A Remedy for Cancel Culture

MacArthur Fellow Loretta J. Ross spoke about toxic internet culture and the virtues of "calling in" instead of "calling out" at a recent campus lecture.

March 29, 2023

Acclaimed scholar, feminist, professor, author, and activist Loretta J. Ross conducted a workshop titled “Calling In: Creating Change Without Cancel Culture” in the David Friend Recital Hall this month. A 2022 MacArthur Fellow, Dr. Ross has dedicated her life to fighting for social justice and promoting inclusivity. In her talk, during a symposium hosted by the Liberal Arts and Sciences Department, she shared some of her work on “calling in,” which is “a practice used to build bridges and create meaningful conversations while still holding people accountable for harmful language or behavior.”

It can be tough to know how to respond to people whose words, views, or work we find objectionable, or even offensive, especially when media forces tend to amplify all the loudest, most divisive voices in any dialogue. Dr. Ross offered a new perspective on how to approach these issues in a more constructive way. Here are several takeaways from Ross’s talk.

What is canceling?

“The ultimate calling out is canceling somebody…. Not only holding someone accountable for what you think they've done wrong, but…getting them fired, or deplatformed, or at least lose their reputation, so they get exiled and punished.”

“Quickly, [canceling] gets essentialized after it gets abstracted. Because it goes from, ‘Joe said something racist, sexist, classist, to Joe is a racist, sexist, classist monster…and Joe has fallen into unforgivability, and unforgettability. Because if he tries to apologize for what he said, then he’s gonna be read as gaming the system. But if Joe [doesn't] then he will be read as evading accountability.”

On calling in 

“Calling in is actually a calling-out, but it’s done with love and respect instead of anger, blaming, and shaming. But you can’t call people in until you’re in a particular state, and you have no obligation to call people in if this does not work for you, because your number one priority is to heal yourself.” 

“Assume that this is a communication problem, not a malevolence problem, and continue to have conversations with them.”

Calling in is actually a calling-out, but it’s done with love and respect instead of anger, blaming, and shaming.

— Loretta J. Ross, 2022 MacArthur Fellow

There is an intermediate step

“There is an intermediate step between calling somebody out, and calling somebody in—and that’s calling on people to do better. When you call in or out, you have to invest time or attention into them…and you may not have the energy to deal with your 15th microaggression of the day. Calling on is a request for the person to do better, without you investing any time or attention to make them do better. You could say…‘I don’t know what I’ve done to make you think I would agree with that position of yours’…. You’re asking them to reconcile their inner good opinion of themselves with those outer words they just used…. If you go underneath people’s words and speak to their values, you will have a whole lot of conversations you didn’t think you could have.”

On handling mistakes

“I find that, when we were children, and we made a mistake, and we got severely punished and humiliated for making those mistakes, chances are we think that’s normal to do to other people. As adults, we humiliate people, and we can’t forgive them for making mistakes. We expect perfectionism from them because that’s what was expected of us. And then we kept disappointing ourselves and others because we could never deliver that perfectionism. But, when you were a child and you made a mistake, and you were forgiven for making that mistake and shown what you could learn from making that mistake, chances are you’re going to be predisposed to offer others that same kind of grace. So as adults, our question is, do we want to keep repeating the kind of toxic patterns of our childhood? Or do we want to learn a different pattern as adults? So stop and ask, where did you learn to be so mean to people because they made mistakes?”

Three steps if you’ve been called out

“The first thing you’re going to say is, ‘Thank you for calling me out.’ And that sounds counterintuitive, but you can actually say that with sincerity. Because guess what they gifted you with: something that Facebook and Twitter and Elon Musk want—your time and attention. They noticed you. Enough to even call you out. The worst cut you can give to a person is to ignore them…so you can say, thank you. That’s step one.

“Step two is to acknowledge that they’ve been heard. If you ignore them, then you’re cutting them, right? Like hurt people hurting others? So, you say, ‘I’ve heard you, and I’m taking what you’ve said under advisement, I’m going to consider what you said’…. More people want to be heard than agreed with, because it’s that feeling of not being heard that hurts the most.

“Then step three is to say, ‘Well, I care about you as much as I care about myself, and I am sure you could have gotten my attention in another way. We could have had another conversation on this in a different way. So, how are you doing? What makes you come at me like this? Are you feeling hurt? Are you feeling unheard? Is there some way we can talk about how you’re feeling?’ With that statement, you’ve turned a call-out into calling them in. Into a conversation…. Next thing you know, you’re examining what the issue was together, and you may not arrive at an agreement but you certainly increase this possibility. Which, being defensive, going on the counter attack, you know, shutting down in numbness, breaking down into tears, all those other ways ain’t gonna work. But those are the ways we are used to reacting when we get called out. So you can turn a calling-out into a calling-in.”

On contextualizing, rather than canceling 

“When we idolize people we also dehumanize them…. We expect perfection out of them, and we admire them, and we’re quick to feel betrayed because we invested so much of our own longing into them, that we act like they just divorced us if our expectation does not meet their reality…. I mean, you have dehumanized someone through adoration, that's the same as dehumanizing them through hate. Either way you strip them of their humanity, vulnerability, their possibilities, because you need a hero and they need to be real…. I think it takes complicated, contradictory personalities, people who have faults as well as genius to produce the most exquisite art…. Rather than canceling people, we should contextualize them. I think it will enhance our enjoyment of their art when we know more of the reality of their lives. Because it’s a marvelous thing to come out of trauma and produce exquisite art. And we should marvel at that rather than assume that only great people do great art. That only perfect people do great art.

“I know some things should be canceled…people [who are] choosing to be mean. They use hatred and lies as their currency. I ain't got no problem canceling them, let me be honest. But most of us are not intentionally mean, hateful, ugly people. And so I have a lot of forgiveness in my soul for that. Because I think everybody deserves to be contextualized, everybody deserves to be complicated…. There’s a difference between [canceling] and making a critical inquiry...because that's always helpful. That's about helping people improve.”

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