Comedian Jimmy Fallon wore blackface in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch 20 years ago to impersonate Chris Rock. In May, after the video clip resurfaced, the hashtag #jimmyfallonisoverparty went viral. The talk show host then issued a statement apologizing for the skit and thanking fans for holding him “accountable.”
“Cancel culture” is defined as “a desire to cancel out a person or community from social media platforms.” Critics point out the person’s (allegedly) offensive actions, boycott their work (by not watching their movies or listening to their music, for example), and thus try to take away their public platform and power.
Popular Twitter accounts such as @YesYoureRacist and @RacistOTW are now pop-culture watchdogs, scrutinizing the actions of public figures and average people to expose previously overlooked or unknown incidents.
This phenomenon took on a new dimension recently when Harper’s Magazine published “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” signed by more than 150 well-known writers and public intellectuals, most of whom are perceived as being on the cultural left.
They warn about “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” They cite examples: “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.”
In their view, “The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.” They call for “exposure, argument, and persuasion” instead.
As a philosopher, I see cancel culture as rooted in the postmodern assertion that all truth claims are individual and subjective. Each of us interprets our experiences of the world in ways that are unique to us. As a result, there can be no such thing as “objective” truth—or so we’re told.
In this view, no one should claim that their understanding of the world is superior to that of others. For decades, conventional wisdom has held that there is only “your truth” and “my truth.” (Of course, to deny objective truth is to make an objective truth claim.)
Therefore, our society puts great value on tolerance. We are told that we must tolerate and affirm any behavior that does not harm others. If we stand for biblical marriage, we are branded as homophobic. If we stand for the sanctity of life from conception, we are accused of waging a “war on women.”
In other words, our “tolerant” culture is highly intolerant of anyone it perceives to be intolerant. Cancel culture is just the latest expression of this contradiction.
By contrast, how does the Bible teach us to respond to those with whom we disagree?
First, go directly to this person: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Matthew 18:15). We are not permitted to talk about someone until we talk to them.
Second, seek reconciliation: if you “remember that your brother has something against you,” seek to “be reconciled to your brother” (Matthew 5:23‒24). Our purpose is not condemnation but restoration.
Third, stand for biblical truth with biblical grace: “Speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).
St. Augustine testified: “Where I found truth, there I found my God, who is the truth itself.” Let’s help others make the same discovery today.
Jim Denison, PhD, is the founder of Denison Forum with a reach of 1.7 million. He also serves as Resident Scholar for Ethics with Baylor Scott & White Health.