24. Cancel culture and the whole person | God's World News

It's our June giving drive! Help more kids see God at work in the culture.


Kelsey Reed • 06/21/2023
Concurrently Ep 24 Thumb 2

Kelsey Reed
Hello, welcome to Concurrently: The News Coach Podcast from WORLD Radio and God’s WORLD News. Our mission is to come alongside you, learning and laboring with you as you disciple kids and teens through culture and current events. I’m Kelsey Reed, I’m here again with Jonathan Boes.

Jonathan Boes

Together, we want to model conversation and apply tools you can use at home or in the classroom. As always, we invite you to send in questions for us to address in future episodes. Please send them to newscoach@wng.org.

First for today, a little housekeeping. If you’ve been listening to us consistently, you’ll recognize many of the tools we are using by name now. You may have also noticed a new element we are incorporating into our show notes. We recently developed the Concurrently Companion as a brief episode guide with discussion questions and key terms. We’d love to hear how you’re using it and what you’d like to see more of when convention season is over. I hope to go back and retrofit some Companions to go with our first 18 episodes. They will eventually be released to the News Coach blog.

I also want to point out, we’re consistently applying the SOAR method to provide structure for our conversations. So first, as we pivot towards the topic for today, let’s give a broad overview, or our survey.

So the store Target found itself in hot water here at the beginning of June, which is considered Pride Month. Citing safety concerns amidst conservative backlash, the store announced that it would be removing some of its LGBTQ-focused products and changing or moving some of its Pride displays. Of course, this led to boycotts from the other side of the political aisle, with activists now disavowing Target for what they see as caving in to pressure. And this whole hubbub, among a bunch of other things we’re seeing in the news, has us thinking about a particular phrase that gets thrown around a lot nowadays. And that phrase is “cancel culture.” We’re wondering: What is cancel culture? Does it really exist? And how do we respond to this concept as Christian parents and educators?

So right out the gate, I feel like it’s so important for us to acknowledge that there are different cultural elements in place. We have the culture that surrounds us, if we believe that we are a Christian subculture, there’s the surrounding world. We’ve defined words like culture in the past. But today, we need to define some of the other phenomena within culture, which includes that the surrounding culture subscribes to a month that it devotes to pride. We also need to talk more specifically about this idea of cancel culture. So let’s be really careful to just define that phenomenon. What is cancel culture?

So you hear this term thrown around a lot. It can be kind of nebulous. People sometimes disagree on exactly what it means and what they’re talking about here. But I want to look at the Merriam-Webster definition because I think it’s really concise and useful. Merriam-Webster defines cancel culture as “the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.” And the word canceling in there specifically refers to another Webster definition, which is “to withdrawal one’s support for someone (such as a celebrity) or something (such as a company) publicly, and especially on social media.” So to put that all together, we’re talking about cancel culture: the practice or tendency of withdrawing support for a celebrity or a company in a public way, using disapproval and social pressure, often on social media.

We’ve talked about the example of Target, which is a company. There’s another example that I found in the book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. This is an example of a particular person being canceled. It’s a quite famous story: the parable of Justine Sacco. She worked in public relations for a company in New York, I believe. She was on Twitter. She only had about 170 Twitter followers—not a famous person. She’s getting on a flight to Africa, and before the flight takes off, she tweets out a pretty insensitive joke. I won’t repeat it here, but it’s a joke that could easily be construed as racist.

So this woman has an 11-hour flight. When her flight lands, she is the number one trending thing on Twitter. There is a trending hashtag, #FireJustineSacco. Her friends are calling her to check in. This person, who was relatively unknown, loses her job. Her life is totally changed because of a tweet that—yeah, it was not a good tweet. But one tweet and this woman’s life has changed forever over the course of an 11-hour flight, just from the social pressure exerted on Twitter.

And there is an abundance of examples. That’s just one. The Target story is another. As I’m recording this, I know there are people up in arms about Chick-fil-A hiring an executive to deal with diversity and equity, and now boycotting Chick-fil-A because of that. We could spend all day just citing examples. But I think these examples give some idea of what we’re talking about when we employ that Merriam-Webster definition of cancel culture.

So we have gotten a big picture sense of this topic area. We’ve given some definition. We’ve even shown some great examples. So we’re making observations now as we look at these many, many examples in culture, in the world, of this phenomenon. So tease out some more observations for me. What are the dynamics that you are observing. You know—where does this come from?

I think it’s something people often talk about as happening on the political left. But I think it’s something that goes beyond that. You see it happening on the political right as well. It happens to politicians, it happens to celebrities, it happens to pastors—you know, a pastor makes an unpopular comment and Christians disavow their support, even if it’s not something that’s really against biblical orthodoxy, maybe it’s just kind of against popular political beliefs.

And some people, of course, debate whether or not cancel culture exists. And this is getting a little bit into analysis, but I think it’s because there are some nebulous ideas at work here. You know, the idea of withdrawing support, as Merriam-Webster defined it—who exactly is withdrawing support? If everyone on the left is canceling somebody—like J.K. Rowling, for example—if everyone on the left is canceling J.K. Rowling, they can still look at people on the right who support her, or the fact that she still has Harry Potter video games coming out, and they can say, “See, cancel culture doesn’t exist: She’s still receiving support; she’s still making money,” even though a huge group of people have disavowed her and exerted social pressure to shut down her opinions.

And so I think it’s easy to say it doesn’t exist if you look outside your own circle, when often it’s cancelation happening within our own circles that sometimes we participate in without even seeing. It’s sometimes more about a mindset or a practice. It’s not necessarily about the results. Even if culture fails to fully cancel somebody, there’s still this mindset and this attempt among groups of people to shut down, cancel, silence somebody because they don’t agree with their views, or their speech makes them uncomfortable, or they’ve done something tasteless, like in the case of that racist tweet. Often, it’s less about whether or not somebody is actually fully canceled and more about this mindset, this practice, this ongoing culture of trying to cancel people.

I’m really glad that you connected mindset with practice, because as an educator, I’m immediately thinking of these dimensions that I’m going to draw out multiple times actually through the rest of this episode. But we talk about how the thing we believe, or the thing we think, shapes our beliefs and our attitudes, our motivations. It affects our actions directly. So what we think, it doesn’t always have a straight shot to action, but quite often, we are thinking something and we are doing something that is related to it. So as whole persons, some of the ways we can actually maybe take things apart for a little bit to analyze and then put them back together is to ask: What are we thinking? What are we feeling? What are we doing? What actions are we participating in?

We said Christianity is more about our response, but our response often is very much coached by the heart. So as we pivot into this greater section of analysis, where we are diving deeper into analytical work, I want to encourage another of our tools. Let’s pull out our EQ (or emotional intelligence) tool. This tool reminds us to ask questions that reveal our heart level responses. What is going on in that section of our being that has to do with our affections, our emotions, our attitudes, and not merely what we know on a topic? Educators, if you’re listening in, you’ll be familiar with the know-be-do or the head-heart-hands domains. We mentioned them a little bit in what I was describing. We’re talking about cognitive, affective, behavioral. And what we’ve noticed and learned, what we’ve absorbed about a topic, has an impact on us at the emotional level if we don’t stop and think and examine. And it’s not that I’m suggesting the emotional level is wrong. It is a part of our whole person response. But sometimes we need to bring that into a logical analysis place that we can understand what’s going on. How are we feeling about something?

To draw out emotional analysis, we dive into three distinct areas: We think about our own emotional dimension with EQ-self; We think about EQ regarding others; And how do we also exercise emotional intelligence on a more global or community scale? So we’re going to approach it with these three specific questions to draw it out regarding cancel culture: How does fear of being canceled affect us as individuals, particularly as we operate in public spaces? Why do people cancel one another? We’ve dipped into that a little bit; we’re going to draw that out a little more. And thirdly, what might people or groups—including those of which we are a part—what might they believe that causes them to mute, silence, or cancel others?

Those are such good questions. Before we dive into each of those specifically, I think there’s one caveat we need to make. It’s something that often looks like cancel culture, but I think it doesn’t quite fit the definition. People might disagree, but I want to put aside these things as being outside of our discussion, which is that there are sometimes people who prove themselves unsafe, or maybe they have committed ongoing abuses or violated the law. I’m thinking about men like Bill Cosby, who committed sexual abuse, or even pastors who have ongoing patterns of spiritual abuse that are especially unrepentant. In those cases, what looks like “canceling” might actually be the proper legal or social consequences of their actions. For example, a pastor with ongoing patterns of abuse might not be a pastor anymore, and people might not read his books anymore. And that’s a natural consequence of having those abusive patterns. Or a celebrity who has committed some sort of heinous sexual crime—people don’t want to watch his movies anymore or work with him anymore. That’s a natural consequence of the crimes he committed. To me, those specific realms of unsafety, as opposed to telling a bad joke, or expressing an unpopular political idea—to me, those are different realms, and the natural consequences of those sorts of things are not the same as being canceled. So I kind of want to put aside those things from our discussion.

That’s such an important distinction, because what we’re talking about, particularly as we are making this application into how we disciple our kids and teens—we really want to be clear that there are, as always, very complex dimensions to this. And we want to help them discern those complexities, to know when there are good consequences for bad action, or when we’re just straying into “I like, I don’t like.”

And of course, what makes it complex is people disagree on where that line falls. I think that’s something we’ll touch on in this discussion, is what does merit putting somebody outside of your realm of support, putting somebody outside of your realm of platform? Hopefully, we’ll get into that a little bit through these questions. But I think that leads us back into our analysis.

So we’ll start from the smallest circle, the one that is of self. So repeating the question: How does fear of being canceled affect us, particularly in our operation in public spaces?

I think we, as individuals, can look at cancel culture and it can create fear—a fear of being canceled in a way that almost paralyzes us and makes us be afraid to speak the truth. Now of course, some people have the tendency to look at that and they want to express the truth in as aggressive a way as possible, almost as a response to cancel culture. But I think even if you’re trying to speak the truth in love in a genuine way, there can be this fear. Will I be canceled just for speaking what I know is right, even if I try to do it with humility, even if I try to do it out of love?

To me, what I think of is the example of Jesus. There is somebody who literally did everything perfectly, the only one of us who was ever without sin. And, you know, this is a somewhat strange way to put it, but He was canceled by His culture. He was crucified for the things He said. Even the only perfect person in history could not avoid the condemnation of His community. And instead of being paralyzed by that, that can free us, I think, to confidently speak the truth, if we’re doing it in love, knowing that we have the example of Christ who went before us.

It’s fascinating to me to think about how He orchestrated even what He said to the point of orchestrating all the way through to His death. And that brings up some things I think we’re going to have to cover in another podcast—this idea of suffering and being persecuted. We will talk about it probably multiple times over as we think about the complexities between what it means to speak the truth and to risk doing so, risk people’s displeasure in doing so. And that pattern of Jesus going before us, unpacking that further will happen in time.

But as we shift to the next circle, the first time I asked it this way: Why do people cancel one another? But I think it might even be better to ask: What motivates us to try to cancel one another?

I think there’s fear at the heart of that as well. There can be lots of different reasons. Part of it is just ease. I think it’s easier to cancel somebody’s opinion than to engage with it well. If you can just shut it down, you don’t need to genuinely find a reason to disbelieve it. You can just turn it off. We live in a culture that is obsessed with curating its experience, down to muting whom we want to mute on social media and having algorithms that boost the sorts of things we want to see. We live in a very self-curated culture. And it’s very easy just to not engage with whatever we dislike, or whatever makes us uncomfortable. But there’s also that fear aspect of ideas that will do harm, or words that might hurt ourselves or others. If we let those things stand, it opens us up to vulnerabilities. Shutting them down is a great way to protect ourselves, or to feel like we’re protecting others.

I think that’s so good. And you use these words—fear, it makes me think of the idol that we’re serving, and that we’re afraid is going to be ripped from our hands—this control idol, or even the power over something. That fear often relates to that idol. And so here we are pulling out another one of our tools, where we start identifying that heart idols are really often at the source of our motivation for trying to do something like cancel another, maybe striving for rightness. That has a lot to do with reputation, this “I want to be affirmed and approved of in my rightness. I want to feel like I’ve got this.”

You can see in there also the idols of control—I want to control my experience—and comfort—I don’t want to have to engage with ideas that make me uncomfortable. And I think back to our definition of cancel culture. Remember, it talked about being specifically on social media. I think social media has made this so much worse, because we are just being inundated by ideas that we can curate, that we can report. And we’re not actually getting a full sense of other people. We’re not at the dinner table with somebody experiencing them in the context of a family. When I see somebody posting a bad opinion online, I’m not seeing that person as a child or a parent or a person across from me. I’m just seeing their bad opinion. And that makes it so much easier to shut them down and cancel them. I think back to Justine Sacco, right? If she said that among people who could see her face to face, would all those people who were trending online, #FireJustineSacco, would they have been just as equally eager to walk into her office and say that to her in person? I highly doubt it.

It’s such a convicting thought, you know, that when I’m online, everything that is coming at me is not just another mode of myself. But I think that also points out this strictest idolatry, maybe, that idolatry of self, where I am so tempted to view everything as a mode for serving me in some way or another. And just what conviction that brings, in that individualized sense.

We’ve asked two things that are very much at heart related to the individual, [his or her] perception of self, the way that [that individual engages] with others as a self. But now this last question really broadens it to a more global or community level. And so to reiterate that question: What might people or groups—including those of which we are a part— believe that causes them to mute, silence, or even cancel others?

We really see, in this question, where cancel culture starts to interact with our theology on a really practical level. Because what I sense is almost an expectation of perfection. A sentiment I often see, when somebody is caught having some sort of bad joke in their Twitter history or saying something insensitive in public, or caught in some kind of sin maybe—the sentiment you often see from people is “Not another one. Another person I can’t support anymore. Another artist whose work I can’t enjoy anymore. Not another one!”

And I think the world outside of the church is quickly on its way to, in a roundabout way, working itself toward a doctrine of total depravity, of realizing that everyone is sinful. If our standard is perfection, that’s the same as God’s standard. And we know that there was only one person in history who ever met that standard, and that person was also God. That gets a little bit toward our Christian response, because it becomes a gospel question at that point. I think eventually, if people are honest with themselves, they realize—hey, this standard I’m applying to celebrities, to businesses, to politicians—in my own heart I don’t perfectly meet that standard. In the world I’m trying to create, this kind of utopia where we can cancel out anyone who is insensitive, anyone who has ever said anything sexist or bigoted—I could not actually live in that utopia. And once people come to that realization, I think that’s an inroad for the gospel. Because we’re already there. We already realize we can’t do it. We need the righteousness of Christ.

“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” What another hugely convicting thing. You know, what am I believing? What are we believing as a group, as a church? What is the point of the gospel? What is the point of the Christian life? And so yes, we are absolutely pivoting over to the mature response of the believer who has faced the fact that their own heart is fully capable of the same depravity, of the same evil, as the person across from them that they may be seeking to cancel, that they may be seeking to silence or even throw stones at, whether those are virtual or literal.

As we wrestle with this conviction in our own lives, we asked this question: What is a healthy response to this idea of cancel culture? Now, I’m returning again to that whole-person response. Because a healthy response includes elements of mind, of heart, of action. It’s not merely a hot head or a cold heart dictating our action. It holds the tension of logic, of reason, of seeking after truth, and also a posture of humility, of compassion, of action in service to others, including to the greater community. So unpacking that a little bit more—what does this godly response look like?

As people of grace who have been shown grace, I think it means extending grace to others. The Bible talks about loving our neighbor as oneself and doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. And I know when I say something stupid, I want people to show grace to me and to understand my heart and to forgive me. So can I extend that to other people?

And I want to go back to our caveat real quick, because what I don’t want people to hear is that we should just excuse anything. Again, if somebody has committed abuse or violated a law, there are natural consequences of that that must be followed. You know, some people prove themselves unsafe, and you need distance from them. But when we’re talking here about this realm of somebody saying the wrong thing, somebody having an opinion that makes you uncomfortable—again, people will draw that line in different places, but we need to have grace. And I think we need to recapture this neighborly idea of, if you’ve crossed my boundary, I am not going to assume that you are like an enemy nation crossing over and now it’s DEFCON One, all defenses up. I’m going to assume it was an honest mistake. I’m going to assume I can have a conversation with you and listen and understand, because if I accidentally violate your border, if I accidentally violate your boundary, that’s how I want you to treat me. I think that idea is really grounded in the way Christ taught us to interact with our neighbors.

Presuming good rather than evil of others. I think you were the one who used this great metaphor of that crossing over the boundary. Oh my goodness, it was so clear to me, thinking of a neighbor whose lawnmower may stray into another person’s yard. What does it look like for us to presume something was even just an accident, instead of presuming this was on purpose—“They’re criticizing that I didn’t mow my yard,” or you know, any number of things where we can presume malicious intent, or unkind critical intent? And then we foster the same critical spirit when we do so, instead of fostering this spirit of grace. What does it look like to hold this understanding that we are both glorious and ruinous, and give charity towards the other to help draw out their best? If we are engaging with humility, if we are turning the other cheek, we actually end up not being a part of the contention. Then the brokenness is very clearly revealed without us contributing further by backlash or retaliation. This idea of reconciliation instead of retaliation is part of what comes to mind in that thought of presuming good.

I think back to the example of Jesus. Something we see is that, even though eventually they crucified Him, they couldn’t find a fault in Him. Even though we may not be able to escape cancellation if we are speaking the truth—even if we’re doing it lovingly—we can still do it in a way where, if people are honest, they can’t find a fault in us.

What a picture of the gospel, something that allows the light of Christ to shine through us as earthen vessels instead of going, “Okay, since you’re mudslinging, I’m going to mudsling too.” It’s a challenge. But it’s such a beautiful object for our thought, as we seek to have this mature Christian response.

So to help with guiding these conversations, where I am sure you will draw out so much more than we’ve even been able to touch on today, I want to return to the learning cycle I’ve been mentioning throughout. I want to emphasize that, as a cycle, it is cyclical in nature rather than linear. You can begin the discussion in any of the three dimensions that we have named. For our talk today, we really camped out in the emotional level. We jumped fairly quickly into that even as a part of our analysis. But you might want to just really get into the nitty gritty of what we know, before pivoting to those other pieces—the heart attitude and belief, what does our action in this area look like?

So first, if we’re going to just have questions aimed at the cognitive realm, or the head level: What do we know about cancel culture? What have we observed or even experienced? What do we need to know about cancel culture or our current society, or even the unfolding course of history that brought us to this place? What do we need to know from scripture that helps train our thinking, feeling, and action? And for this section on the cognitive or head level, I want to highly recommend the use of our resource which we’ve called the Big Five, but it’s an adaptation of Aristotle’s Five Common Topics of Invention. It’s supposed to help direct the dialectic conversation, or the Socratic method of conversation.

Next, the affective dimension or the heart level. What would motivate you to mute, silence, or even cancel another person? If you have ever experienced being muted or silenced, how did that feel? And why should we prize civil discourse between multiple points of view? The key word there is prize. That talks about a value statement. So that’s related to that attitude of the heart. How does love of neighbor work its way out at even the heart level in our attitudes and our beliefs towards others? And what emotional postures help us to foster relationships rather than cancel or even destroy them?

Lastly, there’s the behavioral or the hands level. What do I need to do when faced with something I don’t agree with or believe, and how should I act? Do I have to agree with everyone or do what others insist I need to do? I would encourage, of course, explain this answer, because that’s a yes or no question. What structures could we put into place to guide civil and compassionate engagement with others? What suggestions would you give for the actions to try first before either blowing up or shutting down others?

Those are such good questions to engage with, and I love that those questions help us to engage on every level, all of our being, because so often it’s easy to engage these things just with our minds. But, you know, we’re supposed to be transformed.

So as always, we want to end with some provision from scripture. And the first place we want to go today is from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ words from Matthew 5:38-46:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”

That makes us think about a passage from 1 Corinthians, and I would encourage unpacking more from this chapter, 1 Corinthians 13. But through the discourse on love, it gets to the place where Paul says to his listeners, his readers, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” And from 2 Corinthians 5, pieces from the verses 11-21: “Since then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others, for Christ’s love compels us. So from now on, we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us. God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Those are such good reminders, because they inform our stance toward people we disagree with, and even people who may try to cancel us. You know, if we are ambassadors, an ambassador’s job is not to put up a wall and shut out someone else. It’s literally the opposite. It’s literally to build those bridges, and those are the bridges that the gospel will go across.

This is our work, believer. Parent, teacher, mentors of kids and teens, you students who have been listening along with us, we want to remind you: He has equipped you for the work.

Show Notes

On this episode, we’re tackling the topic of cancel culture. What is it? Does it really exist? And how can Christians develop a mature, whole-person response?

Check out The Concurrently Companion for this week's downloadable episode guide including discussion questions and scripture for further study

We would love to hear from you. You can send us a message at newscoach@wng.org. What current events or cultural issues are you wrestling through with your kids and teens? Let us know. We want to work through it with you.

See more from the News Coach, including episode transcripts.

Further Resources:

Kelsey’s 2023 Convention Schedule:

Phoenix, AZ | 7/13 - 7/15 | Arizona Families for Home Education

Concurrently is produced by God’s WORLD News. We provide current events materials for kids and teens that show how God is working in the world. To learn more about God’s WORLD News and browse sample magazines, visit gwnews.com.

This episode is sponsored by Unbound.

Help your high schooler make the transition to adulthood through Christian coaching and skill development courses. The Equip program from Unbound comes alongside teens and parents to provide coaching, accountability, and study and life skill courses. Free eBook available at http://beunbound.us/worldpodcast.

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