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18 July 2022

In March 2021, the retail giant Amazon delisted a book by Ryan T. Anderson entitled When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment published by Encounter Books in 2018. Anderson is an American political philosopher and the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank based in Washington D.C.

In a written reply to an inquiry submitted by the Republican senators to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos about this, Amazon explains that it reserves ‘the right not to sell certain content.’ The letter goes on to state: ‘As to your specific question about When Harry Became Sally, we have chosen not to sell books that frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness.’

In responding to Amazon, Anderson points out that he did not portray LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness in his book. ‘The only problem here’, Anderson told The Daily Sequel, ‘is that my book does no such thing. Nowhere have I ever said or framed LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness.’

He adds: ‘The phrase “mental illness” does occur in the book twice — but not in my own voice: once quoting a “trans woman” writing in The New York Times, and once quoting the current University Distinguished Service Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins.’

Conservatives are understandably outraged by this draconian act that is orchestrated to put an end to public discussion on the important issue of sexuality and gender. The delisting of Anderson’s book from Amazon is a stark example of the so-called ‘cancel culture’ which (in this case) leftists exploited to censure and silence views that are inimical or antithetical to their own.

What is ‘cancel culture’?

According to Kimberly Foster, founder of the website For Harriet, the expression ‘cancel culture’ is used to refer to a wide range of actions. ‘Cancel culture can include everything from people with the most money and privilege in our society getting push back for saying things others found distasteful to regular everyday people losing jobs for relatively minor fractions’, she says.

Sometimes, cancel culture is presented as the way in which the repressed minority is reacting to their marginalisation by society. Some cancellers say that the only way to call out people with money and influence who are guilty of offences is to use social media to bring their actions to public attention.

But this is not always the case. Very often this mechanism is also used by powerful institutions — both liberal and conservative — to silence dissenting or controversial voices they are unwilling to tolerate.

We inhabit a culture that has become hypersensitive about a wide range of subjects and issues, from sexuality and politics to religion and race. This mercurial and tetchy ethos have inevitably broadened the scope of opinions and viewpoints that are considered insulting, derogatory or hurtful. In this current environment, virtually all viewpoints and statements would offend someone.

It is this attitude of intolerance that the authors of the open letter published in Harper’s Magazine on July 7, 2020, find most worrying in mature democracies in the West, like the United States. The authors described cancel culture as ‘a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity.’

Although the remarks in this letter were directed mainly at ‘right-wing demagogues’, they apply to anyone who uses this mechanism to prevent public debate on important issues that affect everyone. Both conservatives and liberals, rightists and leftists, can be guilty of the sins of intolerance and ideological despotism.

Cancel culture is equivalent to allowing an angry mob decide the fate of an individual or a group. It is a form of hooliganism and dictatorship where a group persecutes, terrorises and eventually silences individuals or organisations whose views they disagree with.

Cancel culture, writes Nadine Strossen, ‘accepts and even encourages conclusory repudiations of arguments and ad hominem attacks on speakers, and does not insist on reasoned analysis or evidence-based arguments.’ Writing specifically about the practice in universities, she adds that cancel culture ‘also uses intimidating tactics, threatening to punish certain speakers through harsh measures, including even outright exile from the university community via expulsion (of students) or firing (of faculty or staff members).’

But the cancel culture in fact achieves very little, and in the long run it inflicts profound damage to society and the liberties of its members.

Cancel culture generates a climate of fear where people are afraid to make statements or express opinions that others might find offensive, resulting in unhealthy self-censorship. This form of social pressure can be more suffocating and inhibiting than the censorship rules of draconian governments.

With remarkable prescience of our current cultural ethos, John Stuart Mill, in his classic 1859 essay ‘On Liberty’, warns that ‘social tyranny [is] more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since … it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life and enslaving the soul itself.’

In July 2020, the Cato Institute published the report of a national survey which showed that many in the United States are reluctant to express their political views because of the fear of retribution. 62 per cent said that ‘the political climate these days prevent [them] from saying things [they] believe because others might find them offensive.’ And about a third of the respondents said that they were afraid that they could not get a job or that they will get fired if their political views became known.

Civil Discourse and Disagreement

The intolerance that the cancel culture encourages will hamper the genuine pursuit of truth. It will create echo chambers that promote the narrow ideologies of certain groups of people while excluding other voices. It can be used to advance a brand of identity politics that will polarise society instead of uniting it.

Cancel culture will not only signal the end of civil discourse in society. It will mark the end of civility itself.

The only way to deal with this culture of exclusion is to stress the importance of civility in public discourse and to allow it to govern our conversations and interactions with one another.

What is civility?

According to James Calvin Davies, civility is ‘the exercise of patience, integrity, humility, and mutual respect in civil conversation, even (and especially) with those with whom we disagree.’ Civility requires us to see the people that we disagree with in a more amicable light — not as foes whose arguments must be demolished or whose right to be heard should be forfeited, but as conversation partners whom we must respect.

Civility is the virtue that society must cultivate and practice in order to counter the venomousness and toxicity that public discourse on important matters has sometimes become, especially in social media.

Of course, civility in discourse does not guarantee that differences will be resolved or that substantial agreement will result. But it does allow debates on important matters — religion, politics, sexuality, rights, free speech — to be more instructive and productive. Cancel culture has simply made such fruitful conversations impossible.

Many of the virtues associated with Davies’ definition of civility are rooted in the Scriptures: they are the qualities which the apostle Paul describes as the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Christians, therefore, should take the lead in demonstrating that civil discourse is indeed possible and showing how it looks like as they engage issues in the public square.

In displaying patience, humility, integrity and respect towards others, Christians recognise the dignity of their interlocutors who are also bearers of God’s image (Genesis 1:27). As Davies puts it, ‘When Christians treat one another and strangers alike with respect, they honour the imago Dei in the other, and mimic the grace of God.’

This means that Christians must never demonise the people who disagree with them.

It must be clarified, however, that civility does not require Christians to compromise the truth, to water it down so as to create more common ground with their conversation partners. Civility does not require Christians to abandon their theological and moral convictions in order to accommodate the views of the majority or the prevailing sentiments of our culture.

In the Christian understanding, civility is not opposed to the truth. Christians can stand firm in the truth and yet be civil to those who reject it.

Cancel culture is a social and political disease that can destroy the cohesion of a society. But is is not an incurable disease. The antidote to cancel culture is civility. Christian civility shows that there is indeed another (more excellent) approach to public discourse than the one dictated by the cancel culture.

As Davies explains, Christians have a crucial role to play in this.

Standing in the light of God’s reconciling grace, we commend that grace to the world around us, providing a template for more gracious relations with even our most ardent ideological opponent. To model the virtues of civility, and to insist on them from those who claim to represent us, is to discharge our Christian responsibility to break down the walls of hostility and reconcile the world. … Aggressively demanding civility — for ourselves, our neighbours, our leaders, and the media — is simultaneously a profound exercise of citizenship and a prophetic act of Christian faithfulness.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.