My earliest recollections of “cancel culture” come from growing up in fundamentalism. Jerry Falwell, the leader of the Moral Majority and founder of Liberty University, ardently advocated boycotting any company that stood in the way of Christian values. I remember sitting in church and hearing that we should stop buying Colgate toothpaste because the company supported sex and violence. I was so confused. What does toothpaste have to do with illicit sex scenes? The argument was that because Colgate advertised on TV shows that glamourized sex and violence, boycotting their product would send them a message.

Fast forward to 2022 and someone gets canceled every week. Liberal universities fire conservative faculty for voicing a controversial opinion. Conservative politicians ban books from school libraries. Celebrities block social media followers who challenge their views.

What’s a culturally intelligent response to cancel culture?

Understand the original context

Like many contemporary buzz words, “cancel culture” has lost its original meaning. The term itself emerged in the 80’s when “cancel” was used to refer to breaking up with someone. But long before 80’s music and Falwell boycotts, there was a long history of underrepresented groups using the power of boycotts to fight injustice.

Publicly calling for accountability and boycotting was an important form of collective action. It was a way of combatting the power imbalances between large corporations and the people and communities they may harm. 

Even today, cancel culture can play an important role in the democratic process. Former New York governor Andrew Cuomo blamed cancel culture when people called on him to resign after reports revealed that he covered up Covid-19 nursing home deaths and when several women accused him of sexual misconduct. This seems to be an appropriate use of cancel culture—exposing the wrongdoing of an elected official and holding them accountable. For those of us in the US, it’s precisely the kind of discourse the First Amendment was meant to protect.

Cancel ideas, not people

My concern is that cancel culture has moved from being a tool for accountability and justice to becoming a weapon to silence anyone who disagrees with us. While public figures like Andrew Cuomo and Harvey Weinstein need to be canceled, muting anyone who disagrees with us or makes a mistake is unhelpful. Just because a student or professor voices a controversial viewpoint isn’t reason to shut them out. Simply because we don’t like a company’s decision to uphold certain values isn’t reason to write off anyone who does business with them. We need more room for the complexity of situations and we need to reclaim the value of honest debate about underlying value differences. 

Cultural intelligence requires rigorous dialogue about diverse perspectives without attacking one another’s dignity and humanity. I’m increasingly drawn to spending time with people who disagree with me. My wife and I are preparing to move across the country. One of our values is looking for a community that has not only a diversity of cultures but also a diversity of political perspectives, religious ideologies, and social values. It seems uninteresting and limiting to me to be surrounded by people who all agree with me. 

Honest debate is a cornerstone of overcoming polarization. People are complicated and voicing our views about complex issues is fraught with complexity. We need to slow down canceling anyone who makes an offensive comment, otherwise our polarized state of affairs will get progressively worse.

Exercise perspective taking

If I could only teach one skill to global leaders, it would be perspective-taking—the ability to step outside our own experiences to imagine the emotions, perceptions, and motivations of another individual.  It’s a cornerstone of human centered design, it’s one of the only ways to effectively mitigate bias, and it’s critical to sales, conflict resolution, and people management. And perspective taking is an essential part of a culturally intelligent approach to cancel culture.

Most of us engage in perspective-taking all the time. What would my daughter like for her birthday? Where would my friend like to eat dinner? How will I convince this prospect to close the deal? There are multiple ways to use perspective-taking when confronting polarizing views.

When someone says something that is appalling or offensive to you, acknowledge the emotional reaction and then step away from it. Try to describe the offensive behavior through their eyes, without using any value-laden language. Almost every behavior makes sense if you understand the perspective behind it. That doesn’t mean you agree with it, much less condone it. There are grave injustices being done to women, people of color, Ukrainians, and the Rohingya. It’s well worth considering whether canceling a leader or group through sanctions, boycotts, or other means is a useful strategy to address these injustices. But perspective taking will help us slow down a flippant decision to silence a dissenting voice just because they have a viewpoint we don’t like.  

Perspective taking combined with a good dose of intellectual humility ensures that we reserve cancel culture for times when we need it as a weapon against injustice. In the meantime, most of our differences are better addressed using the same skills we apply when working with someone from another part of the world—an openness to a different perspective (CQ Drive), an understanding of that perspective (CQ Knowledge), a strategy to work together in light of the differences (CQ Strategy), and the flexibility to retain what’s core to us without losing ourselves in the process (CQ Action).

After 20 years applying cultural intelligence to working with people from different cultures (nationalities, ethnicities, races etc.), my new book applies CQ to addressing these kinds of polarizing differences.


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