To cancel or not; that it the question

I wonder if I’ll get “canceled” someday. I could trip up and say something awkward or inappropriate — and get crushed for it.

It could be a phrase in a Facebook post or a newspaper article like this. It could be a slip in the classroom that gets reported by a student. It doesn’t bother me a lot. I know I’m not perfect in word, deed, motive or thought. And I don’t worry much about what others think about me. But it’d be painful and would hurt those around me.

Today’s “cancel culture” is not entirely new. Political correctness started in the 1980s and prompted people to speak more carefully about certain topics. If you crossed the line, some people would call you out and make life difficult for you. But there was a relatively healthy balance between valid concerns and silliness. Some people took it too seriously, while others would respond with eye-rolls.

Cancel culture is political correctness on steroids. The approach is similar — increased sensitivities for better and for worse — with a heavy dose of fascism. Its practitioners rely on a powerful combination of public policy, social stigma, and economic consequences to enforce the regime. If you transgress today, you may lose your reputation, your job and your career.

You might also think of cancel culture as similar to the recent emergence of #Karen — a light social-media poke at aspects of middle-aged, middle-class, social conservatism. Cancel culture is a type of #Karen on the Left. But while there’s a tongue-in-cheek humor to #Karen, cancel culture is deadly serious with much more at stake.

Cancel culture starts with principles that range from legitimate to debatable and incoherent. Its practitioners can quickly get insistent and dogmatic. It’s a religion that lacks mercy and grace, forgiveness and redemption. As any other religion, it’s never any fun arguing with its fundamentalists. It wars against civil liberties, free speech and free thought. It is a threat to institutions ranging from higher education to comedy. It is stunningly illiberal. (labeling it “liberal” is a terrible and ironic error.)

So, cancel culture is highly problematic and ought to be canceled itself. But canceling is a matter of degree. We can all agree that some things ought to be canceled — for example, sneezing more than two times in a row; the Teletubbies (at least black-and-white photos of them); and microwaving fish at work. Even so, as C.S. Lewis notes, we should try to love the sinner and hate the sin — as we do this so well with ourselves.

And there is a time for some people to be cancelled — if not overall, then in terms of their supposed membership in certain groups. If you support military interventionism or oppose school choice for the poor and middle class, then you might well be on the Left or a run-of-the-mill Democrat, but you should quit calling yourself a “liberal.”

If you said little or nothing about massive spending and debt under the last two GOP presidents or you routinely advocate federal government solutions to state-local problems, then you might be an ordinary Republican, but you should be cancelled as a “conservative.”

What if you’re against abortion as a personal matter, but don’t want to impose your views on others to protect the lives of the unborn? You change policy to take money from current and future taxpayers to finance abortion. And you choose a prominent Cabinet member who played a prominent part in suing a bunch of nuns — to require them to have birth control in their health care coverage. Shouldn’t you be canceled as a Catholic?

In Christian circles, this is often called “church discipline.” In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus says “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

This is terrific counsel. If someone wrongs you, talk with him. Maybe it was a misperception on your part. If not, hopefully, he will apologize and repent. If this doesn’t solve the problem, bring in a third party to mediate. Often, the additional person can be more reasonable and objective in arbitrating the dispute. If this doesn’t work, bring it to the group — and cancel the wrongdoer if he won’t repent.

We should never try to cancel people from their humanity. And we should rarely cancel them from their livelihoods. But we should cancel people from groups when they insist on violating its tenets and norms.

Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., is professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast, adjunct scholar for the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and author of “Poor Policy: How Government Harms the Poor.” Send comments to [email protected].