Every day brings a new salvo in the battle over “cancel culture.” Disney cuts ties with conservative actress Gina Carano. The guardians of Dr. Seuss’s legacy disavow some of his books. A low-level USA Today editor gets fired for a tweet declaring all mass shooters are white men.
But it’s exhausting living in a perpetual state of conflict that does little to advance anyone’s actual political goals. If conservatives are serious about protecting a broad range of public expression, and liberals sincerely want new norms to take root, there are grounds for a truce.
Consider starting points for such a framework:
1.Make it harder for skittish employers to fire or blackball people over their political views.
Both left and right frequently argue that academia has become inhospitable, whether to conservatives who question the rigor of certain disciplines or to professors who criticize the policies of the Israeli government. The solution to both sets of complaints is to do more to defend faculty from firing and to prevent politicians and donors from monkeying with tenure decisions.
2.Liberals should agree it’s good for troublesome works to be available, while conservatives should accept context and content labels.
Keeping works in print and available in digital libraries would undercut complaints about censorship. A school might decide not to use certain Dr. Seuss books, but parents could still seek them out. It’s no hardship to skip a preface that acknowledges and analyzes Dr. Seuss’s use of racist tropes—or to fast-forward past a content warning on a TV show.
And in the entertainment world, keeping controversial material available in box sets and streaming services should be a liberal goal. Why let stars and companies launder their reputations by making problematic old works disappear?
3.Put a statute of limitations on cruel, stupid things people say as children and teenagers.
4.Everyone should think seriously about redemption.
Social media pile-ons and professional death sentences become the easy default, but accomplish little.
It’s too easy for employers to cut ties with inconvenient workers—or even, in the case of a white professor who masqueraded as Black, for offenders to declare themselves “canceled” in elaborate displays of self-flagellation. And the truth is that punishing individual offenders often is a gesture of resignation, not triumph.
Getting one person fired or leaving them disgraced generally does little to address the dynamics behind their behavior. We should instead think more deeply about what we really want when someone behaves badly, and what repairing the damage might look like.
Human urges to judge and condemn are hard to rein in. But there are choices we can make about how we use our outrage. Some of them can make the world better in the long term—instead of just making us feel smug in the moment.