Cancel at Anytime?

by Bob Turner on November 08, 2023

In 2018 a friend recommended a book that became my favorite nonfiction book for the next few years: The Coddling of the American Mind. It identified an issue that was creating unhealthy outcomes for kids and even bigger problems for adults. So when I saw that one of the co-authors, Greg Lukianoff, had joined Rikki Schlott to publish the sequel, I stepped up, paid retail, and grabbed the first copy I could.

The former book explained that part of the rise in fragility could be attributed to the acceptance of three untruths: what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker, always trust your feelings, and life is a battle between good people and evil people. These patterns of thinking lead to an obsession with safety that produces nothing but anxiety, depression, division, and confusion. That book was a masterpiece. This book offers a fourth untruth: bad people only have bad opinions.

The progression goes like this: If we believe that bad people only have bad opinions then we have no need for bad people. If that’s the case, we can rid ourselves of bad opinions by getting rid of bad people. The easiest way to accomplish this is by canceling them for any errant word, old tweet, misunderstood motive, or poorly-timed joke. By removing them from our classrooms, timelines, calendars, bookshelves, stages, screens, and workplaces, we no longer have to suffer their heterodox viewpoints. This form of cancel culture is a way of winning arguments without having to actually make an argument; all you have to do is silence others.

There are thousands of examples of cancel culture out there, and to be fair, many are misunderstood. A tenured professor losing his or her job over unpopular remarks that are germane to their subject is a totally different matter than a professional sports franchise volunteering to change their mascot because times have changed. A person being disqualified from entrance into graduate school because of their politics is a greater injustice than a celebrity losing an endorsement deal. I suppose both were canceled, but the endorsement deals for celebrities feel a bit different than primary incomes and opportunities for ordinary folks. We need to agree that not every change that tries to right a wrong amounts to cancel culture.

The Canceling of the American Mind and its predecessor both note that this affliction has a deep connection to wealth and academic achievement. Basically, the higher the wealth and education, the more likely they are to constantly complain that they are at risk. The authors rank 203 universities according to their tolerance of free speech; Harvard ranks 170 (below average). In 2013, the average Harvard student came from a family with an income of $505,000. The average U.S. income that year was $52,000. A whopping 43% of white admissions to Harvard are athletes, children of alumni, or children of faculty. How does someone from that much privilege feel so much victimization? I have no idea, but Walter Lippman was right when he said, “Where we all think alike, no one thinks very much.” 

The source of cancel culture is not that we live in a place where people do and say outrageous things. The world has always been that way (and much worse than it is today). The root of the issue is an intolerance toward those who think differently than we do. 

This matters a lot for church leaders who want to lead diverse groups that are welcoming. The church cannot afford to sterilize its theology, reputation, and ministries to the point that it just seems a little too perfect for anyone. If the church is going to look like Jesus of Nazareth we must become more comfortable with being uncomfortable. So how can we create a different kind of culture?

  • Be a Team of Rivals. Grab coffee with people of different political persuasions. Invite friends for dinner who see the world differently. Value orthopraxy, not just orthodoxy. Stop hiring only those with whom we are fully aligned. Stop pretending that those who disagree with us actually harm us. Go beyond tolerating the viewpoints of others; explore them. If Jesus can hang with a Zealot, betrayer, doubter, and denier, a leadership team can value a woke youth minister or a fundamentalist elder.

  • Stop the Blame. We all have issues. But the people we like to blame aren’t the source of all of our issues. And removing those people from our life will not change the fact that there is probably another antagonist waiting in line behind them. Edwin Friedman said, “The leader in the system is the one who is not blaming anyone.” Often the people we try to cancel are the ones who threaten something about ourselves we aren’t willing to face. Control freaks cancel those who threaten their power. Morality police cancel those who question their arbitrary rules. People without boundaries cancel those who expose their total lack of discipline. We learn more about what irks us by looking in the mirror than we do by looking at an offensive TikTok reel.

  • Steelman the Opposition. Bestselling author Adam Grant encourages leaders to create a steelman; it’s the opposite of a strawman. Whereas a strawman is a weak version of an opposing argument that is easy to topple, a steelman is the best possible form of an opposing argument. So, rather than parodying our opposition as someone who hates children, wants the church to die, suppresses women, or whatever, we instead construct the most honorable version of what they believe—even to the point that we repeat it back to them to make sure we have presented the most generous version of their position. Yep, you’ll need to put those over-simplistic yard signs in the recycle bin. Steelmanning requires us to know opposing arguments as well (or better) than those who actually believe them. 

  • Make Room for Grace. Canceling is easy. Redemption is hard. If we acknowledge that churches aren’t for perfect people then we also need to curb our insistence on perfectionism. Guilt by association was a tactic used against Jesus, not something encouraged by him. Distancing ourselves from every problem will result in distancing ourselves from every person.

…I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19b-23)


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