Do we lean toward compassion or cancel?

When I was 10 years old, I was the new girl at a small school. To feel better about myself, I was mean to another girl, a girl who'd been nice to me. I also kicked a boy named Jerry on the playground. I know these are little things but I'm sorry nonetheless. I also recognize that I was a scared little girl, and I temper my self-judgment with compassion.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could do the same with others? Adopt a "walk in their shoes" level of understanding when we read about them online, when we hear about their past missteps? Instead, everything is subject to a "like" or an emoji, a string of comments, a verdict. Sure, people have always been subject to popular opinion, but now in the age of social media, data mining and limitless information: poof! A person can be "canceled."

The idea of cancel culture is this: all of our behavior, past and present, is up for judgment. If another group or individual finds our behavior flagrantly wrong, it may be posted and editorialized to the extent that online indignation mounts and eventually, we are dismissed. Considered undeserving of even negative attention, we become personae non grata. Prior contributions to the arts, history, science, business, etc., all washed away with our reputations.

Group-think and condemnation en masse are not new. Remember Hester Prynne in "The Scarlet Letter," shunned for bearing a child out of wedlock? Or columnist Ellsworth Toohey in "The Fountainhead," who'd whip up enough frenzy or disgust among his readers to create celebrity or destroy careers? And in the movie "Mean Girls," Regina George could decimate or coronate her classmates at North Shore High School by controlling popularity.

I'm not debating the need for justice for people who act illegally or who don't espouse moral decency (who defines these legal and moral codes? I know, I know. It's a spiral of chicken-egg questions. But I digress ...) Harvey Weinstein and Bernie Madoff, for example, destroyed lives; they were examined and found guilty. But Niel Golightly, the Boeing executive who resigned because of attention to an essay he wrote 33 years ago? The essay was sexist, acknowledged as "wrong" by Golightly, and he apologized. But in today's cancel culture, there is no room for apology or personal growth or change over time. What's done has been done, and the doer is forever on the hook for it.

I have made mistakes. I say/do/write the wrong things all the time. I cringe when I think of things I might have said/done/written 30 to 40 years ago, when I was young and figuring things out (we are still, always, figuring things out, though, right? That's what's called humanity. But again, I digress ...) Sometimes, sadly, it's not possible to make amends, and so I live with my mistakes and self-judgment. But I don't pick up a stone and throw it in judgment of others, in the hopes of "canceling" them.

Maybe as a society, we should live in our glass houses and build pathways with our stones, that we might walk toward each other and, with compassion, try to understand our differences.

- Kelly Abate Kallas of Hinsdale is a contributing columnist. This column was first published Aug. 13, 2020.