As if modern times weren’t complex and confusing enough, along comes something called the “cancel culture” to muddy the waters just a bit more.

I’m sure by now we have all heard of this term.  According the “Pop Culture Dictionary”, this term “refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.”

Examples of this abound in our current culture.  Think of any famous or semi-famous person who has been chastised for racially bigoted statements, inappropriate sexual behavior and the like.  You can probably recall several, but if you are having difficulty, Google the term “cancel culture victims“.

Today, two articles came across my in box on the topic that are well worth the read.  The first is by columnist Ross Douthat of the New York Times. Here he offers what he calls 10 wide sweeping claims about the subject.

Douthat makes some interesting observations.  He states (and I agree) that “Cancellation, properly understood, refers to an attack on someone’s employment and reputation by a determined collective of critics, based on an opinion or an action that is alleged to be disgraceful and disqualifying.”

I can call you out for an opinion or action of yours that I disagree with.  You can do the same to me.  In a free and fair society, our healthy disagreement over things is beneficial to our growth and understanding of the world.  Disagreements and debate can lead us to learning new things and evolving in our knowledge and wisdom.

However, if I call you out and at the same time launch a social attack on your employment or reputation, then I am moving into a new territory where I am no longer concerned about a healthy debate over our differences but am instead seeking to punish you for your perceived transgressions. I get it that in some cases, the behavior is so egregious that such action to hold the person accountable is appropriate.  However in some cases, it’s not.  Where to draw the line can frequently be difficult and cause disagreement.

I also concur with Douthat when he states “All cultures cancel; the question is for what, how widely and through what means.”  He adds that there ” is no human society where you can say or do anything you like and expect to keep your reputation and your job.” Cultural norms and established limits on behavior are both appropriate and beneficial for humans living together.

However, we need to keep in mind that those norms and limits are continuously evolving to better fit our human circumstances.  Yes, some laws such as “thou shalt not kill” have served us for thousands of years and continue to do so. Meanwhile, other norms that were set in the past that have led to racism and sexism should rightly be retired and new more equitable and honoring norms established in their place.

In Douchat’s opinion, he sees that “the right and the left both cancel; it’s just that today’s right is too weak to do it effectively.”  It is a common perception by many that it is the progressive voices who are most likely quick to jump to social shaming to push folks back into line.  And sometimes that quickness is not well thought out and the “line” is not always clear.

When we think that these social warriors have gone too far, Douchat says that we cannot simply push back citing the importance of “free speech” but rather one needs ” to identify the places where they think the new left-wing norms aren’t merely too censorious but simply wrong, and fight the battle there, on substance as well as liberal principle.”

Interestingly, the other article that caught my attention today disagrees with Douchat’s belief that the cancel culture is simply a product of the left.  Writing in the Intercept, Jon Schwarz says ” In reality, political correctness, or cancel culture, or whatever it’s called, is not a phenomenon of the left, right, or center. It’s a phenomenon of human nature. All humanity’s infinite tribes are prone to group think and punishing heretics. That’s why the principle of free thought has to be defended: It is, unfortunately, a weird and unnatural fit for humans.”

Although Schwarz sees it as coming from all sides of the political spectrum, he says that, in fact, most cancel culture behavior is coming from conservatives. He points out that “Conservative PC is so powerful in the U.S. that much of it is adopted by both political parties and all of the corporate media. Indeed, right-wing political correctness is so dominant that it’s politically incorrect to refer to it as political correctness. Instead, we call it things like “patriotism,” or simply don’t notice its existence.”

He then goes on to outline a number of examples of how folks are pushed back into the fences of correctness continuously whenever they try to say something that departs from the established narrative regarding religion, foreign policy or placing limits on the police.  He adds to that list the Republican Party’s strong action to publicly censure anyone within the party who strays from the party’s established positions. He offers a compelling argument for these often silent and unnoticed “cancel culture” actions.

Similarly, Schwarz concludes that there are no easy answers to the issue of the cancel culture.  However, he does warn that “Right-wing political correctness so hobbles our political imagination that we don’t even dream of having debates on the deepest, most important problems of our lives.”  He then offers examples of such questions that no one can seriously raise in the mainstream media such as “Even if we slow down the effects of the climate crisis, will capitalism still destroy the biosphere on which all human civilization depends?”

Both articles are good food for thought.  So what are we left with here?  What should we consider as we read these and think about this cancel culture phenomenon which has in reality been around in some form or fashion since humans banded together?

All of this points to a need for more critical thinking. There are four things about the cancel culture that I am calling us to consider.

One:  Human evolution has been served by the establishment of group norms that have allowed us to live together in groups more peacefully.

There is something good about having some rules that limit our behavior and words.  The growth and evolution of the human species from being egocentric to ethnocentric, working together for a greater good for a larger group has given us much prosperity.

Two:  Human evolution continues. As our world conditions change, so do our appropriate responses to a changing world.  Hence, it is only normal that our group norms change.

One perspective of our current conditions is that the growing challenges we humans are facing is indicative of a breakdown that is a necessary step to a breakthrough in our next evolutionary step.  We are releasing old ethnocentric beliefs on the way to becoming worldcentric.  Hence, we have to accommodate the needs of a greater number of people who are living their lives in different ways than we are.  It’s only normal that old norms are breaking down and being replaced with new ones.  It’s only normal that this growth process can sometimes be painful.

Three: When issues arise from conflict over changing norms, we must apply some critical thinking skills,  look at matters from a larger perspective and keep in mind what is best for our future evolution to a more worldcentric world.

Yes, there will be messy moments as we navigate the new norms. Yes, we will get upset and people will push our buttons.  There will be people who break the new norms leading us to debate the proper reaction.  

Here are critical questions to consider: Is the thing being debated really a new norm that it is in our best interest to adopt?  And, if so, then what is our proper reaction to someone’s inappropriate words or actions?  Should we disagree with them in the interest of healthy debate or should be publicly shame them to seek punishment on their reputation or livelihood? Should we hold someone accountable now for their behavior many years ago that might have been considered appropriate then but not now under our new norms?  And, if so, what is appropriate?

One of my favorite quotes from spiritual teacher Ernest Holmes is his touchstone for making the highest choices.  He wrote, “Does this thing I wish to do express more life, more happiness, more peace to myself, and at the same time harm no one? If it does, it is right. It is not selfish.”

When I look at how our norms have changed or are changing around same sex relationships, racism, sexism and other former mistreatment of disenfranchised individuals and groups, I am encouraged.  The changes in my opinion are generally “expressing more life” and are moving to the elimination of prior harms without harming anyone else in the process. As I perceive it, we are generally making life affirming changes that are contributing to our growth and evolution to a more worldcentric planet.

Yet in those moments when we see someone stepping out of bounds of the new norms, what is our highest and best reaction?  Should we immediately jump on the social media bandwagon and push to punish them by harming their reputation or livelihood?

In reality, each situation is different.  Our reaction to each should be appropriate to the situation.  We need to avoid knee jerk reactions that seek to punish anyone and everyone who steps out of bounds. Ultimately we should treat others as we would want to be treated. And– Critical thinking and thoughtful reactions are key.

Four: We also need to apply critical thinking skills as we stay aware of our current cultural rules and consistently challenge them when they are no longer serving us.

Our future evolution calls us to make new choices and set new norms when our world conditions change.  We should not cling to old norms simply because they are comfortable when they no longer serve the greater good of all.  We must recognize that as we grow towards a world that accommodates the needs of more and more people….as we become worldcentric in our thoughts and beliefs….we need to make appropriate shifts.

And, it is important to remember that every prior norm is on the table so long as the choice we are considering is expressing more life, more happiness, more peace and at the same time harming no one. We must be able to put every question on the table and discuss it freely as we reinvent ourselves in a higher and greater version of ourselves.

As Bob Dylan wrote so many years ago, ” Your old road is rapidly agin’, Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand, For the times they are a-changin'”

May we each be a force for bringing critical thinking to applying our norms and be a force for canceling those aspects of culture that are no longer serving the creation of a world that works for all of us, no exceptions.

Mark Gilbert

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