‘Cancel culture’ has its merits, but the left is ready for a better approach

by Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow

It used to be almost exclusively the political right that complained about the amorphous boogeyman known as “cancel culture.” Recently, at our research center dedicated to diversity and inclusion, we’ve noticed an intriguing shift in the zeitgeist: Complaints have started surfacing on the left. 

Whether it’s reproductive justice scholar Loretta Ross, pop star Lizzo or our own liberal students, we’re seeing a widespread yearning on the left for a more constructive way of speaking to each other about identity issues — an approach that keeps folks communicating and improving instead of shutting down. 

Unlike many critics of cancel culture, we see value in some aspects of it. As psychologist Dolly Chugh points out, successful social movements need members who bring “heat” and those who bring “light.” The first group stirs controversy with sit-ins, callouts and walkouts, and the second patiently educates. At their best, these blunt-edged social media-driven methods can jolt people out of complacency and pressure leaders to make systemic change. Particularly when responding to crises like police brutality against Black Americans, this forced reckoning may be the only viable option. 

Yet for those who care about building a durable majority in support of progressive goals, this approach has significant downsides. It causes many would-be allies to hesitate before speaking up, feeling that it’s safer to sit on the sidelines than to risk blowback. Even worse, it makes some turn on the project of social justice altogether. In our work, we regularly encounter skeptics who had been sympathetic to inclusion efforts until they experienced what they considered excesses of criticism. This could be a sign of too much heat, or not enough light. 

Condemning people for mistakes would be relatively safe if the wrongdoers were a discrete group of bad actors. Yet all of us make errors that can be offensive. We ourselves have — regrettably — used the wrong gender pronouns, or confused students of the same ethnicity with each other. A punitive approach doesn’t encourage humility or growth in situations like these. It instead creates situations where any rational person would fear cancellation because we all know that we will err. 

That’s why advocates for social justice should be equipped with a rehabilitative mind-set, treating people as more than their mistakes. Instead of shaming someone for an off-putting joke, an ally might say something like: “You’re a caring person, so what you said surprised me. Can you help me understand what just happened?” As psychologist Scott Plous observes, affirming the person but challenging the conduct primes their “egalitarian self-image,” often leading them to resolve the dissonance by changing their behavior. 

Another downside of the current conversational culture is that it fails to offer real tools for improvement. It offers important and necessary critiques of the status quo, highlighting areas where institutions and individuals fail to meet the needs of marginalized people. Yet in ordinary conversations, it offers little instruction about what to do after someone’s conscience has been awakened. That’s a missed opportunity. 

Navigating a swiftly changing social landscape takes skill, and that skill is eminently teachable. It includes showing people how to build their resilience when they want to cut and run, and how to cultivate their curiosity instead of rushing to judgment. It means teaching people how to disagree respectfully when they have a different perspective and how to apologize authentically when they’ve hurt someone. 

To be clear, the task of teaching these skills shouldn’t fall to marginalized people who are targets of bias in a given situation. Rather, we urge allies who aren’t directly affected by the behavior to step in and offer the offender some insight and a path to avoid similar future missteps. 

Does this approach let wrongdoers evade accountability? We don’t think so. Compassion and accountability go hand in hand. If someone feels shamed because of a mistake, they will often try to justify the action. If they know they can retain their integrity while admitting to errors, they will be more likely to say: “You’re right. I messed up, and I’m sorry. Thanks for letting me know.” 

Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow are the faculty director and executive director of the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at New York University School of Law. They are co-authors of “Say the Right Thing: How to Talk About Identity, Diversity, and Justice.”