Thursday, October 8, 2020

Reflections on the cancel, more-perfect culture

It will surprise no reader to read that the phrase, so effusively tossed about in American political rhetoric “a more perfect union” is nothing less than a tautology.*

Leaders whose public adulation seems to be boundless, like Barack Obama in retirement, will often be heard uttering this inflated, even bloated phrase, as if it were a call to inspire the American people to even greater effort, in pursuit of this “even more perfect union”. No one would desire, or even expect, political rhetoric, in an age of digital explosion, existential climate threats, economic turbulence and now, a global pandemic, to have a tautology like “a more perfect union” expunged from the podium or the interview set. However, some of the more subtle and too often concealed implications of pursuing perfection as an organizational, and especially a national goal, can be judged offensive, if not somewhat dangerous.

One of the more recent rhetorical and political and thereby cultural memes, is another equally distasteful phrase, “cancel culture,” the attempt to scrub out every last molecule of whatever might be considered dirt, morphed from anything that might hurt another, out of existence. Whether the form of “cancelation” involves:

*    definition (speaking privately to an individual about perceived harmful, problematic actions or opinions, or calling in),

*    calling out (criticizing an individual or organization publicly, usually on social media),

*    boycotting (withholding financial support from a company in order to force a change in policies or practices)

the action involves a deliberate corrective, presumably in the spirit and tutelage of the late John Lewis’s honouring of “good trouble”….

Doubtless, each of us does not go through an hour in a weekday in which someone cuts us off on the road, smokes a cigarette in our breathing range, flips off another for some usually trivial insult. And as the anxiety over the pandemic and the concomitant precautions, restrictions, ever-shifting regulations and directives, mounts, the tendency to ‘chirp’ (like the linemen in a football game, trying to get under the skin of an opponent) whenever the “opportunity” presents itself. Retail workers currently wear shirts emblazoned with the words, “be patient and kind” or some version of that injunction. Hospital corridors shout an intolerance of offensive behaviour, and in one case, a supervising psychiatrist was hired because of his record of “law and order” control in his previous hospital.

Cancel culture, naturally and predictably runs directly into the concrete abutment of whatever the culture of the situation, organization, authority deems intolerable. Several years ago, I encountered a news story out of Colorado detailing the expulsion of a straight A grade ten student because there was a paring knife in the glove box of her vehicle in the school parking lot. (It was there to assist her in peeling fruit and vegetables for her lunch!) Back in the 1990’s a three-strike-you’re-out policy came out of the Clinton White House as a measure to address  the proliferation of illicit drugs. Not only was the practice not effective, it piled on power and authority into the already bloated briefcase of “the authorities” in their failed attempt to stamp out illicit drug consumption.

Just this week, in a visionary, creative and highly effective measure to address the problem of homelessness in Vancouver.

“The New Leaf project is a joint study started in 2018 b y Foundations for Social Change, a Vancouver-based charitable organization, and the University of British Columbia. After giving homeless Lower Mainland residents cash payments of $7500, researchers checked on them over a year to see how they were faring….Not only did those who received the money spend fewer days homeless than those in the control group (not given the $7500), they had also moved into stable housing after on average of three months, compared to those in the co9ntrol group, who took an average of five months…. Those who received the money also managed it well over the course of a year….Almost 70% of people who received payments were food secure after one month. In comparison, spending on alcohol, cigarettes and drugs went down, on average, by 39 per cent.” (Bridgette Watson, CBC News, October 7, 2020)

It may seem unfair to juxtapose a 3-strike practice in the 90’s with a stereotype-shattering experiment in 2020 given that times have changed, along with expectations, and also with the infusion of new minds, hearts, imaginations and the long series of failed experiments based on very different expectations about how the underclass will act if actually shown empathy, compassion and real help. Perhaps, it is fair to say that the many failures, incarcerations, illnesses and deaths resulting from the application of a far more punitive approach, paved the way for experiments like that in Vancouver.

Nevertheless, the “zero tolerance” “more perfect” attitude continues to operate at all levels of North America culture. Cancel culture seems to be a refinement of the cancel culture, and, while this next statement will likely offend some, it is also reasonable to link the dots between the historic political stance on the death penalty, the wave of minimum sentences imposed by the Harper (and other) governments on judges, and the explosion of prison populations south of the 49th parallel. Cancel culture advocates, are at best, making instant and unappealable judgements of others whom they declare to be hurtful to them personally or to their ‘group’ (gender, demographic, victim).

Joe Biden has been severely criticized for his resistance to defunding the law enforcement departments in American cities. His more moderate (and less tolerable to justice protesters and advocates) approach seeks to bring law enforcement and civil rights leaders together, in an optimistic initiative of political leadership, to design a more fair, accountable, transparent and thereby sustainable relationship between those wearing “blue” and those in communities needing help and support from a variety of injustices.

It cannot be overlooked that, in some cases, institutional leadership has either  turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to legitimate complaints of injustice, even assault, among the people in those organizations. And in other institutions, because of the potential political damage that could and often does occur, if legitimate complaints are ignored and their authors silenced, other executives have tended to bend over backward, in complicity with what has become as “zero tolerance” objective. Squeezing out of the application of such policies and practices, however, is the messy, costly and even more difficult to execute process of a full, complete, fair and legitimate “due process” based on the ideal, fought and died for, of “habeus corpus”, innocent until proven guilty.

Given that our public discourse has been riddled with stories of public complaints of serious offences having destroyed both reputations and careers of hundreds if not thousands, without the benefit of even a private, objective and comprehensive investigation of the details of many of those complaints, it seems reasonable to wonder if and when the balance will be permitted to swing back to something like the process advocated by Biden for law enforcement.

Clearly, the racial injustice that blacks, native Americans, immigrants and refugees have suffered for centuries cannot and will not be eliminated in whatever processes, rules, changes and laws emerge from the Biden effort (if he is elected). Nevertheless, the model of bringing opposing sides, effectively the sides of the abuser and the abused, into the same room, at the same table, in what will have to be a protracted and complex process of reconciliation can serve as a model of hope, promise and example on other issues.

While there are examples of both forgiveness and tolerance among what are considered heroic individuals on both sides of  deep and profound hurt (emotional, physical, psychological, spiritual and also legal and ethical), the natural penchant to “tribal protests,” although they garner public attention, they serve really to bring about initial expressions of “the unfinished man” as Biden called himself, in a phone call to Senator Cory Booker, following an especially passionate debate about race, in the Democratic presidential primary.  As Booker told his host on MSNBC, Biden was willing to acknowledge that, as a white man, he needed to listen, really actively listen, to the pain of the black community, in order to be better equipped even to attempt to address its many complications.

And the spirit and the motive of Biden’s “vulnerability” as an honoured indication of authentic courage, is a model, too of the need for a similar moment of “aha” from the millions of those who consider it enough to blurt out their savage attacks, under an emotional and hyper-injured ejection of contempt (and pain, injustice and offense), without even considering their balancing responsibility to seek to find the whole truth.

In a culture so weaponized,

Ø in which even a mask to prevent the spread of a lethal pandemic is used against those who responsibly and patriotically choose to wear one, and

Ø in which those who have held power for decades, cling to its perks and its opportunities for self-aggrandizement, and for legacy-building at the expense of performing those duties to which they swore an oath, and

Ø in which millions have lost their jobs, their homes, and their families, and for some even their lives,


the leaven of counting far past “10” before vomiting the kind of instant, toxic and too often character-assassinating judgements into that anonymous phone or tablet, needs to be modelled at the highest levels of political and leadership perches. Parents, on the verge of administering some kind of abusive punishment on a disobedient child, have for decades been cautioned to “count to ten” as a way of deflecting and dissipating their intense frustration, anger, impatience and offense.

Words, when deployed as weapons, attacking the character, the dignity and the respect of another human being, for the simple reason of paying a debt to the offended ego of an insecure and neurotic spokesperson, slip like mercury smoothly, glibly and effortlessly from the larynx, over the tongue, through the lips and into the atmosphere. There is no “record” of such abuse, except in the heart/mind/spirit of the victim of that abuse. And while we have all colluded in forming an voluntary mass army of accusers, we have not, simultaneously, generated a similar battalion of those willing to put a hand on the arm, a raise of the eyebrows, a nod of the head, or even a phone call or text, if and when we know that someone in our circle is about to “flail” at another, with or without cause.

This space is not the place to advocate for, or even to make judgements of the many offences and their perpetrators whose stories have made headlines. Nor is it the place to judge that all of those headlines were based on untruths. It is however, a legitimate space in which to note the dangers of a cultural convention that has the potential to infect every single person on the planet, even potentially to destroy each individual, without that potential even being moderated, and certainly not eliminated, through the removal of impunity.

If each person who slings a potentially lethal arrow, or bends a potentially lethal knee on a neck, or observes such an act, were to count to ten, and to ask another for counsel, and to take him or herself out of the moment of the “enflamement”, it is conceivable that together we might cut the incidences of hate, racial, gender and domestic abuse and even parental abuse of relatively innocent children. That kid may be in fact “guilty” of a specific act, considered in that family as offensive; however, it is important for every parent to take note of the fact that that specific act is not, and must not be permitted to define that kid’s version of himself. Neither should a homeless person, or a person completely and utterly dependent on even a hard drug like heroine, be judged by another individual, and especially by the collective judgement of a society, as “worthless” and “undependable,” and “unworthy” of help, support and care.

None of us is without our own “bentness” and none of us should be categorized as “worthless” or hopeless. If and when we enter into such judgements, we are declaring our own refusal to acknowledge our own vulnerability. And if and when we can safely own our vulnerability, we will no longer need those ‘zero tolerance” and “cancel” culture steps which do not protect us from ourselves, anyway. 


*Tautology: in logic, tautology is a formula or assertion that is true in every possible interpretation; a repetitive statement..(Wikipedia)

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