“You can do something stupid when you’re 15, say one thing and 10 years later that shapes how people perceive you. We all do cringey things and make dumb mistakes and whatever. But social media’s existence has brought that into a place where people can take something you did back then and make it who you are now.” — L, age 16 in an interview with The New York Times
What’s the goal of cancel culture?
Cancel culture attempts to correct the longstanding problem that with enough wealth, scandals disappear, victims stay quiet, and abuse continues. The #MeToo movement highlighted how commonplace sexual harassment is, and how rarely perpetrators are prosecuted. This is why cancel culture’s goal of holding people, especially powerful and influential people, accountable, is well-intentioned. If the law doesn’t bring about justice, public scrutiny can still make things happen.
Anne Charity Hudley, the chair of linguistics of African America for the University of California Santa Barbara, explains why cancel culture is an important tool for minorities:
If you don’t have the ability to stop something through political means, what you can do is refuse to participate. Canceling is a way to acknowledge that you don’t have to have the power to change structural inequality…But as an individual, you can still have power beyond measure. When you see people canceling Kanye, canceling other people, it’s a collective way of saying, ‘We elevated your social status, your economic prowess, [and] we’re not going to pay attention to you in the way that we once did…‘I may have no power, but the power I have is to [ignore] you.’
Cancel culture affirms that ideas have consequences. Ideologies don’t stay in ivory towers. They get walked out, to the benefit or detriment of individuals and society. So the words we use and the policies we promote do matter, and we are responsible for the ideas and actions that we put out in the world.
Biblical principles to help us navigate cancel culture
1. Truth exists. Cancel culture affirms that there are correct and incorrect viewpoints, truths and untruths. It points to a deep desire for justice and protection of marginalized people.
2. Shame doesn’t lead to lasting change. Cancel culture utilizes shame: You are bad when you mess up, you didn’t just do a bad thing. As Dan Allender puts it, “No one escapes the assault of a sneer, a disdainful roll of the eyes. Shame pierces as we feel belittled and exposed as foolish, weak, or undesirable.” Think about the last time someone changed your mind about something. How did they convince you that you were wrong? By scoffing at you? By putting you down? By flaunting your failure? Probably not. Those tactics rarely work. Paul writes in Romans, “God’s kindness leads us to repentance.” Let’s consider what we need in moments of exposure and offer that to those around us.
3. Without grace, failure is crushing. We hate messing up. Yet failure is important. It’s how we learn. In her book Mindset, Carol Dweck differentiates between growth mindset and fixed mindset. Growth mindset recognizes that everyone is in process, that it’s always possible to improve with time and effort. People with a growth mindset aren’t afraid of failing because they realize good habits don’t always come naturally or easily. Fixed mindset, a driving force of cancel culture, says talent and ability are innate and unchangeable, so hide your mistakes if you want approval and admiration.
Christianity tells a paradoxical story about human identity. We think Aleksander Solzhenitsyn put it best: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” We are all broken. We all fail. Miserably. Yet we are also made in the image of an astounding God, giving each of us inestimable value.
The only reason that we can boldly look our sin in the face, plunging the depths of our own inadequacy, is because God’s loving gaze does not turn away from even the ugliest parts of us. God invites us to stop hiding, to evaluate ourselves honestly so that we can enjoy ever more freedom from our broken mindsets and behaviors. Jesus’ righteousness covers our failure. His obedience on our behalf is the surest foundation for a growth mindset. Our value is permanently secure because Jesus lived perfectly when we could not. We have nothing left to earn, nothing left to prove. Henri Nouwen said it this way:
Every time you feel hurt, offended, or rejected, you have to dare to say to yourself: ‘These feelings, strong as they may be, are not telling me the truth about myself. The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now, is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the Beloved from all eternity, and held safe in an everlasting embrace.’
4. Confession brings healing. “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one other, that you may be healed.” We get to fully and freely admit how often we say and do dumb things. None of us has arrived. It’s possible for any one of us to slip up because we’re all sinful, in need of grace. This lack of pretense also means a freedom to bring our failure into the light. Everyone knows we’re still figuring things out, that we need help from the Holy Spirit and from our community to overcome sin. Is cancel culture providing space for us to confess and get help?
5. Humility. What if we entered discussions asking, “What can I learn from you?” instead of “How can I prove you wrong?” We should be thankful for correction. It would be incredibly arrogant to think that we have every issue completely figured out. Because we believe that we are in process, still being renewed day by day, we should be grateful for opportunities where weakness is exposed and rooted out.
6. We don’t have to be defensive. Jesus was not afraid to engage with people who reflected badly on His identity. He lost social credibility by hanging out with outcasts. Following His example, we don’t have to guard our reputations. Are we worried about how certain people may reflect on us? Of being canceled too? What would it look like to befriend those who’ve been pushed to the margins? To care about both “cancelers” and those who’ve been canceled?
7. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume that someone has good motives even when they say something offensive. If upon further investigation they actually were trying to be inflammatory, that’s a different discussion. But a lot of the time people say silly things unintentionally, and simply need someone to say, “when you said __ it hurt my feelings. I would prefer you say __ next time.” This allows our discussions to center on good and bad ideas instead of labeling people as righteous or sinful.
- What does it look like to disagree with someone well? How do you want to respond when you disagree with someone?
- Who is worth following and paying attention to?
- How can we offer people redemption when they say or do wrong things?
- Can you think of someone who deserves to be canceled? Why or why not? What should their “cancelation” look like?
- How are you preparing your kids to interact with people who are different from them and with whom they disagree?