Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Photo by Mickey Conlon

Sr. Helena Burns: It’s time to cancel the ‘cancel culture’

By  Sr. Helena Burns
  • August 26, 2020

Whether or not you’ve heard the term “cancel culture,” you’ve undoubtedly been observing it just about everywhere, gaining more and more traction.

What exactly is it and where did it come from? If you Google that question, the results indicate its origins are on social media and it has a variety of targets (racism, sexual abuse, those guilty of not supporting certain causes, etc). The “cancelled” can be either a high profile personality, company or organization that falls out of favour: for a fresh offence or an old infraction (remember Justin Trudeau’s blackface debacle?).

The online shaming can stay online and be as mild as a digital slap on the wrist or leave cyberspace and become as forceful as someone losing their job, having their work withdrawn from public platforms and even being harassed at their domiciles. Even worse is being “doxxed” — plastering someone’s private information on the Internet, including that of one’s family and even children, putting them at considerable risk.

Is “cancel culture” effective? You bet. But is it fair? Is it just? What change is it really creating? Is it transforming minds and hearts or just bullying and silencing people (for now) and perhaps driving ideas/opinions underground to germinate in an even more potent form? Is wielding the supposedly egalitarian, mob-friendly digital tools in this manner responsible activism? And, like many shortcuts, will “the new censorship” ultimately fail when people are fed up and respond with an inevitable backlash?

It’s important to distinguish between legitimate and necessary correction of wrongdoing (including using  social media to do so), true journalism/news, the need for information and awareness … and its less savoury ersatz iterations: might makes right, who shouts the loudest wins, misinformation, disinformation, squelching free speech, false accusations, revenge tactics, suffocating debate/dialogue, labeling everything one dislikes/disagrees with as “hate speech,” etc.

Not only is “canceling” done by individuals and online “mobs,” often the proprietors of Twitter, YouTube and the like will step in and quietly “shadowban” users (make sure very few people see their posts) who express a dissenting opinion from the prevailing zeitgeist (e.g. pro-lifers) or outright suspend or remove their posts and even entire accounts.

So which values and ideas are to be upheld by everyone “or else,” and who’s deciding these supposedly universal and obvious norms? The standards seem to be eerily similar to the older “political correctness.” As long as you mind your ever-growing list of PC “p’s” and “q’s,” you should be safe.

When everybody’s griping about everything — practising what the excellent, now-defunct Canadian Messenger of the Sacred Heart called “the high art of taking offence” — grave, persistent, often longstanding injustices can get lost in the shuffle.

Case in point: Mount Rushmore. Almost nowhere in the recent news kerfuffle (except Indigenous news sources) have I seen the real, underlying problem explicated. Did you know that the Black Hills of South Dakota (from which the U.S. presidents’ faces are carved) are supremely sacred land for the Sioux Nation? An 1868 treaty designates the range as reservation land, but the illegal, invasive, desacralizing monument was built anyway.

Ryerson psychology professor Oran Amitay (who has experienced extensive cancelling himself) maintains that it has never been good mental health practice to avoid difficult conversations, avoid facing our own biases and fears by squelching opposing opinions and ideas.
If we cancel “cancel culture,” aren’t we just playing into the same negative tear-down game? If we cancel something, what are we going to replace it with? And just how far back in history are we going to go to try to bury even the memory of wrongdoing or erase a less than perfect actor on the world stage?

I suggest we go to the source, Adam and Eve, who started this fine mess. Ah! But we already have a way to cancel the original culprits’ original sin! It’s called baptism, and it’s lived out through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy (do a quick review and see what an excellent social program they really are!)

As Catholic Christians, our response to social issues will always be uniquely guided by the Good News of Jesus Christ, in a nutshell: love of God and neighbour. It may not be the easiest, fastest, flashiest solution, but it’s God’s solution, and His kingdom is cancel-proof: it’s everlasting (Daniel 7:14).

(Sr. Helena, fsp, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA. Twitter: @srhelenaburns)

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