Cancellation and Calvinism | Confessions of a Community College Dean
Cancellation and Calvinism | Confessions of a Community College Dean

The journalist Heidi Moore -- one of the best users of Twitter around -- had a thoughtful thread on “cancel culture” earlier this week that I highly recommend.

As she put it,

"And frankly; as far as our current period of using people to make moral points about larger societal structures -- to establish a new, better moral education -- it is more useful to focus on the possibility of growth, and who is open to it, than on strict elimination."

I like the idea of “a new, better moral education.” It suggests that morality is important, but that it’s also evolving, and in many ways, it’s improving. It’s a trivial example, but sometimes I’ll rewatch movies I loved in high school and be shocked both by the brazenness of the sexism or racism in them and by the fact that at the time, I either didn’t notice or didn’t care. It just didn’t register. Now, it very much does.

“Education” also carries a second meaning. It’s a process. It takes time, and it moves in fits and starts. It involves mistakes and learning from those mistakes. Good educators know that learners will err as they learn. Part of the challenge is distinguishing errors of growth from errors of carelessness or worse. The latter merit avoidance; the former, some level of grace. I use that theological term deliberately.

Although its forms change over time, I’m struck by the ways the Calvinist streak in American culture keeps re-emerging. It manifests in efforts to identify the “elect,” and to sniff out pretenders. The tragedy of it is that ultimately, everyone is a pretender. At its heart -- and I admit to gross reductionism here, but I’m looking at the cultural fallout, rather than the theology -- is a belief in “predestination,” or the idea that God has already decided who is going to heaven. (After all, the argument goes, if God knows everything, then he must know who will be saved and who will be damned.) If that’s true, then the “elect,” or the saved, have already been chosen.

Culturally, that belief often led to extreme self-scrutiny (and community scrutiny), looking for signs that someone was the sort of person who would have been chosen to make the cut. A punitive sort of purity -- what Jessica Wildfire calls “vindictive morality” -- gradually takes hold. The culture looks to exemplars but takes a strange pleasure in finding fault in them and tearing them down. It’s a way for everyone else to manage their own fears of falling, or of being exposed as having already fallen.

The American right has embraced the “prosperity gospel” as a sort of vulgarized, decadent version of Weber’s “Protestant ethic.” The idea is that you can identify the “elect” by their wealth. (That may seem extreme, but notice the number of "influencers" who post Instagram photos of their luxury goods with the hashtag #blessed. They mean it.) That makes for an awkward fit with the New Testament, but so it goes. The American left, meanwhile, tends toward examples of purity rather than wealth. “Prefigurative politics,” all the rage in the ’60s, is all about exemplars. “Unconscious bias” training, focused on the self, is all about purity. The tragic flaw there is that purity is both unattainable and necessarily marginal; it’s the opposite of solidarity, from which actual change comes. And it feeds quickly and easily into a sort of commodification that unleashes its own set of temptations.

I prefer a more ambitious politics combined with a more humble theology. If we divide the world into the elect and the fallen, or the worthy and the unworthy, or the deserving and the undeserving, then it’s a short leap to a politics of us and them. Worse, the us will get progressively smaller as traitors in the midst are exposed, accurately or not. Every us needs a them against which to define itself; if a them doesn’t already exist, it will be invented. An immune system with nothing better to do will start attacking its own body.

Better, I think, to acknowledge that we’re all good and we’re all flawed. The work of ethics is to move toward getting better in the ways we treat each other. Sometimes that means charity; sometimes it means structural change; sometimes it means just extending patience and forgiveness as somebody else makes the mistakes of growth. That’s a conscious choice that needs to be made over and over again. It requires listening to people who see things differently, in recognition that everyone has some truth to share. It requires avoiding the cheap thrills of condemnation in favor of the slow work of education. It embraces second chances, rather than taking initial failures as signs of irredeemable fallenness. We’re all flawed, and we’re all capable of more. All who want to do better should be welcome.

It’s all about wanting to do better by each other. Thank you, Heidi Moore, for helping me piece that together.

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