Words by Mercia Tucker
Bryan Stevenson is a civil rights attorney, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and the best-selling author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. In his New York Times bestseller, he delivered what can only be described as a testimony. Having spent decades working to free 115 death row prisoners, he says in the book “Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
He extols the virtues of the incarcerated – some of the most condemned members of society – and refuses to see them as bad people but rather as people who’ve done bad things. “There is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.”
Bryan’s worldview resonated in me and affirmed me as it’s a belief that I’ve long held. Our throwaway tendencies with people in society at large are more binary than need be. There’s a duality that exists within us all in that spectrum between darkness and light: it’s in the teetering that we find the balance, it’s in living that we find deliverance. We recognise this duality in ourselves; see it unfolding in our lives when we’re plagued by the consequences of bad choices made with good intent. Why, then, are we so quick to demand perfection from our artists?
Cancel culture has quickly swept the internet. It is the declaration that a person, usually a celebrity or high-profile individual, is ‘cancelled’ after they’ve said or done something problematic. In the era of social awareness and the pushing forward of a different kind of conversation in our everyday lexicon, there’s been a demand for accountability from people for things said and done that don’t fall in line with our cultural progression.
There are many problems with cancel culture, the biggest being that when gathering our online pitchforks and preparing the stake fire, we discard the other person’s humanity and their capacity to learn and grow from their mistakes. We label someone as a ‘bad person’ instead of recognizing them as a person who did a bad thing. There’s redemption and rehabilitation in the latter. The former? Not so much.
Equating a person’s entire being to a bad act, or even the worst thing they’ve ever done reduces their self to character stain that occurred in a moment of time but is viewed through that lens in perpetuity. It’s the equivalent of watching a film scene on loop and wondering why nothing ever changes.
Bryan Stevenson said in an interview “I’ve really have come to believe that if someone tells a lie that they’re not just a liar, if someone takes something that doesn’t belong to them they’re not just a thief, even if you kill somebody you’re not just a killer. What a just and evolved and compassionate society has to do is figure out the other things you are and make sure we understand that part of each person.”
Our implicit biases with how we view human nature and the hierarchical way in which we stack people against bad deeds creates a superiority complex that we act from when we attempt to ‘cancel’ people. As an attempt to appear morally superior to people whose bad words/deeds have more visibility than our own, there’s a performative element to cancel culture that feeds right back into the loop of implicit bias and does very little in the way of genuinely changing people for the better. So the digital pitchforks and finger wagging turn out to be not much more than a public form of self-gratification by shaming others and convincing ourselves that we aren’t that bad.
In the same breath, people need to be held accountable for the things they say and do that negatively affect society. But holding somebody accountable for their actions is not the same thing as writing off a person forever as if they were a bad debt. There’s a conversation to be had in the middle of those two concepts that elicits change for the better and allows people to grow into more evolved beings. The binary that cancel culture propagates of people being either woke or cancelled doesn’t allow for the fact that we weren’t all born woke; it took a great deal of learning and unlearning for us to do better. That our learning and unlearning didn’t have as great an audience as that of people in the public eye to be picked apart strand by strand, shouldn’t mean that they should not have the space to do so.
Accountability also means that we need to challenge problematic ideas and beliefs and apply the necessary pressure for artists to work on them. My particular way of doing that is by not supporting that artist financially. Effective Discipline for Children by the Canadian Paediatric Society cites discipline as ‘the structure that helps the child fit into the real world happily and effectively’. While the same definition likely applies to adults, the structure and circumstances that allow the discipline of children does not apply. I find the most effective way to help the adult artistic child fit into the real world happily and effectively is by removing the conduit for them not doing so viz. their money.
After Kanye West’s “When you hear about slavery for 400 years — for 400 years? That sounds like a choice. You was there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all? We’re mentally in prison” comments to TMZ and the cornucopia of ignorance he spewed leading up to the release of his album, I made a conscious decision to not support him and his problematic utterances by not buying, streaming, or listening to his work going forward. Until the day that he learns why his comments hurt his community more than help them, and he walks them back, my money can be spent elsewhere.
In the case of recently murdered rapper XXXTentacion, we weren’t given that space for him to grow through his litany of abuse charges. After his death, Jidenna posted a tweet saying “R.I.P @xxxtentacion No one can be so self-righteous that they are happy when a youth dies. The young still have the capability to reform. God bless the kids” and followed it up – after a slew of criticism levelled at him – with “For those who are so woke that their compassion is asleep, remember this…if Malcolm X was killed at the age of 20, he would have died an abuser, a thief, an addict, and a narrow-minded depressed & violent criminal. So, I believe in change for the young.”
As a woman it was extremely difficult reading the ways in which XXXTentacion exacted abuse on his partner, so much so that I had to take a break from the article and continue reading at a later stage after composing myself. XXXTentacion’s rise to fame was particularly acrid for me as it coincided with the early reports of his abuse and news of his arrest for it. That meant that his fan base refused to hold him accountable for his actions and supported him either because of it, or in spite of it. Apart from it being a terrible reflection on our societal values, it means he likely had no incentive to change.
The other part of me would like to believe that he had the capacity to, that he – as a person – was greater than the sum of his choices, and that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
Bryan Stevenson, on relaying a story of the first death row inmate he worked with, said “All of a sudden I knew I wanted to help condemned people get to higher ground. More than that I knew my journey to higher ground was tied to his journey to higher ground. If he didn’t get there, I wouldn’t get there either.” As a society, we need to evaluate where casting out and cancelling the broken among us will lead. Are we only looking for a public shaming or are we seeking higher ground?