Cancel Culture Is Not Speaking Truth to Power. It's Just Speaking Power.
I want to make one more brief comment about the kerfuffle du jour in online evangelicalism this past week, although the point really goes beyond it. The following has been said repeatedly, by many people, in a wide variety of circumstances:
A) There is no such thing as “cancel culture.”
B) Even if there was, it’s an important part of keeping powerful people accountable.
My suspicion is that people who say A don’t actually believe it. I don’t know how anybody could spend time online and come away genuinely convinced there is no such thing as outrage mobs or cancellation campaigns. And in fact, I think just about everyone knows these things exist. The question is whether they are good or bad. So people who claim there is no such thing as cancel culture are often defining “cancel culture” to mean, “A way for innocent people to get harmed by social media,” and the way they deny its existence is to presume that anybody who gets canceled is not innocent.
So the really relevant point of contention is B. Allow me a brief space to explain why I think B is mistaken, both in its premise and its conclusion.
Cancel culture does not keep people “accountable.” It does punish them. It does trigger bad consequences for them. It can make them go away and not say or do anything online anymore. But this is not accountability; it’s just erasure. A mechanism for accountability, whether in government, church, business, or personal relationships rests on a foundation of mutual agreement. Government accountability to voters is part of what it means to participate in the U.S. political system; if you dislike this accountability, you can opt out of running for office, and you don’t have to ever experience it. Church accountability (I’m thinking especially for pastors and leaders) assumes a shared moral framework that is presented to the pastor before he is hired or ordained. If you don’t think you want to be accountable in that way, you can decline to be in pastoral ministry (and in fact, the Bible assumes that most Christians won’t be in that position).
The point is that in any meaningful accountability relationship, the parties being held accountable and the parties holding accountable have some shared sense of what’s expected, what’s being enforced. And the reason this is important is that it establishes a kind of mutual accountability between the parties. The pastor knows what he is accountable for, the congregation knows what they obligated to hold him accountable to, and both the pastor and the congregation know each other’s particular obligations.
This is why an accountability relationship does not mean that a congregation or a business can just get rid of somebody because they feel like it. There are protections in place, legally and theologically, that constrain and shape the accountability relationship. We do have a term to describe a relationship that can be terminated at any time, for any reason, without any mutual agreement: an "at-will” hire. This is typically the kind of relationship that commercial businesses have with their lowest level employees. The at-will hire is not an accountability relationship; it’s more akin to servitude. It exists not for the benefit of the person being held accountable, nor for the sake of improving their choices through close accountability. The at-will hire exists entirely for the convenience of the employer. It protects them from accountability.
For someone to get dragged online until they lose their job, their reputation, and perhaps more, is not an expression of an accountability relationship. There is no accountability possible with the Internet. The Internet is a depersonalized space where disembodied avatars assemble in non-relationship. Social media culture—those websites in which hundreds of millions of disembodied avatars assemble in non-relationship—is literally a place of negative mutuality. There are no understood rules, no shared obligations, no expressed expectations that keep both parties accountable to their commitments. Even a website’s “Terms of Service” do not function this way.
Instead, a social media cancellation is an expression of an at-will servitude. It is a moment in time in which a person can be punished and erased for violating a standard they didn’t agree to, by people who possess no moral claim on them, in a space that neither of them own or have meaningful investment in. Cancel culture is the opposite of accountability. It is the way an unwanted servant gets treated.
This explains why the vast majority of people who get canceled online are shocked when it happens. It’s also why the vast majority of people who participate in a cancellation quickly move on, sometimes within hours. And this gets to the crucial point: Cancel culture is an expression of power, not virtue. Cancel culture is muscle. It is a thousands of people hurling accusations at an unprepared individual. It is hundreds and hundreds of notifications and messages that use various levels of invective to say the same thing: “You should go away.” The metaphor that Helen Andrews used of a “storm” that beats down on you is well-chosen. You can’t fight off a storm. You can only wait for it to end, and hope something is left when it does.
There is a lot of conversation these days about justice. I would like to convince as many people as I can that an episode like the one I’ve described is not justice. It does not achieve anything for marginalized people; it does not right wrongs previously inflicted on victims. Online cancellation mobs are instruments of injustice. They don’t protect victims, they create them. They don’t create change. They stay in their digital plot. And they don’t just harm the targets. They harm the participants. They poison the imagination, they dehumanize, and they reinforce a self-righteous sense that such a fate must be deserved.
People should not lose their job or their reputation because the online commons dislikes them. And reader, let me tell you, if you don’t believe this now, you will believe it eventually. The thing about being a slave of the Internet is that all of us are. And we know not the hour of our master’s visitation.