“Cancel Culture” is a term used to describe the recent movement that has led people to lose their jobs or their influence because of troubling things that they have said, especially on social media. The highest profile was perhaps Roseanne Barr losing her show over an ugly (and almost certainly racist) tweet about Valerie Jarrett.
What struck most people was the speed at which the whole process moved. One day, Roseanne had a hugely successful TV show, and the next moment she was radioactive and her friends and coworkers distanced themselves from her. It certainly reveals the power of our words.
Careless words are nothing new, but most people have not had ample opportunities to publish their passing thoughts for the world’s consumption. This puts us in a position to be judged far and wide for saying things that may not be entirely thought through.
While the Roseanne case surprised me because of its speed, it is difficult for me to feel that anything unjust happened. The basic facts of the case are that (1) Roseanne said something wildly inappropriate, (2) she was judged for her words, and (3) her show was canceled as a consequence.
This was a case of someone crossing a line and experiencing the consequences. If I got up in the pulpit this next Sunday and said something ugly and inappropriate, it would not seem unreasonable to me that I would experience consequences—and perhaps be fired—because of these words.
What is more troubling to me is when people experience “cancel culture” because of things that they have said many years ago. Recently James Gunn was fired as the director of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 (he directed the first two films) for inappropriate jokes that he made a decade ago. To add to the irony, it turned out that he had not only disavowed these previous tweets, but that he has spoken publicly about it several times.
Then, in the past two weeks, two baseball players (Josh Hader and Sean Newcomb) each had ugly tweets from their teenage years brought to light. While neither player has experienced employment consequences at this point, both have experienced public shaming over these past words.
While each of us surely has an opinion about these issues, I want to explore a gospel-centered response to this movement. Is this simply justice being done through consequences being enforced? Is this a case of malice? Is there a lesson about how we use words? I want to make three suggestions about how Christians can respond to this cultural reality.
1. Be Wise About Your Words.
Some of us may conclude that it is wrong for people to have their words thrown in their faces. But concluding this doesn’t change reality. We live in a world in which more of our words are published and more of our actions are caught on camera than ever before. We simply must be wise about how we conduct ourselves in this kind of world.
Of course, the ultimate key to avoid saying stupid and ugly things on Twitter is to cultivate the habit of not saying stupid and ugly things in general. And the key to avoiding saying stupid and ugly things is to grow into the kind of person who doesn’t speak in that manner. This is a by-product of our connection to God.
We are set free to love others (even our enemies) when we live in the reality of God’s love for us (1 John 4:7, Matthew 5:43-48). Jesus said that “everyone will have to give an account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken” (Matthew 12:36). Words have the power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21). We are wise when we take great care with what we say.
On top of this, it is incumbent upon those of us who are parents and influences in the lives of younger people to warn them of the dangers of careless words—especially when those words end up recorded on a video or written online. Future opportunities may be lost because of silly and careless things that are said during youth. While many of us may believe that this shouldn’t happen, we must live wisely in a world in which it does happen. And we show compassion when we teach and train others to be wise with their words.
2. Beware of Malice.
Sometimes we ought to ask, “Why did this person’s ugly tweets get dug up by someone?” In one of the most recent cases, Atlanta Brave pitcher Sean Newcomb had some tweets from his late teenage years publicized on the afternoon of Sunday, July 29th. This was striking because this was right after Newcomb came one out away from pitching a no-hitter against the Dodgers.
It was the greatest pitching performance of his career. It seems hard to believe that it was coincidental that these tweets were brought up on this exact day. It seems much more likely that someone who was about to have his greatest moment in the spotlight was taken down a peg. And it is hard to imagine that the motivation for this was anything but malice.
Malice describes how we behave when we take pleasure in someone else’s misfortune. This is different than holding someone accountable for their actions. It is one thing for mistreated women to speak out against Harvey Weinstein so that he can no longer live as a predator. It is another thing to tear someone down, not because he is a danger to society, but because it is more fun to watch a hero fall than to let him have his moment in the sun.
We all must pause, search our hearts and beware of malice. None of us is above celebrating the downfall of someone we don’t like. Whether this means enjoying a scandal involving a politician on the other side of the aisle or smiling when we hear that an obnoxious co-worker is going through a divorce, malice is a temptation for every person.
We must acknowledge it, confess it, repent of it, and fight against it. We all do well to take to heart Jesus’ words to pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44). It is hard to be malicious to someone if you are praying for God to bless them.
3. Believe in Redemption.
As I stated previously, it does not trouble me deeply when I see people experience negative consequences for careless or ugly words that they have just used. I do feel troubled, though, when I see people experience blowback from words that are several years old. This is especially true when these words were made by people during their teenage years.
I would hope we would all have the humility to remember some of the foolish things we said as teenagers. I am deeply thankful that social media did not exist in my teenage years. I, along with many of my friends, would no doubt have to explain stupid and careless things that we said.
When we practice “cancel culture” about people’s past words, we often demonstrate that a person’s words at any given time reveal that person’s true and unchangeable nature. This simply is not true. Every single one of us would disavow certain things that we’ve said in the past.
Either our minds have changed or we have matured or we simply would use different words today. While we are all accountable for our words, our past words should be treated as something in our past, and not necessarily the final word on our character. As Christians, we should believe this at the core of our being, since the gospel is about redemption and transformation.
Were Peter’s denials of Jesus the final word on his life? No, he ended up being the rock on which Jesus’ church was built. Were Paul’s violent attacks on Christians the final words on him? Certainly not! He ended up writing almost half of the books of the New Testament. Are David’s adultery and murder the whole story of his life? Not at all, because he repented and is remembered as a flawed, but wonderful king of Israel.
We betray a lack of faith in God’s power to bring redemption when we don’t allow people’s past words to be something in their past. It is wonderful for a person to say, “Yes, I tweeted that. And I wish I hadn’t. It was a stupid and ugly thing to say. I would never say that today.
I’m truly sorry that I said it and I apologize. I have grown a lot since the time when I wrote it.” A person who says this is not demonstrating that they are not taking responsibility. A person who says this is demonstrating that people change, people grow, and people experience redemption. To dig up offenses in the far past is to demonstrate that we don’t believe people can change. This is a sad mark of “cancel culture.”
As believers in Jesus, we have the calling to wisely navigate the culture in which God has put us. We don’t need to rail against the culture all the time, but we are called to critique it when it is helpful. One way that we can all be counter-cultural is to take great care with what we say, to search our hearts and rid them of malice, and to see others through the eyes of redemption.
Thank God that he didn’t view us all as lost causes, but as men and women to be redeemed and forgiven. May we go and express that same love and compassion toward others.