In our feature article, Carol Ann Weaver tells of two Mennonite evangelists who imposed a ban on musical instruments decades ago. It’s tempting to marvel at how utterly unenlightened such a response to perceived wrong now seems. Banning feels so backward.
But the ban is back. Emma Siemens discusses the pros and cons of cancel culture, a present-day practice akin to banning. To cancel is to cut off communication, to say that a person is so wrong they are not worthy of interaction. In lesser forms, it is a creeping tendency to dismiss people rather than engage. It is associated with progressives and it is present in church.
If that seems overstated, ask Mennonite professors, pastors, students and magazine editors if progressive backlash keeps them from voicing questions they consider important. The chill is on.
Like cancellers, I care about addressing injustice. I have stood up to oppressors in print, on the street and in government offices. I believe in confronting injustice.
I also believe in tension, self-critique and diversity. As well as grace, humility and freedom of speech. I do not believe everyone must agree with me nor that those who disagree should be silenced.
I disagree with people who oppose LGBTQ+ marriage (which puts me awkwardly at odds with some minorities), but I’m not going to gouge the speck out of their eye.
I am repulsed by elements of macho culture, but I often engage with people who tune into some of the online figures most commonly accused of toxic masculinity.
I disagree with my pro-Trump neighbours, but I don’t think shunning them makes the world safer.
Safety is often the stated rationale for cancellation. Indeed, certain views cause great harm to people. Our natural instinct is to protect ourselves and those we love. That’s good. We also need to consider whether cancelling—which tends to supercharge animosity—actually makes society safer and healthier.
There are times to unequivocally dismiss people, but more often we do well to heed the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who said, “If only there were evil people somewhere . . . and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
A rush to cancel relieves people of this duty of tension and introspection. Cancellers give themselves permission to separate themselves from evil and start casting stones.
Anabaptists have done tremendous work on restorative justice, which shifts focus from punishment to restoration. For decades, Mennonites have done the uncomfortable work of accompanying some of the most seemingly cancel-worthy sexual offenders in society. The outcome in many cases is safety through engagement.
Vulnerable people absolutely need to be shielded from harm. I also grapple with the fact that not everyone can disengage or retreat. Palestinians can’t ban armed settlers who burn their homes. My northern Indigenous friends assaulted by hydroelectric projects have little choice but to step into the nastiness to seek change. For them, the path to safety is dangerous.
The Christian story also involves risk and peril. The cross is not a promise of security. It’s a brutal, beautiful paradox—one we must hold in tension with our natural desire for safety.
Weaver’s story moves from the ban to apology to forgiveness and wholeness. Siemens also circles round to forgiveness and the possibility of redemption—the possibility that a piano shunner might find music in his heart.
To add another concept much less popular than cancellation, Carol Penner encourages us to confess our sins. Such confession humbles us, making it easier to extend grace to the people we may wish to cancel. It reminds us where the line between good and evil passes. At Penner’s suggestion, I am using Lent as a time to pray daily for a few people I’d like to cancel (and I mean legit prayers, not: “Dear God, please help them become less annoying”).
May God have mercy on us all.
New team member
We are thrilled to announce that Madalene Arias is our new Eastern Canada correspondent. She has an honours degree in journalism, a foot planted firmly in the working-class world and a beautiful story of Mennonite rootage. We will introduce her more fully soon.
In the Feb. 13 issue we called the Communitas Supportive Care Society a “Network” rather than “Society,” and in the Feb. 27 issue we added an “h” to Esther Epp-Tiessen’s surname. We apologize.
Will Braun welcomes feedback at email@example.com.
Read more editorials:
Red carpet hayloft
The evangelical edge
Peace and popularity
The holy paradox of modern Mennonite identity
Tuning out of Advent
It's difficult to read through your article and not encounter any acknowledgment that opposition to cancel culture very often comes from reactive right-wing voices who weaponize the term against whatever they do not like. The analogy between the ban and cancel culture seems pretty spurious in face of the use of the term "cancel culture" to deflect legitimate criticism and alleviate feelings of guilt and moral blame. Why not mention that for many political pundits being against "cancel culture" is a way of avoiding criticism? (See, for example, https://www.currentaffairs.org/2018/05/pretty-loud-for-being-so-silenced).
It's pretty concerning to see this kind of argument in the Canadian Mennonite because it plays straight into the hands of right-wing resentment and stalls critical thinking about how the term "cancel culture" is often used to dismiss critical interventions that actually reflect the virtues you affirm (engagement, justice, etc.). (See, for example, https://www.thenation.com/article/society/republicans-cancel-culture-kae...)
Let’s try to synthesize some of the claims made by Will and Max, as follows:
It is important for a reaction to not become an overreaction. This means one should not use the label ‘cancel culture’ to dismiss a person for a complaint they are making or to avoid engaging with the complaint.
For example, if I get my back up about the wave of accusations of transphobia levelled against J. K. Rowling (author of Harry Potter), and then I am confronted with an actual complaint, I should resist the effort to dismiss or demonize the complainer as a product of cancel culture, and grant them the dignity of hearing them out.
Of course, this cuts both ways. In other words, if someone complains about being cancelled, be attentive to that, and consider that the complaint may have merit.
The irony is that the people who are most likely to be intimidated and silenced by cancel culture or the reaction to it are the moderate middle - the non-extreme types who are actually most likely to listen to both sides of an argument and less inclined to see the world as a battle between black and white.
These are the people who will be nervous about being criticized by their more doctrinaire friends for not aligning with a particular view and simply bite their tongue. However, I don’t think that unfortunate reality will change. So what we really need is for those moderates to be brave and speak out, while insisting on the inherent dignity of their opponents.
Thanks for your comment Maxwell. I’ve considered it carefully. I appreciate you putting yourself out there.
As you point out, the cancel culture discussion has more dimensions than I covered. Totally fair point.
And yes some wonky people make messed up claims against cancel culture. But I don’t think that means that I—making fundamentally different points from a fundamentally different perspective—cannot question “a creeping tendency to dismiss people rather than engage.” (Forgive me if that misrepresents your argument.)
I understand the sentiment that my arguments “play into the hands of right-wing resentment” but my experience with Trump-aligned friends and neighbours is that my posture actually does the opposite of stoking right-wing fires.
And if you are assuming that “right-wing resentment” is categorically bad--perhaps worthy of the banishment--then I note that that is the exact sort of tendency I’m questioning.
Progressives are not all right; conservatives are not all wrong. Self critique is good.
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