I have the honor of engaging almost weekly with the social justice community as a partner with The Breakdown, a show that grew out of the project started by activist Shaun King. He hosts the show on Twitch and last week, part of the discussion was around this idea of cancel culture. Have you heard of it?
The idea is that if someone says something I don’t like or disagree with, I can remove myself from the connection with them. I stop supporting them (if they are a public personality, I stop watching their television shows, listening to their podcasts, seeing their movies, or buying their music for example). I effectively ‘cancel’ them. To a greater extreme, I might even post about their indiscretion on social media.
We can also use this notion of cancel culture with our personal circles. If a friend or colleague, family member, or other person I am connected with on social media espouses rhetoric that I disagree with, we can have a war of words in that space, and then at some point I can ‘cancel’ them: I can unfollow or unfriend them, after having my last words.
But what does that get us?
Sure, we might feel vindicated, especially if others jump in and side with us about the matter.
However, what has been learned, and by whom?
Sure, there are times when I’ve just had enough — especially right now. As a woman from a non-majority culture group, I get sick and tired, and tired and sick, of having the same discussions about race in ‘Merica. It’s old, tired, and busted.
But here’s the thing.
It’s always been old, tired, and busted. Non-majority folks have been discussing these matters, not just over the past eight or twelve years (or even back into the Clinton administration, when jokes abounded that Prez Bill was ‘the first black president’), but for decades now.
The difference now is that the person in the Big Chair (nope, I won’t put that person’s name here because they will NOT get another social media hit from me. Ever. I don’t use their name in any of my social media for that reason, so if you offer a reply here, please don’t either) has led the way for people to express how they feel, openly, about immigration and diversity, to just name a couple things.
It’s easy to say things like ‘Well, I have never heard him say anything racist’ while not asking Siri, the Google Lady, or Alexa for some insight. After all, it’s real simple to ask for insight about the prevalence of black-on-black crime in response to someone saying that police officer violence against black communities is a thing, but to not ask the same questions about that person in the Big Chair, just because his past views aren’t espoused in the same way is a bit negligent, don’t you think?
As the discussions rage on about ‘all lives matter’ as a slap in the face to ‘black lives matter’, I am reminded of the Tower of Babel story in the Bible. No, I don’t suggest there is any direct connection, but the idea that for a little while, things were going on and all seemed well in modern society, weren’t they. The world was building toward something, just like the people groups who came together to build that tower were. In modern times, that ‘something’ might have been the whole silly idea of a ‘post-racial society’. Just like Babel, where the evil workings of the people had to be confounded, here we are today, as confounded as we can be.
But rather than throwing up our hands and walking away from the conversations about race, place, caste, and culture (which frankly is easy — turn one’s back and keep it pushing, away from the stress of conflict), we need to face it head on.
No cancel culture here.
I need to be seen and heard.
My reality, while perhaps different than yours, is valid.
My life matters.
And no, that does not mean that all others don’t. It simply means that all lives can’t matter if mine doesn’t. That’s like saying 99.9% is the same as 100%. It’s close, but it is not the same.
An anti-cancel culture mentality means being tired, all the time. It means waiting for someone with a different life experience to show up on a thread with a rebuff that flouts a dominant culture ideology and having to push back in a way that doesn’t alienate.
Is that necessary? No. But without the non-alienating push-back sometimes, the dominant culture ideology is never challenged in a way that makes the other person think.
None of us know what we don’t know: if a person has never been spit on or called a derogatory name because of their faith practice, their skin color, or their beliefs, they can’t know what that feels like. If a person has grown up believing a certain thing, and everyone they know believes the same thing, they can’t know there is something different.
Until they are taught otherwise.
I have a colleague from Nigeria who once told me they knew nothing of racism until coming to the United States. They went on to explain that in their hometown, everyone ‘was the same’, in that they were all from essentially the same caste; they were economically, educationally, faith-connected, and culturally ‘the same’. The first European people they ever saw were missionaries; no one with lighter hued skin lived where they lived.
Imagine being those missionaries. I’ve spoken to people of European descent who have had an experience of being ‘the only’ or ‘one of a few’ in a group of non-majority people. They’ve described feeling exposed, uncomfortable. I typically nod and mention that what they felt is often how non-majority folks feel every day. Often, I go on to explain that the feeling is worse for non-majority folks because in the case of an instance of being the non-majority person in the room, no one necessarily called them out or treated them differently. Non-majority folks aren’t always so fortunate because more often than not, we are the ‘only’ or ‘the one of a few’. All the time.
Now, I am not suggesting that there is no place for cancel culture. There are times when it is the safest thing to do. But should it be the first reaction, every time? No.
My beloved posted this meme and I shared it yesterday:
And there you have it.