Is it Time to Cancel ‘Cancel Culture’ or Does it Still Serve a Purpose?

Cancel culture is a phenomenon that exists to ‘out’ and ‘cancel’ people (both every-day individuals – like you and me - and notable, high-profile individuals) or organisations that express views and opinions that are deemed to be problematic, controversial and usually offensive by the standards of today’s society.

It could manifest in the firing of an employee after a video surfaces of them expressing racist vitriol; or the boycotting of a high-profile individual or organisation if they appear to be discriminating against a marginalised group in any capacity on their platforms or within their business. There are many examples of cancel culture that are happening in society at present – perhaps this is because there is a general consensus, as a society, that we’ve had enough of people being allowed to express regressive, hateful and dangerous views. I can’t and will not argue with this motivation, however, I think we need to take a greater look into how we execute this, addressing once and for all if cancel culture should be cancelled, or if it still serves a purpose. 

Cancelling people and businesses tends to shut down the conversation and doesn’t allow people and businesses to have the space to learn from their mistakes and, one would hope, grow from them. Wouldn’t the bid for a more progressive society be more attainable if we continually explore and challenge people and businesses in a constructive way, giving them the space to reflect and improve? Perhaps this isn’t always the best course of action if the individual or business in question has history of being continually problematic, or if the issue in question is putting another person, or group of people, in direct harm. Maybe there is a conversation here around people’s lost faith in the conventional system of justice – which is particularly understandable in the current climate – therefore, people are taking these matters into their own hands ‘cancelling’ the person or business as a means of serving justice. My questions to this would be where do we draw the line? Where do we move from a position of ‘cancelling’ to a position that’s willing to offer second chances? Do we also need to think about who cancelling impacts and if it has a disproportionate impact on one group over another? These should be the questions we ask ourselves when we witness or play a part in cancel culture.

I understand that there are aspects of people and businesses’ behaviours that are unforgivable and I’m not suggesting that a second chance is the ‘easy way out’. Second chances must be met with a commitment to learn, grow and do better and must come at a cost to their time, resource and economic capacity. If a business that has been identified as being problematic takes the necessary action to address this; through a financial and behavioural commitment to unpick the culture that underpins problematic decision making,  then we need to let this come to fruition – bearing in mind it takes time to do this effectively.

 Let’s channel the energy we have put into ‘cancelling’ and move towards ‘calling out’:

  • Let’s call out people and businesses, constructively holding them to account when diversity, inclusion and equality are not firmly at the forefront of their minds.
  • Let’s call out people or businesses if they go out of their way to condemn or discriminate against other individuals on the basis of characteristics such as their race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, social background, disability.
  • Let’s make sure they do their homework and really commit themselves to evolving positively beyond their initial problematic demonstration and keep calling them out if they continually fail to do this.

Through education and commitment, we may then gain allies who can use their journey to help others who are at the beginning of theirs.


Elizabeth Pollitt

Image: © Richard Van Der Spuy