Harvard Kennedy School in Boston. It was in his MPA that he discovered his passion for mediation, while taking an advanced workshop in Multiparty Negotiation and Conflict Resolution. Since then he has committed himself to mediation full-time, with training and professional development, co-launching his own mediation firm, and by joining community mediation rosters.

Ehsan Ali is a practicing New York lawyer, arbitrator, dispute resolution specialist, and mediator. He resides in New York City and mediates with the New York Peace Institute and Venn Mediation. He attained his B.A. from American University, majoring in Communications, Law, Economics, Government and Philosophy.  He went on to graduate with distinction from Columbia Law School. While an associate at a leading New York law firm, he worked on major national and international arbitral cases, successfully representing clients in major matters valued between $25,000,000 and $50,000,000.  Thereafter, he has served as outside general counsel to a number of startups handling a full range of matters including dispute resolution and contractual negotiations, particularly in the entertainment space.  This richly varied experience has given him a unique perspective on conflicts, especially those that are particularly heated and where it seems everything is at stake.   His current and former clients include Fortune 500 companies and hot up-and-coming startups operating in the New York area.