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National Opinion

Cancel Our Culture: Compassion in an Age of Reckoning

America faces a reckoning. As our modern prosperity and success, unparalleled across human history, grows, so too does our notion of incomparable moral preeminence. American exceptionalism has grown to produce righteous superiority; we are unable to see people for both their flaws and their goodness and are perpetually blinded by the utopian assumption of perfection without practice.

One need only look to the greatest form of modern interest aggregation for the writing to be plastered across the wall. Social media platforms like Twitter are adorned with hashtags of “so-and-so is over party” and “cancel this and cancel that.” Such prostrations of modern purity are commonplace bastions in our culture, with some bordering on the edge of becoming a requirement for social acceptance. This so-called “cancel culture” is not a fringe movement or a necessary evil, it has become our mentality. Pundits on all sides of the political spectrum who gave it the moniker to separate it from normality are hiding from the truth: cancel culture is our culture.

Now, it’s easy to criticize something flat on its face, but to truly understand the roots of a movement and its foundational flaws, one must first know its past. Societies do not change their behavior when that behavior is deemed acceptable. Any social change or movement, great or small, has always implemented criticism and reproach to achieve its ends. In some ways, this is perfectly reasonable; morality is often driven by gold and silver rather than a staunch adherence to abstract principles. Economic boycotts remain as one of the largest facets of American protests. When faced with tyranny from abroad, we cast our tea into the Boston Harbor, and when faced with tyranny from within, we refused to ride buses in Montgomery.

In essence, this symbolizes our nation’s founding principles. The very nature of western democracy is one of a free market of ideas, with each constituent having a voice in determining what is admissible and what is not. The most recent example of this can be found only a week ago when calls to boycott canned-food brand Goya arose following CEO Bob Unanue’s vocal support of President Trump. It seems simple enough; if you don’t agree with the views espoused by an individual or entity, you are by no means morally required to support them economically or otherwise. Sharing your views with others across social media to garner support for a cause you agree with is perfectly reasonable. Most would say that this underlying drive of cancel culture should even be encouraged. Utilizing societal outcry and economic leverage is a foundational part of our country’s history, and we need to be careful that we criticize its overreach, not its core principles.

Sometimes, even societal reproach does not suffice to make lasting change, and we must look to morally ambiguous means. Such statements are branded across our nation, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” We fail to recognize that these words, while written by a slave owner, were edited by an abolitionist, and their message espoused by many we regard as heroes across all ages. Pragmatism is an inherently American philosophy, and our history stands to show that, in cases of moral abhorrence, the ends do sometimes justify the means. But to what extent can we follow our nation’s founding precedent without falling into societal despotism?

This question was posed by an open letter published on July 7 of this year in Harper’s Magazine. The letter, signed by countless authors and academics, sought to address the dangerous encroachment of cancel culture on the open free market of ideas, stating, “resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion.” The letter drew national attention not for its rather lukewarm caution of censure, but for the ironic string of figures who pulled their support from the message when the list of their fellow dignitaries was revealed. Now it should be of note that these were not prominent conservative figures willing to die on the hill of “freedom of speech without freedom of consequence”; these supporters, including the likes of Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, and many others, ended up illustrating their point in the most elegant way possible, as they were subsequently “canceled” for their support.

Forgive me for being slightly facetious, but this isn’t overly surprising. Any student of history will tell you that the greatest nations and movements fall not from outside pressure, but from within. Empires fall when they have no one left to conquer because political organizations must always have a proponent and an opponent. If not found abroad, it will be found at home. Have you ever wondered why a “movement” is called such? It’s because it has a destination, an objective to strive for. But what happens to your GPS when you reach your destination? I can almost guarantee you that you’ve accosted Siri at least once for its incessant pestering at your journey’s end. How tempting it is to mute your guide in the triumph of arrival, for you are no longer in need of its service. That’s what is playing out in real-time across our screens: society is in such a rush to reach its destination that it has set aside its roadmap.

Purity is a fickle thing; the karat of the precious metal is too enticing to care about the remaining mineral. Cancel culture is the resultant culmination of a movement that has sought to obtain a utopian cleanse of all human flaws. Now at the heart of it, there is nothing wrong with that, it’s a rather honorable sentiment. But let us not forget that we have left our roadmap and proceeded blindly into the great unknown; we have forgotten one key portion of atonement: forgiveness. 

If we look to the previous civil movements of American history, we see a common theme. After the American Revolution, we accepted former loyalists; after the Civil War, we accepted the southern states; and after the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements, we accepted former opponents. Did it take long periods of reconciliation and forgiveness wrought with tension? Of course. But each time, society eventually came back to the age-old premise of human existence: we are all flawed, yet we are all capable of learning, improving, and forgiving. Although we are all capable of doing so, it does not mean that it has always arisen in practice. The southern states took many generations to do so, and many forms of civil cancellation. But the pretense of failure does not preclude the necessity of action.

Certainly, there is something to be said about the nature of restraint. Forcibly removing extremely harmful individuals from the public sphere can be a necessary evil or even a force for good. It is an objectively good thing that one will never see another movie produced by Harvey Weinstein in theaters; it is good that one may never listen to music by R. Kelly again. These are the great works of a society that no longer allows predatorial influences in the public eye. But to what extent should we punish others who face backlash for actions of varying moral culpability? Following instances of racist blackface in the past, how far do we go in canceling Jimmy Kimmel, Sarah Silverman, or even Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau? All of these figures and numerous others apologized for a misdeed they claim was morally acceptable at the time of its occurrence. Yet none of them have been formally canceled or removed from their positions of influence and power. This inconsistency can lead to anger that simply sees canceling everyone with misdeeds as the default best-case-scenario, and, to some extent, rightfully so. 

Modern cancel culture has begun to ask itself the age-old question: would you execute one innocent person for the sake of a thousand guilty people? This moral dilemma has continued to plague us for so long because, at its utilitarian roots, it’s logical. But is it right? How can we punish someone for an isolated incident without ever fully being in their shoes, and do we even have the right to do so? Sometimes, what seems so morally right comes with immoral consequences, ones that we must deeply consider before taking action. When your finger drifts over that retweet button, take a pause. Ask yourself, “does their present behavior reflect their past controversy?” If not, something has changed. By all means, challenge them on their misdeeds, and if they have not changed I will add my name to the chorus of tweets. While it may seem a glaringly imperative act of justice, do not let yourself fall into that dangerous pattern of turning to the easy, albeit sometimes correct, trend of leaping without looking.

It’s easy to fall into that pattern. In the face of moral indignance, justice comes easily, but finding compassionate restraint is harder. Modernity’s cancel culture has seized upon that pattern. It does not forgive nor forget, for all wheat must be separated from the chaff. Our education has devolved into understanding our world story as a series of events along a timeline, instead of a timeline defined and shaped by our response to such events. We are judged by the actions we produce rather than the justice we return it with, but neither one can exist without the other. People in time are defined by their place in time, wilting under the heat of our unwavering modern judgment. We apply our moral progress to all humans in all situations and convince ourselves that if we were in their shoes we would do better. But how many of you would oppose a worldview you were raised with in the face of unbelievable societal pressure? How many of you would insincerely prostrate before the mob for the sake of your wellbeing?

This is the problem faced by our cancel culture. Those who are snatched up in the fires of purification are tossed to the wayside, and those in their path bow before the mob. But the morality of culpability is determined by the extent of our agency in our actions. If we are forced to accept a view, whether right or wrong, without truly believing in its validity, its true acceptance is doomed to fail. Retribution without forgiveness leads to this trend of widespread false posturing; you only have to travel back to your phone to see it. How many companies have supported pride month in their logos? Now compare it across their accounts for regions that habitually persecute members of the LGBTQ+ community. Where is their acceptance? Where is their morality?

Now I will admit, this paints a dark and dismal view of our society and culture, but there is a way forward. Oftentimes, the solution is painted in a portrait of black and white; you are either for a culture of progress with no acquittal, or you propose equal acquittal with no progress. However, we need not remain in two frames of repressive thinking. By all means, accost those who oppose morality and justice, but do so in an air of forgiveness. If someone is of good intentions with bad results, pursue education and dialogue without virtuous reckoning. The line is not one that can ever be drawn clearly, and the path between acceptance and punishment must be one walked with caution by each one of us. Do not simply fall into cancel culture, rather, cancel our culture. Change it and shape it for the better as you are working to move humanity ever forward toward the golden ideals of utopia, but do it with heart and compassion in the eye of justice. Be not simply against “them”, but rather for “us”. We have walked these treacherous roads before and we will walk them again. The roadmap is held out for us, we need only follow it.