Cancel Culture has divided us. What we need is Conversation Culture.
It’s 2020 and we are polarized. If it wasn’t already clear, this election has made it completely evident that here in the so-called United States of America, we are split in two. We are a nation divided, stuck in silos of left and right, good and bad, complacent and outraged. This goes beyond politics and beyond social distancing… as individuals we are shuttling further and further away from each other every day. And our polarization is splintering the bonds among friends, families, and loved ones.
Cancel Culture is a prime example of our polarized way of being. It’s been getting lots of press lately, but if you’re unfamiliar with the phrase, Cancel Culture is when a public figure does something deemed to be unacceptable and the internet silences and punishes them, applying the hashtag #cancelled.
As a voice and presence coach, I have been helping people find their voice and speak their truth for nearly a decade. Increasingly over this time, I have seen that Cancel Culture and polarization, political and otherwise, is shutting down our voices. Instead of speaking our truth we are spouting repetitive, memorized scripts inside our own bubbles of agreement — or occasionally shouting them across the aisle. We are disconnecting more and more from our own inner truth, and in the process we are losing our vibrancy and our ability to problem solve and create new solutions. This leaves us stuck in stress, fear, and a feeling of unsafety.
Now being “cancelled” has existed as long as human society has been around… Sisyphus had to push a boulder up a hill for the rest of time, Romeo was banished from Verona, and even today women’s lives are still taken by honor killings in some societies. But in our social media age, punishment is now all-access. Anyone can have their entire career and life shut down for an inappropriate tweet or bad behavior while walking their dog.
Let’s be clear, I’m not arguing for people to have the right to be hateful, violent, or disrespectful. When someone commits a wrong, they need to be held accountable for their behavior. The question is how we do so.
It’s also worth acknowledging that the impulse to “cancel” someone actually comes from a decent place… from a desire to protect individual safety, maintain a standard for society, and uphold the values of righteous behavior.
But whether it comes from a righteous place or not, Cancel Culture is dividing us. It is causing us to condemn each other’s humanity, when in fact our humanity is sacred and it is the actions we ought to condemn.
Jameela Jamil, celebrity activist, puts it this way: “…When we criticise people we should look at it as a criticism, as a call out, but we don’t have to say that they are never allowed to re-enter society unless they have done something that is actively, truly, either illegal or so harmful that they could never come back from it.”
We need to replace Cancel Culture because it offers no pathway for redemption. Not for individuals, and therefore not for our society.
We need something different. We need Conversation Culture.
What is Conversation Culture? It’s a commitment to coming together for discourse. In a Conversation Culture model, when a wrong or rupture has occurred the people involved agree to come together to acknowledge impact, make a plan for restitution or repair, and move forward with a common goal.
Repair and unity are possible. But right now we’re stuck in a right/wrong binary.
To release ourselves requires a paradigm shift. A break in the duality. It requires introducing a third element beyond right and wrong. That element is context.
When we add context to our thinking, instead of immediately assigning someone’s actions with the designation of right or wrong, we can ask a more nuanced question:
What is that right for?
What is that wrong for?
In this expanded way of thinking, we become unstuck. We acknowledge that we live in a relative world where unique individuals have different concerns and motivations. We get to move from certitude to curiosity.
Introducing context to our thinking is crucial. And there’s also one other piece we need to address before we’ll be fully able to make the shift to Conversation Culture. It has to do with safety.
When the human nervous system gets triggered, it goes into fight or flight mode. In this state, which is managed by the sympathetic nervous system, we will scan our environment to determine where the threat lies so we can attack it or run from it.
Fight or flight mode sends us immediately into binary thinking: threat vs. safety. In this dysregulated state, we only have access to the right/wrong binary. We have no access to the type of thinking that would allow us to problem solve, have empathy, or come up with new solutions. Until we feel safe again, we have no neurological ability to be curious.
Consider that again.
When we don’t feel safe, we have no capacity to be curious.
We’re stuck in Cancel Culture as a society because we don’t feel safe, and we don’t know how to change that reality.
When we’re stuck feeling unsafe, we can’t be uncomfortable, we can’t form connections with each other, and we can’t be curious. We’re just hurt people hurting people. And we are defensive with each other because our nervous systems truly believe we need to defend. If we want to step into Conversation Culture, we need to ensure our safety first.
Not everyone is safe. Some people truly aren’t. That needs to change. This is how we do it.
Really, this work is about nervous system regulation. If you have the resources and privilege to make these shifts — and if you’re reading this article, I’d wager to say that you do — it’s the work of our times and I am calling you to do it.
Here are four steps for how you can practice Conversation Culture:
1. Pause and check in with your body.
If you don’t feel safe, you’ve got to address that before you can show up in a productive conversation with anyone. Otherwise you will keep defaulting to being defensive. There are tons of ways to check in with yourself and regulate your body. You can practice a mindfulness technique. You can do a breathing exercise. You can meditate. You can go for a walk or do yoga or dance it out. In my work, I’ve created a tool called the Voice Body Connection Process that helps us tap into our embodied experience so we understand how we feel and can express it better.
Most times, we need something quick and simple to help us come back to safety. Try this: Place your hands over your heart and say out loud to yourself “I am safe.” If it’s true, you’ll feel aligned with the statement. If it’s not true, you’ll hear mini internal alarm-bells, or something will feel off. If that happens, ask yourself what you need to do to feel safe.
Start with your body always. It won’t lie to you. Starting here allows you to feel safe and comfortable so you can show up for conversations with curiosity and regard.
2. Get curious and listen.
This means listen for real. If you hear the words “right” and “wrong” floating through your head as you’re listening, talk to your thoughts and say “Right for what? Wrong for what?” Keep calling in context.
You can also listen to your own language. Speaking coach Thea May of Working with Voice talks about choosing language that breaks binary thinking. For instance, instead of “I feel confronted”, try saying “I feel challenged.” This will move you from an oppositional pushing feeling, into a more open inquiry in which you can own your experience. Choose your words wisely. When you ask questions, keep them open-ended. For instance, instead of “How can you say that?!” try, “Can you tell me more about why you say that?”
Remember that listening is not a contest. It isn’t about waiting for your turn to talk or creating the perfect analysis of the other person’s comments. And it’s certainly not about scoring brownie points for being a good listener. Be genuinely curious. Let go of your assumptions, ask open ended questions, and be gracious. If you feel triggered, go back to step 1 and remind yourself you’re safe.
3. Picture yourself on the same team.
Play a game in your head by asking yourself this question: “If this person and I were on the same team, what team would that be? What would be our mission?” You can even imagine that you could fly up into the sky and get a bird’s eye view on the conversation.
With enough perspective, you’ll see that every single human is ultimately on the same team, with a mission to stay safe and alive. At our core, we all want to survive. Maybe you’ll notice that, though you’re arguing, you and your conversation partner both want a high quality education for your kids, or access to good healthcare.
On some level, you’re on the same team.
4. When all else fails, be kind.
If you really can’t have the conversation right now — if you keep getting dysregulated and defensive, then step away. Your sense of safety is of paramount importance. But see if you can reconnect with this person in an off-topic, benign way later.
When you see this person next, express your genuine curiosity and support by asking them how their day is going. Or even do a good deed like bringing them cookies or shoveling their driveway. Find some way to connect.
As much as it sucks, you may not get met with someone equally willing to have an open conversation at all times. Remember: someone else’s bad behavior does not excuse yours. Be the bigger person by taking care of yourself and being kind.
I believe these steps will move us into Conversation Culture. And what will we gain when we do?
Solidarity with each other. New insights for how to solve problems big and small. Unity, whether within a family, a nation, or a global population. A pathway to truly stand up for what’s right with openness, acceptance and love.
And think of how much we’ll be able to accomplish when we make this shift! When everyone’s right to remain a part of the human race is ensured, and when there’s a pathway to redemption we’ll not only be able to feel safe, we’ll be able to feel curious. How expansive, liberated, and free will we feel then? How much innovation will arise from our curiosity and conversations?
We don’t have to stay stuck, shuttling away from each other at the speed of light. We don’t have to let election results or physical distancing separate us. It will take true effort, but we can make that effort together. Let’s choose to repair the bonds with our friends, families, loved ones, and across our nations and the world. Let’s choose Conversation Culture.
Do you agree that Conversation Culture will change our world? Help spread the message: leave claps below, and share this article on your platforms of choice with the hashtag #ConversationCulture.