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:
- Young people are not ready to run the world.
- What people are doing now is more important than what they did in the past.
- 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) 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.
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.
For further reading: