How to Think About ‘Cancel Culture’

This thing we call “cancel culture” once again is front and center in the news cycle (even “Saturday Night Live” got in on the action); this time, model Chrissy Teigen is on the chopping block for some of her nastier direct messages and tweets, which were recently unearthed. The worst of them appears to be when she told then-16-year-old reality TV star Courtney Stodden to kill herself: “Go. To sleep. Forever.” Candace Owens took to Twitter to pressure retailers to stop carrying Teigen’s merchandise, which was successful. Teigen has apologized.

Predictably, Teigen’s supporters call this outcome “cancellation,” while her detractors crow about how this is a win for “accountability.” Which is it?

In some ways, one’s answer is wholly dependent on who is getting canceled, and for what. If you support the person being canceled, that person is being unfairly destroyed, but if you are critical of the person, he or she is just getting what is deserved.

In some sense, cancel culture is now just a tool, and thus it is neutral, not to mention one that has been with us for as long as our species has sorted itself into groups. Seen as a tool, cancel culture is simply a way to regulate who is “in” and who is “out,” which is built into the structure of the human psyche and can trace its origins to the very beginning (from a certain perspective, “the mark of Cain” is a kind of divine “cancellation”).

The idea that cancel culture is just a tool, and all that really matters is who wields it, is a tempting one, especially for those on the Right who have been crushed under its weight or who live in fear of it. 

Even so, I think this falls short of being fully explanatorily satisfactory, if for no other reason than that digital-storage technology—which allows for the possibility of virtually unlimited collective “memory”—turbocharges the usual, natural process of in-group/out-group sorting. That is, our technology has given us a cancel culture that is different in kind, not just in degree, from what came before. Nobody is safe, at least not since about the 1990s when (nearly) everything we said and did started to migrate online and became captured by increasingly crisper video cameras.

We should also be troubled by the dehumanizing connotation of the phrase. Consider how disturbing it is to contemplate “canceling” another person—someone with a mother and father, perhaps brothers and sisters, a job, friends, dreams, plans, talents, and interests. This person could be your own son or daughter or a dear friend. We cancel crappy cable packages, not people. Or, at least, that’s how it should be.

But nowadays, a sword of Damocles hangs over each of us.

A return to a robustly Christian conception and practice of forgiveness—“forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors”—is the answer. But it’s complicated. For while God, of course, does not remember my transgressions as soon as the priest has prayed the Prayer of Absolution over me, the penitent, it’s also true that my sins leave a scar—on myself and others—that echoes into eternity. So, in forgiving, we engage in a kind of fiction, greasing the skids of communal life and allowing us to move forward free of guilt—which redounds to everyone’s benefit, for who among us has not screwed up? Thus, we try to forgive in order to forget because that’s the only way we can really move forward, and it’s in the act of moving forward, “living onward” through and beyond the injury, that allows us to arrive at a place of genuine forgiveness, which, ultimately, is a gift from God Himself.

Admittedly, asking people to forgive their (political) enemies is a tall order, something which Jesus surely knew to be the case when He conditioned our being forgiven on the forgiveness we extend to our neighbor. But even so, I do not think it is responsible, for the sake of the nation, to allow this phenomenon to be as one-sided as it has been. Elementary game theory tells us that, for any kind of truce to come about in a conflict, a cost must be extracted from the aggressor to force them to the bargaining table; otherwise, facing no opposition, the onslaught continues. Call it using cancel culture as a means to cancel the cancel-culture culture.

We should, in the face of this ruthless, uncompromising “cancel culture,” stress the context and timing of the canceling offense, as well as who was injured and what a proportionate response might be. Therefore, for a person to be worthy of “cancellation” means that he has done something sufficiently wrong to at least one other person, something that he knew, at the time, was generally accepted to be wrong, and, moreover, what he did was of sufficient malice that it’s proportionate to drive him into the wilderness to live as a social pariah because of it. Cancel culture offends our sense of justice because it is often aimed retroactively, at people whose conduct is seen as deeply egregious now but which (potentially) wasn’t nearly as bad at the time it happened, and because it’s disconnected from any possibility of forgiveness.

Consider a hypothetical. Imagine someone who three decades ago made what we as a society now understand to have been an off-color joke, but which wasn’t then offensive in the way it is now. Under this framework, it’s illegitimate to “cancel” such a person. He did nothing wrong at the time, and, moreover, from whom is he supposed to seek forgiveness? To forgive means there is something to forgive, and someone to do the forgiving. A now-offensive joke violates both parts of that formula because it wasn’t (as) wrong at the time it was uttered, and nobody in particular can properly offer forgiveness for it.

Using this framework, it definitely seems disproportionate to “cancel” Teigen, who said some nasty things online (which, to be fair, nobody, including her, was unclear about the wrongness of, even 10 years ago). On the other hand, it also seems excessive to contend that Teigen, a wealthy model who is married to a wealthy and popular singer, John Legend, has been “canceled” when businesses decline to carry her merchandise now that she is seen as scandalous. 

I don’t think cancel culture is going anywhere anytime soon. In a certain way, that’s to be expected since it’s always been with us. Not only that, but it’s difficult even to assess how to deal with such a quasi-organic phenomenon, something that arisen from within people’s hearts, not necessarily imposed from without by external forces.

But none of that is an excuse not to try to follow “the better angels of our nature”—all of us, together—and to strive to live together “with malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.”

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About Deion A. Kathawa

Deion A. Kathawa is an attorney who hails from America’s heartland. He holds a J.D. from the University of Notre Dame and a B.A. from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. He is a 2021 alumnus of the Claremont Institute’s John Marshall Fellowship. Subscribe to his “Sed Kontra” newsletter.

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