Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 01/19/22

Canceling Cancel Culture. As an educator, entrepreneur and host of The Dr. Jeff Show podcast, Summit Ministries President Dr. Jeff Myers is known for combining fresh insights, balance and humor with his unabashedly Christian worldview.  He is the author of 14 books, including the textbooks Understanding the Faith, Understanding the Times, and Understanding the Culture which are studied by tens of thousands of faith and philosophy students. Here he offers his thoughts on why Cancel Culture and why – no matter our differing faith or political perspectives – everyone has a stake in fighting it and standing up for free speech.

JWK: How do you define Cancel Culture and why do you see it as so dangerous?

Dr. Jeff Myers: Cancel culture started as way to express disagreement with companies by withdrawing support. It has evolved into a form of bullying others for their disagreement.

Why is cancel culture dangerous? Healthy societies require tolerant dialogue, not hostile self-righteousness. At some point the public conversation stopped being about holding powerful people accountable and became instead about targeting fellow citizens for social harm. America is chilly right now. The vast majority of both Republicans and Democrats say that they are afraid to share their opinions out of fear of losing their jobs.

The cancel culture can also be deadly. Reputations and lives are destroyed. My friend Mike Adams was a well-known professor and free speech champion. He had a devastating wit, but he was no bully. Mike was forced out of his professorship through a campaign orchestrated by a former trustee of his university. Humiliated by losing his job, Mike spiraled into depression and ended his own life. The accusations against him have proven untrue. His attackers moved on to other targets. But the loss of Mike is forever. The sad irony is that Mike stood up for everyone’s free speech. A small handful of people used the kinds of freedom Mike stood for to ruin him.

JWK: What do you say to those who say that either that Cancel Culture doesn’t exist or that – if it does – it’s actually more like Consequence Culture? After all, shouldn’t people be held accountable for the things they say and do for those they choose to associate with?

JM: The cancel culture is real. Ryan Lizza of Politico says that 40% of voters claim to have engaged in cancel culture. Ten percent say they participate “often.” The Politico poll found that half of Democrats have admitted to being involved in the cancel culture and more than half of voters 18-34 say they have participated. So it is mostly young liberals who are doing it. Yet a third of Republicans say they have been involved as well.

I believe in accountability. As an example, for many years I served as a professor and had to occasionally hold students accountable for cheating or plagiarizing. I would try to get them to see the error of their ways. I would give them a failing grade for that particular assignment. But publicly humiliating the student or trying to destroy their college career? That should be off the table. Restoration is the goal, not revenge. Most people get this. But the small percentage of our population that doesn’t has wreaked a lot of havoc.

JWK: Canceling people is often done in the name of what most people would consider to be positive goals – for example anti-racism. Why is that wrong? We do want to stamp out racism, don’t we?

JM: On the surface, cancelers seem to be motivated by virtue. But virtue means showing high moral standards to inspire good qualities in others. Nastiness and shaming are not virtuous. They don’t bring about positive results. I understand the impulse to “do something,” but whipping others into an angry mob isn’t a path to virtue. People become virtuous when those they respect personally connect with them in a personal way and ask them to change. This is neither the goal nor the outcome of cancel culture, in my view.

JWK: George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 used to be required reading in many schools because it was seen as a cautionary tale against government authoritarianism, Thought Police and the pressuring people to accept 2+2=5 dystopian login. I’ve heard it said that some of today’s political and cultural leaders seem me be using it more as a how-to manual. Now, writers like Orwell, Mark Twain and Shakespeare who for generations have stood the proverbial test of time are being pushed reading lists in favor of more diverse authors with more diverse perspectives. More perspectives are good – but, in your view, is this more about diversity or about erasing the past? And why does it matter?

JM: I’m for diversity. I regularly engage with people who see things differently. I encourage my students at Summit Ministries to do the same. But cancel culture is not about thinking more clearly. It is about thinking less by eliminating thoughts you disagree with from the conversation. That’s what Orwell warned against. One of his characters in 1984 said, “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

JWK: Why does Cancel Culture exist? What is its purpose and how can it be effectively resisted?

JM: Cancel culture exists because some people don’t really want to dialogue. Rather, they want to shut those with whom they disagree out of the conversation. Plus, dialogue is hard. Face to face disagreement is uncomfortable. And honestly, we’ve been trained by our culture to think that hard equals bad.

How can cancel culture be resisted? I think the first step is to recognize that everything comes down to people, not faceless nonentities. Dignity is based on our shared humanity, not our shared agreement.

JWK:  You say “Self-proclaimed Christians of both the conservative and liberal variety can be mighty mean cancelers.” What do you mean by that? What does Jesus have to say about Cancel Culture?

JM: In a study jointly conducted by Summit Ministries and the Barna Group, 62% of church-going Christians under 45 strongly agreed or agreed somewhat “If your belief offends someone or hurts their feelings, it is wrong.” On the surface, it seems to be an expression of tolerance. But if you speak out on a tough issue and someone says they are offended, does that mean you’re wrong?

As the leader of a Christian ministry, I get a fair bit of criticism. Some comes from non-believers who think I’m wrong, which is fine. Some comes from fellow Christians, which is fine, too. But I’ve noticed that many people—including Christians—lead with how offended they are rather than expressing reasons for their disagreement. If I have a disagreement with someone that doesn’t mean they are obligated to sooth my feelings of offense.

It is completely fine to say to someone, “Here is what you said, and while you may have not intended it this way, here’s how it affected me.” It’s another thing entirely to say “Therefore, you need to agree with me and if you don’t stop I will cut off our relationship and even try to hurt you.”

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). As my friend Pastor Troy Dobbs put it, “Activism isn’t hunting down people who’ve made mistakes while pretending you haven’t.” When we have received forgiveness, we gain the power to forgive others. Hurt people hurt people. Someone has to break the cycle. That is what Jesus taught.

JWK: It seems to me that both the extreme right and the extreme left are given to Cancel Culture because neither can accept nuance. How can those of us – the majority I think – who can see the grain of truth in each side work to bring the culture and politics back toward something closer to balance?

JM: My organization Summit Ministries has done a lot of polling to understand this cultural moment. We are finding signs of hope. 93% believe that it is very important or somewhat important to improve the level of confidence we have in one another. Only 5% say they respond to disagreement by shutting others out of their lives. Nasty people will be nasty but we don’t have to let the worst among us dictate how we seek the best between us.

JWK: Is it just me or have words and phrases like racism, “settled science,” misinformation, anything-phobic and “The Big Lie” been weaponized to shut down debate and prevent – and cancel – dissenting voices? What role does gaining control of the language play in Cancel Culture?

 JM: Language gets weaponized when people stop believing that the truth can be found through rational dialogue. The postmodern impulse is that we can’t know what the truth is, so the best we can do is tell our stories and try to win power. It isn’t about winning people over, but winning over people. As postmodern professor Stanley Fish says, “you are entitled to your own facts if you can make your version of them stick.”

Do you see the danger? What is to stop crafty people with lots of money or influence from manipulating public perceptions to advance their viewpoint and squelch others? This is the very nature of propaganda.

Historically, when people reject truth they don’t try to become better at persuasion. They choose force. The wide, straight road to injustice and tyranny is paved with good intentions all the way.

JWK: What’s the difference between arguing as an aggressor and arguing as an advocate?

JM: In his book Challenging Conversations, author Jason Jimenez observes that most conversations about tough topics fall along a single-dimensional line from avoidance (“You have your truth and I have mine”) to aggression (“I just dropped the mic—you should be speechless and ashamed”). Jimenez says that instead we ought to advocate for both the truth and the other person. Don’t picture two people knocking heads with one another or avoiding one another. Picture two people walking side-by-side, seeking truth.

JWK:  You suggest that it has long been a Marxist strategy to inject inflammatory words and outright name-calling into political discourse. Social media, particularly, seems to be doing a lot of that these days. Why is that?

JM: Marxism isn’t just a set of beliefs; it’s a strategy for winning power. Lenin taught (and demonstrated) that you win through ridicule. He was a master at name-calling. Saul Alinsky updated Lenin’s strategy for current times in Rules for Radicals. He said, “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”

Today we have a perfect storm of Marxism, postmodernism, and a denial of human value. Social media companies recognize this as a business opportunity. They monetize anger and divisiveness. Their algorithms are specifically designed for this purpose.

JWK:  Social media, particularly, has become something of a cesspool of nasty insults that have nothing to do with actual debate. Do you think social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter would do better if they spent a little less time and energy acting like the Truth Police and a little more time enforcing some rules about civil language?

JM: Twitter and Facebook didn’t invent divisiveness, but they have learned how to cash in on it. If media companies stopped feeding people content they know will make them mad and then rewarding them for reacting, they could solve the problem in a week. Will they choose good over greed? I’m not optimistic. There is too much money on the table.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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