Los Angeles Times

Cancel culture has its merits, but the left is ready for a better way

- By Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow

IT USED TO BE almost exclusivel­y the political right that complained about the amorphous bogeyman 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 one another 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 such as 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 one another.

A punitive approach doesn’t encourage humility or growth in such situations. It instead creates situations in which any rational person would fear being ostracized because we all know that we will err.

That’s why advocates for social justice should be equipped with a rehabilita­tive mindset, 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 has observed, 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.”

As diversity and inclusion scholars, we’re optimistic that the conversati­on around cancel culture can become more nuanced. At a perilous political moment, a shift could get more people off the sidelines to join movements for social justice that desperatel­y need us all.

There’s only so much progress society can make by punishing or ostracizin­g people. We get better results by teaching one another and allowing grace for those who misstep — to inspire allies and persuade skeptics.

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’s School of Law. They are co-authors of “Say the Right Thing: How to Talk About Identity, Diversity, and Justice.”

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