In the last couple of years, we’ve heard a lot about “cancel culture” – the tendency to shun someone who does not abide by social norms. Most specifically, we hear it applied to social media influencers and/or celebrities who offend their followers with unacceptable remarks, such as those that embrace racist attitudes.
Before we go on, I want to assert that I believe in forgiveness, and that people can change (through deliberate effort). As a student of culture, I also believe that each generation sets its own norms for what is expected, proper, and acceptable. Through my studies, I’ve also learned a lot of fascinating things about American culture.
Before the media explosion of the early 20th century, we were considered a “culture of character” – we cared about a person’s reputation and life choices, and judged accordingly. A person of good character, the reasoning went, would continue to display those positive qualities in a wide variety of contexts: thus, a man who was a loyal employee and loyal family member would display loyalty in all areas of life.
In the industrial age, this thinking changed somewhat. This change can be strongly linked to the rise of manufacturing and the role of the “salesman.” If you’ve ever read about Dale Carnegie, you’ll discover the rules of being a “mightly likeable fellow,” and how developing particular traits is the key to success and happiness. Smile, shake hands, remember names, have a great personality (a word that hadn’t been used much before). Personality was the key to win friends and influence people – especially people who didn’t know you long enough, or well enough, to assess your character.
I took the “Dale Carnegie Course” back in the 90s – a course that was once very popular for “businessmen” to complete in their quest to become “a mighty likeable fellow.” As I remember, the course was expensive, and the subject matter mostly consisted of cultivating superficial behaviors such as strong eye contact, a firm handshake, and a sincere smile. The emphasis was not so much on developing long-term relationships as it was about researching other people and memorizing factoids about them, so you could say things like “How is your son Billy?” and impress others with how much you cared.
If the stereotype of the “used car salesman” comes to mind, you wouldn’t be far wrong. This was the culture of personality.
The culture of personality has endured for a century. Call it the culture of celebrity if you wish, but the outcome is the same: as a nation, we have come to value flash over substance, a firm handshake over firm convictions, a pretty face over a beautiful heart. And because those things don’t go very deep to begin with, they’re easy to reject. These “relationships” are easy to walk away from, because we aren’t that emotionally invested.
How does all this relate to “cancel culture?” Well, I like to think that perhaps we are returning to a cultural norm where character is more important than surface presentation, where we refuse to listen to someone who, through their words and behaviors, has shown that their heart and mind are not in the right place. If you’re doubtful about this shift, consider: more and more lately, we’ve heard people say things like “I like his music, but I’m not sure I can enjoy it anymore, knowing his attitudes about women,” or, “I like her books, but I’m not sure I can be a fan anymore, knowing her attitudes about queer people.”
We live in community with others. These rejections – “shunnings,” if you will – might have no effect. Or, ideally, they’ll have the effect of making the “shunned” think a little more deeply. If your community rejects you for engaging in a particular behavior, perhaps it’s worth a moment of reflection. For the mature thinker, such moments can lead to change.
Self-reflection is uncomfortable, and some people seem incapable of taking a hard look inside (many of them are in positions of leadership). If there is an upside to cancel culture, it may be a nudge toward a new culture of character. We might begin by reflecting on important “influencers” of the past who weren’t necessarily beautiful, privileged, or givers of firm handshakes, but who drew from an inner well of goodness in their dealings with others.
I encourage all of us to continue pondering the importance of character in the attachments we form to others.