You may have heard that Robert Downey, Jr.(RDJ) won the Screen Actors Guild award a few weeks ago for his portrayal of Lewis Strauss in Oppenheimer. I didn’t watch the awards ceremony, but I heard later that RDJ mentioned Mel Gibson in his speech – he was thanking several celebrities who had influenced his career, and Gibson was one of them.

Because of RDJ’s decades-long work on his sobriety, he works hard not to be judgemental of other people, and supposedly this is where his willingness to forgive Gibson for his previous harm to others comes in. Gibson isn’t the only one that RDJ has so willingly forgiven – RDJ has also recently helped Armie Hammer, who was credibly accused of several things (I won’t detail them here, but you can easily google them; no actual charges have ever been filed).

This past weekend, RDJ then won his first Oscar for the same role and seemed to snub beloved actor Ke Huy Quan, which again led to calls for his “cancellation” and referring to him as a “villain.”

This got me thinking about the idea of “cancel culture,” but more specifically that of real and meaningful apologies and changed behavior. It’s a nice idea that RDJ wants to be non-judgemental of Gibson, but if we’re honest, it seems that Gibson is not sorry for the things that he has done and said, including according to this article from the Daily Beast, “racist rants and domestic violence, antisemitic remarks, and homophobia,” not to mention, using the “n-word” a handful of times.

Shouldn’t we be judgemental of that? What’s left if we’re NOT judgemental of that?

And listen, I, too, want to live in a world where we’re reaching across the table to people who think differently from the way we do, to create a level of understanding and friendship. But I don’t want to do that if I’m also harming others at the same time. Is it more important to call Mel Gibson in or to protect the groups of people that Gibson is harming – Black people, women, LGBTQIA+, and Jewish people?

And this is where the idea of cancel culture comes in.

We’re all human. We’re all going to make mistakes – some small, some big, and some REALLY big. I’ve made some big mistakes before. And I hope that when I make those mistakes, that someone, hopefully, everyone, is going to give me the grace to learn from those mistakes and to do better.

But I also have to be open to that learning. Not just open, but also understanding of the harm I may have created with the mistake. To know that some errors cannot be easily repaired. That impact IS greater than intent and not everything can be forgiven, even when my future actions show that I’ve learned my lesson.

This is where humility comes in – not humiliation, that’s different – but real, honest humility. Being willing to listen to the harmed party, to understand what I did wrong, without needing or trying to justify or excuse my behavior or words. And then a willingness to change my behavior.

Cancel culture exists because people are not truly apologizing. They’re either not actually sorry that they upset and harmed someone in the first place or they don’t believe they did anything wrong (see: Mel Gibson) or they just want the whole thing to blow over so that they can keep doing what they were doing, hopefully without consequences. Many of them don’t understand what the big deal is, or they feel like THEY are the slighted party for being called out.

Do we sometimes take the call out too far, because everyone feels like they get a say in what should be a private matter? Sure. Social media has made it possible, and in some cases, people feel it is their responsibility to weigh in on every incident.

And while we may not NEED to weigh in on everything – do I get the irony that I’m weighing in on a cultural happening here on my blog? I do – there’s nothing wrong with using things that happen in society to reflect on them in our own lives, with our own networks, and to use them as discussion points for our friends, families, and connections. As the memes often say, “[insert famous person] may not see your careless and callous comment about them, but your friends and family will.” And isn’t that the truth?

What does ANY of this have to do with lawyers?

The legal industry doesn’t exist in a bubble. We CERTAINLY can benefit from being called in, humility, and understanding what cancel culture truly is. I’ve spoken before here about real and meaningful apologies and I believe that they’re something that every good leader – and honestly, every good human, should understand how to make. We’re in an age of reckoning, whether it’s with racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, ableism, classism, or a litany of other things, these are issues that we must consider within ourselves and our organizations.

All of us – every person – will make mistakes. We can’t lead perfectly or succeed at work perfectly. Failure IS human. And that’s great news. But what we DO with that failure is important. When we harm someone with our words or actions, and especially if they are brave enough to let us know that they have been harmed, we have the opportunity to try to repair that harm, both with our words and our future actions. It will still be like a broken plate that’s been glued back together – not quite as good as if we’d never broken it. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t do our best.

In closing, as we navigate the complexities of accountability and forgiveness, let us not merely contemplate these issues but actively engage with them. Let us challenge ourselves to confront harmful behaviors and attitudes, both in ourselves and in others, with humility and a commitment to growth. By fostering genuine dialogue, acknowledging the impact of our actions, and striving to make amends, we can contribute to a culture of accountability and compassion. Let us embrace the opportunity for personal and societal transformation, recognizing that change begins with each one of us. Together, let’s work towards a future where understanding, empathy, and genuine accountability prevail.

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Photo of Lindsay Griffiths Lindsay Griffiths

Lindsay Griffiths is the International Lawyers Network’s Executive Director. She is a dynamic, influential international executive and marketing thought leader with a passion for relationship development and authoring impactful content. Griffiths is a driven, strategic leader who implements creative initiatives to achieve the…

Lindsay Griffiths is the International Lawyers Network’s Executive Director. She is a dynamic, influential international executive and marketing thought leader with a passion for relationship development and authoring impactful content. Griffiths is a driven, strategic leader who implements creative initiatives to achieve the goals of a global professional services network. She manages all major aspects of the Network, including recruitment, member retention, and providing exceptional client service to an international membership base.

In her role as Executive Director, Griffiths manages a mix of international programs, engages a diverse global community, and develops an international membership base. She leads the development and successful implementation of major organizational initiatives, manages interpersonal relationships, and possesses executive presence with audiences of internal and external stakeholders. Griffiths excels at project management, organization, and planning, writes and speaks with influence and authority, and works independently while demonstrating flexibility in thinking, especially in challenging situations. She also adapts to diverse and dynamic environments with constant assessment and recalibration.

JD Supra Readers Choice Top Author 2019

In 2021, the ILN was honored as Global Law Firm Network of the Year by The Lawyer European Awards, and in 2016, 2017, and 2022, they were shortlisted as Global Law Firm Network of the Year. Since 2011, the Network has been listed as a Chambers & Partners Leading Law Firm Network, recently increasing this ranking to be included in the top two percent of law firm networks globally, as well as adding two regional rankings. She was awarded “Thought Leader of the Year” by the Legal Marketing Association’s New York chapter in 2014 for her substantive contributions to the industry and was included in Clio’s list of “34 People in Legal You Should Follow on Twitter.” She was also chosen for the American Bar Association Journal’s inaugural Web 100‘s Best Law Blogs, where judge Ivy Grey said “This blog is outstanding, thoughtful, and useful.” Ms. Griffiths was chosen as a Top Author by JD Supra in their 2019 Readers’ Choice Awards, for the level of engagement and visibility she attained with readers on the topic of marketing & business development. She has been the author of Zen & the Art of Legal Networking since February 2009.