The cancellation of forgiveness

Last year, the Heterodox Academy, a New York-based group, found in a survey that 60% of its academic members would be “very” or “extremely concerned” that their “reputation would be tarnished” if they expressed a controversial viewpoint.

In today’s age of political polarization, attention has been brought to a phenomenon known as “Cancel Culture,” the practice of acting punitively toward a person or people one takes offense to, often because of political dissension or (often years-old) past offensive comments.

This trend is especially prevalent among younger Americans. A POLITICO survey found that “a majority (55%) of voters 18-34 say they have taken part in ‘Cancel Culture.’”

The issue is nuanced by the fact that in some cases, celebrities are “canceled” for doing legitimately terrible things. Significant examples are sex offenders like Harvey Weinstein.

However, cancellation is oftentimes a result of much less harmful behavior.

Participants in cancel culture need to recognize the consequences of their unwillingness to forgive. They need to look past their desire for political influence and see their cancellation targets for who they are — human beings who make mistakes.

As a child, I never really got the message that mistakes are part of life and forgivable. My mom tells me that around age two, I would recite the house numbers I passed when going on walks. She once joked that I got one wrong; I burst into tears.

In third grade, I got a “Needs Improvement” on one test for the first time (I would always get “Excellent” or “Successful”), leading me to once again break down crying. To this day, I stress far too much about little mistakes I make; at school, at work, at home. I’m sure many people relate.

No one specifically told me my mistakes cannot be forgiven. However, there are many factors in our society reinforcing that message, even if perfectionism is partly a personality trait caused by genetics.

Our society is constantly forcing the message down childrens’ throats that mistakes are unacceptable. You have to get an A on this test, you have to win this race to be good enough.

Then, as you approach adulthood, you have to say the right things about touchy topics at all times or run the risk of having people gang up on you and try to harm your reputation.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised when people equate their self-worth with the mistakes they made in their past.

The people whose social downfall we advocate are human, just like us, and we have a duty to treat them with kindness. “Cancelling” these people with no opportunities for forgiveness shows them that we are unwilling to acknowledge their humanness and that they have no value beyond their mistakes. I suspect many “Cancel Culture” participants have said or done something in the past that, if unearthed, would not go over well in our modern context.

We also need to find more emotionally mature ways of dealing with people who make mistakes. What does that look like? We may find a lot of it boils down to second chances. Reparation instead of ostracization. Discussing instead of attacking.

I am not suggesting we should not hold people accountable for their harmful comments and actions. However, accountability needs to be coupled with an understanding that us flawed humans make mistakes, which we can learn from.

To be clear, I am not stating we should honor the evil actions of people like Robert E. Lee. However, perhaps we should give the 15-year-old Twitter user a second chance and meet the dissenting viewpoint with an open mind.

After spending over a decade thinking the world is a cold place where people aren’t able to make mistakes, I hope I was wrong.