Somewhere after the internet, we became sorcerers. Relationships dissolved into disposable transactions severed at “block”, “unfollow”. Validation spikes in likes and flees just as rapidly in the absence of someone’s online presence. We have this power. We, the online public. We condemn public figures and people. We can wage wars without leaving our living rooms. And there’s a colossal cost to this power: our own character, our relationships, ourselves.
Cancel culture inspires people to slice one another at the knees—to say that we will no longer engage with this person. We the people become the judge, jury and executioner—all committed to the guilty verdict. In some cases, that is valid. Donald Trump is perpetually cancelled. Harvey Weinstein is so cancelled that his cancellations are cancelling themselves. I don’t think we owe perpetrators mercy. However, it is a comment on our character when we don’t. It’s a sign of immaturity to write people off for inconveniencing us, for making errors. The reality is that we are all flawed. I am deeply problematic. My goal is never to ascend to perfection. My goal is to keep improving. The only way improvement arrives is through correction.
Cancel culture also wreaks havoc on our professional pursuits. Not every review will be a positive one. Not every professional relationship will result in best friends. The work demands to get done. We cannot shy away from those confrontations. Being radically candid about what we need in the workplace is how we maximize that space. That’s how the elephant in the room gets freed. Shockingly, most things are fixable.
And then, there’s personal relationships. Whether platonic, familial, or romantic, the movies lied to you. It isn’t always easy. People are shaped imperfectly, and sometimes, those sharp edges clash. It’s pretty much a fact that we hurt the people we love sometimes. But can we be humble enough to ask for forgiveness? To own up to our failures and boldly ask to try again? Because when I don’t do that, I’m being a child. It is possible to compromise, to bend, to advocate for my needs and hold my loved ones accountable. Because here’s the other ugly side of that: you can’t cancel yourself. Our flaws swim through us, and the only way to conduct them is to acknowledge them. Sure, denial is an option. It’s an option other people will pay the price for. You can’t cancel yourself when you screw up, and you shouldn’t be cancelling other people either.
Common responses to correction are anxiety, defensiveness, denial, and cross-cancelling. I know because I’ve done all of these things. There’s a vulnerability in being called out. The proverbial flashlight blaring onto our insecurities. A better response to this isn’t succumbing to self-deprecating rhetoric. It’s not about us admitting what horrific creatures we are. When I get called out, my bones freeze in the discomfort. “Oh god,” My thoughts race, “Now everyone knows how much I suck. I’ve been found out. I’m a fraud”. I remind myself to breathe, and I ask myself why I feel uncomfortable. Is this discomfort of my own making? What would it feel like to soften my shoulders and hear what this person is telling me?
Feedback is an exchange. It’s not an attack. It is a conversation, but the only way that conversation can begin is if we refrain from throwing up walls. Every barrier we build is a ceiling to our growth. We can’t grow if we’re constantly cancelling each other. We need to hold each other accountable. That’s fair. That’s valid. But love cannot exist in a flawless space. We need to err and screw up and be called out and know that our people won’t leave us. Feedback has the capacity to be the truest from of love and forgiveness: I value you so deeply that I will make visible what you may have been blind to. I am invested in your growth and thriving. I’m not going anywhere but here to be a witness to what you do with my feedback.
I cannot call myself kind and compassionate if I’m habitually cancelling people. I cannot leave every uncomfortable conversations and call myself an adult. Life doesn’t work that way. A part of the work we do as people is helping each other grow. What does it feel like to love people, although they’re messy? What does love feel like when it isn’t tiny or cool or idealized? It feels real. Forgiveness is the only way love becomes real.
Social media believes itself to be a magic wand. It is the glass slipper transfiguring the pumpkins of us into carriages. It’s the spell that can make people disappear. But we are the magic. Forgiveness is the magic. Steadfastness and compassion, those are the spells that elevate us from ordinary to extraordinary. And that cosmic glory doesn’t exist on the other side of a screen. It is absent in an app and on the internet. It’s right here, in front of us, pulsing in the hard conversations and enduring love. Don’t cancel or block or unfollow or walk away. Lean in, engage, dare to believe in the magic we are.