Article
Culture
4 min read

What's good – and bad – about cancel culture?

Looking to an ancient story of compassion Erin Crider seeks inspiration for an ethical response to social censure.

Erin studies and explains modern churches. She is an Adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Torn fly posters layered under graffiti on a wall.
Ripped-off posters and graffiti.
Jazmin Quaynor, via Unsplash.

You cannot ignore cancel culture today.  In her 2022 BBC Reith Lecture, the writer Chiamanda Ngoni Adichie called it “social censure”.  Even beyond universities and other public forums, many of us worry about the effects of cancel culture in everyday social settings.  Saying the wrong thing, or trying to respond well when someone else does, can quickly lead to awkward family gatherings, strained meetings, and broken friendships, or awaken the ever-present social media trolls.  In a post-pandemic moment, when people are already struggling to re-establish healthy human interactions, cancel culture can make social engagement seem even more challenging.  How can we navigate this moment well? 

Behind the fraught discussions and growing angst around cancel culture, we can perhaps detect something well worth preserving: compassion.  Some of the most heated controversies today involve language concerning people who have been historically disadvantaged.  Genuine compassion motivates many who want society to speak more kindly, with more understanding, in order to avoid perpetuating harm to people who have already suffered.  People who have been hurt deserve to be acknowledged, and that means taking their pain seriously.  This compassion is an important and noble instinct.  Many faith traditions call us to honor the vulnerable and pursue justice.  

'Silence out of fear of ending a relationship itself ends the relationship.'

At the same time, resistance to cancel culture also includes an element of compassion.  Within the voices expressing concern about cancel culture can often be heard a humble awareness that we all are prone to say the wrong thing at times.  We cannot hope to learn or grow without honest risk and mutual, human grace.  A brief period of silence to let emotions cool can be helpful; ending a relationship permanently seems less helpful.  It might seem easier to say nothing than to risk offence, but silence out of fear of ending a relationship itself ends the relationship.  Seeking to continue a difficult but important conversation can also be an important and noble instinct.  Many faith traditions also encourage humble self-assessment and generous engagement with others.  As the Bible records Jesus saying, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”  None of us is wholly above reproach, and we all need a bit of compassionate grace.   

So how do we balance these conflicting calls of justice and grace?   

This conflict might seem peculiarly modern, but in the story we re-tell every Christmas, we see a young man named Joseph wondering how to balance justice with gracious concern for someone who had deeply disappointed him.  Joseph is engaged to Mary, but she has been found to be pregnant.  Joseph is sure the baby isn’t his.  In their culture, a woman who was pregnant outside of marriage brought shame to her fiancé, her family, and the whole community.  Matthew’s gospel tells us that Joseph was “a righteous man,” which means that he appreciated the demands of justice.  Ignoring her situation meant ignoring the pain they all felt, papering over a grave offense which they wanted no part of.  At the same time, though, the text also tells us that Joseph was “unwilling to put her to shame.”  Like many people today, Joseph wanted to leave Mary some way to move forward with her life, but their culture did not provide people much opportunity to learn from tragic mistakes.  Sometimes, it can feel as if ours doesn’t, either.  If you’re familiar with the story, you already know how it ends, but it’s important not to skip too quickly past Joseph’s dilemma.  It feels strangely modern, Joseph’s desire for justice coupled with his equally strong desire not to see someone condemned because of a single mistake. 

'Courageous compassion creates much needed opportunities to heal, learn, and grow.'

Thankfully, the story also describes a way forward from Joseph’s dilemma: the baby in Mary’s womb, Jesus.  In Jesus, we see the depth of God’s compassion for all who suffer.  Jesus never ignored the painful consequences evil can create. Indeed, he allowed himself to experience the absolute worst of humanity.  As an adult, Jesus was thrown out of his home village and religious community. According to the gospels, he endured one of the most unjust trials ever recorded.  Jesus was tortured, beaten, and sentenced to a cruel death.  When we suffer injustice, we are not experiencing something alien to Jesus, and therefore, alien to God.   

But there is another side to Jesus’ suffering that is equally important: Jesus also demonstrates profound compassion for people have made terrible mistakes.  Jesus never mis-stepped or said a single cruel word, but he allowed himself to experience the full shame and isolation of being cast out of society. Crucifixion was the ultimate censure, being publicly put to death outside of the walls of the city.  Yet even in this moment, Jesus demonstrated compassion for people who had harmed him.  While on the cross, he forgave those who put him there.  Jesus offered forgiveness to the man dying on the next cross to his own, who by his own admission deserved his fate.  In contrast to aspects of cancel culture, Jesus’ actions at that moment of extreme injustice tell us that human redemption is always possible.  Jesus created a compassionate way forward from guilt and shame.  Whatever our situation, we can find life-giving grace and healing in Christ. 

Compassion isn’t easy.  It cost Jesus dearly, and at times it will cost us, too.  Courageous compassion creates much needed opportunities to heal, learn, and grow.  When we suffer and when we err, cruelty and failure do not get the last word.  As it says in the last few pages of the Bible, Jesus is making all things new.  Cancel culture ends conversations and damages relationships, but a better balance between the righteous demands of justice and the need for redemptive grace remains possible.   

Column
Character
Culture
Economics
4 min read

This revolting rich list is a freak show

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle?

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A collage of famous, rich, people such as King Charles, Elton John and others.
The Sunday Times.

General elections are no longer a clear choice between socialism and capitalism, but we should still be as offended by the privilege of the few over the poverty of many. That’s only natural, whether we’re informed by envy, a secular sense of fairness or a religious faith.

The yawning chasm between rich and poor in the UK is offensive. When PM Rishi Sunak was drenched in his vale of tears this week outside Number 10, as he announced the general election, he was seeking a mandate to preside over this inequality, in which he so richly participates.

He stood there exactly three days after he and his wife waved from the pages of the Sunday Times Rich List, based on the newspaper’s “conservative estimates of the minimum wealth of Britain’s 350 richest people.”

The Sunaks stood at 245th on the list with a measly £651m. Just 20 years ago, when I was in business, that figure would have put them near the top. Some of my business contemporaries had even made the Rich List with just a few tens of millions.

Not anymore. Mere multimillionaires barely make the cut. The ever-widening gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us means that the top 165 of last Sunday’s list of 300 are now billionaires, compared with just 20 a quarter of a century ago, while the “bottom” of today’s heap struggle by as half-billionaires. 

It does make you wonder what the Sunday Times is doing with this revolting annual survey. It has become such an anachronism since it started in the Eighties, when greed was good and we worshipped Croesus impersonators.  

Every year, we’re invited to press our noses up against their plate-glass window and drool at a world that’s as alien as a pharaoh’s to the slaves building their pyramid. What do they want from us for this display of greed? Envy?   

Times (even on Sunday) have changed and the Rich List satirises itself. Look at the ads that support it. There’s one for a 122-metre yacht that can be chartered for three million euros a week. A few pages later there’s one for a Swiss clinic “for the treatment of mental health and issues of substance and behavioural dependency”. Could these ads be related?  

So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

The Rich List is just for the British mega-rich. So no room here for Meta-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg or space-wingnut Elon Musk. But it’s nice to see at the top of the list, with just a couple of hundred million over the £37bn-mark, the Hinduja family, whose leading lights so publicly acquired British passports some years ago, with or without government help.  

And here’s Lakshmi Mittal (No. 8 with £15bn), who was recently accused of profiting from both sides of the Ukraine conflict, after a part-owned Indian company bought nearly £2.4bn of Russian oil since the start of the war. Which newspaper revealed this? Step forward the Sunday Times.  

And there’s vacuum magnate Sir James Dyson (No. 5 with £21bn) who backed Brexit and then moved his global HQ to Singapore. That’s the beauty of being so rich; you can escape the consequences of your own actions. 

Most of the list is what similarly might be called colourful. These cannot, by virtue of their economic separation, be normal people. So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. 

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle? Sure. there is no virtue in poverty. But nor should there be a prosperity gospel, which holds that the righteous are financially rewarded, other than in the outer reaches of an American charismatic movement. 

Among the things that make us go “hmm” in this report is the attitude to life. Phones 4u founder John Caudwell (No. 109, £1.5bn) says “If I stopped I’d probably be desperately unhappy.” Hmm. New entrant to the list Graham King (No. 221=, £750m) made his fortune from public money contracts for accommodation for asylum seekers that inspectors have described as “decrepit” and is currently the subject of charges under the Housing Act 2004. Hmm. 

Cursed are the rich, for they shall lose touch with reality. That’s not a heretical rewrite of the Sermon on the Mount, with its “Blessed are...” Beatitudes. There are actually four lesser known woes in the Gospel of Luke: 

 “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” 

These woes aren’t about revenge. But they do speak to the consequences of extreme wealth – such as profiteering from desperately vulnerable people or working so hard you can’t think properly. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. Today, the Sunday Times should be as ashamed of idolising it as those it lionises for making so much of it.