I have been thinking a lot about Cancel Culture.
In pop culture, people who speak their minds about things that go against certain ways of thinking are torn down and exiled from their communities. This is not limited to only those who are widely known. I have seen chilling things posted on social media where someone's actions cause someone to get so upset that they blast the offending person's information out on social media saying, "Let's make this person famous." The point is to make the offender infamous for their perceived offense and draw all the wrath that the internet can bear down on them.
One of the things I've also noticed is that it doesn't matter how recent or how long ago the offense was. An actor on a show I watch was fired for something he posted online nearly a decade ago.
And to be clear, I am not saying that some behavior isn't abhorrent and deserving of social stigma. But I am so curious as to the form that it has been taking recently. Why is Cancel Culture able to be as effective as it is?
I have to credit a good friend (though I'm not sure that he would want me to mention his name here) for pointing out that in the digital age, conversation has become permanent. This is an unhealthy and unnatural state of affairs. Think about all of the strange and perhaps socially unacceptable things you have said in conversations over the years.
When I was young boy, one of my family members and I made a tape recording of jokes. We set up a joke and then we recorded a line from a movie to be the punchline. I can't repeat any of them here because not only were these jokes horribly vulgar, but many of them were blasphemous, using Our Lord as the source of the jokes. I look back on what I did with regret and revulsion. I am no longer that child who treated the love of God so carelessly. However, I would be mortified if any copies of this tape still existed (and perhaps they do).
My point is that while I was growing up, this was a rare occurrence where a night of goofing off got recorded for posterity.
Today, everyone is etching their conversations permanently into digital stone.
Once something goes up on the internet it is there forever. Even if it is deleted, there is no getting it back. This includes posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snap Chat, TikTok, and all manner of social media. I've been blogging for almost nine years, but even at the outset I understood that anything I put up here could one day be brought to the attention of the people who employ me or to my students and their parents. With this in mind I was always cognizant to never put anything up here that I wouldn't say in public to anyone.
But we tend to be less careful on social media. Our spur-of-the-moment reactions do not get a chance to fade away, but instead are archived forever.
And here is where the perpetual rage occurs.
If I have a conversation with someone in private and they say something that angers me, I may be enraged for a little while. But as time goes on, often the fiery response in my heart begins to cool down. Time lets the heat of the words fade, as they should.
But if their hurtful words are written down, then every time I read them, it can re-ignite the flame.
I once filmed a movie where an actress had to cry in a scene. To prepare, she had the book The Fault in Our Stars bookmarked to a particularly sad passage. Right before we yelled "action," she picked up the book and read. Once she did, the words conjured in her such powerful emotions that she was able to cry on camera.
The same thing happens now with social media rage.
I may have done something hurtful or stupid many years ago. But if those words or actions can be read or seen again and again at the click of button, then those postings have the potential to cause perpetual rage.
On the show This Is Us, a character said to his adopted brother, "The worst thing that ever happened to me was the day mom and dad brought you home." I remember watching this and feeling how deeply and utterly hurtful this was. Currently on the show, the brothers are slowly reconciling. But could imagine if instead of this being said in a private conversation, these words were blasted on social media or sent in a text message? Those permanent words would be a constant reminder of the hurt and re-reading them would bring back all of those wounds.
Add to this the anonymous nature of social media which encourages bad behavior and also the fact that digital mobs are easier to whip up because they are not bound together by geography and you get something like Cancel Culture.
Something to keep in mind as well is that no matter how forward-thinking you are, social norms are going to pass you by. I believe I once read GK Chesterton says something about this, though for the life of me I cannot remember where. Chesterton talked about a man who thought he was more progressively moral because he did not eat animals. He thought of himself as above those who were bigoted towards animal rights. Chesterton pointed out that if morality progressed in this fashion, then one day this vegetarian would be condemned for his bigotry against plants by killing them for food.
The point is that even as societal norms change, what is social acceptable in one era may not be in another. Normally, this would be fine as we move beyond old faults. But in the digital age, things that were acceptable in one generation are brought up to this generation for condemnation. And as I said, even though these things happened in a completely different context, modern mobs experience the offense as if it just happened. You can see this in the way Cancel Culture is currently going after Dr. Seuss or the way it always goes after Mark Twain.
Cancel Culture is antithetical to the idea of forgiveness.
When we forgive, the offense is blotted out from us. We often use the phrase "forgive and forget." Obviously we cannot erase our memories of the hurt. But when the memory of the hurt returns to us we must re-forgive over and over until the hurt is gone. Social media makes this difficult to do, because the permeance of the offense makes the wound feel like it is constantly being re-opened so it can never heal. Even if a person offers an apology, the internet knows no time. The offense and the apology can be experienced simultaneously and only the one that creates the stronger emotional response will win out.
That is the antidote to Cancel Culture: forgiveness.
Are we capable of this? Can we look past our own perpetual rage and forgive those who offend us? Or are we do addicted to the moral high we get from being constantly offended?
When I think about this, I am reminded of the words of Christ, "If you do not forgive men's sins, neither will your Heavenly Father forgive you." (Matthew 6:15)
Perhaps the Cancel Culture mobs will keep coming for those that offend them. But honestly, I feel a great sense of pity for those who are part of those mobs. It's like the words of the sage Mr. Miyagi:
"For person with no forgiveness in heart, living even worse punishment than death."