Joseph Backholm is Senior Fellow for Biblical Worldview and Strategic Engagement at Family Research Council. This article appeared in World on November 8, 2021.
The rules of cancel culture are growing more extreme as time goes on.
A cafeteria employee at New York University was fired after the menu prepared in honor of Black History Month was deemed racially insensitive. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to do the right thing by honoring Black History Month; if the execution is deemed “insensitive,” you’re fired. No second chance.
Notably, cancel culture doesn’t just target conservatives. Brett Weinstein, a left-wing former college professor at Evergreen State College, was pushed out of his job because he objected to a “Day of Absence,” which called for white people to stay away from campus. Ironically, opposing race-based segregation is now grounds for cancellation. Former Yale Professors Erika and Nicholas Christakis, also firmly on the political left, were canceled by the Yale student body for suggesting that “controversial” Halloween costumes should not be forbidden.
Cancel culture does not care if you have good intentions; it only cares if someone is offended (and someone will be). Kooks Burritos was a Portland-area food truck that was forced to close because of the “cultural appropriation” of white women making tacos. It wasn’t that long ago that people were free to make and sell whatever food they wanted.
Comedian Dave Chappelle reports being excluded from every movie studio, film company, and film festival over statements that he does not believe “transwomen” are women.
Without exception, the executioners of cancel culture claim they are providing accountability. Because we recognize that accountability is a good thing, preventing the unacceptable from becoming acceptable, we should consider whether cancel culture really is accountability or simply bullying.
There are several clues. First, real accountability seeks the improvement of the person being held accountable. A coach demands his players operate with precision and discipline because he wants them to be better prepared today than they were yesterday. Parents address poor decisions and bad attitudes because they want to equip their children with the tools necessary to succeed in life. That is accountability.
Cancel culture, as we see it operating today, is typically motivated by a desire for revenge. “You said something I don’t like, so I’m going to destroy your livelihood.” It doesn’t seek the improvement of anyone but aims to destroy the offender and create fear in everyone watching. If cancel culture is all about providing “accountability,” so was John Gotti.
Second, being different is not something that requires accountability. A key feature of cancel culture is that it targets people, not for being malicious or unkind, but for simply believing the “wrong” things. Since there is no real way to force others to see the world the same way you do except through the time-tested idea of persuasion, providing “accountability” to people who commit thought crimes is not accountability; it’s bullying. And that kind of bullying can come from any political persuasion. These days, it comes overwhelmingly from the left.
Finally, real accountability holds people accountable for the person they are today, not for the person they once were. One of the worst aspects of cancel culture is the impulse to look back years or decades in a person’s life to determine if they have ever made a wrong decision. For all of us, the answer is yes. No one benefits by trying to hold adults “accountable” for things they did in high school, if the subsequent years demonstrate those lessons were learned long ago.
There are actual evils in the world, and there are moments where communities should come together to deal with them. Of course, some actions and ideas should not be tolerated. Ideally, however, our lives will contain an equal measure of humility for every measure of indignation. If that is true, our moments of anger will be tempered by the realization that our understanding is often imperfect and that, perhaps, we could spend a few moments extending the benefit of the doubt and learning more about the situation before we construct the gallows.
Our current cultural trajectory is unhelpful if not dangerous, not only for white women who make tacos but for everyone who will make a mistake at some point in their lives. Tragically, we have embraced a view of the world where every offense must be reacted to with rage lest we be accused of enabling oppression. However, a world in which rage is the only acceptable form of response quickly becomes unbearable, as we are currently discovering.
If we ever want to see a world defined more by kindness and forgiveness than grievances and rage, we must start with recognizing what accountability is and what it is not. We all know the difference between someone who is trying to be helpful and someone who is just mad. So let’s try to be helpful by showing grace, not wrath.