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Can we replace cancel culture with ‘accountability culture’?

While cancellation is a swift and relentless blacklisting, accountability allows public figures to own up to their mistakes and vow to do better

In this Nov. 11, 2017, file photo, director James Gunn arrives at the ninth annual Governors Awards in Los Angeles.
Jordan Strauss, Invision via Associated Press

As the public obsession with “cancel culture” continues to rage, The Washington Post’s Megan McArdle opines that the right and left wings of society have adopted a fundamentally flawed policy of “mutually assured destruction,” likening both sides to world superpowers that rely on nuclear deterrence to stave off catastrophic violence. When nations do it, McArdle correctly argues, the cooler heads of the few in charge prevail, but cancel culture “is like an arms race in which everyone, everywhere, has their finger on the launch button at all times,” and under such conditions “it seems almost certain that tit-for-tat will act less as a restraint than as fuel for an ever-escalating cycle of vengeance.”

In other words, if such a cycle persists, it will continue endlessly until everyone is canceled.

So as more and more liberals and conservatives jump on the cancel culture pseudo-deterrence train — and public figures like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo claim to be victims of the movement to avoid responsibility for their failures — how do we prevent a mutually assured destruction while ensuring that those with power and influence face real consequences? The answer won’t be a culture of cancellation, but of accountability.

So-called “citizen journalism” — the digital phenomenon that involves folks outside the press conducting their own investigations, recording their own footage and disseminating and analyzing their findings widely on the internet — changed the landscape of scandal reporting. It played a part in the #MeToo movement. And it led to cancel culture, with determined individuals mining a public figure’s social media history in search of old, offensive posts to weaponize against their career or legacy. So long as social media exists and everyday folks carry cameras in their pockets, so too will citizen journalism affect those in the public spotlight.

But rather than use the phenomenon to vindictively ruin careers out of a vigor for social justice, society must use it to provide firm accountability and an opportunity for repentance and forgiveness. The difference is that while cancellation is a swift and relentless blacklisting, accountability allows public figures to own up to their mistakes and vow to do better. Cancel culture is punitive; accountability culture is restorative.

And it doesn’t just exist in theory. It has seen success in the real world, as in the case of filmmaker James Gunn. When a conservative activist dredged up old, offensive tweets written by the “Guardians of the Galaxy” director in an attempt to cancel him, Marvel Studios abruptly fired him. But Gunn expressed regret for the years-old posts and a commitment to be better, and not long after, he was hired by Warner Bros. to direct the upcoming “The Suicide Squad.” Now, Marvel has rehired him to complete production on the next “Guardians” installment. After some necessary contrition, he and his career are back in the public’s good graces.

Accountability culture gives public figures a shot at redemption, but it also forces them to own up to any pain that their past offenses may have caused.

And “redemption” is a broad term. Sometimes, public figures — especially those on the political rather than the entertainment side of the spotlight — face actual, legal consequences for their actions. If investigations into Cuomo’s behavior turn up criminal or impeachable activity, he should be given a chance to apologize and may find some personal redemption in doing so, but he should still face the appropriate legal consequences. Accountability culture should not in any way supersede the justice system.

But most of those who either are or claim to be victims of cancel culture draw criticism for less criminally liable offenses. In a different column for The Washington Post, McArdle debunked a claim by former USA Today Race and Inclusion editor Hemal Jhaveri that mass shootings are “always” perpetrated by “an angry white man.” Jhaveri later deleted and apologized for the offensive tweet; under accountability culture, her genuine contrition would warrant a second chance. But USA Today fired Jhaveri, a move that even McArdle disagreed with.

How do we create a culture of accountability? Again, Gunn’s case may provide a road map. A week and a half after the director was fired, every main cast member of the “Guardians” films signed an open letter expressing support for him and saying they had “intentionally waited these ten days to respond in order to think, pray, listen and discuss.” Taking a step back, they said, allowed them to be “encouraged by the outpouring of support” for Gunn and to reflect on “the use of our written words when we etch them in digital stone.” By taking a moment to pause, reflect and refrain from “weaponizing mob mentality,” we can move away from the inflammatory and toward a more ordered system of accountability.

A culture of cancellation promotes harsh, puritanical punishment to which any one of us may one day accidentally fall victim. Far from deterring, it assures mutual destruction. But a culture of accountability promotes humility, contrition and forgiveness — gentle qualities too often quashed by louder, more violent forces. For a nation historically defined by its promise of opportunity, couldn’t we all use a second chance once in awhile?