Cancel Culture Is Not Speaking Truth to Power. It’s Just Speaking Power.

Cancel Culture Is Not Speaking Truth to Power. It’s Just Speaking Power.

Written by Samuel D. James |
Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Online cancellation mobs are instruments of injustice. They don’t protect victims, they create them. They don’t create change. They stay in their digital plot. And they don’t just harm the targets. They harm the participants. They poison the imagination, they dehumanize, and they reinforce a self-righteous sense that such a fate must be deserved.

I want to make one more brief comment about the kerfuffle du jour in online evangelicalism this past week, although the point really goes beyond it. The following has been said repeatedly, by many people, in a wide variety of circumstances:

A) There is no such thing as “cancel culture.”

B) Even if there was, it’s an important part of keeping powerful people accountable.

My suspicion is that people who say A don’t actually believe it. I don’t know how anybody could spend time online and come away genuinely convinced there is no such thing as outrage mobs or cancellation campaigns. And in fact, I think just about everyone knows these things exist. The question is whether they are good or bad. So people who claim there is no such thing as cancel culture are often defining “cancel culture” to mean, “A way for innocent people to get harmed by social media,” and the way they deny its existence is to presume that anybody who gets canceled is not innocent.

So the really relevant point of contention is B. Allow me a brief space to explain why I think B is mistaken, both in its premise and its conclusion.

Cancel culture does not keep people “accountable.” It does punish them. It does trigger bad consequences for them. It can make them go away and not say or do anything online anymore. But this is not accountability; it’s just erasure. A mechanism for accountability, whether in government, church, business, or personal relationships rests on a foundation of mutual agreement. Government accountability to voters is part of what it means to participate in the U.S. political system; if you dislike this accountability, you can opt out of running for office, and you don’t have to ever experience it. Church accountability (I’m thinking especially for pastors and leaders) assumes a shared moral framework that is presented to the pastor before he is hired or ordained. If you don’t think you want to be accountable in that way, you can decline to be in pastoral ministry (and in fact, the Bible assumes that most Christians won’t be in that position).

The point is that in any meaningful accountability relationship, the parties being held accountable and the parties holding accountable have some shared sense of what’s expected, what’s being enforced. And the reason this is important is that it establishes a kind of mutual accountability between the parties. The pastor knows what he is accountable for, the congregation knows what they obligated to hold him accountable to, and both the pastor and the congregation know each other’s particular obligations.

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