Cancel Culture: The Young and the Rootless

Cancel culture.

Its supporters see it as a way for marginalized people who previously had no voice to make their voice heard against the rich and powerful people who have oppressed them in the past, and continue to oppress them today.

Its detractors see it as the present-day equivalent of frenzied mobs swarming through the streets wielding torches and pitchforks, executing vigilante justice without proper inquiry or procedure.

Unlike the mobs of old, this piling-on takes place online, in the virtual streets and alleys of social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Yet its effects on people’s lives can be very real. Cancel culture has indeed taken down some rich and powerful offenders.

But life on this earth is not fair. Ordinary people who find themselves in cancel culture’s crosshairs are the most likely to have their lives ruined. The wealthy and powerful can usually ride it out. It can even increase their wealth and power. The free publicity of being “canceled” raises their public profile, which can lead to increased sales of whatever they are selling.

Cancel culture is strongest among young people (see the statistics in Wikipedia -> Online shaming -> American public opinion), where it had its origins. That is also one of its problems.

In a moment, we’ll step back from the frenzy and reflect on these points in reference to cancel culture:

  1. Young people are not ready to run the world.
  2. What people are doing now is more important than what they did in the past.
  3. There will be justice for people who continue to engage in oppression.

But first, let’s tell the story of a figure from the past who is now being “canceled.”

John Muir and the Sierra Club

John Muir (1838–1914)

John Muir

John Muir (1838–1914) is well-known as an early naturalist and conservationist. He was the driving force behind the formation of the national parks system in the United States. He was also the founder of the Sierra Club, which began its existence in 1892, and went on to become one of the leading environmental organizations in the United States.

Now the Sierra Club is canceling its famous founder.

It doesn’t use that term. In fact, in a recent interview, Sierra Club President Ramón Cruz states flatly, “We don’t want to throw away or cancel John Muir.”

But a June 22, 2020, article titled “Pulling Down Our Monuments” written by Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune cites derogatory comments about Blacks and Indigenous peoples in Muir’s writings, and his association with some early figures in the white supremacy and eugenics movement, as support for the Sierra Club’s recently adopted stance that “it’s time to take down some of our own monuments.” Among other planned actions, the article makes a commitment that the Sierra Club will “spend the next year studying our history and determining which of our monuments need to be renamed or pulled down entirely.”

It remains to be seen whether the Sierra Club will seek to entirely disassociate itself from its founder. As of now, its official website still hosts an extensive “John Muir Exhibit.” However, it has placed a cautionary “Editor’s Note” on at least one earlier article that argued against the idea that John Muir was a racist: “John Muir: Racist or Admirer of Native Americans?

Was John Muir a racist?

If John Muir had been an ardent, lifelong racist, there would be little serious controversy about the steps the Sierra Club is now taking to distance itself from him.

But the story is more complicated than that.

As outlined in the article linked just above, and in an article on the John Muir Global Network website titled “John Muir and Native Americans,” the derogatory and racists statements made by Muir are mostly contained in his earlier writings. Later, he lived among the Indigenous people of Alaska for several years. Based on that experience, he not only gained a respect for their culture and ways, but became an advocate for Indigenous people on several occasions, and made financial contributions to their cause.

Did John Muir achieve today’s standards of awareness of and respect for non-white cultures? Probably not. After all, he lived over a century ago, long before today’s powerful movement of consciousness-raising on issues of racism, oppression, and White privilege.

However, the arc of his life shows him moving from a youthful position of unthinking acceptance of the endemic racism of his time to a more mature position of respect and admiration for Indigenous cultures in North America. And in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that was a rare commodity indeed.

That is why, although many members of the Sierra Club support the current move toward reassessing its founder, others, including one former President of the organization, vehemently object to painting Muir as a racist whose monuments must be torn down. (See also the comments section on Michael Brune’s article.)

In short, any rush to summary judgment on John Muir as a toxic racist ignores the full arc of his life. It focuses on the “sins of his youth” (see Psalm 25:7), while ignoring his correction of those wrongs in his own mind and heart as he gained maturity and experience in life.

Yes, as a young man John Muir participated in the racism of his day. But he learned and grew. And that is exactly what’s needed for unthinking participants in cancel culture who, in their righteous indignation, are quick to throw stones without taking time to consider the full picture of the people and institutions they are targeting.

Young people are not ready to run the world

As I approach my 60th birthday, I look back at my own youth with . . . amusement. You know the old saying, “Ask a teenager now, while he still knows everything”? I was that teenager! I did “Ask Me Anything” decades before it became a Reddit phenomenon. And I was always right!

Except I didn’t really know anything at all.

That came only after I left my parents’ house, finished my initial round of college, and began to experience the reality of working to support myself in a world that is not focused on taking care of me. It took years, even decades, to develop any real understanding and wisdom about life and the human condition.

Young people are not ready to run the world because they haven’t had time to develop the understanding and wisdom about the realities of society and human psychology that are required to act sensibly for the long-term good of individual people and of humanity as a whole.

Many of the young people who eagerly join the cancel culture crowd do have high ideals. They want to right old wrongs. They want to make the world a better place. But they have not yet developed the insight and judgment to do a good job of guiding even their own lives toward those ideals, let alone directing the lives of others. They are not yet sufficiently rooted in life experience.

Cancel culture sees someone saying or doing something stupid, repugnant, or outright wrong, and it pounces. It doesn’t consider that the person who said or did that thing is an imperfect work in progress. (Aren’t we all?) It doesn’t see the full context of the person’s life. It doesn’t know where the person’s heart is going. It rushes to judgment and condemnation based on minimal and often faulty knowledge of the situation.

It’s like looking at the dumpster in the alley behind an apartment building and thinking this qualifies us to pass judgment on the lives of everyone in the building.

dumpster

It is good for young people to have ideals. But they should not be allowed to take the steering wheel of society. That is for people who have gained a reasonable amount of knowledge, experience, and wisdom through years of living in the world as reflective and self-responsible adults.

What people are doing now is more important than what they did in the past

John Muir did indeed say some racist things in his early journals. But that was when he was young and inexperienced. Later on, he developed a very different view of Blacks and Indigenous people.

Isn’t that what life is all about? Learning and growing and becoming a better and more thoughtful person?

If we were all judged by our worst moments, and by the stupid and wrong things we did when we were young, none of us could pass the test. We start out in life rather thoughtless. We start out in life mostly wrapped up in our own concerns, our own experiences, and our own self.

What’s important is whether we reflect upon our own thoughtlessness and bad behavior, and commit ourselves to doing better.

It takes time to broaden our perspective to include other people’s concerns, experiences, and well-being. This is the process of rebirth that Jesus spoke about in his nighttime conversation with Nicodemus in John 3:1–10. It is the process of becoming a more broad-minded, insightful, and loving person. That’s what God put us here on earth to do. It is what our earthly lifetime is all about.

We have all done things that are stupid, repugnant, and wrong. The question is, do we learn from them? Do we work on becoming a better person?

We must consider a person’s whole life

When we rush to judgment on another person who has committed some “sin,” we are not allowing them to be a work in progress. We are judging their whole life by the dumpster behind the “apartment building” of their life.

This doesn’t mean we can’t call people out for their wrong words and actions. But there’s a big difference between saying that something a person said or did is wrong, and seeking to ruin that person’s life because of it.

If the offense took place many years ago, before rushing to judgment we must consider what kind of life the person lived since then. If they have continued to engage in destructive and oppressive words and actions, then there is a case to bring against them. But if they have reconsidered the “sins of their youth,” and are now living a more thoughtful and caring life, then the message that God delivers in Ezekiel 18:21–22 comes into play:

If the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live.

Of course, if the person committed a crime, and the statute of limitations has not run out on it, he or she may still have to face the consequences in a court of law.

But if a person has reconsidered former wrong words and actions, and is now living a different life, that is a cause for celebration, not condemnation. Someone who was going the wrong way has turned around, and is now a fellow traveler on our common journey toward a more enlightened and more loving society.

There will be justice for people who continue to engage in oppression

What about those who don’t turn around? What about those who keep right on engaging in racist, sexist, oppressive, and destructive words and actions?

The ardor of youth wants to see these people brought to justice right now!

But God did not design the universe to provide immediate gratification for all of our wishes and desires. One of the chief lessons we are meant to learn in the course of life is the virtue of patience.

When detectives are on the trail of a serial rapist or murderer, even after they have identified a likely suspect, they can’t always arrest the person right away. As agonizing as it is knowing that the person is out there, still victimizing people, they must build their case. They must ensure both that they have identified the right suspect and that they have sufficient evidence for a conviction.

What they look for is a modus operandi that ties the string of crimes together. As they analyze how the perpetrator operates, they can build up a picture of the person. The longer the perpetrator keeps committing crimes with a similar modus operandi, the closer law enforcement gets to him or her. Sooner or later, habitual criminals get caught in the web of their own evil actions.

This is the patience we must often have when confronted with people who are engaging in behavior that we believe is wrong and destructive. We may need to follow the arc of a person’s life for a while and see where it leads before making the decision to intervene in the cause of justice.

Justice will come, if not here, then in the hereafter

And make no mistake about it, for those who continue in their destructive and evil ways, there will be judgment, and justice.

Ideally it will happen here on earth, as law enforcement and public opinion close in on people who show an ongoing pattern of flagrantly wrong behavior. However, some people do evade human justice. This can be very painful for the victims, and very frustrating for people who strive to establish justice in human society.

But no one will escape divine justice. As God says in Deuteronomy 32:35:

It is mine to avenge; I will repay.
In due time their foot will slip;
their day of disaster is near
and their doom rushes upon them.

For some people, that doom comes here on earth, as their wrong words and actions catch up with them, and they fall from their positions of wealth, power, and influence. For others, it will come after death, when they can no longer escape the consequences of their own choice to live from selfishness and greed rather than from love and concern for their fellow human beings.

Does this mean we should just let people engage in evil actions, and leave justice to God? Not at all. We are also told, in Isaiah 56:1:

Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance will be revealed.

However, as we pursue justice in this world, we can do so in the knowledge that when our human attempts at justice fall short, and unjust people continue to prosper and practice oppression, the time of reckoning will come. Then the high and mighty will be thrown down, and poor in spirit will be lifted up. This is God’s promise.

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About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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6 comments on “Cancel Culture: The Young and the Rootless
  1. Peter says:

    Hi Lee,

    I’d like to know your thoughts on why this charge of racism only applies to certain individuals and not others who are clearly more deserving.

    Consider Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood…

    American politicians have even revered her! Note that Hillary Clinton praised Margaret Sanger. And we are all aware of the real reason Sanger founded Planned Parenthood.

    See this article from Catholic online.
    https://www.catholic.org/news/politics/story.php?id=32917

    • Lee says:

      Hi Peter,

      As with John Muir, the story of Margaret Sanger and her character and views is more complex than that.

      Certainly Sanger’s eugenicist views were wrong, and racist in effect, if not in intent. On the other hand, she was opposed to abortion as a method of birth control. She would be opposed to Planned Parenthood’s current role as a major abortion provider. Before settling on one particular “real” reason she founded the organization that became Planned Parenthood, I would suggest learning more about her life and views—and not only from conservative and Catholic sources. Conservatives have an axe to grind just as liberals do, and they can be just as unbalanced as liberals in their view of people on the other side of the political divide.

      No matter what one’s political stance may be, it is unbalanced and wrongheaded to identify a single “sin” of a historical or present-day person, and condemn the person based on that one issue alone. It is neither Christian nor spiritual to look for something wrong in another person, and once we find it, to judge their entire character based upon it. People who do so are acting from a spirit of intolerance and condemnation, not from the spirit of justice and love for the neighbor that Jesus taught and exemplified in the Gospels.

      No created human being is perfect. We all have our flaws. We all have our faulty viewpoints. We have all done things that are hurtful and wrong. People whose character is to judge and condemn other people will always find some basis to condemn even the greatest human beings who have ever lived.

      A much better stance is to look for the good in other people, and focus on that rather than focusing on people’s inevitable faults. Of course, if a person is bent upon evil, destruction, and oppression, we must oppose that, and take steps to prevent them from harming innocent people. But most people are more of a mix of good and bad. Focusing on the bad in them only gives it more power. Better to focus on the good, emphasize that, and minimize the evil.

      In short, the type of cancel culture that is constantly looking for wrongs to condemn in other people is destructive regardless of whether it is liberals or conservatives or people of any other political stance who are engaging in it.

  2. K says:

    Quite often, the people engaged in “cancel culture” are the kind who see problems everywhere, or even make up new problems. With such a worldview, people are unjustly held responsible for the actions of others of their kind, if their kind is deemed “oppressor”. There’s even a “hierarchy” of oppression. Healthy behaviors are demonized as some kind of discrimination or oppression. Censorship of views deemed offensive has reached a level I never saw before. Such a worldview of seeing problems all over wasn’t an issue just 10 years ago.

    While there may be real issues with discrimination, such a worldview is like a cult or fundamentalist religion where just about everything is a sin.

    I fear this cult-like overzealous attitude could even extend into the afterlife – culture can be preserved there as Swedenborg described.

    • Lee says:

      Hi K,

      Today’s practice of publicly attacking and shaming individuals and groups of people is nothing new. It has been a part of human society for thousands of years. The main difference is that in previous centuries it took place place mostly physically in physical spaces, whereas now it takes place mostly psychologically in virtual spaces.

      In earlier centuries, people who expressed heretical and seditious ideas, or who resisted the ruling powers, were commonly punished by having their physical body displayed, beaten, and tortured in the public squares and along the main thoroughfares. Being humiliated in full view of every man, woman, and child in the community, not to mention passing strangers of every class and condition, was in many ways a greater punishment than the pain itself. It was also a warning to the public: Don’t do what that person did, or you will find yourself in the same position.

      In earlier centuries, servitude and slavery of particular groups of people was also commonplace and legally sanctioned all around the world. This marked them as the lowest people in the social order. They were required to do all of the unpleasant and labor-intensive tasks, and to live in poor and squalid conditions.

      Attacking and humiliating individuals and groups of people online is, if anything, a milder version of what used to happen to individuals and groups in a very physical way, and just as publicly. In both cases the intent is the same: public humiliation and the destruction of a person’s reputation, whether deserved or undeserved, and a warning to others against doing the same thing. Of course, even today some people and groups are still subjected to physical punishment, humiliation, and slavery.

      What is most disconcerting about today’s descent into suppression of controversial speech and demonizing of particular groups of people is that it’s a regression to earlier tyrannies. It is a step backward in what I believe is a two steps forward, one step back era of human history. However, given that most of the people now being attacked are from among the ones who have been at the top of the social and financial order for a long time, it is also a brute force attempt to rebalance the scales of society.

      Today’s suppression of speech and demonization of particular groups is particularly distressing to white people because they are not used to being on the receiving end. For several centuries, people of European stock have been the conquerors and rulers of their domain. That is now starting to break down. It is never comfortable for people who are used to being at the top when they are falling from their positions of wealth and power.

      And yet, this has happened countless times in human history as one empire, nation, and culture overwhelms another, and those who were rulers now become the ruled. This is the story of human history ever since the Fall represented by the story of Genesis 3.

      I believe that the entire paradigm of conquest and subjugation of others is itself on the verge of being overthrown. As people gain more knowledge and enlightenment, they are rejecting the idea that some people should rule and others should serve. But that old paradigm is not giving up easily. We can see the gates of the New Jerusalem in the distance, but we have not yet arrived at them.

      In the spiritual world, however, the New Jerusalem as already been established as the home of good people from all nations. There are no human kings or rulers there. God is the ruler of all realms. And God prizes human freedom and expression. In the spiritual world there is no suppression of speech or of cultures.

      Any people who continue to be interested in attacking, silencing, and enslaving other people will make their bed in hell. And they will not be allowed to harass the good people who live in heaven. They will spend eternity attacking each other.

      We do not have to fear that our current societal uproars over speech, race, gender, and so on will continue into heaven. In heaven, justice and good prevail. In heaven, no race, gender, or orientation rules over any other. There, all good people are free to live according to their own beliefs and their own loves, among like-minded people.

  3. This is a really good article. I’m young myself, but I never knew the definition of cancel culture.I think you’re right; people should not be shamed for mistakes they made in the past. If they’re learning from those mistakes and becoming better people, we should be happy they changed and did better.

    I learned forgiveness after going through some hard life experiences of my own. I could have held onto the anger and the bitterness, but it’s just not a good way to live life.

    I understand that people want freedom, and that’s why there’s a lot of emotion, but one thing I always feel is that spreading hate around never makes anything better. Love and truth is the better way to go.

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