Are Nuanced Conversations Under Threat From Cancel Culture?

How To Create Safe Conversations on Polarizing Subjects

Posted Jul 15, 2020

Lizbeth Jacobs/Vyond, used with permission.
Source: Lizbeth Jacobs/Vyond, used with permission.

The tragic death of George Floyd and others has exposed weaknesses in the way we communicate with one another.  Many people are walking on eggshells wondering what to say and how to say it, or worse, some people don’t feel safe to share their viewpoints out of fear of reprisal. 

Cancel culture has become a common description for the behaviors of shaming, ostracizing, and boycotting individuals for holding controversial opinions.

While cancel culture originated as an online form of boycotting celebrities who caused offense, the practice is becoming a commonplace behavior in daily civic life and the opinions judged as controversial are more frequently the types commonly held by large portions of the population.

When the threat of being canceled becomes a daily preoccupation, honest conversations do not happen and real understanding cannot be achieved.

As members of the Science of Diversity research team, we have developed a diverse six-person team that specializes in facilitating difficult conversations that promote understanding between participants. Our team lives in different cities throughout the U.S. and Europe. Just to name a few of our differences, the team represents various regions, cultural backgrounds, sexual orientations, races, and religions.

Yet, in spite of these differences, members of our team are not afraid to have conversations about polarizing subjects. In fact, we discuss controversial subjects all the time. Sometimes we share similar viewpoints about an issue, but we don’t expect that we’ll always reach consensus. Our conversations are successful because we cultivate an environment of safety and a commitment to scientific thinking.

Safety is often rooted in establishing norms such as mutual respect, trust, authenticity, and feeling valued despite any differences that arise. Having a diverse team of individuals that model and embody these attributes can help facilitate intergroup conversations as it creates neutrality and demonstrates trust through vulnerability and risk-taking when expressing divergent views.

How did our team of six uniquely diverse individuals get to this place? It was by using the Science of Diversity method to create the conditions conducive to having nuanced, evidence-based conversations, that fostered non-reactive (or reflective) communication skills instead of merely exchanging emotionally charged opinions. 

When working and facilitating conversations with students in our live online Harvard "Psychology of Diversity" course or with clients such as GlaxoSmithKline, this method is an invaluable tool. As a starting point, we recognize that individuals come to the table with different opinions and rather than judging an opinion as right or wrong in advance, scientific thinking encourages us to interrogate our opinions through research, observation, logic, and data.

When we feel safe to examine our opinions with others, we can learn much more than whether it is right or wrong. We can explore how an opinion is formed, the impact it has on our identities, and how it informs our perceptions of others. Conversations about race are complex and require nuance, but without the safety of a facilitated environment of mutual respect, it becomes difficult to reach the levels of complexity where true understanding and learning occur. 

When discussing controversial or contentious subjects, it is helpful to try to create a safe and open space for individuals to both freely express their opinions, while at the same time being open to hearing opposing viewpoints.

Conflicts that result from individuals expressing differing views may be a common occurrence during these difficult conversations on polarizing topics such as race, justice, and gender, and when these disagreements occur, it is important to fall back upon the science of diversity methodology of encouraging participants to view the topic at hand through a scientific lens, instead of a personal viewpoint. 

As individuals, we often bring our own personal biases into conversations, especially when discussing subjects such as race, and as a result, discussions can often be derailed. Relying upon established, peer-reviewed data when discussing these topics can help lower intergroup tensions, and provide a guiding direction when further discussing the topic.  

In summary, during these exceedingly polarized times, being canceled can become a daily preoccupation. Fear of judgment and reprisal are very real. However, nuanced conversations can be achieved by using The Science of Diversity® method which through a scientific lens, creates a  psychologically safe space where individuals with opposing views can not only express these views in safety, but where both individuals can hear and appreciate the other side. 

This article was coauthored with Brian Chin, Marcelle Giovannetti, Lizbeth Jacobs & Marcelo Soares.

Copyright © 2020 Mona Sue Weissmark. All Rights Reserved.

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