“Cancel Culture” is too easy of an explanation for how complex our time is

Star Wars fans were talking about cancel culture this week

Gina Carano, better known by her character name Cara Dune on the extremely popular Disney+ show The Mandalorian, got fired this week. She’s known for sending controversial Tweets and Instagram posts that set her apart from others in Hollywood due to her sympathy to far-right ideas. The one that offended her bosses the most likened her experience as someone who has been critiqued for her political views to Jews in Nazi Germany. Carano deleted the Instagram story that led to the controversy but was still punished. Maybe the lesson learned here is that celebrities just need social media managers to manage their accounts.

I asked some of my friends what they thought of her “cancellation.” One friend said it was “lame.” He told me her post wasn’t well thought out, but he didn’t think it was anti-Semitic. Another friend said, “I’m glad, I don’t think she was a good character/actor anyway.” He went on to say that people who had similar views to her liked her because she justified theirs. My view is that if you harass your employers’ customers, you can probably expect to be fired.

At the same time, Star Wars fans who defend Carano know that members of their grouping haven’t been very kind to all of the actors that Disney has cast for their movies and shows. Kelley Marie Tran was subject to bullying and harassment because Star Wars fans suspected she was hired merely to make the cast more diverse (as if that were a bad thing), and they felt personally attacked through it. Tran deleted all of her Instagram posts as a result of it. John Boyega was a victim of it too.

Some people think that people harassing Carano was the same as those who harassed Tran and Boyega. They think it’s unfair to come to the defense of Tran and Boyega but not Carano. I don’t think it’s that simple, and I think that showcases the issue with ‘cancel culture’ as a phenomena. It’s too simplistic of an idea to explain why individuals get fired, or deplatformed, or criticized.

Because Christians, in general, are divided on this subject, and also because our church has been embroiled in online discussions that are reminiscent to some that we experience elsewhere, I thought I might write about this again. In the past, I named cancel culture, as its critics put it, as accountability. And when Obama was talking about call-out culture, I spoke to some of the truth of his statement, but reserved the right to prophecy. This post is similar, but new events and conversations have enlightened me in new ways.

Sometimes people get fired for bad reasons, and sometimes they don’t

Will Wilkinson used to work for a think tank named the Niskanen Center. He got fired for a Tweet he sent in poor taste, joking about violence against the former Vice President. People who disagreed with Wilkinson previously were thrilled he was finally a victim of “cancel culture.” Others thought he shouldn’t have been fired for a Tweet, especially one that was clearly sarcastic (and didn’t condone violence). The question is: should you be fired for those instances? Even if sometimes you should be, it seems like workers’ rights are on thin ice if it’s always the case that your employer fires you, instead of working things out or offering you a chance for redemption. But it happens quite often. Just last week, the same thing happened to Nathan Robinson for a joke he Tweeted about the U.S.’s insistence on continuing to give Israel money in every spending bill it passes.

But nevertheless I bring up Will Wilkinson, an apparent victim of what people call cancel culture, because he offers the nuanced view he shared on his Substack about Carano, Robinson, and also former New York Times’ infectious disease reporter Don McNeil. You can read his view point here.

I appreciate the nuance Wilkinson offers and I think he threads the needle rather well. I won’t belabor the point, but simply put there are sometimes good reasons to let go of people for their conduct. Naming it as a “culture” is overwrought, however, is his argument.

But what happens when it’s someone “on our side,” or someone we love or has influenced us? I felt conflicted as the aforementioned Don McNeil was pressured to resign for using a racial slur (not maliciously, but nevertheless explicitly), and for also, apparently, behaving in other racist ways on a field trip with high schoolers in 2019. Apparently in the New York Times’ Slack channel, and Facebook group, there was a lot of dialogue that escalated the circumstance to McNeil’s resignation. I loved McNeil’s contribution to the Times (he named covid-19 as the plague it was before it even hit the U.S.), and his appearances on the Times’ flagship podcast, The Daily. Was it necessary for him to resign? Maybe he had enough of it, and wanted to quit. Maybe it was all worse than we knew. Maybe, as Wilkinson suggests, it was a long-time reckoning of older white men not listening to their younger progressive colleagues. It’s unclear, but I don’t think a single phenomenon explains it. Don McNeil himself reports that he did engage in challenging (and in my opinion, sometimes racist) conversations, but really what did him in was the fact that he was an aggressive member of the negotiating team for the Guild, and it made a lot of political sense to get him to resign. Not only does it make the newsroom happy, it also makes management happy.

But without a doubt, there are instances where workers’ rights are genuinely infringed upon, sometimes through online hysteria. When I shared Wilkinson’s article with some friends, I got some good feedback. One friend, who is patient with me despite our often divergent views, told me there are instances where celebrities are “uncancellable” and it is often the powerless who receive unjust treatment. He linked this Tweet thread from last summer, where a data journalist got fired for suggesting that violence in protests wasn’t efficacious in policy making. And another instance where a man named Emmanuel Cafferty, a Latino electrical worker, got fired when a white activist thought he was displaying a white power sign (the A-OK sign with his fingers). My friend suggested that in both of those cases, losing one’s job seemed over-the-top. And I’m inclined to agree. Even if the data journalist’s Tweet was in poor taste (right in the middle of the George Floyd protests), it seems to me like our rights as workers must withstand more than that. And it seems to me like public hysteria too often shapes our reactions.

I think Evangelical Christians, who are often the most vocal opponents of cancel culture, know this the best. I remember when Harry Potter and Pokémon were cancelled growing up. I remember when Lifeway threatened to  removed Eugene Peterson’s The Message from their bookstores once he made it clear that he was open to gay marriage. This forced him to contradict his views. These are all unjust “cancellations,” and I think we should expect to see them in many cases, when it is easier to cut ties, than to mend them. We must know accountability isn’t condemnation.

Holding leaders to account is essential, but accountability is mainly relational

There is no condemnation in Christ, which means we are free to repent, not free from repentance. Furthermore, I do think that influential people and leaders are held to a higher account than ordinary people. And I think this is manifestly biblical. James says this is especially true of Christian leaders. The writer of 1 Timothy suggests that leaders’ misdeeds must be named as such by three witnesses, and in most cases of leadership accountability, it is far more than three. So I think in the cases of Gina Carano, or even Don McNeil, that sort of accountability should be expected. They aren’t Christians (that I know of), but they do influence more than the average person, and as a result they are held to a higher account. I think the Bible makes this wisdom apparent.

This is why President Trump’s words, when he allegedly incited violence and insurrection, should have been weighed more than a citizen’s by the Senators who voted to acquit him. Leaders have greater responsibility for the things we say and do. And in the case of Trump, I imagine an ordinary citizen would have been punished much more severely than he was, and certainly not less than he was.

Another example, the big story in the Evangelical world this week is the horrific account about a Christian apologist named Ravi Zacharias. I was never a fan of his work, but my parents were. He is a sexual predator and he has ruined people’s lives. Though I was never a person who used his work, it’s clear his work is tainted beyond use. This is the accountability James is talking about above. For example, John Howard Yoder was a serial sexual abuser who was also an Anabaptist theologian. I don’t cite or use Yoder at this point. His theology was explicitly organized to justify his behavior. This isn’t always the relationship between a theologian and his work, but even when it’s not, I generally refrain from public citation or use. And I err on the side of being careful to re-traumatize people by citing or using the work from unrepentant leaders, in particular. It’s never really worth it.

The question here is whether the fact that I no longer opt to use some people’s work, or consume their content, is “cancelling.” I would say it’s not; I’m making a a discerned decision. Not returning to fame is not the same as condemnation, and can be readily seen as a consequence of your actions. It’s possible reconciliation can occur, but it’s less likely, if we are not humble enough to admit our mistakes and demonstrate contriteness. That sort of accountability is appropriate and necessary for our leaders. I expect, and have been held, similarly accountable.

When I was younger, I made choices I regret today, especially with regarding inclusion of queer folk in Circle of Hope. I was held to account, in some sense, by my friends, by my colleagues, by the victims of my behavior, and I even got written up in a newspaper. As a result of this, people left our church, I lost friendships, and it significantly impacted my personal and professional life. At the time, I may have thought it was unfair, but in hindsight I believe it was a natural result of my actions and my defensiveness.

If I could go back and change my behavior I would. Since then, I have personally reconciled with the individuals I hurt and keep trying to now, and I have worked on making Circle of Hope a more inclusive space. At the time, I felt dogpiled on, but there was more to the story. When people are dogpiling, they are often doing so because of their own lack of power and lack of being understood, maybe also for attention, but I can acknowledge what I did elicited their reaction and move on from there. I can’t be condemned, so I’m free to repent. And I do think most people are ready to accept authentic apologies. But forgiveness will always be radical, but that it’s rare shouldn’t keep us from admitting when we’ve been wrong. We should be fostering a community that encourages growth and development, instead of defensiveness and reactivity.

At the end of the day, I got tired of defending myself, because it was easier to see the pain I had caused and address it. I was hurt too, but my pain doesn’t preclude my repentance. I wish I was more inclusive then, but I am glad people have stood aside me to be more inclusive now. Not everyone can walk beside me when I mess up, but I have people that do and I am grateful for them. We cannot burden everyone to have the power to demonstrate the grace that people did with me and with others that helped me grow. We can expect that our sin will hurt and send people away. That’s a consequence of our actions, that’s not condemnation or cancellation.

Oftentimes the people that do leave us have already followed Jesus’ rule for conflict resolution in Matthew 18. They’ve directly addressed us, and we didn’t believe them or listen to them, and perhaps more people got involved, and even then it wasn’t enough to change the outcome. At that point, Jesus’ recommendation is to oust the wrongdoer, but too often it is the harmed that leave. It’s ironic that in many circumstances, the powerless are the ones who are turned away.

Ultimately, I think there are real circumstances where accountability looks like losing a position, losing authority, or losing respect of our colleagues, constituents, and comrades. I think we saw this with a few of the above examples. But sometimes it is unjust, and we are cut off because it is more convenient, emotionally or financially, to do so than it is to mend a relationship or explain a circumstance. We need to measure our own power and make sure we aren’t using it over someone else (whether we are victims or perpetrators). It’s not easy to discern this, and so we must rely on one another to do so. We are going for transformation. Sometimes keeping someone in power prevents transformation, and sometimes firing someone or otherwise discarding them prevents it. Jesus has another way. Some of Jesus’ detractors would have named him a proponent of cancel culture because our Lord doesn’t mince words about evil. Sometimes they’d call him complicit in evil, because he spent time with sinners. But he also provides a way for change too. Sometimes the cost is too great for the people he is speaking to, and they decide to move on, like the rich young ruler does in Luke 18. But sometimes repentance and acceptance follows, like it did for Zacchaeus, in the next chapter. I would tell you more about those, but I’ve written more than enough just to explain that two of them isn’t going to explain our complex reality very easily.

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