Feature photo by MIKE VON on Unsplash

Are we more interested in guilt or growth?


"Social suicide" refers to how one commits something that would hurt or destroy their reputation socially. It's a term I had only ever heard out of the mouth of Blair Waldorf in the TV show Gossip Girls. Never did I expect people would use it against me in my very open and diverse high school. 

The February weather had transitioned slowly but never falteringly, leaving my body numb and feverish after the season's shift. I had stayed in the health center for most of the weeks, absent from my classes and the biggest assembly of the year-- the BLSU(Black & Latinx Student Union) assembly. The same evening the assembly happened, I was hanging out in a senior's room with a few others. When they started talking about the assembly, I asked out of curiosity: "Tell me what happened. I didn't go." 

If I could only pull up the visual recordings from my memory: their faces took a 180-degree turn, as dramatic as any cartoons you've seen. "What do you mean you didn't go? Literally, how can you skip this? That's so disrespectful," one of the seniors there said. The last word crashed into the tense air, leaving the whole room quiet. Then everyone was speaking over each other, and my friends had to prove to them that I was indeed sick and couldn't attend the BLSU assembly. "Oh, I guess that's okay. Haha, be careful. You nearly committed social suicide there," the same senior joked.

The short remark, though lasting but a few seconds, has stuck to my mind ever since. 

Even though I consider myself an ally for the BLM movement and care about mental health issues, I’m afraid of getting canceled.

After that, whenever there was a discussion regarding the BIPOC community, my ears automatically became alerted. Whenever I talk to my Asian friends in Mandarin, I hesitate at saying words that may sound like English slurs. When I accidentally said, "I'm so depressed about the exam," in front of a friend suffering from depression, her instant glare and comeback were faster than my reaction and apology. Even though I consider myself an ally for the BLM movement and care about mental health issues, I’m afraid of getting canceled.

The thing is, being ‘canceled’ incisively positions people in the wrong if they do not do what is widely (or in some cases, esoterically) considered definitively ‘right.’ The line between what is socially correct and incorrect is both subjective and vague that it can infringe on people’s right to express what they want. There’s very little dialogue, and therefore limited exchange of information and understanding. I wasn’t the only one getting called out for an action deemed “shady.” Others were pointed at for not reposting anti-racism infographics on social media, for archiving their #blackouttuesday posts after the initial wave had passed, or even posting personal pictures among the shared infographics.

The rhetoric behind the canceling of others in this context is unproductive. There are so many reasonable intentions that might be behind these seemingly "shady" actions. Still, everyone's only fixated on the one possibility that without this particular demonstration of solidarity, this person is racist under their skin: they are micro-aggressive, insensitive, biased, and unquestioningly “against” their accuser. 

I understand that we live in drastic conditions, and that our everyday choices can either affirm or resist what is wrong in this world. But there has to be a better way of ensuring mutual and personal responsibility than “canceling” anybody who gets it imperfectly. 

This is not just happening in high schools. It is a small part of a bigger issue on Cancel Culture that is happening in different industries and our daily lives. When the USC Professor Greg Patton was canceled for saying a Mandarin phrase that sounds like an English slur, the Asian American community worked for months to restore his place in the university. However, many other individuals do not have enough resources or exposure to help them get back on track when others ostracize them.

The basic act of calling people out - in other words, holding them accountable to their missteps and mistakes, is a powerful move. It has played a significant part in social activism, especially online in recent years. In theory, it works. Someone is made to confront the ways they have hurt another, intentionally or not. Apologies are made. Reconciliation is possible. The world moves on, marginally brighter. Sadly, herd mentality makes it easier and natural for people to follow the trend of canceling celebrities or everyday people one after another, whether they are politicians campaigning on violent promises or social media influencers we simply dislike. Ironically, in our rush to hold others accountable by “cancelling them,” we do so believing that we do not need to hold much responsibility for what we say, that “us vs. them” is an easier position to hold than “me against you.” Our words become sharper and extreme as the tension builds. It’s personal vindication without personal accountability. 

But the real question here is, does rushing to judgment and canceling someone actually fix the legitimate issues at hand?

Our true intention should be transformation and reconciliation, for both the offender and the offended. But cancel culture not only denies people a second chance, but dismisses and boycotts them as well. 

Of course, it is important to hold people accountable for their wrongdoings. But the meaning behind “accountability” has sadly been distorted by the instant, unforgiving nature of a digital public. Rather than re-educating and embracing the accused into a larger movement of compassion and understanding, the mass instead shifts to publicly shaming the person into isolation. The “guilty until proven innocent” mentality combined with the irrational and heightened outrage leads more to celebrated bullying than growth and correction. It leaves behind nothing but pain and controversy for the accused. Cancel culture itself is a contradiction. It desperately wants people to be better, yet refuses them the opportunity to grow. 

Cancel culture itself is a contradiction. It desperately wants people to be better, yet refuses them the opportunity to grow. 

It seems we have to more closely examine why the public, anywhere, is always eager for someone to make a mistake, accidental, framed, or real, so that they have a chance to denounce and showcase their own social justice and righteousness. Perhaps we need to be more honest about our intentions: do we sincerely want to change others’ narratives and beliefs to become more inclusive, or are we too invested in the drama of ‘cancel culture’? Do we extend others the same benefit of the doubt as we do ourselves, honoring the underground turmoils they might be wrestling as much as we do our own? Are we more interested in guilt or growth? 

In most cases, the more effective option for both parties would be forgiveness. By forgiving, the crowd isn’t condoning what has happened, but rather letting go of that resentment and encouraging growth and transformation for the accused. It’s an approach that calms our quick judgements and allows for second chances and resources. Instead of instigating more opposition from the accused, the room for growth benefits all. It frees us from the self-appointed responsibility of being the judge, jury, and executioner for each other, and instead moves us into a more liberating sense of community that is ceaselessly rooting for each person’s well-being, no matter what it takes.