Public accountability is vitally important in a democracy. Holding our elected officials, community influencers and public figures responsible for their words and actions is a part of the long tradition of civic engagement and debate in our young country; only now with the prominence of social media is this tradition of accountability being labeled “cancel culture.” Instead of public figures either defending their statements and actions with facts and intellectual argument or humbly noting where they may have erred, we are now seeing the rise of people claiming that they have fallen prey to the bogeyman of “cancel culture.”
Also read: Left uses 'cancel culture' to bully us
I would ask, what does being canceled mean? Does it mean losing one’s position or power? Not in the case of D-11 School Board member Jason Jorgenson, who remains in his elected position after posting scientifically irresponsible anti-mask jokes on Facebook and who remains responsible (by oath) for the safety and educational outcomes of thousands of our city’s children, youth, teachers and staff. Does it mean losing wealth? Not in the case of J.K. Rowling, who remains a multimillionaire even after her long history of tweeting transphobic vitriol. Heck, even Kanye West, who has apparently been cancelled multiple times, has still qualified for the ballot in some states as he has launched a 2020 presidential bid. So, if “cancel culture” doesn’t actually mean losing access to power, position or prosperity, what does it mean?
In my estimation, crying “cancel culture” is one way of not having to grapple with being held accountable for the impact of one’s behaviors and ideas. We do not live in a society where we are free from community consequences. When elected officials and public figures say things that are categorically false or are harmful to the community, we have the right to push back in response. It is then the responsibility of the person(s) hearing the feedback to either defend their position with data and thoughtful argument or to recognize the errors of their statements or the impact of their behaviors and to apologize and change.
I would like to posit that “cancel culture” is a symptom of America’s social backfire effect, a well-documented psychological response to new information that doesn’t fit within one’s strongly held beliefs. (There’s an educational and fun cartoon on the subject of backfire effect from The Oatmeal that is available online, if a reader is so inclined to Google the subject.) The backfire effect means that new information that challenges core beliefs is responded to by the brain as if it were a physical attack. Instead of hearing new information and integrating it, one doubles down on their foundational beliefs. Crying “cancel culture” is one way of digging one’s heels into beliefs rather than acknowledging that new information can change one’s mind.
What is hurting America is not the phenomenon referred to as “cancel culture,” but rather the phenomenon of public figures not taking responsibility for their actions and ideas that harm other people. Especially when it comes to individuals who have intentionally sought public office and have taken oaths to serve the community, this phenomenon is particularly injurious. An elected and public official's personal beliefs have implications for the community that they serve. No one is expecting public servants to be perfect or to have all of the answers all of the time. But what the community should be able to expect is that our leaders are able to take in new information, humbly apologize when they’re wrong, and move forward doing better. Lack of humility and accountability is the harm that we are currently facing as a nation.
Candace Woods is a longtime Colorado Springs resident and community advocate who holds a master in divinity focused on social justice and ethics.