“Did you have a version of cancel culture when you were growing up?” he asked me. My 15-year-old son looked at me, waiting for my answer as we sat at a stoplight several weeks ago. I thought about it for a few seconds, not entirely sure there was something that resembled cancel culture in my high school years, but then it dawned on me.
“Yes, actually, there was. But it didn’t look the same,” I told him. When I was younger, I attended a private Christian school and went to a very evangelical church right outside of Fort Bragg. My childhood was shaped by the loud echoes of the Moral Majority; the principled conservatives who would not suffer President Bill Clinton’s indiscretions. My school had a strict honor code and my friend’s parents were expert boycotters. Whether it was Disney or Target, they fully endorsed “cancelling” businesses that didn’t support their values. And perhaps the precursor to the Twitter “block” was the MySpace reshuffling of one’s Top Friends list. In those days, if someone didn’t feel your behavior comported to their preferences, you were promptly bumped off of the coveted list. Yes, I suppose I knew a form of cancel culture well before we knew to call it that.
The thing about cancel culture is one doesn’t necessarily consider it bad when they believe their cause is just. And depending which side of the issue you’re on, you can easily view any of the above examples as either a form of necessary accountability (“Clinton lied under oath”) or intolerant censorship (“Shelly was being petty to downgrade Tanya’s MySpace friend status over a poorly worded text”). The reality is there’s a “soft” cancel culture and a “hard” cancel culture. And really, the difference between the two often boils down to how angry the mob was at the time of offense.
One’s opinion of cancel culture largely depends on where they stand. According to a Pew Research study, such perspectives are shaped by a person’s political leanings. Check out this chart below.
Seventeen percent of those surveyed said they believed calling others out on social media holds them accountable and can serve as an instructive moment for the offender. Sure, I understand that some people genuinely believe there are times when such public humiliation is necessary. However, you know who else thought shame based culture was essential to cultural conformity? Puritans; the perfectors of stockades and scarlet letters.
Detailing the stories of victims of this new puritanism is Anne Applebaum, who recently wrote in the Atlantic, “Right here in America, right now, it is possible to meet people who have lost everything—jobs, money, friends, colleagues—after violating no laws, and sometimes no workplace rules either. Instead, they have broken (or are accused of having broken) social codes having to do with race, sex, personal behavior, or even acceptable humor, which may not have existed five years ago or maybe five months ago.”
We humans haven’t changed so much over the years. Whether cancel culture comes for Hester Prynne or J.K. Rowling, the ideological Puritans of the time will macabrely erect a stockade and call the townspeople to join them in their shame parade.
Many of us are concerned about the increase in virtual witch hunts. There are people who spend their time trying to find dirt on others to make them pay penance for their perceived societal sins. Sometimes, the mob’s behavior contributes to horrific loss and pain, as Locke’s Jon Sanders detailed when reflecting on the loss of his dear friend, Professor Mike Adams, who took his own life last year.
One thing is certain, regardless of whether one thinks cancel culture is a form of accountability or a tool of censorship: these issues would not be as high stakes if we treated one another with the same gracious dignity we would like to be shown.
Accountability, when exercised in the context of trusted, loving relationships, is good. “Cancelling” someone for their unwillingness to play by our fickle, oftentimes frivolous, rules, is not.