Should Christians Cancel Cancel Culture?
As Justine Sacco boarded an 11-hour flight to South Africa, she tapped out a few tweets about the indignities of travel to her 170 followers. Some of the tweets mocked the nationalities of her fellow passengers. In one, she joked that she was in no danger of getting AIDS in Africa because she was white—a tweet she would soon come to regret. She shut off her phone and tried to get some sleep. When the plane landed and she turned her phone back on, it immediately began to chirp with urgent messages: “I’m so sorry to see what is happening,” said one. “You need to call me immediately,” said another. “You’re the No. 1 worldwide trend on Twitter right now,” said another.
Her ill-considered tweets had generated a firestorm of pushback while Sacco slept on the flight—tens of thousands of tweets before her plane landed. Soon after, Sacco was fired from her job and the echoes of her shaming reverberated through the social web for months. Reflecting on that time, she later told a New York Times reporter, “I cried out my body weight in the first 24 hours… It was incredibly traumatic. You don’t sleep. You wake up in the middle of the night forgetting where you are.”
Justine Sacco got canceled.
That was 2013. The movements in the dance of cancellation were not invented during that 11-hour flight, but in the last decade, we have become intimately familiar with them. The tools and practices of cancellation have had years of ripening since Sacco’s cancellation. These days, it seems that not a week goes by without news of fresh cancellations rolling through the headlines.
What Is Cancel Culture?
The web has given public morality a powerful tool of enforcement that has earned the name “cancel culture.” It is a 21st-century form of social censorship for those who violate the moral intuitions of those doing the canceling.
The forces that have combined to ignite cancel culture are legion, for they are many, but prominent among them are:
- the ubiquity and permanence of even the trivia of our lives on the web. We put a lot of our lives “out there,” and it is subject to more scrutiny these days.
- access to disembodied but powerful platforms to comment on the lives and actions of others. The powers at the disposal of our ill-considered reactions get greater every year. We can launch verbal ballistic missiles across the planet with a few taps of our thumbs.
- a sense of suspicion toward the “powers that be” and a perception that the gatekeepers of justice are more interested in enforcing the status quo than in helping the marginalized. The age of “alternative facts” has eroded our national buffer stock of trust, abetted by those who would use high-tech to hack our spending habits, our passions, our votes.
- the fact that we are more isolated than ever and more sensitive. We are quicker to see grievances and take wounds and slower to forgive.
- a growing number of precedents for the power of using the mechanisms of cancellation to mobilize public backlash. The more cancellations there are, the more possible cancellation becomes.
Is Cancel Culture Good or Bad?
Some see cancel culture as a tool that helps the marginalized level the playing field in their favor and hold the “powers that be” accountable. To them, it is free speech with teeth, and it is long overdue.
Others see it as an unsettling trend of web vigilantism and digital mob violence. President Trump, for instance, called it “the very definition of totalitarianism,” even while practicing his own version of it throughout his presidency. To its detractors, cancel culture is a dangerous weapon of censorship in the hands of those who would enforce the morality of the zeitgeist.
But love it or hate it, it reveals a lot about our culture, particularly how important violence has become to our cultural discourse.
If you love cancel culture and celebrate each new cancellation, perhaps it is time to reflect on the shadow side of a cultural artifact as powerful as cancel culture. What happens when what began as a desire to establish a long-deferred justice gets co-opted by others who will not use it wisely? No cultural tool that gains power will lie dormant for long; the powerful and wicked will use it too. Do we really want to live in a place where it is even easier to destroy one another?
If you hate cancel culture, be wary of aping its mechanisms. You can’t end cancel culture by canceling the cancellers. An eye for an eye is only a temporary solution, and so, none at all. Cultural violence is a sign of cultural sickness. Yes, sometimes violence brings peace, just as surgery is sometimes needed to cure the body. But, more often, violence—especially the mob sentiment that cancel culture arouses and channels—carries more violence in its wake.
I have to wonder as I watch the clamor generated on the web for each cancellation: Is this the best we can do? If not, despite the modern age’s self-congratulatory narrative of its own progressive morality, perhaps we have not really moved that much past the crowds who cheered at the death of a slave in a Roman gladiatorial pit.
How can the search for true justice that cancel culture (at its best moments) represents be redeemed and restored? How can we as a people foster the civic virtues that a society needs to thrive?
Cancel Culture and Civic Virtues
In Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam points to three basic civic virtues that grow as a result of social connectedness: active participation in public life, trustworthiness, and reciprocity.
Cancel culture produces (and is produced by) nearly the opposite of each of those civic virtues.
It reflects a very active participation in public life, but the activity happens on the web, not in real life. The “public life” in which one participates is that of the tabloid world of the foibles of celebrities and, like Justine Sacco, private citizens whom one does not know.
Rather than exhibiting the virtue of trustworthiness, cancel culture shows that our society is running low on that precious social resource. Today, we are quicker to level suspicion and censure than hold judgment in abeyance in trust. People can be judged and damned by soundbites if the mob finds them damning enough.
And reciprocity is certainly in evidence in cancel culture, but it is a warped reciprocity. Rather than the community-building give-and-take that knits a society together, cancel culture’s tit-for-tat delivers a targeted dissolution of social bonds at an individual, a group, or a business in the name of justice.
Cancel culture thrives in an environment with a low stock of certain cultural resources: tolerance, civility, patience, neighborliness, and, in general, social connectedness. Our culture’s reserves of patience, tolerance, and acceptance run in a narrow channel right now, like a river in flood. When the water of outrage rises, it spills over into rants, riots, and vigilante violence carried out in both the digital space and the real world.
Cancel Culture Is Too Fast
As Justine Sacco learned, cancellation can gather an unstoppable momentum in a span of hours. Before she even landed, the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet was trending on Twitter. People rushed to the airport to snap and share pictures of her reaction as she got off the plane.
The space between our outrage and our retaliation has never been smaller—a few swipes and it’s done. And just when we needed things to slow down like never before. Hashtags do a good job of whistling up a mob but a poor job with nuance and mercy. What happened to Sacco happened because of the speeds the internet fosters. Her cancellation needed fast, disembodied information flows.
On the one hand, speed allows for the fast exposure of things that might have otherwise festered in the darkness of secrecy and anonymity. The decades since the birth of social media have certainly given us plenty of examples of that. See: #MeToo.
On the other hand, there is a reason the judicial system moves as slowly as it does. It is a serious thing to destroy someone’s life. But the retribution of cancellation has no time for due process. In contrast, the judicial system increases the time between crime and punishment in order to allow time for tempers to cool and the whole gamut of pertinent information to be gathered before a sentence is leveled.
That is one reason why vigilante justice is punishable by civil authorities. Vigilante justice is cathartic, but it is also vicious and often poorly thought out. Yet vigilante justice is exactly what we are seeing play out on the web and in real life. Cancel culture moves fast and acts decisively. Send a tweet, have a sleep while your plane crosses the continent, and when you get off, someone is snapping pictures of your reaction to the ruining of your life.
What Hope Can Christianity Offer?
You can’t just snap your fingers and refill the reserves of public good that feed a culture. They are far easier to destroy than to build. But Christianity has a lot to offer by way of rebuilding.
People who have been formed by the way of Jesus have access to a larger reservoir of patience, tolerance, and humility that they can draw on in times of crisis, pain, or outrage. If they fail to draw on those spiritual reservoirs, it isn’t the fault of Christianity. It might be because they got caught in the fast-flowing cultural stream that demands fast reactions and fast tempers. They might have been caught in the lie that they have to defend themselves at all costs and that any weapon close at hand is fair game.
Jesus, on the other hand, told his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. To look at the log in their own eye before removing the speck from their neighbor’s eye. He told stories about fathers who watch for their prodigal sons and about Samaritans who go the extra mile for their cultural enemies. He spent an inordinate amount of time listening to and living with people who came to him across the cultural divides of his day. He told his followers: Judge not, lest ye be judged.
Practicing cancel culture is discipleship in cultural violence — the way of the sword. But as Jesus said to Peter when he took up arms to protect his teacher, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” The way of Jesus invites us into an entirely different kind of justice. Christ’s way consists more of dying yourself for the good of others than of using the mechanisms of human power to establish justice with your own hands.
When you apprentice yourself to Jesus and his life takes hold inside you, you begin to change. You develop existential ballast that stabilizes you against the tit-for-tat dynamics that hold sway in our culture. You embark on the long, painful process of discipleship to the way of peace, love, joy, patience, kindness. And those are exactly the kind of slow, life-giving virtues our polarized, inflamed, violent society actually needs from its citizens.
Tired of polarizing forms of tribalism like cancel culture? So are we! If you haven’t already, consider taking our 5-Day Tribalism Detox. You’ll receive an email a day that challenges you to move closer to Jesus and further away from the political tribalism that divides us.
Andy Patton is a former staff member at L'Abri Fellowship in England and holds an M. A. in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Read more from Andy on The Darking Psalter (translations of the Psalms with new poetry), Three Things (a monthly digest of resources to help people connect with culture, neighbor, and God), and Still Point (reflections on deconstruction and why people leave Christianity).
Read more by Andy Patton: https://bit.ly/AndyPatton