Cancel Culture, a practice older than the term it carries, describes actions that people take to hold others accountable. At least, this is the most agreed upon term by individuals who are most politically polarized according to a survey by Pew Research Center.
I was first introduced to the idea of Cancel Culture when the Southern Baptist church (along with other similar faiths) chose to boycott Disney over their policy offering benefits to homosexual employee’s partners. This boycott (the word used seemingly to deny any affiliation with Cancel Culture, despite having the same exact qualities) went on to last for 8 years (9 years, depending on your source). I have since witnessed the religious boycotts of Target in 2004 for refusing to allow Good Samaritan bell ringers an exemption from their no solicitation policy, and again in 2016 for recognizing the rights of the LGBTQ population; and Starbucks for using the term Happy Holidays rather than Merry Christmas (which seems to still be going strong in various communities even today).
Cancel Culture is no stranger to non-religious sympathizers. Chick-fil-A continues to undergo scrutiny for it’s long-term relationships with anti-LGBTQ organizations– although some movement has been made by the company to discontinue these relationships, the owner reportedly continues to support them under her own name. There are also plenty of people refusing to support companies who continue to promote the former President– (but following a POTUS-spurred insurrection on the US Capitol, should there really be any surprise here?).
What comes to mind when you hear Cancel Culture or boycott? Censorship? Accountability? How about passing judgment? Is it really so wrong to pass judgment? After all, judgment is a sign of a commitment to certain values. Judgment is also vital to survival. Honestly, we pass judgment on people who choose to drive drunk (not too many boycotts on holding a drunk driver accountable).
So where does judgment cross a line? This question can obviously be confronted on a personal level- but for the sake of precedent, consider judgment in the form of shame.
Judgment is sticky, shame is damning. While laws and ethics are essential for the peace of a community at large, we can become tangled up in the muck of shaming others over values that stem from less shared perspectives. For example, despite America finding its roots in Christian values, there are many perspectives that celebrate alternative holidays. This does not mean that there is a war on our country’s founding values that requires diminishing non-Christian perspectives. This just means that although others may repeat “Merry Christmas” when we make our own perspective known by wishing others a Merry Christmas, we choose to make room for the inclusion and social safety of others who prefer to celebrate otherwise. This does not stop us from celebrating the way we choose, it simply validates the person who may feel overlooked in a society that screams Christian entitlement (#blessed) over leaving room for the religious views of others. Lest we forget, Jesus also celebrated Hanukkah- gulp, scandalous!
Cancel Culture/boycotting is a way to pronounce shame on a business or individual who is not observing the values assumed to be shared by and for a/the greater community.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement uses a platform to voice a desire for equality and inclusion. Entitlement or exclusion is not the focus or goal. Shame is used as a tool to expose systems that continue to carry racist inequality in an effort to eliminate harmful, belittling, and antiquated practices. If/when successful, the end result does not conclude with one group of people marginalized or muted by another group who currently weighs more favorably on the power-differential scale.
Boycotting or actions aiming to cancel companies/movements that recognize the censorship/suppression of marginalized groups based on any number of attributes expressed or otherwise including gender orientation, color, and faith- expose a perceived fear. The goal of these movements is to maintain a culture of inequality based on values perceived as morally superior. Shame is used to suppress those whose values do not align with those who have traditionally carried the privileged end of a power-differential.
When Christmas observers shame businesses and non-observers regarding the style they are most comfortable spreading holiday salutations, it communicates a message of entitlement and that others’ preferences are not safe for them to express openly. When faith communities shame companies for providing non gender specific dressing rooms within areas that previously designated gender separation, they (in a backhanded and judgmental way) are communicating a value structure they regard not only superior, but also unavailable for any further discussion. Let me explain-
Much of our value structure is formed by whatever system guarantees a safe upbringing within our childhood environment. For conservative faith families, value structure is tied to a patriarchal, heterosexual, authoritarian culture used to enforce religious rule. Shame is used to enforce submission to the value structure as an expression of loyalty to a brand of faith believed to be demanded of God as lived by the religious culture of ancient times. As a result of this pattern, values become enmeshed with the fight or flight response which activates without conscious thought, empathy, or effort. Any attempt to oppose this value structure is met with the threat of spending an eternity burning in hell. This cult mentality, while intending to do right by putting laws into place serving to prohibit a cultural lifestyle which leads to eternal damnation, simultaneously perverts the very teachings of Christ that discredit external qualifiers and exclusionary practices as a prerequisite for a life of faith in God.
The toxic result of religious cult mentality concludes with fear-driven movements, laws, and a value structure that lends itself to authoritarian enforcement of exclusionary practices. While the intent is truly believed to be the same as shoving an oblivious pedestrian off the tracks of a speeding train, the outcome is more akin to hogtying and gagging alternative-expressioned individuals whose truth is translated differently than the religious populace. From an outsider’s perspective, religious value enforcement communicates more faith in political control than the God it claims to serve- and a God complex leaves a bad taste in anybody’s mouth who is truly seeking to live within the authentic truth they earnestly discern.
Being a product of a conservative religious upbringing, I understand all too well the instinct and pressure to protect the values tied to my fight-or-flight at all costs. It is a conscious daily push for me to escape my primitive brain in order to reason and evaluate within the higher-order thinking I believe God has not only granted us with, but also expects us to use in weighing the millions of variables and possibilities I believe he also created and allows. It takes practice to subdue ingrained instincts, and I can testify that I continue to fail when I allow myself to become relaxed in traditional patterns that have served me quite comfortably. Some call this restructuring, some call it deconstruction of faith. I consider it a mindful practice that challenges me to pursue truth in all its beautiful and terrifying complexity. If all truth is truly God’s truth- there is nothing that should hold us back from finding just how far this path may lead.
The journey away from autonomic response structures to the conscious and empathetic (agape-love) response systems we are all privileged as a species to access, takes concentrated effort and an amazing amount of awareness- especially when we rarely use this cognitive muscle in weighing values. Religious circles seem to get by on peddling a no-hassle value structure in exchange for your loyalty and blind trust. Cheap faith does not include authenticity, only a hollowed out replica of something that vaguely resembles ourselves.
When considering Cancel Culture, engaging my higher-thinking takes on the shape of asking myself the following questions:
- Does the end goal of this movement aim at marginalizing, excluding, muting, dehumanizing, or disenfranchising any variety of people groups?
- Does the goal of this movement serve to provide equality or maintain a power-differential?
- Do I hesitate to support this group because their values do not agree with my own?
- Do I feel ethically responsible for the moral outcome of this group’s mission?
- Am I attempting to curb this movement’s outcome as an attempt to enforce values I feel morally required to serve or live by?
- By honoring and validating the rights of others as God has also granted me through free will, am I afraid that God will turn around and hypocritically hold me responsible for not forcing others to live by the standard of truth I perceive?
- Does this group mean or pursue physical or emotional harm to others?
- Have I manipulated any of my answers to the above questions as a way to validate my own fears?
I leave you with this.
Isaiah 40:4/ (also referenced in Luke 3:5): Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and all the crooked ways shall become straight, and the rough places plain. (ESV)