Susan Stone: Welcome back to Real Talk With Susan Stone and Kristina Supler. Today, we’re addressing a topic that is really hot right now, and something that we’re coming across more and more frequently in our practice – and that is the concept of cancel culture. And we’re joined by two students, both rising seniors in high school, who have very different perspectives on this issue. One of them is Olivia Warren. The other is Alex Watson. Thank you both for being here.
Alex Watson: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.
Olivia Warren: Thank you for having me.
Susan Stone: I just want to apologize if you hear birds chirping or traffic; we’re outside to be especially socially distant.
Kristina Supler: So cancel culture. Let’s just first talk about what is cancel culture.
Susan Stone: What is it?
Kristina Supler: There’s actually not a single uniform definition. Everyone has their own idea or notion of what cancel culture is, but generally speaking, it refers to an attack on someone’s reputation due to that person’s opinion or perhaps actions. It’s this idea of dethroning someone or removing support for them. That’s how I think of cancel culture, but Alex, what’s your idea of it?
Alex Watson: I would phrase it as it’s less of an attack on someone and more calling them out for something that they did wrong. The intent of it is not, most times, to ruin their life, at least not in the instances that I’ve witnessed. It’s to genuinely say, “You did something wrong and we would like you to apologize or make some sort of amends.” But if the person is willing to apologize or make some sort of amends, it’s usually not an attack or an attempt to ruin their life.
Susan Stone: That’s an interesting definition. Olivia, what do you think about this?
Olivia Warren: I define cancel culture as publicly calling someone out. And I think it’s in the name, canceling people. So taking people out of their positions of power or just out of the societal norm. I think a really good example that has happened recently is a data analysis from a high tech firm published a study on Twitter about how peaceful protests are more effective at getting legislation than violent protests. And there were so much backlash on Twitter. He got fired from his job just from this cancel culture happening on social media.
Susan Stone: Do you know what the backlash was about?
Olivia Warren: I think people just assumed when they saw this tweet that he was calling out the Black Lives Matter protests that have happened recently when really, he was just publishing a study that had been done about protests a century ago about civil rights. And I think people misunderstood it and saw it as an attack on Black Lives Matter today, and that’s why he was fired.
Susan Stone: When I think of cancel culture right now, I think of J. K. Rowling who was called out for some of statements that were very offensive to the transgender community. Alex, can you give me examples in high school of cancel culture?
Alex Watson: Well, I don’t think as a high school student I’ve witnessed sort of the online cancel culture to the extent that happened with J. K. Rowling where everyone on Twitter was like, “Oh, J. K. Rowling is horrible. You need to not support Harry Potter anymore,” or anything like that. But I think usually in high school when I witnessed it, it’s more of sort of an interpersonal conversational sort of way of telling you to stay away from some person. Like someone will come to you and you’ll be talking to them and there’ll be like, “Hey, did you hear that this person did X or said X that is sort of maybe harmful rhetoric or harmful language or harmful actions?” And you’ll say, “Oh, no. I didn’t know that. But now that I do know that, I will not be friends with the person. I will not associate with the person,” and it’s not the giant sort of online call-out that has been the hallmark of more the pop culture version of cancel culture, but it’s like a sort of underground thing.
Kristina Supler: Olivia, what about you? Do you have examples of cancel culture in your high school? Or do you know of them in other local high schools?
Olivia Warren: I think in high school, it really happens on social media. So I think there’s a lot of examples, especially lately with this new civil rights movement happening, which is a really amazing thing. But I think one thing that cancel culture can bring down about it is when you call people out publicly, which is cancel culture, they’re unwilling to change and see their mistakes. And I think that happens so much in high school because high schoolers see a definitive statement on social media and will take it as that and won’t look for more information.
Susan Stone: I’m not understanding what you’re saying. Can we take that apart? Give me an example of what you mean by what you just discussed.
Olivia Warren: Yeah. So an example, I think that let’s say someone is accused of saying something in private that could be a racist slur, I’ve seen people on their public Instagram stories say the name of that person and say, “This person said this, they should be canceled.” And I think that a lot of people say that and they’re like, “Okay, I won’t talk to this person anymore. Or I’ll unfollow this person,” and I think that even though… If it’s true, that’s really horrible, but without these facts, you’re really just isolating people. And when you isolate people publicly, I don’t understand why they would be willing to change and address the problem.
Kristina Supler: So Susan, in our law practice, we’ve seen students destroyed by cancel culture.
Susan Stone: We’ve had people get very depressed and unfortunately, think about suicide. Yeah.
Kristina Supler: However, I think generally the cases we see tend to be some of the most extreme because of course, people are coming to us in contemplation of possible legal action or to learn about their rights. Alex, what do you think are the benefits or the harm that could come from cancel culture?
Susan Stone: Do you think it’s bullying?
Alex Watson: No, I do not think it’s bullying because I think if you’re willing to make amends for the thing that you’re being canceled for, there’s not going to be any harm that comes to you. If say, you’re accused of saying something racist, if you come forward and say like, “Okay, maybe I did say this. I did not mean any harm by it,” or like maybe if you did mean harm by it, you can say, “I recognize that what I said was wrong and was terrible and offended many people. And I am willing to move forward in my life as a person who doesn’t say those things anymore.” If you sit down and you’re comfortable saying, “I did something wrong and I am willing to come to terms with that and make amends with the people who were harmed by it,” then I don’t think any harm has to come to you. I think any harm that comes of cancel culture is when a person is defensive or refuses to acknowledge that they did anything wrong.
Susan Stone: Olivia, what do you think about that? Do you think cancel culture can ever rise to the level of bullying?
Olivia Warren: I think it can, especially in high school. I think that even whether this accusation can be true or not true, I think that people see it as an excuse to bring down other people instead of talking it out. And while everyone has their own lines of what is okay and what’s not, and what people can be forgiven for, I think that most of the time when you’re so young, especially in high school, you should be given opportunities to change. And I think that cancel culture leads to bullying because they immediately are just left out and kicked out.
Susan Stone: Would the counter perspective be that they’re not being bullied, if someone said something that is considered offensive, either racist or sexist, but that they’re having logical repercussions from poor behavior? What’s the difference?
Olivia Warren: I think bullying is more of a social thing. Well first of all, saying anything bigoted I think is disgusting. But I think that often, especially when you’re in high school, that punishment should not just come from your peers. I think your peers should be able to hold you accountable when they know what is going on. And I think that real consequences come from you wanting to change, and probably if you’re in high school, authorities that are bigger than you or your friends often. And that’s not bullying holding people accountable, but I think that cancel culture in high school sometimes morphs into not holding people accountable, but just I think it can become bullying.
Susan Stone: Do you think there’s ever false accusations? And do you think it’s appropriate in a terms when someone believes that they’re falsely accused, that they can launch a denial?
Alex Watson: I have seen no false accusations of cancel culture. Every time that it’s played out on the at least high school level, it’s been warranted, at least in the instances that I’ve seen. I think if you are going to mount a defense, I think the first line of that defense should be, “I do not believe that I have done anything wrong, but if you feel that I have wronged you, you should feel free to come talk to me and I will like make amends with you.”
Olivia Warren: I think that I often don’t know when accusations have been definitively proven false, but they’re not often proven to be 100% true, which is different when you’re talking about things like the Me Too movement, which is a more complicated issue and I think people mix that up a lot. But what I was saying, when someone called them out on a story for saying something racist, I think that is really hard to say and then not substantiate because it’s not that I think like, “Oh, this person’s definitely lying,” but it’s also hard. Just because this one person said this, do I now cut this person out who they’re talking about? And so I think it’s not just about false accusations, which happen, it’s just about getting all the information before you make a definitive statement in your own head.
Susan Stone: We were talking before we recorded the podcast and you brought up the actress from The Good Place.
Olivia Warren: Yeah.
Susan Stone: And I would love for you to share that anecdote for our listeners.
Olivia Warren: Yeah. The actress is Jameela Jamil, and she’s become really famous recently aside from her acting for her social activism. She’s a really big body positive advocate and I think that’s her main thing. But she’s famous for just all of her political beliefs and her activism. And there was an interview with her recently where she talked about how she is so lucky that cancel culture and social media did not exist when she was my age and in college, because she said she probably said hundreds of things at that age that would have gotten her canceled and she would be a nobody today. And that she’s so lucky she had the opportunity to realize her mistakes at this age and be able to change. And now she’s the biggest advocate and no one would ever think of her to be a victim of cancel culture. And I think that is something that people miss a lot and they just don’t give people the opportunity to change and become people like Jameela Jamil.
Kristina Supler: Susan, based on what we’ve seen in our law practice representing our clients, what thoughts or advice perhaps could you provide regarding what someone on the receiving end of cancellation, how that person could respond?
Susan Stone: We’ve really launched a pretty innovative practice for reputation management. This is an attack or an opinion or a criticism of someone’s character. So before we launch into a cease and desist letter or litigation, it seems that we really should consider strongly, and we’ve already been doing that, working on how to post responses that are appropriate to the situation. We can do a lot of good with acknowledging harm and doing some repair. That way, before we can launch a more aggressive position, we really need to consider the acceptance of harm. How does that feel to you, Alex, as a appropriate response when there’s an accusation?
Alex Watson: Yeah, as I’ve said. I think if you are being canceled, even if you don’t believe you’ve done anything wrong… What am I thinking of? What’s the word I’m thinking of? The result of your actions might have been different than what you intended when you said something or did something. So again, the first line of whatever defense you mount should be, “I did not intend any harm. I did not mean for anything bad to happen, but if you feel that I have wronged you, I am willing to talk to you about it and apologize.”
Susan Stone: This is a lot like restorative justice, isn’t it?
Kristina Supler: It really is. It’s interesting to see how different cultural, like, “it,” things of the moment sort of all tie together. It seems like at the heart of cancel culture, for some, at least with what you’re saying, Alex, is that it is an opportunity for someone to learn from mistakes or perhaps if they don’t perceive a mistake has been made, at least acknowledge that other people feel harmed by those words or actions.
Susan Stone: Have you ever seen a successful reentry of a student after there’s been a cancel culture attempt?
Alex Watson: Yes, actually. I can think of a few instances where people have maybe posted something on their Instagram stories in light of maybe specific Black Lives Matter related movements, and a few people have gone to them and say, “Hey, I really didn’t think this was appropriate of you to post in light of what’s going on right now.” And those people, they apologized. They said, “Oh, I’ve never heard that perspective before. I didn’t know that that was how you felt, but in light of hearing this, I totally understand where you’re coming from. Thank you for informing me of this. I won’t post such things again.”
Kristina Supler: Olivia, if you had a good friend who said something controversial or offensive, would it be the end of the relationship or something that you would talk to the other person about? How would you handle a peer or friend saying something that was offensive to you?
Olivia Warren: I think that if you say something once, you have the opportunity to change. That’s why you should bring things to other people’s attention. If I had a friend that said something and I brought it to their attention, and they changed, that I would hope I would be willing to forgive them. And obviously, it depends on the context. But I think that when it’s constantly brought to your attention and still you continue to do it, then it just shows that even though you were held accountable, it did not create any change.
Kristina Supler: And so then would that be an instance where you might contemplate canceling?
Olivia Warren: I think not canceling in the term where publicly, I would post something about this person or something like that, but I think if someone was really saying something that offended me and I talked to them about it and they didn’t change, I think it would change my relationship with that person.
Kristina Supler: Alex made the point that cancel culture isn’t necessarily harmful. And if you have an acknowledgement, “Okay, I’ve done something wrong. It’s not what I intended, but I apologized.” And I think that that’s one valid perspective. However, a counterpoint might be well if you haven’t in fact done anything wrong and it’s a false allegation, how do you apologize or acknowledge harm?
Olivia Warren: I think that if you’re falsely accused, it’s not that you need to apologize. I think you should welcome all the facts to be brought out. I think that whether or not it’s true, you should honor the people who have been hurt by accusations like this that have been true, not by apologizing, but by saying here’s what happened, here’s all the factual information. And I don’t think that’s really an apology. I think that’s just trying to prove your innocence while also respecting people who might’ve been hurt by the accusation.
Kristina Supler: This was a really interesting discussion. We really appreciate both of your perspectives, because of course Susan and I have our own thoughts based on what we’ve seen in cases, but we’re not in high school and we certainly value and appreciate the perspectives you’ve brought to us today.
Susan Stone: Absolutely. Thank you both so much for joining us for this conversation and we’ll see you all for the next episode of Real Talk With Susan and Kristina.