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Move over cancel culture: Gen Z is seeking its due process

While canceling is punitive and temporary, this firm hopes a lawsuit will bring lasting change to a hostile workplace

Alex LaSalvia

The efforts of every upcoming generation are characterized by revolutionary, community-led actions to right societal injustices, and Gen Z is no different. A creative new approach to swift redress, cancel culture, has been lauded and feared by all, from high-profile figures to average citizens to people across the political spectrum. Valiant and innovative as it is, cancel culture is a grassroots attempt at punitive accountability, but the retribution is rooted in vengeance and is only temporarily detrimental.

The impact of being canceled dissipates as quickly as the news cycle churns, and in the workplace, it is even faster. Fellow employees may fear speaking out, affirming the victim’s experience in private conversations but not wanting to put their own jobs at risk. Subsequently, seemingly informed and concerned parties, like a human resources department or management, assure everyone that the bad behavior has been addressed. Because cancel culture centers and glorifies the offender instead of telling the stories of those left damaged in the carnage of hateful rhetoric, canceled parties in the workplace and in society now realize they can reemerge virtually unscathed, rendering cancel culture ineffective and due for a taste of its own medicine.

My firm, Joseph & Norinsberg LLC, recently filed suit against Dos Toros, a popular Mexican-style food chain, for unchecked bigotry and casual use of the N-word, which caused a hostile work environment for employees. A day later, I heard that country singer Morgan Wallen, once canceled for using racial slurs, is fully back to being featured on radio stations where he had previously been banned. His musical talent and notoriety were his “get uncanceled” card, as easily attainable as Monopoly’s “Get out of jail free” card. As of March 18, he was topping Billboard charts.

A more substantial approach is required to generate repercussions that prevent the resurgence of a canceled person or their wrong actions.

cancel culture is not prevalent because Gen Z wants to ruin people’s lives but because hateful speech elevated with a platform or power perpetuates trauma for marginalized groups. It’s also not a new concept. The lightning speed at which society can condemn bad actors in the far-reaching digital world is the perceived strength of cancel culture. Most canceled celebrities or brands recover despite critics complaining that it ruins lives and reputations. However, those subjected to physical, emotional or mental trauma because of the ignorance of influential figures are left to pick up the pieces in the aftermath and risk retraumatization when those personalities do bounce back.

In places of employment, federal and state laws protect women, people of color and other underserved groups against discriminatory practices and hostile behavior. Instead of focusing on hurting someone else’s reputation, a healthy response is to find ways to heal from — and moreover, be compensated for — the effects of whatever -ism is inflicted. This is especially true when power dynamics are involved, as was the case with my client whose supervisors used the N-word, which managerial staff dismissed as slang.

Racism, specifically, is a public health crisis in a historically abusive landscape toward marginalized people whose stories are rarely told. Fortunately, in recent years, books like Minda Harts’ “Right Within: How to Heal from Racial Trauma in the Workplace” and Jacquie Abram’s “Hush Money: How One Woman Proved Systemic Racism in Her Workplace and Kept Her Job” have become bestsellers with affected populations. Harts’ book, derived from her personal experience, focuses on coping and healing techniques after workplace discrimination, offering tools from therapists, clergy and personal lessons to manage the inevitable future incident better. Abram’s book, also based on her personal story, reads like a novel and follows the rise and fall of the main character’s career, detailing her actions to defeat the organization’s racist system.

Both accounts describe the need to do more than just call out offenders publicly. Especially when the culprit is deemed necessary in the workplace, a single grievance with a well-written apology about the lesson learned will yield empathy and forgiveness. Therefore, a more substantial approach is required to generate repercussions that prevent the resurgence of a canceled person or their wrong actions.

Conversations are occurring more often, but simply having a conversation is not enough until justice prevails. My client, a Black woman, made her grievances known in writing, verbally and even posted about it on YouTube, yet Dos Toros did nothing. For justice to prevail, those who fuel a psychologically unsafe work environment must be held accountable with tangible consequences, including total remuneration and creating a permanent record to track these actions. This approach is more effective than a temporary social media cancellation, which rarely has lasting ramifications.

As an employee justice attorney, I am pleased to see that my younger clients do not rely on cancel culture, instead finding ways to teach workplace perpetrators a lesson in justice through admissions of guilt, acceptance of responsibility, and reparations for damage caused. Documenting experiences, providing candid feedback and being aware of the right to a prejudice-free workplace is empowering. For those in more significant positions of seniority or power, especially in the workplace, cancel culture is fleeting and does not evoke fear. We can read cathartic books and spread the word about avoiding workplace trauma, but a more effective path to rectitude and appropriate amends is to speak up proactively about unfair treatment and know when it’s time to exercise your legal rights.

Our client, who was subjected daily to racial slurs, offensive jokes and was forced to leave her job to avoid further damage to her psyche, is not concerned about a trial in the court of public opinion (i.e., cancellation). Getting justice through the law has longer-lasting effects on social status and is much more consequential. We can officially consider cancel culture #canceled.

Bennitta Joseph, Partner at Joseph & Norinsberg, is an experienced New York City sexual assault attorney with over 17 years of experience litigating cases involving workplace harassment.