Last weekend I considered quitting Twitter. Hundreds of followers who ignore my infrequent Tweets might have been devastated. Instead, here’s what happened.
A couple years ago, a story in the Washington Post was debunked, but not before a beloved author and speaker commented about it. Once proven false, she too recanted. A week ago that old tweet was dragged out again in order to discredit and shame her. As spiteful reactions snowballed, I thought, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” Amazingly, the next day, all parties apologized. But that turn is the rare exception.
Journalist David French laments this kind of cancel culture in his recent column. He details how it contributed to the suicide of a friend and colleague. It’s time to confront this intimidation without contributing to it ourselves.
What is cancel culture?
Cancel Culture shames a person or corporation into oblivion through the power of the purse. It’s not enough to disagree with someone or make them defend their position. The trend is to use guilt by association to get a person fired. In his eulogy honoring his friend David French asks rhetorically, “That person you call an enemy is so very often a bruised reed—even those enemies who can seem most aggressive, most outspoken. Shall we break them in our righteous response?” You can read David French’s article here.
What causes cancel culture?
A primal, fight or flight pattern has taken over public discourse. If a social media post goes beyond vacation pictures and cat videos, the acute stress response invariably kicks in. John Gottman’s four horsemen image makes sense of fight or flight online. These four horseman are as follows:
Fight, in the arena of words, looks like criticism and contempt. Criticism says, You should be ashamed of what you have done. Contempt adds hate into the mix and says this: “You should be ashamed of who you are.”
Flight, in the arena of words, looks like defensiveness and stonewalling. Defensiveness says, “My opinion is my identity so I cannot lose this argument.” Stonewalling adds hate and says, “Your opinion of my opinion is not worth an effort.”
I’ve written further about these here: Habits of Healthy Families.
Two reasons shame is on the rise
The rise of shame in our culture is driven by two desires: power and righteousness.
Power. Misoslav Volf, Princeton Prof and survivor of the Balkan conflicts says: Violence thrives today, secretly nourished by the belief that God refuses to take the sword. In other words, when people lose heart God one day will set the record straight, people take matters into their own hands. They resort to shaming their enemies. Increasingly online, discourse has become a winner-takes-all blood sport. In a different age, this unbridled expression of rage would have led to a duel. Again, David French laments such a win-lose mindset by quoting the musical Hamilton and the word of Aaron Burr:
I was too young and blind to see; I should’ve known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.
Righteousness. This word has too many churchy connotations for everyday use. However, people need to feel okay about themselves. They need some tangible assurance they are accepted, beyond the wishful thinking of “I’m okay, you’re okay.” A person’s very identity needs a secure foundation– a verdict of approval. In turn, when people lose heart in the forgiveness of God for that assurance, they take matters into their own hands and prove their worthiness at other people’s expense: through shaming.
Cancel culture is ancient. It’s the very controlled system of self-righteousness Jesus confronted in the Pharisees. That moralism, once based on a code, is now based on a cause. In other words, it’s the same old self-interested claim to moral high ground but now in the name of a victim. It leverages someone else’s pain for their own power. The difficulty of confronting such behavior, or even of honest debate, is that it can seem like you’re aiming at vulnerable people themselves rather than the craven voice lobbing rhetorical grenades from behind them.
How should we respond to cancel culture?
A Politico poll found that 49 percent of Americans consider cancel culture a blight on society and only 27 think it’s helping in some way. How can we respond? Nietzsche put it this way: “When fighting the dragon, take care lest you become the dragon.” Here are two crucial practices to keep yourself from hating haters.
Patience: Learn to let the ends (who we want to become) participate in the means (how we get there). For example, there’s a big difference between the Civil Rights Movement “sit-ins” and the national anthem kneeling. The former practices something we want to become— a more equitable society. The latter practices fragmentation. It suggests that the anthem itself, rather than calling us up to common ideals, only represents a cultural hegemony that must be torn down to its foundations. This tactic does not include the ends in the means.
Humility: Each generation has the opportunity to help form a more perfect union. While I shed no tears for Jim-Crow-era statues that memorialize confederate personalities, I think it’s misguided to ignore the great cost of the Civil War itself giving us the opportunity we have today to improve upon what we have inherited. (750,000 died.) Our forebears were not perfect. If we cancel them, by measuring their values against today’s standards, then guess who’ll be next tomorrow? Humility helps us learn from the past and recognize that we will also get some things wrong.
Learn from the past w/o canceling it
“A mistake constantly made by those who should know better is to judge people of the past by our standards rather than their own. The only way men or women can be judged is against the canvas of their own time.” ― Louis L’Amour, Education of a Wandering Man
In his book, Politics, David Koyzis warns of a rising tide of gnosticism. Left and right appeal to a special hidden knowledge they have which will unlock some vague utopian future. Instead, what’s going to get us to a better place are the daily practices across the nation in the name of a more perfect union. It’s one reason Jesus often taught in simple stories and sayings. We can locate ourselves in them and make a change. “Do unto other as you would have them do unto you.” Basics which anyone can practice, which we teach in the schoolyard— when we start expecting that of one another we’ll be living in hope towards a dream of a more equitable future and not just in protest to nightmares past and present.