One of my favorite TED talks is by Megan Phelps-Roper, the granddaughter of the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church. The organization has been named a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and has made headlines over the years for its hate speech towards LGBTQ and Jewish persons, as well as for its protests at military funerals. Phelps-Roper shares that part of the reason why she left Westboro was her interactions with several strangers on Twitter. Though they passionately opposed Westboro’s doctrines, these Twitter users did not talk to Phelps-Roper like she was a heartless monster, but rather a human being with dignity and value.
After I listened to Phelps-Roper’s talk, I was grateful that she had left Westboro in 2012, not in 2021. She was an active Twitter user before Gamergate, #MeToo, and the 2016 U.S. presidential election. If she had been tweeting the same vitriol from her Westboro days in our current political climate, would anyone have taken an interest in the person behind the profile? Wouldn’t she have been “cancelled”?
The rise of cancel culture
From its origin in the 1981 song “Your Love is Cancelled” by Nile Rodgers & Chic, the phrase “cancel culture” has evolved. “Cancellation” is no longer merely a personal choice to not engage with a person due to an offensive statement or action. It has now become a public reckoning (and often condemnation) of a person’s reputation, personal life, and body of work. Something that could be understood as a mistake or misunderstanding in an in-person setting turns into a rhetorical grenade, dividing those involved into “us” and “them.” Moreover, in many cases, this rage spirals into harassment and threats against the person who is cancelled.
Participants in cancel culture will often defend their takedowns of the person they’re canceling as accountability. However, as Catholics, we already know that we’re responsible for our actions: “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one's own responsibility” (CCC 1731). If taking responsibility for one’s actions was all that the “cancellers” required, there would be no cancel culture.
Oftentimes, cancel culture participants will also demand that the cancelled person “face the consequences” of their perceived wrongdoings, which usually consist of the loss of followers, titles, or other marks of success. Again, Catholics believe actions have consequences, and that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). We also know that an apology is sometimes (but not always) insufficient to repair the damage done by sin (CCC 1459).
The Catholic alternative to cancel culture
But here’s the difference between Catholicism and cancel culture: forgiveness and recognizing the dignity of the human person. Forgiveness doesn’t mean a lack of justice, but rather an acknowledgment of each other as human beings made in the image and likeness of God. Forgiveness is not a “get out of jail free” card - it’s the restoration of a relationship.
As Phelps-Roper said in her TED talk,
My friends on Twitter didn’t abandon their beliefs or their principles, only their scorn. They channeled their infinitely justifiable offense and came to me with pointed questions tempered with kindness and humor. They approached me as a human being, and that was more transformative than two full decades of outrage, disdain, and violence.
In our conversations online and in person, let us place human dignity above our pride. After all, Jesus didn’t come to earth to “cancel” humanity because of the Pharisees, but to reconcile us to himself (Col 1:19-22).