Sometimes a story can become about something completely different, it takes a sudden twist and turn. We thought that the story at the start of the week was about Meghan and Harry. Depending upon your overall sympathies, you thought that it was either about an unfair and inappropriate interview and the negative impact on the Royal Family and especially some elderly grandparents. If you were more disposed to the Sussexes then it was the story of two desperate people trying to get the truth out. It’s possible of course to see reasons to be both compassionate and sympathetic to both sides and at the same time be critical of both.
Then suddenly, the story was not about the Sussexes or Kate or the Queen at all. In the secular context, it suddenly became about a TV presenter and anger turned on him. Then it was about him walking, pushed out of his job. Not to be outdone, the Christian media world produced its own controversy.
Within 24 hours, Premier Christianity had managed to ask someone in Australia to get an article out before the show just as they would have been heading off to bed, publish the article telling him they were happy with it, make a minor amendment and then finally withdraw the article and publish an apology. The author himself, in the style of Piers Morgan had forceably defended himself, accused anyone who disagreed with him of being part of some “woke” (in the unfortunately pejorative use of the word that now dominates) mob that were hounding him and then published the article himself on his blog with a lengthy personal attack on the editor. He led with the claim that he had been cancelled. The original writers for “The Thick of it” could not have made up such a storyline.
The first thing to say is that Piers Morgan and The Wee Flea have not been cancelled. This is one of those phrases that gets thrown about whenever anyone is challenged these days. The concept of cancelling is to in effect erase someone from life and history through for example removal of ancient monuments, taking books out of circulation, and banning (if still alive) from broadcasts, interviews, public talks and even finding employment in their chosen profession.
As I argued in this previous piece, it is perfectly permissible and indeed essential that we are able to challenge people, question, correct, critique. It is legitimate to edit, to refuse to publish and to withdraw pieces if you make an error. None of those things add up to censorship or cancelling in either case. Indeed, it is worth stating that what we tend to see is that people who are well connected and well known in their context and therefore have status and power respond to challenge by going on the attack against those who dare to disagree. Often those challenging are those without much power and indeed it is they if anyone who risk being cancelled if their challenge is seen to be inconvenient and learn that it is better to stay silent than provoke an angry response.
You will notice too a pattern. The story is not allowed to be about someone else. It’s not allowed to be about the people in the original interview or those directly affected. It’s not allowed to be about hose who have experienced racial abuse, it is not allowed to be about those struggling with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Back in the day, people like Alistair Campbell would have said that if you have a role as journalist, commentator or spin doctor then you could not afford for you to become the story. If you did, you had to step away. Now it seems that social commentators are only happy if the attention is on them, they must be the story.
However, whilst I don’t think those concerned have been “cancelled”, I know that there are people who would like them to be. And, so I want to challenge us to think a bit harder about how we treat those we disagree with, how we disagree agreeably and how we respond in a Gospel centric way when we believe others have acted wrong or when they have caused us offence.
You see, as David Robertson rightly touches on in his article we have an atonement problem. Cancelling is a form of shaming. It is a way of saying that this person is beyond redemption, that there is no way back for them. It’s what happens when we take on a totalising view of one event, action, speech, right down to one little phrase.
There is a need at the moment for different voices to be rightly heard. I’m tired of people using the word “woke” pejoratively in order to dismiss anyone who is concerned about the affects of racism, mental health and bullying. It means that reformed evangelical pastors are getting dismissed and written off as having gone liberal (politically) and theologically by imbibing a godless worldview. It means that people who have experienced bullying, abuse and racism can once again be gaslit and silenced.
However, there are also those who are quick to accuse and condemn anyone who doesn’t agree fully with them from the other side. On the same day I was being accused of being some fluffy liberal, I was treated to a diatribe full of foul language accusing me of being a nasty racist, all because I suggested that before that person make judgements about other members of the Royal Family they might want to consider if they’d heard the full story.
If you read my review of “White Fragility” you’ll notice my concern that we reach the stage where a particular identity or experience is seen as protection against challenge and that it is never possible, for example, for a white person to have a contrary opinion on issues to do with race, or a man on issues of gender without them being condemned. The only possible reason they could disagree is because they are racist or sexist. That was one of the unpleasant undercurrents in the twitter discussion this week.
One of the concerns I have had is about the way that Oprah basically set up a witch hunt as to who had made the skin tone comments about Archie. Now, I have a bit of a feeling that from Meghan and Harry’s point of view, that issue was not meant to come out that way. It looked a little bit like one of those occasions when you say something more than you meant to and then you try to recover the situation. In fact, I don’t get the impression that they were seeking to settle scores with family members, their issue was with the institution and the media. However the broadcaster didn’t care how this affected family relations, they had a story and even as Meghan and Harry tried to recover the situation, the media pressed on.
However, the problem is this, that once that nugget was out there, it set people off speculating. Which Royal was it? Was it Prince Phillip? He has such a reputation? Would it be convenient for all concerned to add it to the list of Prince Andrew’s misdemeanours? Was this part of the supposed schism with other family members or was it a member of staff? Then what happens when the person is outed. Does that become the one thing they said or did that causes them to be cancelled. Are they forever “the racist royal” who must never be forgiven and never welcomed back into public life?
This takes me back to the cancelled article. I was one of the people who objected to things said in the article. It wasn’t for the first time in relation to either the specific author or the specific magazine. I don’t think that dropping one article means he has been cancelled and nor do I think he should be. I believe in a Gospel of forgiveness. This means that it has to be possible to put your hand up and say “I got this wrong, I am so sorry” and to experience forgiveness. It is the belief that forgiveness isn’t available that often causes people to harden their position and put the barriers up.
We should not live in a world where it is okay to say whatever you like about people, no matter how derogatory about their race, class, gender or mental health. We should not live in a world where we can expect to say hurtful, offensive and plain wrong things and not be challenged. However, nor should we live in a world where we are terrified that one slip of the tongue, one wrong choice of phrase, one thoughtless act leads to our shaming and cancellation.
 On the fact that mental health is not an automatic defence against criticism and challenge, see Steve Kneale It’s mental to comment from a distance about depression – Building Jerusalem