There’s a term for what happens when people are offended by what someone does and then that person ends up with a a ruined career or soiled image. It’s called cancel culture. Unfortunately the term cancel culture misses the point. In fact, it’s something else entirely.
I learned that when I was a kid.
Playing Little League
When I was younger I played a variety of sports. I played T-Ball and soccer and even a little bit of football. My boys were involved with little league, rowing, basketball, martial arts and more.
There was one common theme with all of these sports. It was something that everyone knew and everyone abided by. It was simply the way things were: you had to play by the rules.
If you talked back to the coach you were out of the game. If you hit someone you might be out for a few. If you cheated, you might be off the team entirely. Playing by the rules is just the price of entry. If you don’t obey, you can’t play.
This is where cancel culture misses the point. Why? Because the rules for grownups are different.
The Rules for Grown Ups
There is a big difference between talking back to a little league coach and using racial slurs. There is a wide disparity between showing up late for practice and embezzling money. And there is a huge difference between a kid yelling at a teammate and a boss sexually harassing a subordinate.
The problem with the idea of cancel culture is that people expect someone just has to feel sorry for what they did, offer an apology, and “boom”, everything is resolved.
But what about the people hurt along the way? What about the people who had their careers flattened, their bank accounts drained, and their lives ruined? When you’re playing little league the damage is small so the solution is rightfully-sized. For adults simple contrition with an apology doesn’t undo the damage.
This is where cancel culture misses the point: because it’s not a cancel culture. No one is being cancelled. This is much different.
What we really have is participation culture. That’s what we’re living in. When you play by the rules you can participate. When you break the rules you have to fix it.
Sometimes the fixes are easy. Sometimes a simple apology will do. Sometimes it’s not near enough. Sexual harassment cannot be undone with an apology. You have to make it right.
Here’s the challenge: if the act is egregious enough it may be extremely hard to make it right. If some kid showed up to a little league and hit every kid there, do you think a simple apology would be enough to be welcomed back?
Sometimes you may never get back to your previous position. I recently read about a pastor who took advantage of a minor and then apologized and was welcomed back with open arms. It seemed to the church the apology was enough, even though the victim still felt a great deal of pain. Jesus forgives and so should we, but that doesn’t mean that you should be in a position of power again.
If Jeffrey Dahmer was truly repentant and made restitution, that doesn’t mean he should be the person you choose to walk people home. Cancel culture misses the point on this. It’s not that we cancel people and make them out to be losers. In fact we can understand the truth from the biggest of all losers.
The Biggest Loser
I used to love watching the Biggest Loser. It was great to see people dedicate themselves to changing their lives and getting in shape. People made great strides in becoming healthy and dealing with the emotional issues that led to their weight gain.
But no matter how much weight they lost, the one thing you could always see was that their skin never went back to the way it was originally. They had stretched their skin so much, that it was beyond what the elasticity could recover from.
If you gain some weight you can lose it and things will be as they were. You can gain a lot of weight and still do the same with maybe just a few issues. But there is a point where things will never go back to how they were. Don’t get me wrong: you will be healthier and happier, but you just can’t expect to completely undo what was done.
Making It Right
Cancel culture misses the point here. It’s not enough to be sorry. It’s usually not enough to apologize. You have to make amends. Just like the people that make major life changes for a permanent, rather than a temporary weight loss to become healthier, you have to change and make it right.
Sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it’s grueling, but you did the things that put you here and it’s up to you to set them right.
Unfortunately, some things can never be undone. Sometimes you won’t get back to where you were. Why? Because you didn’t play by the rules.
The term cancel culture misses the point. It’s participation culture. If you want to play, you must be kind. You must treat people with respect. You must listen and understand. You must treat people as people and not as pawns. If you can’t treat people with respect, you won’t be cancelled; you simply won’t be able to participate.
After all, isn’t that the way things should work?