We hear a lot about “cancel culture” in the media right now, but the term seems to mean very different things to different people. For instance, several weeks ago, the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) held their annual convention with the theme of “America Uncancelled” to proclaim that they were for free speech. Ironically, they cancelled Senator Mitt Romney from speaking at the conference because of his vote to impeach President Trump.
A few days later, Dr. Seuss’s estate put six of the beloved author’s books out of print for racial and ethnic stereotyping. This led to intense debate and accusations on social media of a liberal cancel culture going wild.
Last week, Democratic New York governor Andrew Cuomo blamed “cancel culture” for his sudden political isolation after seven women came forward accusing him of sexual harassment and a federal investigation was launched due to allegations that Cuomo underreported COVID-19 deaths in nursing home.
These stories alone might lead us to ask, “Is ‘canceling’ something always bad? How do we balance the value of free speech with the value of respecting others? Most of all, how can we show love in our personal relationships when our opinions about what should or should not be ‘cancelled’ are so different?”
When Our Freedoms Conflict with Each Other
Many conservatives argue that cancel culture, particularly related to racial or gender issues, threatens free speech and religious liberty. Many with more liberal political views argue that silencing or calling out people and groups who exhibit prejudiced language is essential to our freedom of diversity and actually enriches our culture. Which is right or best?
To refer back to the Seuss controversy, it was Seuss’s estate—not the media nor the government—that chose to pull the six books that included images of such things as a White man whipping a man of color (To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street) and a White boy holding a gun while standing on the heads of three Asian men (If I Ran the Zoo). Though social media feeds suggest that many Christians are upset about these books being put out of print “for the sake of being politically correct,” it seems as if the estate’s sensitivity to racism in Seuss’s books is actually a reflection of Christian values, whether or not it was intended that way.
We can, of course, find a variety of accounts from across the political spectrum of people trying to cancel the cultural influence of others. The right wants to eliminate the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools, while the left wants to remove statutes of presidents who were former slave holders. Colleges promote acceptance, freedom, and social justice even as they refuse to allow Christian student groups that have a traditional view of marriage to meet on campus.
“Cancel culture” has consequently become a term of derision attributed to political opponents but rarely to one’s own efforts to exert control and power over public discourse. Even the trendy term, “wokeness”—coined to describe greater social awareness—has become a symbol of divisiveness. Those who think they are “woke” look down on those who aren’t and vice versa.
Like so many ideas that seem new to a generation, “cancel culture” in practice if not as a defined term has actually been around for centuries in America. Our country has cancelled not just what people say but who people are.
The most obvious example of this broader understanding of cancel culture is the slave trade beginning in 1619. Our Constitution even specified that Black men were only three-fifths human. After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it took another hundred years before all African Americans were given the right to vote and even now there are numerous state efforts of voter suppression in African American neighborhoods and counties.
Our country also cancelled Native American culture through the genocidal Trail of Tears, when Native Americans were forced to migrate from the southeast to Indian reservations in the west. A conspiracy-laden political party in the 1850s wanted to prohibit Catholics and immigrants from holding public office—a party known, ironically, as the “Know-Nothing Party.” And over the centuries, women have consistently been cancelled from leadership roles in government, business, and churches.
In other words, our history is laced with efforts to “cancel” other cultures. One significant difference now is that minority cultures have a voice that is being heard as well. This is threatening to a White majority culture and perhaps best explains the growing influence of White nationalists. They don’t like the feeling of White culture being challenged by the policies and pronouncements of those they see as liberal cultural elites in education, media, and government.
In recent decades, for example, it’s often conservative groups that want to keep certain young adult novels out of school libraries. Many Christian schools banned the Harry Potter series due to “witchcraft and sorcery.” Other books are challenged due to “revisionist history,” LGBTQ characters, and offensive language.
But when a children’s book is pulled from publication due to racist images, some jump to the conclusion that the government will soon be putting “other sacred texts such as the Bible” out of print. We are left with the uncomfortable reality that free speech is a two-edged sword.
In the next few decades, as we move to a non-majority racial country with greater wealth and education disparities, we can expect that these battles of who feels unjustly cancelled will greatly shape our political and social climate. But are we doomed to a never-ending family-splitting, church-splitting, country-splitting existence?
The political aspiration in our Pledge of Allegiance of “liberty and justice for all” is inspirational but not transformational. As broken people, can we be liberated and also be just? As Amanda Gorman asked in her profound poem at President Biden’s inauguration, “Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”
The Illumination of Humility
Perhaps one of the most striking characteristics within our cancel culture debates is the sense of self-righteousness we are tempted to feel about our opinion. To use a straightforward example: “Cancelling a book for [my reason] is moral, right, and a reflection of biblical values. But cancelling a book for [your reason] is restrictive, oppressive, and even a bit silly.” This attitude leaves little room for listening to others.
By contrast, the word humility comes from the Latin word humus, which means, “fertile ground.” When we speak and act humbly, we help create fertile ground for relationship, for truth, and for godly freedom.
The prophet Micah tell us that the Lord requires the people of God to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). We would do well to filter our personal and collective opinions through the rubric of, “Am I acting justly? Am I acting mercifully? Am I practicing humility?”
This holy triad of values can also inform our decisions about what to “cancel” in our own lives, whether we are making business decisions or parenting choices or wondering whether or not we should speak up when a friend uses a derogatory term toward someone else.
Considering what should be “cancelled” or not is important because words, art, and media have a profound effect on our culture and the way we treat others. We may not have much control over politics or children’s literature or university policies, but we do encounter opportunities every day to speak both love and freedom. In a time that may feel dry and dusty, may we each find fertile ground in our relationships to love one another well.