Some of us have vivid images of the statues of V. I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin being pulled down by cheering crowds during the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The worker’s paradise promised by the Marxist regime never materialized— far from it, as the terrors of the gulags revealed. A proud people who had been held captive for 70 years gained the freedom to revolt against tyranny. Justice was more than a dream. The symbols of injustice were trashed in hopes that injustice itself would be defeated. It was a virtuous iconoclasm.
Another very physical iconoclasm is erupting in our midst. After the death of George Floyd, angry crowds around the country felled statutes of those deemed racist. Churches were defaced. Some schools have changed or will change their names if their namesakes were deemed racist. Recently, Donald Trump and others supporting him have been deplatformed in social media purges. An entire platform, Parler, was removed from Apple and Google apps and effectively shut down. Meet “cancel culture.” It is epidemic. Who will be canceled next?
Some even want to cancel Abraham Lincoln because of his imperfect record on race. Protesters in Portland, Oregon, tore down a statue of Lincoln last year. It was not a Confederate civil war hero, mind you, but Abraham Lincoln, the Great Liberator who preserved the Union. Untutored and untethered rage makes for poor judgment and inspires indefensible actions.
The urge to purge and purify runs deep in human nature, indicating a painful unease with life. This urge is found in all religions and secular philosophies. Still, it is easier to want to purge and purify others than to purge or purify ourselves. As Bruce Cockburn put it in his song, “Justice” — "Everybody loves to see justice done — on somebody else.” Or, as Jesus asked, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”
This is the first defect of cancel culture: It divides the world into a clear dichotomy of oppressors (evil) and oppressed (good) when things are far trickier. The great Russian dissident writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either —but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”
Injustice calls out for justice, but what is justice and how can it be achieved? Evil-doers should be exposed and not whitewashed. Robert E. Lee Highschool in Springfield, Virginia was wisely renamed John R. Lewis High School, after the civil rights leader and congressman who died in 2020. Nevertheless, destroying public or private property is vandalism, which is itself unjust. Violence displays the baser side of human nature, terrifies people, and dissolves civil unity.
On Jan. 18, America observed a holiday dedicated to a man who abhorred violence as much as racism, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He paid for his convictions with his life. Surely, peaceful protests with strong demands yield better results over time than carnage, however passionate the indignation. Some statues should come down if they represent racism. But petitioning the government to remove them peacefully is far better than vigilante violence.
Cancellation at the price of free speech should trouble us. Private businesses have the legal right to ban people from their platforms, and some miscreants may need to be banned. The First Amendment restricts only the civil government from hindering free speech. Nonetheless, silencing those with whom you disagree sets a bad precedent because it indicates that the free exchange of ideas is not the best way to acquire knowledge. The media gatekeepers — in this case Big Tech — are better suited for that, they think. But does Big Tech want to be Big Brother?
When the newly liberated citizens in Russia toppled the statues that symbolized Soviet injustice, they knew the whole unjust system had to be replaced. But that is not our situation. The American system of equal rights under law allows for peaceful but forceful reform where needed. It worked in the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement. It can work again. There is no need to cancel through violence and heavy-handed censorship what we do not like, whatever our political beliefs may be. Justice calls for something better than cancel culture.
Douglas Groothuis is a professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary.