Saturday, March 27, 2021

30. Consequences Over Cancellations

Ntombi Howell (1951-2003)
It has recently become commonplace for people to complain of culture that espouses “PC” values and “cancellations” as a means of censorship.  To me the real issue is not one of politics or free-speech, but of values and compassion.  What is the intent behind one’s speech?  What are the values being enabled?  And where is the integrity in both the actions and reactions to the problematic words or actions?  Can one be redeemed when they have erred?  How can a society learn and grow from egregious behaviors?  

I had the privilege of attending graduate school with the great Ntombi Howell from 1995-1997 at New College of California.  As a self-identified "black woman lesbian ex-drug addict" Ntombi demonstrated a strong presence, a deep connection with Spirit, and commanded tremendous reverence from all around her.  Her entire energy was founded in inclusion and intention.  At the same time, she didn't take crap from anyone, including the faculty.  If I or anyone in the classroom said something ignorant or off-point she would calmly yet firmly "invite" us back into our humanity and help us to understand how something we were saying, or something in the education we were receiving, was reflective of white supremacist patriarchal conditioning.  It wasn't a condemnation or cancellation, it was simply an illumination and invitation to expand awareness and consciousness.   By doing so she made space to allow dozens of students and faculty identify how our words may contradict our intentions in the classroom, as well as the therapy room.  It certainly wasn't her job to do this, but it was definitely in alignment with her Work as a healer and teacher through the course of all-too-brief life.  

I learned even more about exemplifying therapeutic consequences and compassionate discipline while working with Joe McHugh in 2002 in the Indio clinic of the Riverside County Department of Mental Health.  From 9am-3pm, the clients would attend this outpatient setting as a way to get additional support, clinical evaluation, group therapy, and constructive life skills.  These were individuals who often were just released from an inpatient psychiatric unit, adjusting to their medications, coming down from their drug of choice (usually crystal meth), and/or we didn’t know what the hell to do with them so we had them come in for assessment.  Needless to say, on any given day there was potential for conflict, tension, outbursts, and someone saying something offensive or hurtful to another person.

Joe ran these groups with both an iron fist and a loving hand.  He walked the fine line between stern disciplinarian and kind healing presence.  He allowed people to express their thoughts and feelings up to the point of causing harm to others.  And when someone’s acting out merited removal, Joe was not above removing them.  

However,  Joe never “cancelled” anyone.  He demonstrated that there are consequences for one’s actions.  He let the participants know that their safety was paramount, and has willing and able to remove any threats when necessary.  He clearly communicated that if you were the source of aggression, hate speech, violence, or threats, that privileges and services would be lost.  BUT, as Joe told me,  “Make sure there is always a clear path for them to return.”  By holding this stance Joe created an opportunity for groups to process conflict, injury, and subsequent insight and growth.  

As I've gotten older,  I have come to appreciate Ntombi and Joe’s values even more.  The idea of “cancelling” someone, ie, permanently silencing them or destroying their livelihood, does not accomplish very much other than to shift the narrative elsewhere.   It doesn’t change the hate or ignorance they are espousing, it doesn’t shift the base on their ideas, it doesn’t help people gain deeper knowledge or empathy,  it just drives the aggression underground.  

At the same time, it can be extremely valuable to teach consequences. That is, demonstrating to everyone involved that if you repeatedly say words or make jokes that are threatening, harmful, or violent to some groups, then you will pay a price.  If you work for a company that makes money from those groups, then you will likely be fired or demoted for threatening the communities your company is profiting from.

What is the difference between cancellations and consequences?  In my view it comes down to integrity.  Integrity means that our words and actions consistently reflect our stated values.  If a corporation or media network claims to care about racial justice, Black Lives Matter, and basic human respect, then they don’t hire or enable individuals whose words and actions consistently contradict those values.   If you are a politician who claims to care about women, then you will face impeachment if you repeatedly harm or minimize women.  If you are asked to host a fundraiser or entertainment event that honors LGBTQ groups, and you make hateful remarks or “jokes” at the expense of those same groups, then you will likely be removed from your hosting duties.  If you say one thing and do another, then there will likely be retribution and consequences for your behavior.

In my fifty years I have come to deeply respect the value of forgiveness and redemption.  Because I believe that therapy patients can get healthier,  because I believe that legal prisoners have the right to rehabilitation and reconciliation, I believe individuals who have made mistakes deserve opportunities to demonstrate growth and change.  Just like the classrooms with Ntombi, just like therapy groups with Joe, our society benefits when people are permitted to screw up, make mistakes, AND are offered a path toward healing and restoration.  

Recently some individuals I greatly admire have told me they are afraid to express themselves publicly now, or ask questions in Zoom seminars, because of “cancel culture”.  Anytime a society sacrifices education and curiosity in favor of righteous intolerance, that society suffers.  What if we thought about “consequence culture” instead of “cancel culture”?  What if we prioritized redemption over retribution? What if we taught education before indignation? And what if we considered ways to invite a “calling in” of integrity before “calling out” hypocrisy?  I’m looking forward to finding more ways to do all of these in my fifties, while creating professional communities and creative collaborations around these values as well. 

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707

No comments:

Post a Comment