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Examining the Code and Accountability of Cancel Culture in Public Service

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Elaine Ahumada & Lorretta Vandivier
January 13, 2023

In 2015, the term Cancel Culture became popularized as a way for groups to remove support from a person, organization or idea. Nicole Holliday, at the University of Pennsylvania, refers to cancel culture as nothing more than a “cultural boycott,” which has existed throughout our society as a political tactic since the beginning of time. Jonah E. Bromwich explores the phenomenon as “an act of withdrawing from someone whose expression – whether political, artistic or otherwise – was once welcome or at least tolerated, but no longer is.” The term has been referred to everything from “accountability culture” to a malicious “witch hunt.” Depending on who is being asked, the intent and the usefulness of this virtual trend have continued to be a point of contention in everyday society and in the realm of our public organizations.

With nearly ten years of continued cancel culture behaviors, public institutions are arriving at needing to demonstrate stronger leadership, and higher levels of accountability to best avoid the institution of policies to control human behavior. In the workplace, one might expect that soft paternalism will address and define what constitutes acceptable expression and outline the repercussions for perceived transgressions. Competing philosophical interests and values of people who are advocates of free speech being pitted against people who fight for protections against historically marginalized populations sounds the alarm for potential government intervention if public servants do not have an internal locus of control within themselves. The political climate is rife and stretched tight with the swinging pendulum of what constitutes the interpretation of “real oppression.” Complex, legitimate and intimidating, leaders in the public sector are challenged to navigate the organizational workplace to ensure that employees are treated equitably and fairly.

Although boycotts have been a staple of society and a way for people to voice their opinions for decades, cancel culture has taken on a new dimension. By eliminating people who have overstepped cultural boundaries and societal norms, one is often blacklisted and not given the chance to redeem themselves. People who experience oppression or typically have no voice in other arenas may use cancel culture as a punishment for those who continually cross lines. As Dr. Nicole Holliday states, cancel culture is “a power struggle of different groups or forces in society, I think, at its most basic.” Competing ideological groups within society continue to feel that people are constantly overstepping societal boundaries. Canceling has become a swift method to boisterously swing the pendulum of popular culture.

Cancel culture is a divisive tool used by politicized members of society to refute the political or social climate. This behavior serves the populous poorly if “canceling” is rooting a community incapable of hearing apologies, engaging in dialogue and discourse and learning from one another. People do need to be held accountable for their actions to ensure a more fair and just society. However, individuals within the ranks of leadership in organizations are demonstrating otherwise and might be evading the tougher conversations with employees, and the public who overstep boundaries. As a result, government may be forced towards actions to intervene in defining, crafting and implementing expectations for appropriate human expression.

A nearly three-year pandemic has taught many people to better care for one another, and to ponder the value of human life, yet there seems to be a challenge to refocus on how individuals can ascribe to the concept of accountability and regain respect when individuals knowingly or accidentally offend another. Anderson (2021) stated that a resounding 49 percent of people ascribed cancel culture as being a tool for accountability. It seems reasonable as a society, to examine how to reinforce accountability without destroying one’s livelihood. Within the public sphere, it is imperative for leaders of organizations who are responsible for ensuring equitable and fair environments to demonstrate a courageous character, uphold the interest of what is good for the people, as well as ensure that freedom of speech can be preserved. If not, society runs the risk through riotous behaviors to silence the very freedoms placed as desired inalienable rights for all. 

Protecting the vulnerable is a concept Americans supposedly value. Employees who may have challenges in advocating for themselves deserve much better. Public leaders must remember to reflect on the ASPA Code of Ethics. Ethics code #8 reminds that as a public servant one is to advance professional excellence. Demonstrating personal integrity and being able to strengthen one’s personal capabilities translates into leaders ensuring that employees can be mentored to appropriately exercise voice without fear. Assisting in the professional development of others requires leaders to be held accountable to the highest levels of personal commitment in guiding others, properly communicating organizational expectations of conduct and developing the next public servants of ethical organizations. When acting competently, and ethically, and understanding the importance of solid succession planning, leaders can effectively strengthen organizational culture so that the next generations can develop into accountable adults who will one day lead public organizations themselves. Begin 2023 with a fresh perspective by taking inventory of the self. Strengthen personal accountability by investing in others to listen, mentor and commit to professional development instead of professional cancellation.

Author: Elaine Ahumada, DPA – Dr. Elaine Ahumada has been teaching Public Administration and Public Policy courses over the past twenty years. She is the Director of the Doctoral Program in Public Administration at California Baptist University and has extensive practitioner experience in non-profit consulting and serving on boards for regional non-profits in Southern California. [email protected]

Author: Lorretta Vandivier, DPA – Dr. Loretta Vandivier is a communications expert who leverages her ten years of public relations and higher education experience to advocate for educational equity through policy and engagement. She is passionate about weaving storytelling and data into narratives that elevate student experiences, mobilize communities, and achieve policy victories. Loretta received a Master of Arts in Public Relations and a Doctorate in Public Administration from California Baptist University. [email protected]

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