“Ask a Priest: Why Is Cancel Culture Toxic?”

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Q: I would like to ask you regarding the cancel culture, which in a way can be seen as a very toxic culture. Why is it toxic, and how should I as a Catholic act on this matter? – I.L.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Some historians like to categorize eras, be it the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Space Age. Our era might go down as the Cancel Age.

An online search offers this simplified definition: “Cancel culture, or call-out culture, is a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles – whether it be online, on social media, or in person. Those subject to this ostracism are said to have been ‘canceled.’”

(For a philosophical overview of the roots of cancel culture, you might want to check out this 5½-minute video.)

Why is such a culture toxic? The short answer is that it is uncharitable.

People who seek to “cancel” tend to assume the worst of others and attribute to them the nastiest of motives.

This frequently involves rash judgments at best and outright calumny and character assassination at worst.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church in No. 2477 says:

“Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:

“– of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor; […]

“– of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;

“– of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.”

People who cancel, in effect, end up acting like judge, jury and executioner of other’s reputations. This can be a grave sin, since people have a right to their good name.

The Catechism in No. 2479 says: “Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity.”

Cancel culture also has a profoundly anti-intellectual and anti-social character.

It prompts people to forgo dialogue and reasoned arguments and persuasion, and instead rely on crass character attacks and a kind of authoritarian approach that poisons and degrades public discourse.

This can cripple the common good and reduce one’s opponents to the status of bogymen. Gone is the idea that we are all sons and daughters of the same heavenly Father.

In theological terms, cancel culture is an antithesis to the very notion of redemption. The idea that someone should be forced out of a job or career because of an indiscreet comment he made as a teenager two or three decades earlier is preposterous.

Sins are offenses against God, first and foremost. And if God is willing to forgive us, why shouldn’t we be willing to extend forgiveness to one another?

How should a Catholic (or any person of good will) respond?

Again, the Catechism gives guidance:

2478. To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

“‘Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.’”

More than ever, the world needs to be reminded of the Christian belief in redemption.

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