Cancel Culture and the Power of Words
- “Cancel culture” is a prominent way of ostracizing those who commit transgressions.
- The underlying principle beneath this phenomenon though is that words matter.
- Leaders have an especially strong influence on others so should be particularly thoughtful about the words they use.
Jim Jordan, U.S. representative for Ohio's 4th congressional district, recently said cancel culture is the number one issue facing America right now. What is cancel culture? It refers to being ostracized (either socially or professionally) from society or specific groups due to something said (often but not necessarily online). This movement is related to the #metoo movement (which I have written about here before). And it’s something leaders need to take seriously.
I would not agree that cancel culture is the most pressing issue this country is facing now, but in recent years, we have certainly seen a lot of examples of people being “canceled.” Is this something we need to be concerned about? In the context of organizations, do leaders need to be worried about being “canceled” if they say the wrong thing?
Cancel culture has a bad reputation — some people think it’s gone too far, and people are being punished for things that aren’t that bad. I would argue that what we should be focusing on here is the idea that leaders need to be thoughtful about the words and language they use.
I’m not here today to argue individual cases with you (or even to argue if “canceling” someone for what they said is or isn’t the appropriate punishment). But instead I argue the general principle underneath this phenomenon, that words matter, is not a bad thing and that good leaders should not have to worry about being canceled if they are thoughtful about their words.
Many argue that cancel culture is just about being politically correct — and in fact, believe that being politically incorrect can be a good thing for leaders because they are seen as more honest, authentic, and “real.” But a study by Mads Arnestad (2019) showed this is not true.
Arnestad looked at two different scenarios where a leader said either a politically correct or incorrect statement and measured how others perceived the leader. Rather than seeing the politically incorrect leader as more honest, this leader was actually seen as less trustworthy. It was the politically correct leader who was seen as more trustworthy in both scenarios.
Therefore, if the argument against cancel culture is “it’s just being politically correct, and we should just tell it like it is and not worry about our words,” Arenestad’s study shows us that being leaders who are always politically correct is actually a good thing.
Why is it that being politically correct (and therefore, to some extent, “worrying about our words”) can be a good thing? Because language and words matter. Crystal Garcia and colleagues (2020) looked at publicly available documents at 31 U.S. higher education institutions released to communicate about diversity. They found that the language and words that are used have the power to either perpetuate inequality or dismantle it. They also found that there is even power in deciding what to address. In short, the words and language people use do matter and can have an effect on others.
Furthermore, leaders matter. Faithful readers who follow my work here on Lead Read Today know that I have written about this quite a bit. Leaders have the ability to influence their followers’ support for diversity and diversity training as well as their helping behaviors. If words matter, then the words of leaders matter even more.
At the end of the day, do I believe leaders should be “canceled” if they say the wrong thing? Individual cases vary, and I don’t think it makes sense to make broad statements for all situations.
What I would say, though, is that the cause of cancel culture (i.e., “saying the wrong thing”) is something that deserves consideration. As a leader, you hold a large amount of influence and power over others, and the words you choose are a big part of that. Be thoughtful in your language so it is a force for good and not inadvertently for bad.
 Arnestad, M. N. (2019). Politically incorrect statements do not make leaders seem more trustworthy: Randomized experiments exploring the perceptual consequences of political incorrectness. Management Communication Quarterly, 33, 363–387.
 Garcia, C. E., Arnberg, B., Weise, J., & Winborn, M. (2020). Institutional responses to events challenging campus climates: Examining the power in language. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 13, 345–354.
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