Challenging Cancel Culture with Compassionate Courage

By Pushpa Iyer

Every day we wake up to the news of someone losing their job because they said or acted in ways that allegedly offended, discriminated, and (violently) harmed members of an identity group. While some public figures must be held to the highest level of accountability, many “ordinary” individuals (justly or unjustly) accused of being discriminatory cannot bounce back from public humiliation, defamation, and pain. So, I am not talking about Bill Cosby or Goya Foods but, let’s say  a teacher who “inadvertently” failed to address a student by their self-identified gender pronoun and was then canceled – suspended or lost their job. The phenomenon of canceling someone results in everyone – the alleged victim, the alleged perpetrator, and everyone around being injured by the experience. 

Canceling involves calling-out (which preceded cancel culture) an individual or organization for acts of discrimination. At times it is important, necessary, and even empowering to call-out those who have harmed us. This is especially true when we need to challenge someone with much power. The current global reckoning on race has created spaces for us to question the abuse of privilege and subsequent ways to say ‘no’ to all forms of discrimination. However, there is always a downside to how call-out culture will play out, especially when it gets out of hand. Loretta Ross defines call-out culture as the tendency to publicly shame and humiliate others by giving them labels without nuance. Call-out culture emphasizes and elevates the actions taken by the “victim” of discrimination as morally superior. These individuals adopt a victimhood status, prioritizing how words or actions were received and eliminating or inventing the intent of the person seen as the “perpetrator.” Call-out culture also involves labeling the “perpetrators,” which, as we know, is the process by which we pass judgment and put people in boxes. Others are attracted to join in the call-out to showcase their distance from the individual identified as the source of discrimination. The calling-out process is complete when groups of people lead frenzied attacks similar to what Christopher Ferguson calls Mourner’s Veto – where allegations of harm are even equated to a “threat to exist,” making any reasonable debate or discussion impossible. Mourner’s Veto, like call-out culture, always leads to someone, usually the alleged perpetrator, being tone-policed and silenced. 

The accuser suffers too. Assuming the mantle of victimhood is hard work, it is emotionally draining. However, victimhood brings some comfort, too, because it keeps one in the zone of never being challenged. It is a different kind of power that comes from a lack of courage and prevents one from engaging.  As injured human beings, both the alleged victim and the alleged perpetrator end up as polarizing figures. This is because the community around them is forced to take sides or turn completely neutral. Taking sides leads to deep divisions in the community while being neutral deprives all sides of the conflict of receiving justice. It is indeed a paradox, but what if a third approach helped bridge the extreme responses of taking sides or being neutral? I call this approach Compassionate Courage. I founded the Compassionate Courage initiative ( in the summer of 2021.

The Compassionate Courage approach has similarities with the calling-in method. By not presuming intention and directly appealing to a person’s sense of humanity, Ross says the goal of calling-in is to “educate” them and thus change behavior and attitude. Compassionate Courage, however, differs from the call-in approach in two fundamental ways: One, it asks that the process of reconciliation and healing be shared with the community so there are no rumors, misunderstanding, or shaming. Second, it involves taking steps to initiate changes at all levels of the institution or community. In short, it emphasizes change from the systemic to the individual level. 

Compassionate Courage is a conflict prevention and intervention approach that emphasizes the need for both courage and compassion when working to resolve identity-based conflicts. Compassion has been described as a positive emotion by many who believe there is a symbiotic relationship between systems of compassion and individual acts of compassion. When an emotion is described as positive, I understand it as one considered morally valuable. It makes it the emotion that most people would desire to have. I like to think of compassion as empathy in action, that is, it is not just enough to understand a person’s suffering or put yourself in their shoes but to do something about it; the action part is what requires courage. 

Courage is also seen as a philosophical virtue – a marker of moral excellence, as said by Aristotle. Courage is often understood as the ability to overcome fear or some challenges. This means there always has to be some high intensity of emotions one has to experience to emerge virtuously courageous. Instead, what if courage was individually determined and judged? What if courage was an internal process of staying true to your values? I understand courage to be able and willing to be in uncomfortable spaces and even stay there when experiencing some degree of fear without giving up one’s values. Staying true to one’s values gives us the courage to have a value-based conversation with people we seem to disagree with simply because they act and think in ways different from us.  

One might train to become a Compassionate Courage intervener in identity-based conflicts, but one can also be trained in the approach to engage as a party in such conflicts. It is possible to have the courage to intervene or engage but doing so without Compassion means you will cause more harm or more significant divisions, like the effects of calling-out. Similarly, compassion alone will not help those injured because all one wants is to please others. 

The Compassionate Courage approach is particularly useful in organizations and communities where individuals must coexist after cancel culture has been used as a tool in identity-based conflicts. Compassionate Courage emphasizes transforming relationships. This approach does not ask for identity conflicts to be suppressed; instead, it encourages the emergence of these conflicts by training community members to engage in conflicts (but without canceling one another) to usher in positive change. The approach is rooted firmly in the field of Conflict and Peace and believes that well-managed conflicts are good because they shake up the status quo and bring change. In institutions and communities, what this means is that we have to think about how we shift from the ‘way-things-are-done-here’ attitude. This is another of Compassionate Courage’s primary goals – transform systems and structures that allow for identity-based conflicts to happen without the use of cancel culture. 

I have practiced Compassionate Courage when I have made overt the racial conflicts in communities where I have worked. In addition, I have trained or facilitated the process of developing courage and compassion through various racial equity initiatives in Academia. From these experiences, I believe that it is easier for some to have courage than build compassion, and for others, compassion comes easily, but courage is difficult. It is a mixed bag but what is certain is that most of us struggle to have both at the same time.

The Compassionate Courage approach is proactive. Developing courage and compassion should be an ongoing process for everyone in a community, so we are all equipped to manage and resolve the conflicts that arise in our communities. I believe that engaging in cancel culture is cowardice. It is easy compared to engaging in conflicts with those we disagree with; engaging with compassion and courage is challenging but will change the current status quo and imbalanced power relationship.

In training individuals in the Compassionate Courage approach, I detail seven steps: 

  • Knowing Yourself: Values, Beliefs, Biases
  • Building Courage: Working on your fears and exploring the alternatives
  • Building Empathy/ Compassion: Listening, Feeling, Emotional Intelligence
  • Decentering Power: Involving all actors, including leaders, and taking steps to be more diverse, inclusive, equitable
  • Rebuild Relationships: Not making apology or forgiveness as a prerequisite; instead, listening is the prerequisite; Justice through improved relationships (accountability)
  • Act for Systemic Change: Identify the systemic issues by involving leaders and not categorize identity conflicts as a conflict between individuals and groups

Storytelling is one tool that helps facilitate each stage of Compassionate Courage. Critical Race Theory (CRT) advocates for keeping the lived experiences of minoritized communities at the center of all analysis of power. By emphasizing listening and teaching empathy, storytelling helps all sides in an identity-based conflict to be both the speaker (express grievance) and the listener (hear the pain of others.) For example, one initiative I ran in my school was to get students to talk about how they experienced race in the classroom. The anecdotes were anonymously posted on campus, allowing faculty and fellow students to understand how their words and actions impacted others around them. In another initiative, faculty, staff, and students spoke on video for a minute about their experiences as it related to one aspect of their identity. The stories reverberated across the school. Some of the following prompts work well to gather different kinds of stories:

  1. Telling the stories of our values, where we got them from, instances where we have stood up for them, and instances where we have not been true to our values (how did it make us feel, who did we hurt?). These are our value stories.
  2. Stories of our upbringing. How were we raised to understand other communities (identities)? How do we want to change who we are? CRT encourages us to envision ourselves as transformed individuals.
  3. What are our fears in envisioning ourselves as a more diverse institution or community? (Builds organizational culture and community)

The Compassionate Courage approach requires everyone in the institution to be ready to engage in the process. It can still work even if everyone is not in the same stage, but conflicts with those who do not subscribe to the approach can cause a lot of harm because it can make the person practicing Compassionate Courage a vulnerable and passive victim. One of the main questions I get asked is how much the leadership needs to be involved in negotiating, transforming, or decentering power. The answer is they need to be very much trained and involved in this process for it to succeed. To answer the question, why would the leadership agree to engage in this process? I believe the alternative for them is to become a victim of what call-out culture might do to the institution. A divided and fragmented community will ultimately (if not in the short term) damage morale resulting in many other challenges for the institution.

To answer the next question on how to get leaders to engage in the Compassionate Courage approach, I suggest helping them spend a significant amount of time in the first stage of this process: help them build courage by creating a safe and brave space for them to explore their primary fear of losing power. To explain this, decentering power can come only from a historical perspective; knowing how a particular group of people gained power helps us understand how and why power balance must be restored. This requires institutions to pay attention to all three dimensions of power. Lukes describes the three dimensions as (a) power to influence people to change their behavior, (b) power to make decisions and the power to set the context in which these decisions are made, and (c) the power to manipulate people into thinking that the decisions made are good. Getting leaders to examine how all three dimensions of power play out in the institution will help them look inwardly into their behavior without making it about their personality or character. This makes them less fearful of the process of decentering power. Further, replacing one group in power with another can be avoided by examining how privilege operates within all three dimensions of power. Doing this will ensure institutions and communities are not just shifting power but transforming power; irrespective of who holds power, institutional and communal values, beliefs, and practices will be negotiated. 

In the example of the teacher who failed to refer to the student by their self-identified pronoun, a Compassionate Courage approach would bring together the students and teacher to engage in an honest conversation about impact, intent, and harm. This will be followed by a conversation with all who believe they are directly impacted by the incident. Next, the school administration would be involved in looking into policies, practices, and culture that needs modification to build trust, communication, and procedures to deal with similar conflicts in the future. All this results in transformed relationships and systems to keep the community together. 

If Compassionate Courage was practiced, everyone in the community would be challenged, yet no one would live in fear of being called-out, attacked, or threatened. Of course, for each of these steps, the precondition will have to be the willingness to want and accept change, but by committing to the process of Compassionate Courage as a personal goal, we might find ways to get there.



Pushpa Iyer is an activist, practitioner, and scholar in that order. She is passionate about creating a more decolonized world that is more diverse, inclusive, and equitable. She has a Ph.D. in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution and is currently a faculty member of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. Dr. Iyer is the founding director of the Center for Conflict Studies and the Compassionate Courage initiative.