The exclusive boarding school Eton is usually seen as a pillar of the establishment, a beacon of all that is conservative and traditional about England. So it may surprise you to learn that Eton recently sacked an English teacher for questioning radical feminism, the notion of ‘toxic masculinity’ and other views that women’s rights campaigners consider to be ‘problematic’.
The teacher in question, Will Knowland, is the latest victim of what’s been dubbed ‘cancel culture’. Its definition is blurry, but generally it refers to when a person in a position of authority or fame loses their job, platform or other means of power, because they have said something perceived to be unacceptable.
Others who’ve ‘been cancelled’ include the Lewis actor Laurence Fox, who was accused by a Question Time audience member of being a “white privileged male”. Fox’s retort that the audience member was being racist brought the ire of many public figures, as well as the actors’ union, Equity. Following other controversial comments, including his criticism of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, Fox now says he finds it difficult to get work as an actor.
The rapper Kanye West is frequently targeted due to outspoken views on issues such as slavery and Donald Trump. He’s reportedly said: “I’ve been cancelled before they had cancel culture.”
When JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, criticised elements of the transgender movement, the backlash was immediate. #RIPJKRowling trended on Twitter, and more than 200 authors, editors and publishers later responded in an open letter where they stated “trans rights are human rights”.
There have been many others affected, the famous and the not so famous. Even being a Brexiteer can get you in trouble, despite the fact that more people voted for it than against it. Paul Embery was axed from his role as head of the Fire Brigades Union after speaking at a pro-Brexit rally in 2019. Blogger Glen Ocsko said on TV that he’d never date a Leave voter.
Most recently, the actress Gina Carano was dropped from her role in Disney’s The Mandalorian, after she compared the way conservatives in the US are viewed to how Jews were regarded by the Nazis.
However, I don’t think being ‘cancelled’ for explicit racism or other widely socially unacceptable behaviours is a new phenomenon. It’s normal for celebrity careers to suffer when they’re caught doing something criminal or controversial. Back in 2006, many in Hollywood refused to work with Mel Gibson after he hurled antisemitic abuse at the police officers who arrested him for drink-driving. OJ Simpson, Roman Polanski and, more recently, Harvey Weinstein have rightly had limits placed on their careers after being found out for criminal behaviour.
What seems to have changed, however, is that the behaviour and opinions that are ‘not allowed’, have widened considerably in a few short years. Until recently, to criticise radical feminism, transgenderism or the far-left ideology of BLM (as distinct from its wider goals of racial justice), wouldn’t have been seen as controversial, certainly not a sackable offence. These beliefs, often dubbed ‘woke’, were very fringe. Now that they are more widely held – or at least, they are held by more people with power – there are more opportunities to offend.
In fact, some who have been cancelled include those who were once heroes of ‘progressive’ movements. For example, Germaine Greer, the Australian feminist writer, fell foul of modern activists for saying that transgender men who have ‘transitioned’ to women are not women.
Also, the force behind the cancelling appears to be much stronger. Perhaps this is due to social media, which enables disapproval and one-sided criticism to spread swiftly. A ‘mob’ can quickly gather, demanding punishment for a person deemed to be offensive.
Social media fuels the fire in another way. It is so unregulated that ideas can spread very quickly, even if they’re false. This rapid spread of information and misinformation may have resulted in an increased desire to clamp down on people we disagree with. If we don’t, we’re afraid that harmful views will spread too speedily, possibly fuelling violence or civil unrest. The restriction of free speech is then believed necessary. But who defines what is considered ‘harmful’?
Rights and freedoms
The extent to which you believe cancel culture is a worrying trend probably depends on the extent to which you agree with the morals being enforced. If you agree that transgender rights are woefully neglected, that women and ethnic minorities are still oppressed due to patriarchal and racist societal structures, and other moral tenets that are held by many of today’s actors of cancel culture, you may be less worried about the trend than if you don’t believe these things. In fact, you might believe that it’s a righteous response to unacceptable beliefs, and that ‘cancel culture’ is a positive thing if it removes harmful opinions from the public square.
But then, inhibiting the free speech of those you disagree with has always been less worrying than when it happens to others.
It could help to reflect on how we’ve personally responded to other restrictions on free speech in recent years. When do we agree with such restrictions, when do we disagree and how do we respond? What is really a harmful opinion, and who gets to decide?
Many Christians have been the victims of a version of ‘cancel culture’ for some time. They have been forced out of jobs, or not given a platform, if they hold conservative opinions, especially about LGBT issues and abortion. Many ordinary people in a wide variety of industries have been affected, as well as famous people.
• Tim Farron, who was leader of the Liberal Democrat political party, resigned from his post in 2017 after being repeatedly and aggressively questioned about his views on abortion and homosexuality. He says he had been “torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader”.
• US evangelist Franklin Graham was due to tour eight venues in the UK last year. Protests about his comments on Islam and homosexuality, as well as his support for Donald Trump, meant commercial venues pulled out and refused to host him. A number of bishops told their parishes not to support the tour.
• Israel Folau, an Australian rugby player, had his contract ended when he said homosexuality leads to hell.
• The Daily Citizen, which is published by the Christian ministry Focus on the Family, recently had its Twitter account suspended after it described the USA’s assistant secretary of health, Dr Rachel Levine, as “a transgender woman, that is a man who believes he is a woman”.
As society became more accepting of LGBT concerns and abortion, and then developed into being actively supportive and positive towards them, those who disagreed were gradually ‘cancelled’ if they spoke publicly on those subjects. Yet for many Christians, homosexuality and abortion, as well as popular societal trends such as pornography, are harmful, and they believe that speaking out against them is promoting good. Much of the modern secular world disagrees strongly, and believes that it is such Christian beliefs that are harmful. Who gets to decide?
So is ‘cancel culture’ really about a crack down on ‘free speech’, or is it just that society’s morals are changing and evolving very fast, so that many Christians are finding themselves on the ‘wrong side’ of the issues?
Who the Church cancels
Consider this: If you’re in charge of a Christian conference or event, have you refused certain speakers? Would you ban certain kinds of Christian books from being sold in your church? Who gets to preach, and why?
Some Christians might cancel conservative preachers such as the austere Calvinist John MacArthur. Others would cancel the wildly charismatic Bill Johnson…yet others, the ultra-liberal Steve Chalke. In our politically divided times, I suspect some churches might reserve their platforms for people whose politics they agree with, as well as the theology. It’s often argued that the opponents’ theology is so harmful or ‘toxic’ that it could lead their flock astray.
This magazine is an important platform for the Christian community in the UK, and all the editors I have worked under have tried to fairly represent people across the theological spectrum, including more liberal, charismatic and conservative views, as well as different political opinions. Yet there are always letters of complaint. Many of these demand that certain voices are ‘cancelled’.
Individual churches are rarely large enough for cancel culture to have a significant impact on the target. When the platform is national TV news, the large universities, the political parties – the power of ‘cancelling’ is considerably stronger. Christians long ago lost any significant power in these realms of public life. But at one time, Christian ethics led people to be publicly cancelled if they’d committed adultery, taken drugs or divorced. And it’s often been worse. We must be honest that Church history has many examples of Christians behaving badly; burning heretics, waging wars against people who have different opinions.
A new religion
Today, it’s the secular majority who appear to be wielding more power and deciding which views are now intolerable. In fact, modern commentators have said that the ‘woke’ movement has similarities with ‘oppressive’ religion – it’s just that the morals are very different. Rather than concerns about issues such as promiscuity and religious doctrine, the woke are concerned about transgender rights and white supremacy, and they see dissent as heresy. Comedian Rowan Atkinson described cancel culture as the “digital equivalent of the medieval mob roaming the streets looking for someone to burn”.
Love over war
Christianity may have been associated with oppressive behaviour and intolerance in the past, but such actions could not be further away from Christ’s own attitude and behaviour.
Jesus had strong opinions, and plenty of them. But when people disagreed with him or questioned him, he rarely tub-thumped back at them. He often responded with a question, or a parable, or something else that appeared designed to make people think for themselves.
He was surrounded by violent Roman oppressors, but he held no placards in front of their military bases demanding regime change. There were many hypocritical religious leaders. Jesus spoke harshly to them, but he didn’t demand that the leaders or the chief priest be removed. Rather, it was the chief priest who demanded that Jesus be ‘cancelled’. The Romans and the priests sought to enforce their beliefs on others, and dealt ruthlessly with anyone who disagreed with them. They made other people change their ways through fear and force.
Jesus’ prescription for society’s ills was very different. He did not force change through law. He spoke of the heart needing transformation, and said that this was achieved through union with him – he is the vine, we are the branches (John 15:1-5). He told us to remain in his love (John 15:9). This is the means by which Jesus wants us to change. How different from the braying mob, the threat of losing your job, or worse, that cancel culture offers.
Without a nation being changed by agape love, we’re left with a society that becomes so broken and unhappy that people want to impose their will onto others and ostracise people who don’t agree with them. We become a place of hate and revenge. Even more sadly, this hate and revenge is often justified in the name of ‘compassion’, ‘tolerance’, ‘social justice’ – and Christianity.
Perhaps the changing times will help us to reflect on what it means to enforce our morals onto others. Can we do something different than just be another ideological group in the public square, shouting for our rights, seeking to impose our values and beliefs onto others? Can we seek to change hearts through love, rather than cancelling anyone? Can we be bold and honest about the morals that Jesus taught and the tough demands of Christian ethics, while still refusing to impose them on anyone unwilling? It’s a difficult task, but I hope that we can model this stance, for the sake of our society.