Empathy is cancelled.
We should all be worried about where cancel culture is taking us.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done in your life? How would you feel if everyone in your life; your friends, your family, your colleagues knew about it? What would the repercussions be for your career and your relationships?
This is the nightmare scenario most of us think about when we think of cancel culture, but it isn’t the most worrying aspect of the movement. The destruction of individual lives is tragic and in most cases undeserved, but the real problem is the toll that this will have on our society if we allow it to grow.
Of course, you’re probably thinking that “we” aren’t allowing it to grow at all, right? You’re probably not one of the tiny minority of people who spends their days searching through the tweets and videos of prominent figures, searching for something to take offence at. You’re similarly unlikely to be part of the slightly larger minority that piles on as soon as a transgression is found. It’s understandable if you’re thinking that this has nothing to do with you. But this innocence is purely a matter of perspective.
One would imagine that Germans living through the rise of the National Socialist party felt similarly blameless. They weren’t personally guilty of persecuting the Jews. They weren’t soldiers. Most of them were ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives. But from our perspective, it’s hard to imagine how they were able to watch in silence as the atrocities worsened. Why wasn’t more done as they rose to power? Or as their actions became more severe? How could things have gotten so bad if they weren’t complicit, or at best indifferent?
Or consider the witch hunts of the Middle Ages. The thing that astounded me most when I heard the stories of those days, wasn’t the witch-hunts themselves (history is filled, with cautionary tales about the cruelty and paranoia of which mankind is capable), it was the ordinary people who were swept up in the horror of it all. Those who would turn up to pelt the accused with rotten vegetables, to spit at them, to hurt insults. Those who cheered as the women screamed.
Like us, they were probably unsure of what the accused had done to merit this punishment, or whether they’d done anything at all. It would have been as difficult for them to judge whether the accused was a witch as it is for us to judge whether the accused is a racist or a transphobe. And so like them, we seem to be allowing ourselves to forget that it’s not our judgement to make.
What is being exercised here isn’t justice but power. This movement takes advantage of our worst instincts by manipulating our best. It is weakness masquerading as fairness. Anger masquerading as compassion, cruelty masquerading as righteousness.
This is the toll on our society that I referred to earlier. We’re sleepwalking towards a world where we give ourselves permission to rejoice in the ugliness inside of us. In fact, not only to rejoice but to see that ugliness as a symbol of moral virtue. To normalise an environment where we cast the first stone before anybody gets the chance to cast one at us.
But there’s no exit strategy here. No comfortable endpoint. How long until someone loses not just their livelihood but their life because of something they, or even someone they’re related to, said years in the past?
What’s happening here is insane. Ironically for a movement inspired by being on the right side of history, cancel culture is unquestionably in the wrong. It persists only because we’re so busy worrying that it will turn its attention on us that we want to ignore it.
But the truly virtuous thing is to face it. We can refuse to pile on when the mob picks its newest target. We can question the businesses and institutions that offer up their staff to placate the angry hordes. We can acknowledge that people can change, and to take responsibility for who gets cancelled.