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Accountability isn’t intolerance, but tolerance alone will not save us
Losing an election isn’t cancel culture, Donald
What struck me most about Trump’s fear-driven Fourth of July speech in South Dakota is that he made an attack familiar to many advocates of justice and righteousness. He spoke of “cancel culture.”
[The protesters whom he called an “angry mob] think the American people are weak and soft and submissive. But no, the American people are strong and proud, and they will not allow our country, and all of its values, history, and culture, to be taken from them.
One of their political weapons is “Cancel Culture”—driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America. (Applause.) This attack on our liberty, our magnificent liberty, must be stopped, and it will be stopped very quickly. We will expose this dangerous movement, protect our nation’s children, end this radical assault, and preserve our beloved American way of life.
What Trump is positing is not an uncommon sentiment. The idea is that public debate is not an option in the United States anymore because if you say the wrong thing, you’ll be “cancelled.” For Trump, that amounts to less-than-generous coverage on Fox News, or Biden beating him in the election because "some people don't love me, maybe." Trump even thinks his losses in the Supreme Court that he packed is the result of not being liked.
For most people, though, being cancelled means you’ll be rebuked on social media, or perhaps your error is seen as so egregious that you might be asked to resign. There have been a few examples of that in the last few months, like when James Bennett, the former editor of the New York Times opinion section, resigned after he ran a column from Senator Tom Cotton that argued that the country should “send in the troops” against the protestors. Or when Stan Wischnowski, the top editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, resigned after he ran a piece with the headline, “Buildings Matter, Too.”
Both of these editors made choices that valued opinions over human life, in my reading. But Trump, and critics of so-called “cancel culture,” say that an environment where these editors are held accountable for their opinions are attacks on American freedom and liberty. In short they are an attack on liberalism.
Critics of this sort of accountability often speak of “groupthink,” or “mob rule.” Sometimes they’ll call this behavior a submission to “cultural Marxism” or “social justice warriors.” These terms are all dog whistles of their own, signaling support from people who are suspicious of activists and their movements for equality and justice.
Facing consequences isn’t a violation of free speech
This viewpoint is not just held by white nationalists. Many good-hearted people believe that when people’s right to say whatever they want on whatever platform they want is infringed upon, their freedom of speech is. (Never mind that freedom of speech is when the government, not private citizens or organizations, censor you.) We saw this channeled in a widely-signed letter published by Harper’s: “A Letter of Justice and Open Debate.”
“Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.”
The letter concludes, “We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.”
The ambiguity of the letter itself makes it seem innocent; in a certain context, say Nasser's Egypt, I can see myself signing it. The issue is I know what censorship looks like and we aren't experiencing right now. It's offensive to people who have suffered under totalitarian regimes to suggest a rebuke on social media or a resignation is comparable. It's not. The idea behind the letter is that people have the right to say whatever they want and suffer no social or public consequence. But we are responsible for our actions. And if our choice is to no longer listen or unsubscribe (even if that results in resignations), I can hardly think of a more “liberal” notion.
I am not a proponent of bullying, social shaming, or dog piling. And on the Internet it is easy to do that. I admit I have participated in it, and I have been a victim of it. I reserve the right to be direct and assertive with bad faith actors, but I do not think we should be cruel or mean. And in fact, in most cases, we should allow our love to do the talking. Our goal should be to comfort the oppressed, and convert the oppressor. Our goal is restitution. People are recovering from a sin addiction, and we need to treat them as we might an addict. Mean-spiritedness or shame are not tools for transformation.
Seeking mutual dignity isn’t “totalitarianism”
Naming someone's destructive behavior isn't intolerant and shouldn't be named as “totalitarian” (as the President named them), or opponents of freedom and democracy. By and large, the protesters are interested in being seen as equal and having a more free and just society. And I don't mind being named among them as we fight for a better society in the immediate.
The questions that are being posed are uncomfortable for those in power. And sometimes losing power feels like violence and oppression, even when it is explicitly not. Sometimes making room for someone else’s voice feels like being silenced. And so “victims” of a movement for freedom and equality often cry out as if they are being oppressed or that violence is done to them. You see this in Trump’s speech and in the Harper’s letter.
American liberty isn’t inscrutable, but allow it to be the restitution of Jesus
Ultimately, I think that opponents of cancel culture are themselves opponents of liberalism and perpetrators of intolerance. Intolerance of intolerance is not more intolerance. That sort of backward logic allows for harmful dialogue to exist in the public discourse. The reason that we all know what explicit racism is because of accountability for when people espouse it. So I do not agree with the president that accountability for racist rhetoric is anti-American or totalitarian.
But I do not think that the movement for individual rights and liberty is inscrutable. I think that ultimately, it is a movement that offers limited results, far from the redemption and the restitution of Christianity, a movement that, when expressed in good faith, offers true salvation. We all know that editors resigning and statues being toppled isn’t enough for people’s true humanity to be realized, even if they are steps in the right direction. And I think it's clear that people facing consequences for their actions is unique from condemnation. Making sure the transgressor doesn't continue to harm people is different from condemning them. I hope we can keep making that distinction (even if it will be painful for the transgressor, regardless).
We need an alternative. We need a body that cares for one another, not for personal gain, but for the greater good. One that pours itself out because we’ve been transformed by the poured-out blood of our savior. We need a faith that leads us to a place where we are not seen as less than because we are brown or black, because of our sexuality or gender, because of our economic status.
The vision of Christianity is articulated beautifully in the first four chapters of the Gospel of Luke. When Jesus was born, in Luke 1, the angel announced, “peace and goodwill to all.” In Luke 2, Mary prophesies that:
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.
John repeats Isaiah’s prophecy in Luke 3:
Every valley will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be leveled. The crooked will be made straight and the rough places made smooth. All humanity will see God’s salvation.”
In Luke 4, Jesus prophecies that he is here to give good news to the poor:
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
This movement of collective salvation and a New Humanity is where we can scrutinize the limitations of liberalism. It’s clear that liberalism has limits. But what it’s good for is advocating for a society where individuals start on an even-playing field. Where it fails is in its notion that it is up to us to advocate for ourselves so long as the “rules are fair.” American liberalism enslaves you to yourself. Christianity frees you by connecting you to God.
Christianity offers an alternative: we aren’t free, until we’re all free. We pour ourselves out for the other, loving them as ourselves. One where the lowly are lifted, the valleys filled, the mounts and hills leveled, where good news is offered to poor, freedom for the enslaved, sight to the blind, liberation to the oppressed.