Mass Incarceration

What Cancel Culture Shares with Incarceration

By Emilce Quiroz on April, 12 2021

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Emilce Quiroz

Emilce Quiroz is our Senior Design Manager and a multimedia storyteller with a master’s degree in Spanish and Documentary journalism from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. She received her bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Design at The New School. She brings her skills and passion to Common Justice where she focuses on shifting the narrative around violence through visual storytelling.

Instead of asking for a lifetime of punishment, we need to provide pathways towards redemption.

Cancel culture has been a popular topic in recent years because of its rise on social media. Cancel culture, or “call out” culture, is defined as a form of ostracism in which a person, typically a public figure, is “canceled” for their problematic behavior. This can often result in the person targeted being fired from their prominent position, or simply having the social contract between them and their supporters canceled, according to Miriam Webster. Often, the goal of cancel culture is to hold people accountable for their words and actions. At Common Justice, we are all about holding people accountable, but we believe that cancel culture does not align with restorative justice practices and doesn’t lead to a holistic solution. That’s because cancel culture shares a lot of the same values as the criminal legal system.

Before we draw too many comparisons between cancel culture and our nation’s reliance on incarceration, it is important to note that the experience of incarcerated people is in no way comparable to a person losing their job or being canceled online. Incarceration is traumatic for both the individual and their families and it has caused a lot of irreparable harm that we have yet to answer for as a country. There are occasions in which canceling people is absolutely necessary but we shouldn’t be too quick to accept the belief that human beings are disposable -- a belief that has been largely instilled in us by our criminal legal system.

Canceling someone is easy. Someone says or does something that doesn’t align with our own moral values and we shut them out of society, shame them, and punish them in any way we can so that they know that they were wrong. It is also easy to incarcerate someone when they cause harm. It is easier to push these people out of our communities than it is to wrap our communities around them to discuss their behavior and try to find a resolution to the harm they’ve caused. Cancel culture isn't the only nor the most effective way to hold someone accountable. True accountability begins with acknowledging the harm that’s been caused and taking steps to repair that harm. It also requires society to see the person that’s caused harm as fully human and capable of change. This is something that cancel culture does not take into account, as necessary as it may be sometimes, it’s not the only tool that we have at our disposal and it doesn’t address the root issues. This is why we prefer a restorative justice approach to violence rather than incarceration.

The punitive legal system treats incarcerated people as if they themselves are the issue, and sends the message that society would be safer if people who cause harm are locked away and forced to live in poor conditions. We have been taught to believe that incarceration makes us a “safer” society. What many people fail to see is that violence and most harm is a symptom of systemic issues including poverty, lack of affordable housing, and lack of quality healthcare. The criminal legal system’s punitive approach to violence actually  exacerbates it. As an organization that focuses solely on violent crimes in the adult courts, we know that people who cause violent harm are often survivors of violence themselves. By sending people away to jail or prison, we are effectively canceling them – denying them the opportunity to truly repair the harm they’ve caused and to address the conditions that contributed to that harm so that that harm is not repeated.

According to a report from the public policy think tank, Prison Policy Initiative, around 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States on any given day. We incarcerate more people than any other country in the world. Worse still is that as of 2020, 5.7 million people are disenfranchised for having a prior felony conviction. That’s 5.7 million people who no longer have a say in who or how we run our government. 5.7 million people who have a hard time finding employment, housing, and federal assistance because of a prior wrong they were convicted of doing. Cancel culture and our criminal legal system treats people as if they are irredeemable and deserve to suffer a lifetime of unemployment, ostracism, and punishment. In this way, cancel culture and incarceration share the same end goals.

A core principle of restorative justice is that nobody is the sum total of their worst mistake. Everyone is redeemable but the pathway to redemption begins with accountability. Accountability is not the same thing as punishment. We can and we have sent people away for years, sometimes decades, in hopes that this will somehow repair the harm that they’ve caused but what we’ve found is what survivors really want is answers. They need someone, preferably the person who harmed them, to answer for their harm and to take actionable steps towards repairing that harm. Cancel culture and incarceration does not provide a pathway toward real accountability or redemption. What it creates is a pathway towards dehumanization. This is why, instead of calling someone out or canceling them, we need to “call them in,” as academic, feminist, and activist Loretta J. Ross has stated in her book, “Calling In the Calling Out Culture: Detoxing our Movement.” “Calling someone in” instead of calling them out or canceling them stops us from seeing people as disposable and allows us to give them an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and assist in repairing the harm that they have caused. 

There are situations and people that deserve to be called out and canceled. This is because of the ways in which power flows through systems in our country. It is no secret that there are systems in place in this country that benefit one group of people while oppressing others. People who have had every opportunity to succeed because of the systems in place that guarantee their success and their positions of power deserve to be called out when they cause harm or when they oppress others. This is not usually what happens in our criminal legal system. Our criminal legal system incarcerates the poor, the Black, the mentally ill, and the disadvantaged. There is no racial equity in the criminal legal system. Not only do people of color have more interactions with police, they are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, and more likely to be given a longer sentence than white people for the same charge, according to a report to the United Nations in racial disparities in the criminal legal system published by The Sentencing Project. Calling in, like solutions to violence, should always be racially equitable, survivor-centered, and accountability-based. 

While cancel culture has a place in society, it is a very limited one. Our society would see greater benefits if we “called people in” and provided them with opportunities for redemption and resolution. We gain nothing from viewing one another as disposable and everything in seeing each other as whole human beings with the capacity to learn from our mistakes.

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