There’s this idea out there that “cancel culture” is some sort of unstoppable force of nature — not so much a group of people as a plague of locusts just waiting for you to make one false move so that they can strip the digital flesh from your online bones. And, sure, recent history isn’t shy on examples of online crowds getting a little over their skis when it comes to seeking accountability (but then, that’s hardly unique to our era). But there is one thing that might just help stem the tide of a cancelation event. It’s rarely tried, so we can’t say for sure that it’s 100 percent effective, but early tests are promising. It’s called “apologizing.” And this week, Lizzo proved it can go a long ways.
It started last Friday, when Lizzo dropped the second single off her brand new album Special. The song “GRRRLS” has the line “I’m a sp-z/ I’m about to knock somebody out/ Yo, where my best friend?/ She the only one I know to talk me off the deep end.”
Online, many fans expressed hurt and frustration at the use of the word “sp-z,” describing it as an ableist slur. “Hey @lizzo my disability Cerebral Palsy is literally classified as Spastic Diplegia (where spasticity refers to unending painful tightness in my legs) your new song makes me pretty angry + sad,” one Twitter user wrote. “‘Sp-z’ doesn’t mean freaked out or crazy. It’s an ableist slur. It’s 2022. Do better.”
Many other fans echoed similar complaints. At this point, Lizzo had a few options. She could have gotten defensive (“I didn’t know that word was hurtful to some people!”). She also could have gotten defiant (“It’s not a big deal, Snowflake! If you don’t like it, don’t listen!”). And she could have gone the normal celebrity route with a non-apology (“I’m sorry you feel that way”). Instead, she took the high road and offered a thoughtful, sincere apology worth quoting in full.
It’s been brought to my attention that there is a harmful word in my new song “GRRRLS”. Let me make one thing clear: I never want to promote derogatory language. As a fat Black woman in America, I’ve had many hurtful words used against me so I understand the power words can have (whether intentionally or in my case, unintentionally). I’m proud to say there’s a new version of GRRRLS with a lyric change. This is the result of me listening and taking action. As an influential artist I’m dedicated to being part of the change I’ve been waiting to see in the world. Xoxo, Lizzo.
Let’s take a second to look at what Lizzo got right here.
First up, she specifically acknowledged what she was apologizing for: “derogatory language.” Not “hurt feelings.” Not “online outrage.” She took ownership of what the issue was and proved she’d actually taken the time to listen to what people were saying.
Second, Lizzo showed empathy. She acknowledged the ways that she herself had been hurt by words in the past, so she understood why this mattered to people. That validated people’s concerns and showed that she took them seriously, even though she never meant to offend anyone. She understood that her intent wasn’t the issue. It was the impact that people were upset about.
Thirdly, Lizzo took steps to make things right. By re-recording the song, she’s proving that she’s striving to do better from now on and that she’s internalizing what people are saying. She’s got just hearing what people are saying to her. She’s really listening to them.
Finally, Lizzo explained why she’s doing all this: Because she understands that we’ve all got a part to play in making the world a kinder place, and this was one small thing she could do to be part of that.
And wouldn’t you know it? Fans reacted with gratitude and appreciation. As it turned out, people weren’t trying to “cancel” Lizzo. They just wanted her to understand the impact of her words. She did. If more people who found themselves on the business end of “cancel culture” followed her lead, maybe more of them could be part of the same project she’s a part of: Being the change we’ve been waiting to see.