Cancel Culture: Is There an Opportunity for Redemption After Being Canceled?

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It seems that the past couple of years has been dominated by this idea of being canceled. From reality stars to musicians, political figures, authors, corporate leaders, and everything in between, cancel culture is a reality for celebrities in modern times. 

One offensive tweet from 8 years ago or a heated social media conversation from your teenage years could lead you to be instantly abandoned in the public eye. Or perhaps it’s a more recent exchange or offensive comment that has certain celebs in hot water. Just ask Chrissy Teigen, Ellen DeGeneres, or JK Rowling

Many celebrities have paid the price for past mistakes and inappropriate comments that live forever online (thank you, Internet). Yes, their inappropriate words and offensive actions triggered these casualties of cancel culture, but what happens next?

What even is cancel culture? Is there redemption after being canceled? Can a public figure really come back from the public declaration that they are “over,” and how?

What is cancel culture?

The phrase “canceled” is a buzzword taking the world by storm, reaching into virtually all industries, social media platforms, and cultural worlds. Think of it as the public saying “I’m done with you” to a public figure or business and rejecting them personally and professionally. That might mean abandoning their work, unfollowing them on social media, and taking away their platform to be influential because of something they said or did.

This cancel culture is the phenomenon of eliminating support for these people who have done something offensive or whose ideologies are inappropriate in the public eye. 

While this phenomenon is far from new — people have been punishing those in positions of fame or power for decades — it’s taken off in recent years. Social media has put the power in the hands and actions of everyday people who can now express their disapproval over behavior that they deem politically incorrect or offensive. 

According to Dr. Jill McCorkel, a professor of sociology and criminology at Villanova University, “cancel culture is an extension of or a contemporary evolution of a much bolder set of social processes that we can see in the form of banishment.” While the methodology of cancel culture may have evolved, what remains consistent is that these steps of canceling someone “are designed to reinforce the set of norms,” she told the NY Post

While being “canceled” might seem pretty final, it’s not necessarily a death wish to a person’s reputation, social influence, or career. It is possible to achieve redemption after being canceled, but it is by no means a simple process or an overnight fix. For most celebrities or public figures battling the dark side of cancel culture, it’s a long, painful process. Just ask Chrissy Teigen. After being “canceled” for online bullying via insulting tweets from years ago, it took Teigen a long time and a lot of reflection and isolation just to begin to process her lousy behavior and reconcile what happens next when you’re canceled.

“Going outside sucks and doesn’t feel right; being at home alone with my mind makes my depressed head race,” Teigen wrote on her Instagram page after a long social media hiatus. “Cancel club is a fascinating thing, and I have learned a whole lot. Only a few understand it, and it’s impossible to know till you’re in it. And it’s hard to talk about it in that sense because obviously, you sound whiney when you’ve clearly done something wrong,” she continued. “It just sucks. There is no winning.” 

How Do Americans Feel About Cancel Culture? 

While it may seem as if everyone is either canceling someone else or is being canceled for inappropriate words or actions, the reality is that many Americans are truly confused by cancel culture. Many people don’t fully understand what it means, and even if they do, they’re not exactly sure how they feel about the act of calling out others for poor past behavior. 

In the fall of 2020, the Pew Research Center asked Americans to share if they are familiar with the term “cancel culture” and to explain what they think the term means in their own words. 

According to their findings, 44% of Americans say they have heard at least a fair amount about the phrase, including 22% who have heard a great deal. That said, an even larger share (56%) say they’ve heard nothing or not too much about it, and 38% who responded have heard nothing at all about cancel culture. 

There’s also a generational divide, with most adults under 30 being very familiar with the concept. Still, only 34 percent of adults over 50 hear a great deal or fair amount about the phrase.

Clearly, cancel culture is everywhere, and it’s a genuine issue for celebrities who are being held accountable for their behavior in new and damaging ways. But it’s also causing a lot of confusion for Americans, especially older adults, who just don’t quite get it. 

In terms of the purpose of cancel culture, 58% of U.S. adults say that generally speaking, calling out others on social media is more likely to hold people accountable. 17% of respondents believe that calling out others can be a teaching moment that helps people learn from their mistakes and do better in the future, according to the Pew research. 

Can You Bounce Back from Being Cancelled?

So, for the million-dollar question, is there, in fact, redemption after being canceled? Experts, and the American public, seem to say yes.

If you ask Nathan Miller, founder, and CEO of MillerInk, which helps celebrities and brands navigate crisis, the key to surviving being canceled is about overcoming a “large social, personal or professional cost that is imposed on you because of something you’ve said or done.” It’s important that you clearly pay for your mistakes, he suggested to CNN. 

But how?

First, Take a Step Back

The very first step has to be a break — a break from social media, from the public eye, from the toxic environments and exchanges that triggered the distasteful behavior in the first place. 

A digital detox is a good place to start. Give yourself a break from public appearances, and don’t open yourself up to online exchanges just yet. Don’t read the insults and criticism right away. Take a step back and just breathe. Take it one day at a time. 

“Telling a client to drop out of the public eye for a few months isn’t a bad idea. Right now, the world is moving so fast, and most people have a very short attention span,” explains Ryan McCormick, Co-Founder and Media Relations Specialist at Goldman McCormick, an experienced crisis PR firm based in New York. “The likelihood of a global event or national scandal eclipsing what your client had been involved in is reasonably high. Let time heal,” he told CNN

Next, Own Up to Your Mistakes

Redemption starts with an apology. You need to own up to what you did wrong, and that means more than just reciting words you don’t mean — it requires whole-heartedly accepting what you did wrong and saying (and truly meaning) you are sorry. 

According to Lori Levine, founder and CEO of Flying Television, a company that forges partnerships between brands and celebrities, celebrities can come back from cancellation. “Here in the United States, an ‘apology tour’ is usually what’s needed,” she explained to CNN

After taking time away from the spotlight, these public figures must re-enter the public eye explaining what they have done to work on themselves, rectify their mistakes, and explain why they feel remorseful. And they should be prepared to answer tough questions if they want to redeem themselves. 

Be Honest, Be Authentic

At the heart of cancel culture is the fact that the public feels betrayed by a celebrity’s behavior. Someone we thought we supported and whose values we believed in suddenly did something or said something to lose our trust and negate those beliefs. 

It’s a similar scenario when a trusted loved one does something to betray you or let you down. And as with any mistake in life, if you want to regain people’s trust, you need to be genuine. When you apologize, do it with authenticity. 

Be honest about your shortcomings, where you messed up, what led you to those inexcusable actions, and how you plan to make it right and then actually make it right. Put your money where your mouth is. If your plan is to learn, grow and become educated (about whatever topic you are seemingly ignorant or confused about) so that you do not make the same mistakes, then actually embrace opportunities to learn. Reflect. Evolve. Find the silver linings.  

Start Fresh and Focus on What Matters

As you take a step back, focus on your mental health and your own wellness. Only if you feel good inside and out will you be in any position to bounce back after being canceled. If you really want to right the wrongs your harsh words may have caused, you need to gain some perspective. Remember that while it seems like Americans are quick to cancel others and are eager to see others fail, our culture is even more driven by the comeback. In order to find redemption and move on, you need to do it with a renewed sense of purpose – personally, professionally, and publicly.