Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Cancel Culture?

What shall we do when someone says or does something hateful or hurtful in the public sphere? Let’s imagine that this hurtful thing is, for whatever reason, not being addressed by our laws and our justice system. Maybe the thing is hurtful but not illegal, or maybe it falls through the cracks of our justice system because of systemic racism, or like in a case like Harvey Weinstein, our system puts more energy into protecting powerful people, than crimes against women’s bodies and spirits.

Let’s consider the case of the king in today’s story, "The Dog and the Heartless King". As king, he had the power to hoard resources. His community was organized in a way that allowed people to go hungry, and that did not hold the king accountable. Let’s imagine that the people had already filed all the appropriate petitions, had exhausted all their options, and were still hungry, suffering, starving.

The dog is a vivid metaphor for call out culture- we begin to bark, long and loud, until the king can’t stand it anymore, or maybe the king’s neighbors can’t stand it anymore, the barking creates pressure in a new way that has the potential to lead to change. Call out culture is simply that- calling out publicly a behavior we believe is harmful or hateful.

We the people have long had the power simply to stop supporting the one doing harm- to stop staying at his hotel or buying his comedy albums. If enough people withhold their financial support to hurt your livelihood, you might notice, even if you were rich and powerful.

The term “Cancel Culture” is a new phrase for this old response, one predominantly used by right wing media to describe this use of popular power to hold one another accountable.

According to the website for Adreienne Marie Brown’s Book “We Will not Cancel Us:”

“Cancel or call-out culture is a fraught topic these days. Originating as a way for marginalized and disempowered people to address harm and take down powerful abusers, often with the help of social media, it is seen by some as having gone too far. But what is “too far” when you’re talking about imbalances of power and patterns of harm?”[i]

That’s a valid question- what is too far? As we strive to live ethically, we must be cautious whenever we begin to imagine that the ends justify the means. 

Our UU Principles, simplified
So today I want to invite each of us to begin to formulate our own inner compass around call out culture, so that when we call someone out, or share a call out on social media, we do so firmly rooted in our Unitarian Universalist (UU) Values.

First, UUs believe in speaking truth to power. We’ve been speaking truth to power since Servetus, one of the thought pioneers of what became Unitarianism, stood up to Calvin in the 1500s. Part of what brought the Unitarians and the Universalists together in the 20th century as that we both believed in the social gospel- that we are called to live our beliefs in the world, in making a world in line with our values of “Justice, Equity and Compassion;” so it makes sense that if we see injustice in the world, we would name it- and now we have social media as a huge new forum to do that. Speaking truth to power is often referred to as “call out” culture- where we publicly expose the wrong steps, the hurtful and hateful actions and words of public figures, but also of everyday people. There is no question that call out culture helped push forward a cultural shift around the Me-Too movement, that like the loud barking of the dog in our story, powerful people like Harvey Weinstein, and the studios that had protected him for decades, finally had to ask “what can I do to make the barking stop?”

Now there’s a bit of a problem with my metaphor today, because as we’ve discussed before, there are many terrible example of people comparing marginalized people to animals, as “less than human”. So it might help to know that in the original story, “Sakka, the ruler of all the gods made the god Matali into the shape of a huge black hound, with four tusks each as big as a plantain, with a hideous shape and a fat belly.” [ii] so maybe it would help to think of people who ethically engage in call out culture as “people who embody the divine by barking”

And these mighty barks have indeed brought down the powerful, have caused people to look at a whole range of misdeeds they might never have looked at otherwise.

The problem comes when critique becomes click bait. I asked my husband, who loves to watch YouTube videos each time a new Star Wars movie comes out, why all the titles were like “the top 10 stupid thing about the new movie” has told me that harsh, critical titles are more likely to get clicks, and so to increase review for the Youtubers who make their livings making such videos. Our culture rewards harshness and sharp pithy jabs to what I believe is an unhealthy degree.

Call out culture can be used the same way- there are plenty of stories of an ordinary person making a bad joke, who lost their job, whose lives have been destroyed with public shaming. how might we make sure that the consequence is proportional to the crime? What should the public punishment be for making a bad joke on Twitter? And how long should it last? If that bad joke you made, and the subsequent public shaming is the first thing to come up in every Google search for decades, is there no way to be restored?

I think our Universalist values have something helpful to say about this. Something actually quite challenging and sometimes difficult to live into. We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of EVERY person. Even internet trolls, even people who incite insurrection against constitutional democracy. The very foundations of the Universalist movement is that we don’t divide people into groups of “good people” and “sub-humans who don’t matter.” We believe in forgiveness, but sometimes we forgive too quickly because we hate conflict, and just want peace to be restored. In seminary we were challenged to “speak the truth with love.” As we speak truth, we challenge ourselves to do so in as compassionate and non-violet way as we are able.

Our universalist Fore-bearers also had a lot to say about restoration. They believed that every person, no matter how terrible their words or deeds, would ultimately be restored to the wholeness of God. Now, many theologians argued that you might need a good long process first to make you ready, that it might take millennia for some souls to be ready to be restored, but there was no one beyond divine forgiveness.

This reminds me of something folks are calling “call in culture”- where the point is not just to shame and hurt the one who has wronged us, but to call them to accountability, to call them to be better. Can you think of a time in your own life when someone called you in? Where someone pointed out a misstep you took, maybe a misstep that hurt someone, in such a way that your eyes were opened, and you were able to apologize and make changes so you would avoid that mistake in your future? Calling someone in is challenging, both for the person who is probably ashamed and embarrassed and defensive about what they did, and for the person who speaks the truth with love, and helps you grow in a way you can hear.

There are real dangers from demanding that all “call outs” should be transformed to “call in.” There’s a clear critique of people of privilege using “niceness” to silence dissent. Even Martin Luther King talked about this in his Letter from Birmingham Jail
“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate...who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

I turned to Sonya Renee Taylor author of “The Body is Not an Apology” to help me understand how not to fall into that trap. I highly recommend her Ted Talk[iii]Let’s Replace Cancel Culture with Accountability” (It was really helpful, and I want to honor her contribution to my thinking about this sermon) She pointed out the emotional labor required to “Call in” someone who has been hurtful and hateful. Folks who face racism or misogyny or transphobia every day cannot possibly call in all those abusers, nor should they have to. Taylor uses this metaphor; if someone is stepping on your foot, you get to say “get off my foot” and if you are in pain, you might not say it diplomatically or nicely. This is really important. So often our culture has asked those being abused to take responsibility for the feelings of their abuser. If someone is on your foot, it is not your responsibility to fix them or change them or make them comfortable. May you be simply blessed with the courage and strength to say “no” to say “get off my foot.”
Image by Janet Meyer

Taylor invites folks who do have privilege in a certain situation to call in their own folks- for white folks to call in other white folks who are ignorantly or maliciously saying or doing racist things. For cisgender folks to call in cisgender folks. If you see someone stepping on feet, please say “get off their foot.”

Sonya Renee Taylor proposed the idea of “calling on” people- just naming the behavior that his hateful or hurtful, and calling on that person take responsibility for their own growth and change. Being loving and compassionate must include healthy boundaries. It must include accountability. Part of affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person, is believing that each person is accountable for their own behavior, that each person has the capacity to grow in ethical behavior, to make amends, and when they do, to be restored to the community of beings.

As a Universalist I believe in restoration, I believe there must be a path back. I believe, with the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative that each of us is “more than the worst thing we have ever done.” I think we need to collectively imagine a path back from being called out, from being cancelled. We need to teach and practice what it means to remove our own feet and say “I am so sorry I stepped on your foot, let me take responsibility for taking dance classes, or sensitivity training, or whatever it’s going to take for me to stop stepping on people’s feet. And to ask- would you like me pitch in for your medical bills? that looks like it still hurts.” This is something we need to teach and learn and practice as a culture. Whether it’s being called out for a micro-aggression[iv] or for more serious offenses, a Restorative justice, where offender and victim are involved in a process to repair harm. That’s a complex topic, probably best kept for another day. But creating opportunities for restoration is an important part of imagining how what our UU values might be put to work in the world.

As Unitarian Universalists called to living ethically, we challenge ourselves to think beyond “what is normal” or “what is usual” in our cultural context, to “what would produce growth and health, what would be life-giving in our time?” Your context will make a difference in how you answer; is your foot so bruised you only have the strength to yell “stop?” Might you speak up with you see others feet being trampled? Do you feel moved to a longer conversation of restoration and transformation, or is it enough to say “here is what I see, and that is not okay?” This week as you hear the news, read your social media feed, or notice that family member who has a habit of stepping on feet, I invite you to wonder, “how do my UU values call me to respond? Is this a moment I feel called to speak the truth with love?

End notes

[i] https://www.akpress.org/we-will-not-cancel-us.html
[ii] http://kj6zwr.org/from-long-ago/the-dog-and-the-heartless-king/
[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vCKwoee27c
[iv] https://hbr.org/2020/07/youve-been-called-out-for-a-microaggression-what-do-you-do
[v] https://restorativejustice.org/

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