Cancellation Is An Important Power; “Cancel Culture” Is Power Corrupted
One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Some things need canceling. Unjust laws* need canceling, racists too. So do inciters and manipulators and hate-mongers.
But when cancellation becomes cultural, a danger arises. Things that are cultural spread unchecked through ideas, customs, and social behavior. “Drugs” means something different than “drug culture.” The former suggests treatment; the latter suggests abuse run rampant.
Cancellation’s Slippery Slope
Dr. King understood the difference between (the necessary) cancellation and (the treacherous) cancel culture. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (quoted above), Dr. King reminds his readers that cancellation hinges on a moral question:
One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust.
To discharge the weapon of cancellation, one should first (thoroughly, thoughtfully, and honestly) weigh Dr. King’s differentiator: just or unjust? Cancellation isn’t a self-defense weapon; there’s no intruder at the door, in the dark, with little chance to ask “Who goes there?” But cancel culture is shoot first and ask questions later, with little care if the killing is justified or not.
Yes, cancellation is killing.
And yes, evil things need to be killed off.
But when you have cultural killing, you have mob mentality, you have Stalinism, you have certainty as idolatry. In cancel culture, killing runs amok, fueled by self-satisfaction and sustained by biases and agendas. Everyone’s playing the game, everyone’s an executioner, and most refuse to stop, listen, and learn, to question beyond the knee-jerk reaction “I cancel you!”
When Canceling Becomes Easy
Delivering the punishment should not come so easy to so many. Dr. King stressed our “moral responsibility to obey just laws,” which means the act of disobeying is never so simple. Thus, moral responsibility (before disobeyment) must come first … i.e., distinguishing between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.
And this takes time.
This takes thought.
This takes questions, even questions of your enemy.
But in a culture of blasted tweets, angry articles, and political fury, moral responsibility rarely exists. Cancel culture stretches morality into whim … the whim to cancel all things disagreeable without facts or research or dialogue. In this realm, people and things are cancelled because everyone is doing it, and everyone is doing it categorically … no delay, no truth, no mercy.
* Don’t read this as supporting Georgia’s voting law or against the Minnesota protests. Equality for all (and the fight for civil rights) is both a righteous movement and a barometer of injustice. Within civil rights, cancellation (e.g., the Montgomery Bus Boycott) is a justifiable weapon. However, cancel culture is something very different. Cancel culture makes all things fair game based simply on labelling, stereotypes, and raw feelings. Behind these things, there might very well be a need to cancel, but in cancel culture-where cancellation becomes habitual instead of rare-the deployment is automatic and never empathetic nor contemplative.
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.