In the face of claims that Depp abused Heard, counter-claims have surfaced that Depp was actually the victim of abuse from Heard, which generated the hashtag #justiceforjohnny. Suddenly it’s not really clear what the truth is. In a post #metoo world, the prevailing social narrative assumes that men are abusers and women victims, but others are asking, “when did it become okay to pretend that abuse doesn’t happen to men as well as to women?” In a case like this, where the facts are not clear-cut or agreed upon, it makes more sense to focus on finding out what is true rather than canceling those who have been accused of wrongdoing. But from either side of this conflict, most people are engaging in cancel culture by demanding either Depp or Heard be canceled. Our culture’s proclivity to engage in cancel culture reveals the startling possibility that we might not care about love or truth as much as we think we do.
Cancel Culture: The Positive Case
Many people consider cancel culture to be wrong because its intention is to shut out and shut up a person, instead of allowing someone to speak for themselves. This promotes exclusion and does not seem to be a loving way to interact with others. But one of the reasons cancel culture is so influential is because not everyone is against it. The internet news source Vox gives an in-depth defense of cancel culture that explains why certain people think that it is good. Vox compares canceling someone to boycotting a company and calls it “an important tool” and a “tactical strategy” for fighting social injustice. Vox concludes that “the traditional approach” to resolving conflict “of apology, atonement, and forgiveness,” doesn’t work anymore.
Why does Vox come to the conclusion that the “traditional approach” isn’t effective anymore? Vox argues that forgiveness is not going to work because the root of the issue is power. What is important in a case like Depp’s is not so much what is true, but who has power and why. Vox would say that power is a tool used to oppress various groups of people and cancel culture can be used as a tool against power to level the playing field between these groups. Depp, as a man, has more power than Heard does as a woman, and that balance needs to shift out of his favor. Truth must still be relevant at some level, but not a very significant one. Vox mentions as an example that a “large segment” of Harry Potter fans, in an attempt to cancel J.K. Rowling for statements she made about transgenderism, is “openly claiming that Rowling was not the author” of the Harry Potter series. In the pursuit of power, blatant falsehood is being circulated. Power, not truth, is what motivates the most insidious forms of cancel culture.
Cancel Culture: The Negative Case
Of course, these ideas about power did not come out of nowhere; they’ve been around at least since the atheist philosopher Michel Foucault. When we accept a philosophy that sees power as the driving force for how we should act, we lose something other than truth—we lose love. It is not only that canceling a person is often an alternative to seeking to know what is true, but it is also a failure to truly love and care for them Canceling someone is morally rejecting that person and declaring them beyond redemption.
But what about Vox’s claim that cancel culture is necessary to help those who are powerless? We should take this claim seriously. As Christians, we are called to defend those who cannot defend themselves (Psalm 82:3-4). We should affirm—alongside those who see cancel culture as a tool against oppression—that, yes, oppression is wrong and we should do something about it. However, the reason people have turned to cancel culture is because they believe that the “traditional” Christian approach to conflict “of apology, atonement, and forgiveness,” has failed them. Instead of seeking reconciliation and forgiveness, cancel culture tries to shut people out for good. Cancel culture is a tool of exclusion, not of love. When the method for fighting oppression casts out truth and love, we must forego that method and find another.
WWJC: Who Would Jesus Cancel?
Something Jesus never said was, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest… except for those of you whom I have canceled.” To consider how we should think about cancel culture, we should look to Christ. On the one hand, we all deserve to be canceled. Every one of us in our sin is deserving of total rejection from God. But who did Jesus cancel? No one. Not the worst sinners in society. Not the uneducated and unfaithful disciples (although he did tell Peter to shut up a few times). He didn’t even cancel the self-righteous and critical Pharisees—he let them have their say and ask their wily questions over and over.
Jesus did not cancel because he was not grasping for power. He was concerned about truth and love. Paul also tells us to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15, NIV), which is the opposite of what cancel culture tells us to do. Events like the canceling of Johnny Depp are frightening examples of our culture’s disregard for both truth and love. We should not assume that we are immune to the attitudes of our culture, but should instead reflect upon our thoughts and actions to consider how we may have been unconsciously influenced by the mindset of cancel culture. Does how we treat celebrities reveal how we think about and treat one another? When it comes to how we treat others, are we following the footsteps of Christ or the footsteps of our culture?
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