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  • Writer's picturePaul Lavella Jr.

Canceling Cancel Culture

Tyler was living the life… On paper, at least. He went to his top pick college, getting a degree in his field of choice and landing his dream job - at least for being right out of school. He worked close enough to his apartment that he could bike to work if the weather was warm enough, and lived in the town center, steps away from all the dining and entertainment a young 20-something could ask for. He was dating someone he treasured, spending most weekends adventuring or staying in and enjoying their budding romance. By all insta standards, he was the man... And yet he found himself searching through the pages of an online psychotherapist directory seeking a counselor.

You see, he worked hard to have a great life and of course, like many others, had made some mistakes along the way. He describes himself as being a frat bro in college, despite not actually being in a fraternity. In further discussion he would elaborate on the persona, the stereotyped image that one may conjure up when hearing someone describe another in such a way. In sessions, I witnessed him cringe when describing his demeanor and how he carried himself in his younger years. This is clearly a person who had already taken some time to self-reflect and, by his description, made concerted efforts to change the parts of himself that no longer served him.

Tyler admits to struggling socially (and romantically) in his younger years, describing himself as some sort of pariah because he hadn’t hooked up with someone until his freshman year at a themed dorm party. He recalls carrying with him a sense of inferiority as he felt unable to keep up or contribute conversationally with peers when attempting to connect over sexual encounters and conquests. “It was like I had a lot of catching up to do… and that’s what I tried to do through most of college.”

As he goes on, he recounts episodes of behavior that he looks back on with disgust. As he relives these moments of inappropriateness, lewd comments, obscene gestures and other cringe-worthy antics, anyone would make note of his sincerity. By all accounts, this appears to be a changed man who’s clearly in distress as he looks back at his former self. The problem is, he’s fearful that this past life, his frat boy persona, will inevitably be his undoing. He’s convinced that the antics of his college days will strip him of everything he’s worked so hard for, the life that he loves now. This is why he’s sought out therapy. He’s afraid of being canceled.

We as a people can seriously benefit from taking a look at how we came to be so enclosed in this culture, what propagates it, and the consequences of embracing it.

Cancel Culture is not necessarily a new phenomena. People, typically public figures, are chosen by others to be alienated, shunned or otherwise ostracized due to a past action or statement. We’ve seen this acted out in the media innumerable times in the past decade… Kim Kardashian repeatedly attempted to cancel Taylor Swift in a very public social media and reality television platform following years worth of tensions with her (now ex) husband; Kevin Hart responded to pressures to step down from hosting the Oscars due to homophobic jokes made earlier in his career; Mike Richards, having shortly been appointed Alex Trebek’s successor, stepped down as Jeopardy host after podcasts revealing misogynistic language surfaced years after their recording; J.K. Rowling was canceled for holding unpopular views regarding gender and gender identity… the list only goes on. Cancel Culture is all about “othering” a person because of something we struggle to, or refuse to, accept or tolerate.

We as a people can seriously benefit from taking a look at how we came to be so enclosed in this culture, what propagates it, and the consequences of embracing it.

As an aside, being canceled has been shown to take on a variety of forms. There are some public figures who have been publicly disgraced following years worth of documented misconduct, or after egregious acts of patterned gross misconduct from the past have been revealed, typically by victims of a form of abuse (insert your Harvey Weinstein’s, Matt Lauer’s and Roger Ailes’ here).

If we were to dip our toes into the pool of righteousness, this form of canceling would appear to be justified. These individuals were held to account for some horrific acts they portrayed. Not only will the justice system see to their sentencing, but our culture of canceling will likely ensure much longer lasting social consequences.

People often lose jobs, social status, or credibility due to canceling, however in the broader sense of our social landscape, it’s not only public figures that experience these forms of public scrutiny and it’s not only experienced by those whose acts include the most shameful offenses.

Cancel Culture is a very real thing for many of our tweens, teens, and young adults. Say the wrong thing and you’re the butt of every joke… Don’t wear that, or you’ll be outcasted. Make even just one mistake, and you guessed right… You’re the next to be canceled. No wonder why anxiety is the current trend in discussions on adolescent mental health.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry estimate that approximately 1 in three to four teens ages 13-18 years old will experience an anxiety disorder. Just for context, these data points were measured pre-pandemic - we’re talking a whole new ballpark now. Historically, the young adult category (aged 18-26) does not fall far behind, again factoring in that coronavirus pandemic data will adjust these numbers as well. This brings us to Tyler’s struggle.

Tyler faces the fear that many other young adults do, whether they have a mental health condition or not, the notion (and potential reality) that any misstep, past or current, may have long-term, life-altering consequences. Consequences that can impact his social life, relationship, and future job prospects. As a therapist, it would be too easy to unilaterally attribute this to distorted thinking and apply some cognitive strategies as a stand-alone intervention to address his distress. The fact of the matter is, for many, this is real. And that’s not a good thing.

There is much to be said and much more work to be done to empower those who have been disempowered in an abusive way. That is not what we’re referencing here… We would collectively benefit from raising these voices. There are those who manipulate this movement, however, when it is used as a means to ostracize someone we don’t like, and more specifically to insulate ourselves from other views or opinions. In one iteration, canceling becomes another form of bullying; in the other, it keeps one in a protective bubble where they are prevented from living life on life’s terms, where people are free thinkers and may have different and at times opposing views. Canceling in this fashion is poised to attempt to diminish free speech.

I believe we also take a collective misstep when we write someone off for past misdeeds without accounting for the possibility of change. This is not to say that everyone gets a free pass, or to have these misdeeds overlooked, however if we do not leave room for making and learning from mistakes, how do we make it safe to take risks, and learn from our experiences? This is where Tyler was living… In efforts to blend in with a hyper-sexualized peer group, he engaged in some actions that he came to understand are not reflective of his values, and did not sit well with him. In the years that followed, he appears to have made substantial changes to be the person he wants to be, however remains haunted by the looming threat of being permanently labeled because of his immaturity.

It’s no wonder why anxiety is one of the leading complaints among our youth.

In a world where the experience of an average person is that one mistake can cost you everything, we need to flip the script.

In counseling, at times we reference a particular skillset known as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. There’s a whole lot to this, which we won’t be getting into here, however one of the basic premises of this model is that two opposing and opposite forces can coexist in the same space, at the same time (dialectics).

I can love a person and be angry with them.

Someone can be a role model and still make a mistake.

I can be a good person and do a bad thing.

When we struggle to integrate this concept, it leads to all or nothing thinking, which tends to be very judgemental and unforgiving. With Cancel Culture being more of the norm - especially on social media platforms as well as throughout popular media in general (news, reality television, etc.), we find that some are inevitably going to fall victim to this line of thinking, whether they’re canceling others, or in fear of being canceled. It’s no wonder why anxiety is one of the leading complaints among our youth. We are modeling for them that it’s not safe to be imperfect, that any mistake can lead to ruin.

If we can do one thing for the sake of the mental health of our tweens, teens, and young adults, it’s this: We need to cancel Cancel Culture.

As opposed to reinforcing all-or-nothing thinking in our youth, let’s take the stance of encouraging empathy. When our teens are in a space of judgment toward another, let’s gently remind them of a time when they too erred. We’re not chastising them, but rather giving a reminder that we’re all at fault on one occasion or another - it’s called benign human.

When encountering someone with different beliefs or views than our own, let us take a moment to let our immediate emotional reaction subside and attempt to hear them out - that’s not to say that you’re open to changing perspective, but rather seeking to understand theirs. This is how we teach others that it’s OK to have differing opinions, even if you don’t agree with each other.

Instead of writing off or rejecting someone who offends you, let them know in an appropriate way; We’ve all heard that adage, two wrongs don’t make a right… right? Somewhere along the way we’ve started losing the ability to communicate important issues to each other and instead just resorted to labeling and talking down to each other.

If we can resist our own impulses to immediately dismiss any person who adds or creates distress in our lives, and process this with our youth, we can begin to address this alarming trend, model different behavior, and hopefully reverse some of the hostility and inherent emotional fallout. Bottom line, it has to start with us.


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