Cancel Culture and Religious Dystopia.
Updated: Apr 26, 2021
Government censorship has been the boogeyman of dystopian novels like 1984 and Brave New World throughout the 20thcentury. So ingrained are these ideas in our culture that the term “Orwellian” has become an adjective to describe any perceived governmental overstep or any new technological advancementthat the government could possibly use to overstep its boundaries. However, while Orwell and Huxley may have had a greater societal impact in focusing our fears, there is another threat that is more subtle than government and much more difficult to address- the culture. People might give nods of affirmation to the saying “Politics is downwind of culture,” but they do not usually grasp the ramifications. While Orwell and Huxley might get the attention for being prophets diagnosing our current ills, there is another dystopian author who rightly deserves some recognition for his insights. Ray Bradbury, while penning Fahrenheit 451, recognized the danger of a government that was downwind of culture and simply gave the people what they wanted. “The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! Authors full of evil thoughts lock up your typewriters! They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said.There you have it, Montag. It didn’t [sic] come from the government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick thank God!” In Bradbury’s analysis, culture is where the evil first lies dormant, and this evil is much more difficult to address. When totalitarianism is the problem, the answer lies in the people to rise, but what if we the people are the problem? When united against a common enemy there is hope, but united against ourselves is a contradiction interms. And while this problem is more complex to deal with and does not inspire the same collective outrage, it is imminently more dangerous in its subtlety and its nearness to our current societal situation. The symptoms of our condition are complex and varied, but the most dangerous manifestation lies in the modern phenomenon of “Cancel Culture.” If you go back up and read Bradbury’s quote from Fahrenheit 451 and fill in what he means by “technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure,” you will see that Cancel Culture is a modern manifestation of an older warning. In the following sections I aim to show that Cancel Culture is both extremely dangerous in and of itself and is a sign of poor societal health that leads to inevitable decline. But first I must begin by defining terms.
An important distinction to make when approaching the cancel culture phenomenon is to not absolutize. By doing this,you can avoid the strawman that inevitably comes when people accuse you of defending racism and prejudice. Therefore, we must admit that there are indeed actions that are “cancel-worthy.” If someone is advocating for violence or publicly promotes ideas that are truly and maliciously racist, then society should hold them accountable; consequences like termination of employment are justifiable. However, this must be differentiated from expressing incorrect or tone-deaf ideas that are a consequence of ignorance or blind spots that we all inevitably possess due to our finite nature as human beings with limited knowledge and experience. More importantly, the cancel-worthy actions must be defined differently than simply political, theological, or cultural ideas that are not popular in our given time and culture. The differences between the former cancel-worthy actions and the two latter examples is the difference between a culture that is healthy and one that inevitably leads to decline. The former might be labeled for our purposes as “needed and beneficial internal societal pressure that leads to change,” and the latter as truly “Cancel Culture.”
In order to recognize the dangers of Cancel Culture, some contemporary examples might help us to move from the theoretical to the concrete. Unfortunately, currently there is no shortage of examples for us to look at and be able to distinguish as true examples of Cancel Culture and not justifiable societal vengeance. The most recent example of Cancel Culture at the time of this writing would be the cultural backlash against Mandalorian co-star Gina Carano. Carano was fired from her role as “Cara Dune” on the Mandalorian in early February after the hashtag #fireGinaCarano went viral in response to controversial tweets the actress posted on her personal Twitter account. Two main tweets were put forward as the reasons for her firing. The first tweet was posted in November after the Presidential election, and while it made no claims of voter fraud in the election, it did call for voting regulations to prevent fraud in elections. The second tweet she posted right before she lost her job at Disney was a meme that focused on the historical reality of the Holocaust, and that first the Nazis did not round up people in the streets. However, they encouraged hatred of neighbor and the citizens themselves persecuted Jews in the streets. Carano added her own thoughts to the image and said that hatred of neighbor due to political differences is no better than hatred of your neighbor due to their race or ethnicity.
The official reason given for Carano’s departure from Disney was stated by a spokesman of Lucasfilm who said the following regarding her posts: “Gina Carano is not currently employed by Lucasfilm and there are no plans for her to be in the future. Nevertheless, her social media posts denigrating people based on their cultural and religious identities are abhorrent and unacceptable.” While I do not agree with most Holocaust comparisons and think they are insensitive and largely overwrought, it is plain to anyone who read Carano’s posts that she was not denigrating any race. In fact, her post was meant to draw attention to the horrors that the Jewish people faced. Furthermore, Holocaust comparisons themselves cannot be the problem, considering her co-star and lead of the Mandalorian, Pedro Pascal, made a similar tweet in 2018 using an image from the Holocaust to compare the American border crisis and the “kids in cages” controversy. The only difference between Pascal’s and Carano’s tweets is that they come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, and while both are overexaggerated Holocaust comparisons, one led to an actress losing her job and the other was ignored.
One might be inclined to see the example above and, whilestill lamenting it, think the ramifications of these isolated events are not necessarily dangerous to our society. After all, there have always been cultural trends that come and eventually fizzle out with later generations shaking their heads at the irrationality. Some examples could come to mind such as the “Red Scare,” when Americans were seeing communists behind every rock and spying on their neighbors for suspicious activity. While this was a very tragic cultural movement in America’s past, we eventually got through it and are much healthier today. This is true, and many dystopian parallels from fiction to our current society are often overwrought. In fact, there is irony in people pointing out parallels from 1984, Brave New World, andFahrenheit 451 when these three novels all present mutually exclusive forms of dystopia that do not work well together. The reason for these parallels is because every nation in history has had dystopian tendencies since every nation must lie somewhere on the spectrum between utopia and dystopia. However, I would argue that Cancel Culture has some disturbing elements that set it apart from other disturbing past cultural trends.
Cancel Culture as a Worldview
The main difference between a cultural trend like Cancel Culture and the “Red Scare” has to do with worldview. The Red Scare was largely due to the geopolitical situation of the 1950sand the fear of communist espionage in the United States. While there were indeed worldview issues related to capitalism as opposed to communism, the “McCarthyism” behind the Red Scare was largely surface level and was able to be dissipatedafter the situation ended. The modern phenomenon of Cancel Culture, however, is permeated with deep and lasting worldview issues related to Critical Race theory and a naturalistic view of subjective morality.
Critical race theory, also controversially known as “Cultural Marxism” applies Karl Marx’s ideas of class struggle to the area of sociology and the concept of race. In this paradigm, people within a culture are primarily divided into the categories of“oppressed” and “oppressors” based on the racial majorities within a culture and where the hegemony of power is located within cultural institutions. Because of this narrative, the very term “racism” has been redefined from its traditional definition to “prejudice plus power,” where for an action or person to be truly considered racist, they must be a member of the “oppressor” class and belong to the group that has the cultural power. Therefore, going to the above examples of Cancel Culture, it is easy to see why one Holocaust example was acceptable and the other was a cancelable offense. Pedro Pascal’s tweet comparing migrant children on the border was acceptable because he was standing up for a minority (oppressed) class, whereas Gina Carano’s tweet was standing up for political conservatives, which are labelled as “oppressors.” The different streams within Critical Race theory are varied with numerous schools of thought, which can make critiquing its core tenets a difficult task. However, the worldview implications of this theory run much deeper than those behind other cultural trends and therefore is much more difficult to assess and mitigate.
One of the more frightening consequences of Cancel Culture and why it is a sign of declining societal health is its effect upon free speech and the exchange of ideas in a culture. Many people have pointed out that Cancel Culture at large is not a free speech issue because its mainly private companies that are doing the cancelling. The companies include the big social media names like Facebook and Twitter, but also many other entertainment and news companies like the New York Times and Teen Vogue. The argument says that free speech is a constitutional right that restricts the government from censoring you, however, private companies can do whatever they wantwithout affecting your constitutional rights. While this is technically true from a constitutional perspective, I must respond that cultural and private cancellations at large are just as dangerous, if not more, than government censorship. Ray Bradbury foresaw this in Fahrenheit 451, as government policy is downwind of cultural attitudes and beliefs, and while government change can be enacted by voting in the next election, cultural change is much more difficult to address. Also, what the founding fathers of our country did not anticipate in the writing of the constitution was the absolute power that technology would bring to private corporations who effectively control the speech and exchange of ideas within a nation.Facebook alone has over 2.7 billion users as of 2020. This has allowed Facebook to be one of the largest sources of news and communication between people not only in the United States, but worldwide. Therefore, it follows that whatever regulations and cancellations that companies like Facebook and Twitter enforce, it will have profound effects upon cultural and political discourse, and while possibly more subtle than government censorship, it is no less damaging to the exchange of ideas if the regulations themselves are inconsistent or biased towards a particular ideology.
The pseudo religious nature of cancel culture cannot be ignored; our culture simultaneously scoffs at the primitive beliefs of centuries past with their inquisitions and witch huntswhile simultaneously searching the vaults of twitter for any scents of unorthodoxy. And while orthodoxy might shift from year to year, the standards of perfection and forgiveness do not. It does not matter if what you tweeted 10 years ago was orthodox at the time; it is not orthodox today and you are responsible for your lack of foresight. Popular Christian apologist Cameron Bertuzzi put the issues of Cancel Culture and its lack of any objective ethical grounding this way.
“At the heart of Cancel Culture is the belief that we should only celebrate the work of those who have the correct set of moral convictions. But how can there be a “correct” set of moral convictions if none of our convictions are objectively true? One way would be to say that the set of moral convictions is correct only in the sense that it aligns with what current culture believes is the true morality. In that sense, Cancel Culture is a means of creating consistency.
But this would seem to undermine the seriousness of the Cancel Project. People aren’t being cancelled because they hold abhorrent moral beliefs, they are being cancelled because their beliefs aren’t popular.”
In addition to inquisitions, Cancel Culture also bears other similarities to religious movements in its doctrine of penance and its usage of a specialized vernacular. Many religions have a doctrine of penance after sins have been committed and Cancel Culture is no different. Gina Carano noted on The Ben Shapiro Show that after she first got in hot water for her tweets, she was given a transcript of what she was to post on social media as an apology. The Disney executives informed her that it was standard procedure after similar incidents and that the format was the same for all cases. However, unlike most other religious movements, in Cancel Culture there is no real forgiveness; you can never be truly sorry enough. This is because it is not about what you do but what you believe. This is seen with the inconsistencies of the targets; those who abide by the dogma are orthodox and pure while those on the other side of the aisle are vile until conversion. And one way to tell orthodox believers of the enlightened movement from outsiders is their use of the approved vernacular.
Much like how religions have their own special words that hold meaning within the contexts of their beliefs, Cancel Culture is no different. In Christianity, words like “atonement,”“sanctification,” and “baptism” are mainly understood by the members of that religion, and if another person uses the terms, it is easy to identify them as part of your religious tradition.Cancel Culture, being a product of Critical Race Theory, uses terms that those unfamiliar with the relevant literature will not necessarily understand and will certainly not employ. Words like “ally,” “antiracist,” and “hegemony of power” are loaded with semantic meaning only understood in a critical theory framework. In fact, Gina Carano’s first twitter offense was due to her failing to use the approved religious terms of the movement. In 2020, Carano first came under fire for refusing to put her preferred pronouns in her twitter bio. For those unfamiliar, one of the ways you can be considered an “ally” of the oppressed group, known as the transgender movement, is by putting your approved pronouns in your bio or work email to let others know what to call you. In September of 2020, Carano was asked repeatedly to put her pronouns in her bio and refused. This was considered her first offense and transgression of the approved orthodoxy.
In a way, the unfortunate irony of cancel culture is it will eventually come for all of us. The most zealous proponents today will become the victims tomorrow. The same standards of non-forgiveness that was shown to past generations will come calling at our doorsteps. Without dramatic cultural change, this trend will continue to poison societal discourse and hinder the exchange of ideas within the culture. Its religious fanaticism and deep worldview implications makes it more dangerous than a passing cultural trend. It does not wish to debate or even discuss the inherent presuppositions behind the radical ideology; it only aims at silencing the unbelievers