Engaging with those we disagree with – Part 2: Cancel Culture

In my last post, I talked about the importance of “posture” in engaging with those we disagree with. Here, I discuss a more specific practice that prevents us from understanding people with perspectives we don’t share.

I have been fascinated in recent months by the concept of “cancel culture.” At first, I thought it was a joke when I heard about “being cancelled.” But then I realized people are very much in earnest about blacklisting and actively demeaning public figures (or even friends) if they say something the hearer deems offensive or insensitive. At the risk of stepping on toes, I will offer an observation of numerous incidents of dialogue occurring in a “Parents in my city” Facebook group. One parent posts saying she would love to see schools go back in person because it is so hard and feels harmful to children to keep going in our current state. Immediately, a barrage of self-righteous parents jump on her, labeling her as “not caring about teachers” or being “insensitive to those at risk” in the community. Of course, this can swing the other way as well, with self-righteous parents saying the “you privileged few who can work from home just don’t care about those who have no childcare options, etc.”  The problem from my view is not that there are different perspectives on this—it is incredibly complex and each side has good arguments—the problem is the way responses are personalized and attack a person’s character, instead of engaging with her ideas.

It might be helpful to know that I am a “peacemaker” type of person, so I always try to see people as multifaceted and complex. I find that there is almost always something about each person I meet or learn about that I can appreciate and that makes me interested to know more about them and where their perspectives are coming from. This is perhaps why the “cancelling” concept grates against my sense of what is right.  Immediately rejecting an entire person and all his or her creative work seems an extreme reaction to an ideological disagreement in one area.

In looking into it a bit more, I learned that “cancel culture” started in 2017 in relation to celebrities… Dictionary.com’s Pop Culture Dictionary defines it as “the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.”

There are a variety of frameworks in which cancel culture plays out. First, there is the simple “power to dismiss” framework, which focuses on who has the bigger bullhorn or the greater following and therefore the power to demean and destroy another’s reputation. We have seen this framework play out in the hands of some of our highest political officials—I would argue resulting in the disintegration of trust and the erosion of the ability to reasonably discuss actual ideological differences.

Second, there is the “moral high-ground” framework for cancel culture, which doesn’t fare much better. It uses an argument like: “This one issue is important enough that it should be the litmus test for whether a person is a good or bad human being. If a person is on what I deem to be the wrong side of that issue, then every single viewpoint they hold (regardless of the subject or their personal experiences or level of expertise), will cease to have value and should be ignored.” 

Just step back for a moment and consider: can this be fairly and consistently applied?  I would humbly suggest some self-reflection and self-examination for a moment if this is how you think (whether you are on the right or the left ideologically—and lets be honest, we probably all have some thoughts in line with this narrow perspective from time to time).   We might bring ourselves some conviction here by asking some questions:

  1. Am I treating that person the way I want to be treated?
  2. Do I honestly think I am qualified to objectively determine which opinions are wrong, and which are right, for the whole world throughout all time? (this is deep generational and cultural arrogance).
  3. Am I willing to consider that there might be cultural elements or background perspectives that I don’t understand in that other person’s life that might give understanding or context to their views?
  4. Do I really want to establish a “thought police” or “perspective police” in my community? What if my “ideological tribe” ceases to be the majority and loses this executive power?

Cancel culture undercuts listening and tears away the possibility of understanding.  Conclusions are grounded in assumptions instead of dialogue.  In fact, cancel culture prevents authentic dialogue.  It turns disagreements into an ad hominem attack instead of seeing disagreement as an opportunity to sharpen and hone our thinking. It is almost always applied hypocritically by all sides, enabling a disingenuous victim mentality.

Don’t get me wrong—we should not be afraid to critique perspectives we disagree with. In fact, we should vigorously participate in respectful dialogue across difference. But lets engage with actual thoughts and consider arguments with intellectual honesty, and not just label the people making the arguments as “bad.”

As a Christian, I believe I am called to critique every culture’s dominant narratives, acknowledging how they conflict with what God has called good.  And let me be clear–Every culture means it includes my own. It is false and dangerous to think that my particular cultural lens is “the most Christian.” The whole Bible points to a God who loves and calls to himself people from all tribes and tongues and nations. 

As I said in the last blog post, I believe we are called to treat all people as possessing dignity because they are made in the image of God…  Therefore, lets leave room for nuance and for separating out ideas from the value of individual people. Shaming and dismissing people is contrary to God’s ways and his example.

The Bible indicates that all human beings live out both good and bad. Granted, some life choices are so corrosive that they seem to negatively impact everyone nearby. Nevertheless, I certainly don’t want to be trying to draw a line to define who is “more bad than good” or “more good than bad.” The good news of Christianity is that in Christ we are free from having to focus on whether or not we tip the scale of goodness a certain way, and can instead securely walk in relationship with God because of his grace which changes our hearts.

If we were to apply cancel culture to people in the Bible, we wouldn’t have much of anyone left to consider worthy of listening to at all (maybe Joseph and Daniel, but probably just because we don’t have enough details about them). Certainly Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would be out, along with Solomon and David, not to mention the Apostle Paul, who spread hatred and oversaw murder prior to his conversion.

Why should I read the Bible at all then? Because I am supposed to walk away from reading a story about one of these “pretty-uncool-and-sometimes-totally-awful” people knowing that God is the one who is the hero of the story. I am supposed to know that it is God who keeps his promises. Yet He chooses to work with broken, messy people, while at the same time calling them to humble themselves, turn away from their evil deeds, walk in his ways and love with his love.

As I live in this complex world, I want to live with conviction, but in humility and with compassion, seeing people as complex instead of cancelling them. I hope you will extend me the same grace.