Considering Cancel Culture

July 20, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


person-with-flicking-at-person-illustration.jpg

It used to be a term reserved for struggling sitcoms. Now, it’s something that happens to businesspeople, politicians, stars, and journalists.

Cancellation.

Recently, a variety of voices have expressed concern over what has become known as the “cancel culture” that seems to be running roughshod over our society. “Cancellation” refers to an attempt by one group to destroy and discredit some person or some other group with whom they disagree.

In a letter published in Harper’s Magazine, a group of progressive luminaries expressed their concern that:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. 

It turns out that this letter caused such a stir that some signatories asked for their names to be removed. Why? Because some others who read the letter wanted to destroy and discredit those who signed it. They wanted to cancel those who expressed concern over cancel culture.

Just days after the above letter was published in Harper’s Magazine, an opinion columnist for The New York Times, Beri Weiss, published a scathing public resignation letter, also decrying the pernicious “cancel culture” she perceived to be prevalent and personally directed toward her within the halls of America’s paper of record:

My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist; I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m “writing about the Jews again.” Several colleagues perceived to be friendly with me were badgered by coworkers. My work and my character are openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in. There, some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly “inclusive” one, while others post ax emojis next to my name. Still other New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action. They never are. 

It is critical to understand that “cancel culture” is not the coin of just one particular political party, culture, or time period. Humans have been cruel to each other and tried to destroy each other when they have disagreed with each other for a very long time. The question is: what do we do about it?

In one sense, we must begin with ourselves. We cannot stop the unscrupulous from being cruel, but we can be measured in how we respond to the unscrupulous. Here are some responses to cancellation to consider:

  • Love. Responding to those who hate you with love is not only biblically orthodox, it’s generally wise. Responding kindly instead of in kind to those who want to destroy your reputation or livelihood will almost certainly throw your enemies off because it is not the response they want or expect. Speaking well of your enemies disarms them and garners the goodwill of others toward you.
  • Humility. If others are angry with you for something you have said or believe, it is worth it to ask: Do they have a point? This question does not assume that the person who is upset with you is completely correct, nor does it imply that they are handling their disagreement with you well. It simply means that they could be right on something even if they are wrong on many things. And if they are right at all, you want to learn from them. As strange as it sounds, those who hate you can also be those who teach you. Whether you’re willing to learn is up to you.
  • Truth. Responding with love and humility does not mean you forsake what you believe to be the truth. Love and humility do not equal appeasement. Even if the person who is trying to “cancel” you refuses to listen to you, others will. Don’t be afraid to make your case.
  • Gentleness. Sometimes, people become offended not so much by what someone has to say, but by how they say it. Don’t argue a point with the deleterious intent of triggering or offending someone else. Instead, argue a point in the hope of coming to a consensus with someone else. A little bit of gentleness in how you argue can prevent a lot of cancellation when you argue.
  • Empathy. As easy as it is to become defensive and upset when someone angrily disagrees with you, it can be just as easy to become cold and calculating when you disagree with someone else. You secretly wish them ill rather than well. You dream of humiliating them in a debate. When they fall prey to calamity, you feel a spark of schadenfreude. Resist these urges. Listen to and learn from those with whom you vehemently disagree. If you want others to give you a hearing, you need to give them a hearing. Cancellation is no better from you than it is for you.

With all this being said, we must admit that certain people and philosophies do hold views that are deplorable and unacceptable. But more often than not, destroying people’s lives does not lead to the destruction of their views. Their views, when confronted in anger and vitriol, often wind up being merely hardened. So, instead of trying to cancel those with whom we disagree, we could try something else: we could try persuading them. And we could remember: debating ideas does not mean demeaning people.

People are more than their positions.

Entry filed under: Current Trends. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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