Fr Billy Swan
In this age of rapid communication, pithy phrases emerge from time to time that describe a development that is growing stronger in influence. One such phrase that we heard many times during the presidency of Donald Trump was ‘fake news’. This is news that is simply not true or a story that is deliberately exaggerated by the media to steer public thought in a certain direction and provoke a certain reaction. Another such phrase we hear more often these days is the growing influence of a ‘cancel culture’. So what is a ‘cancel culture’?
The term ‘cancel culture’ probably originated in the United States in the last decade, most likely in university campuses. It is a form of ostracization of someone who holds different views and challenges what is deemed by the prevailing culture to be acceptable and appropriate. If someone is brave enough to challenge the dominant narrative, they risk being thrown out of professional circles, whether it be in person, on social media or online. These people who have been ostracized are deemed to be ‘cancelled’. For those on the receiving end of the cancel culture, the consequences can lead to loss of reputation, the loss of one’s good name and in some cases the loss one one’s job. People can be boycotted, lose their friends and be subject to vile personal attacks, all because of views that are judged to be controversial according to standards that others have set. Such attacks are often concerted and damaging.
The ‘cancel culture’ has been criticized by former American Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump who, in a 2020 speech, compared it to totalitarianism and claiming that it is a political weapon used to punish and shame dissenters by driving them from their jobs and demanding submission. Most commentators agree that a ‘cancel culture’ is not good for a free democracy for it leads to polarization, acrimony and in some cases violence. People get hurt.
There are many examples of a ‘cancel culture’ that could be cited but here I limit myself to two. The first is the case of J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series who expressed concern over the overly ‘affirmative’ approach to children suffering from gender dysphoria. In her Twitter account, she linked her concerns to an article published by Marcus Evans in the British Journal of Psychiatry entitled: ‘Freedom to think: the need for thorough assessment and treatment of gender dysphoric children’. Reaction against Ms. Rowling was immediate, strong and personal. Much of it did not engage with her concerns or points from the article but limited itself to attacks on her, much of it effectively telling her – ‘Mind your own business’; ‘Stick to writing books’ and ‘It’s all right for you, you are rich’.
Another example closer to home involves Bishop Kevin Doran of the diocese of Elphin whose Twitter account was temporarily blocked after he criticized the ‘Dying with Dignity’ Bill being discussed by the Oireachtas. In a similar incident in October last year, Twitter briefly suspended the account of Czech Cardinal Dominik Duka without explanation. After the account was restored, the Prague archbishop compared present-day censorship to communism suppression in the 1980s, saying that things were ‘not much different’ today. These cases raise major questions of how big tech companies control (or try to control) what we read, discover, how we think and act.
These examples from the ‘cancel culture’ stoke up public fear of expressing what is not politically correct or goes against the current of popular opinion. Fear of a backlash. Fear of losing one’s friends. Fear about loss of reputation and even one’s job. Christians are not immune to this fear. If this fear infects the Church, it puts a leash on the Gospel and inhibits the Church’s vocation to speak and witness freely at a time when the world most needs a clear word about the consequences of abandoning natural and divine laws around such things as human sexuality, marriage, gender and family.
On Good Friday, it is inspiring to note how Jesus rose above this fear and remained free, despite being a victim of the cancel culture at its worst. In his exchanges with his detractors, Jesus avoided being pinned down and was too wise and clever to fall into the traps laid for him. With the authority of what he spoke and the truth of his teaching, his enemies were forced to change tactics. Rather than cancel his message and teaching, they decided to cancel him instead. They moved quickly to discredit him. Like modern day victims of the ‘cancel culture’, what Jesus had to say did not fit the assumed narrative. It challenged the prevailing thought of the time. People were threatened by it, even though what he said was true. His teaching became so subversive that action had to be taken. He had to be eliminated, cancelled. The High Priest Caiaphas was the one to come up with the plan that eventually materialised: ‘It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish’ (John 11:49). In order to keep the status quo, Jesus had to die. But although he did die, he rose again and with him rose the power of his truth that challenges and still endures. This is the truth that continues to change lives and gives people the strength to oppose any forms of lies and deceit. This is the truth that continues to be subversive and that endures long after those who bear that truth have passed on or have been eliminated.
The example and witness of Jesus challenges all of society but also those of us in the Church on both the right and left. It brings us back to the importance of what is right rather than who is right. It is a warning to avoid polarization in Church and society along the lines of those who see things my way and those who don’t. It instils in us a passion for the objective truth – scientific and religious - which is not the preserve of a few but is God’s gift to the many.
Jesus’ suffering also exposes the lack of charity in the modern ‘cancel culture’ that resorts to personal attacks rather than making the distinction between the person themselves and the validity of what they are saying. Proper dialogue, space and debate, respectful speaking and attentive listening are disciplines that challenge a ‘cancel culture’ that seeks to defeat, crush and humiliate others. With this behaviour, people become divided into winners and losers with increasing polarization and hostility towards those who challenge prevailing narratives.
As we move towards a more synodal Church, this does not mean becoming the Church of ‘nice’ where real truth doesn’t matter as long as we get along and be kind. If our hopes for the future are based on this, then they are doomed to fail. Consensus or opinion can never unite the family of the Church. Only truth, faith and charity can do that. On the day when we commemorate Jesus' death, the Church is united around him and his Word. The truth of his Word endures forever and is the source of the unity that God wants us to witness to as a prophetic counter-sign to the cancel culture that seeks the upper hand. On the night before he died, Jesus prayed that we be one in him as he is one with the Father (cf. John 17:21). But earlier he indicated how that unity would come about, namely through our consecration in the truth –‘Your word is truth’ (John 17: 17).
Empowered with his Spirit, may we not be afraid to challenge the cancel culture of our time and its toxic effects. Convinced of the truth of God’s word and our call to unity and charity, may we unleash the power of the Gospel at a time when its message is most needed.