The writer is a rabbi and leadership consultant
Jews are currently in our annual repentance season, which reaches a pinnacle on Monday with the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. These holy days recognise that we all make mistakes, and that they can be overcome when we acknowledge them, apologise and make serious changes to our behaviour.
That belief in the potential for improvement is worth keeping in mind at a time when intergenerational culture wars are raging about what to do about people whose views are deemed unacceptable.
Proponents of “cancel culture” use social media to call for public shunning and boycotts of people and institutions who transgress. In some ways, cancellations are this century’s equivalent of a papal excommunication. But the speed and reach of online communication have supercharged the process, threatening the livelihoods of the targets.
This movement is taking on societal wrongs that have persisted for generations. Racism, transphobia and sexism have been called out for years and too often the response of those in power has been too weak in comparison to the severity of the threat. UK hate crimes against transgender people rose by 37 per cent last year and those based on sexual orientation rose 25 per cent.
Young people are challenging those with the most power and demanding rigorous accountability. They are democratising public discourse, showing what they will and won’t stand for. That should be cherished.
Yet cancellation’s profoundly unforgiving nature misses the difference between retribution and rehabilitation. And I fear the scope of views that you can be cancelled for is equally unprecedented and expanding exponentially. That can make the pressure to avoid offence immense. When the movement takes on powerful figures such as JK Rowling for her views on gender and sex, it may enough to deter people.
Cancel culture proponents can be far too hasty and self-assured. The movement often fails to distinguish between what is said in good faith and in bad; nor does it admit that people can move on from opinions expressed long ago.
At a time of searing social divisions, we need to lower the flame to keep people talking and listening. En-masse cancellation will not win hearts and minds. It will lock individual and groups into echo chambers with those of the same worldview and opinion. Accountability will be gained at the expense of stability. Boycotts and shunning often fail at what they aim to achieve: instead of changing opinion, they silence dissenting voices.
Our experience with addressing anti-Semitism suggests another way. Surveys show that 2 to 5 per cent of the UK population are “hardcore anti-Semites”, while another third occasionally use anti-Semitic tropes, but don’t understand why they are harmful. In the latter group, when someone points out what’s anti-Semitic in what they said, they usually apologise, learn from it and we all move on. To hurl abuse or to label these mis-steps as those of a virulent Jew-hater is unproductive.
A few years ago, past anti-Semitic comments made by Naz Shah surfaced. To the UK MP’s credit, she unequivocally apologised and showed genuine remorse. She visited synagogues to listen and apologise, even though this was unpopular with some constituents. Good faith was obvious and she continued her political career with dignity.
We should avoid inflating the price of earnest mis-steps at great risk to brands and reputations. As the parent of a transgender person, I understand what it’s like to make inadvertently offensive mistakes. My lack of knowledge did not reflect disapproval, and the full range of gender pronouns was not in my vocabulary. Luckily, I’ve been given the space to improve without being cancelled. We must leave space for others to do so as well.
Ari Deller, a philosophy student at the University of Edinburgh, also contributed