People aren’t born pristine, and they don’t die pristine. Our current cultural milieu might have you believe otherwise. As recently highlighted by former President Barack Obama, it appears to be increasingly the case that no one is immune from being called out, shamed, mobbed, or canceled for their current or past views or behaviors, especially online.
In support of this line of thinking, it is not uncommon for some online participants to make the claim that it doesn’t matter what an individual actually thinks or intends, but rather, it is the impact of their actions that matter. This claim certainly has some merit, but it also exemplifies the hypocrisy of our zeitgeist, because it is only a partial truth and an oversimplification of reality that is used to guide social consequences.
Instead, both what a person thinks and their actions matter. Both truths coexist in a particular context and must be taken into consideration if we wish to seek a better understanding of a situation. Of course, the impact of actions matter, and racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, and other socially and morally unacceptable behaviors will rightfully carry with them some sort of social and moral punishments. But do we really want to indefinitely judge, mob, and define a person merely by pointing to a frozen subset of their views or actions? One layer deeper, who among us should be casting these stones? Who exactly are the arbiters of what might be defined as unacceptable views and behaviors, and in what court are these deviances tried?
As a clinical psychologist, in addition to providing psychological treatment to victims of abuse, I provide treatment to people who have committed violent, sexual, and other egregious offenses. I also treat people who have hurt others—both intentionally and unintentionally—while in the throes of addiction, psychosis, and depression. Indeed, people often present to therapy with feelings of shame and guilt about their past, looking to understand themselves and looking for answers about how to change.
Imagine, as a clinical psychologist, if instead of greeting people with empathy, nonjudgmental acceptance, and curiosity about the complexity that makes them human, I were to shame them, judge them as morally inferior and irredeemable from a perspective of self-righteousness, and sought to understand them based on one snippet of their life. Clinical psychologists don’t do that, because therapy per se is predicated on the idea that cognitive and behavior change is possible and that people are more than the sum of their behaviors. Why, then, is it becoming increasingly acceptable for our culture to engage in this kind of cold, tribal, simplified thinking?
No one, especially myself, is excusing racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, and other socially and morally hurtful gestures and actions, as they can have real and far-reaching, devastating effects on individuals and groups. And simultaneously, on the other hand, it is an astonishingly ignorant and naïve position to believe that people are so simplistic that a blemish-free person exists, or has ever existed, or will ever exist. That’s not how human nature works.
The purpose of this post is simply to encourage critical thinking about the direction of cancel culture, outrage culture, call-out culture, and its variants. I don’t have the answers, but I do echo Obama’s sentiment that hypocritically casting stones is not one of them.