Why is the pope afraid of ‘cancel culture’? Part 1: A religious history of ‘cancel culture’

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Why is the pope afraid of ‘cancel culture’? Part 1: A religious history of ‘cancel culture’

In January 2022, Pope Francis mentioned Cancel Culture for the first time. Analyst Clémence Sauty suggests this conversation could be historically biased.

This weekly comment was written by Clémence Sauty and reflects her personal analyses and opinions, rather than those of EARS.

On 10 January 2022, Pope Francis stated that cancel culture is “ideological colonisation” and “one-track thinking.”[1]

It is the first time that the Catholic leader ever talked about so-called cancel culture. Just a few weeks before, the Vatican stood against a proposition to use the inclusive term ‘holiday season’ instead of ‘Christmas season’ in the public sphere. It may be on this occasion that pope Francis became acquainted with the expression ‘cancel culture’.[2]

In any case, religious authorities seem to deal with ‘cancel culture’ as if it was a new threat. It is described as a force of destruction never seen before.[3] Let’s take a look at the history of ‘cancel culture’ in religion to try to put Francis’s comment into perspective. I suggest that the fear of ‘cancel culture’ comes down to what is known as a ‘recency illusion’.[4] This is the illusion that events we only just noticed are indeed recent. On the contrary, cancel culture has been happening for a very long time in history.[5] I would even argue that we are witnessing huge progress towards mutual understanding and acceptance.

What is ‘cancel culture’?

‘Cancel culture’ has become a label for many different political protests. Its critics define it as the public shaming and silencing of people who are deemed ‘moral transgressors’. Through mass boycott, media lynching, and online bullying, ‘the guilties are called to account’.[6]

This, most often, does not result in a higher sense of responsibility in the alleged ‘wrongdoers’. Instead, their victimisation completely prevents them from perceiving how they may have been the oppressors themselves, in the past. Psychologists unanimously agree that ‘cancel culture’ in this sense is not effective.[7]

As a result, ‘cancel culture’ is highly objectionable.[8] Still, is it worth all the fuss?

A history of cancel culture in Judaism

Throughout history, religions have led many ‘mass cancellation’ movements. One of them was directed towards women.

Essayist Cynthia Ozick phrases this in the most striking way. In her essay ‘Notes toward finding the right question’, she looks to formulate the ‘Woman Question’ in Judaism. She wonders why it is only in the 1970s that feminism gained traction among Jewish American women.[9]

Ozick argues that the loss and mourning of large parts of the Jewish heritage during the Holocaust was critical. She even claims: “We are the generation which knows more than any generation before us what mass loss means.” After the Shoah, Jewish women began seeking out the legacy of female Jewish authors in history, only to discover that it had never been preserved.[10]

Therefore, Ozick concludes: “The truth is that the Talmud is the collective endeavour not of the entire Jewish people, but only of its male half. Jewish women have been omitted – by purposeful excision – from this ‘collective endeavour of the Jewish people’. … A loss numerically greater than a hundred pogroms; yet Jewish literature and history report not one wail, not one tear.”[11]

Women have only recently gained recognition in religious fields. Some can now be ordained as pastors,[12] imams,[13] or rabbis.[14] But this should not erase the fact that their predecessors were cancelled on a massive scale.

A history of cancel culture in Christianity

Within Christianity also, not only differences in gender, but also race, skin colour, and religion have been deemed ‘moral transgressions’ that were beyond salvation. All sorts of differences have been considered outrageous enough to justify massive censorship.

Christianity took part in the deliberate erasure of women. Witch hunts became substantial during the European religious wars between Catholicism and Protestantism.[15] They were specifically targeted at knowledgeable women, whose heritage is now completely lost. Female doctors, artists, and thinkers were persecuted and silenced.[16]

Besides, Christian religious authorities played a role in banning Jews from European societies, spreading the belief that Jews were collectively responsible for Jesus’s death.[17] The demonisation of Jews as deicides, much like that of women as witches, served to silence them and rob them of any posterity. For instance, creating a special status for the Jews in Europe was also a way of cancelling them. Jewish people were banned from several scientific, artistic, and intellectual occupations, confining them to banking activities.[18]

Today, Christian churches have largely acknowledged that they were wrong in demonising anyone.[19] Nonetheless, the fear of being cancelled still remains among those who were historically targeted. Indeed, non-religious conspiracy theories keep accusing Jews, among others, of being responsible for contemporary events.[20] European Muslims as well are currently faced with the danger of being silenced.[21]

A ‘cancellation’ to remember

Pope Francis fears that “a kind of dangerous ‘one-track thinking’ is taking shape, one constrained to deny history or, worse yet, to rewrite it in terms of present-day categories.” This statement leaves room for interpretation. Who did Francis wish to protect from historical revisionism? Did he echo the fears of gender, race, and religious minorities who have been burdened with rejection for thousands of years? Or did he rather echo the fears of historically dominant people who are only now discovering the personal implications of ‘being cancelled’?

The consequences of ‘cancellation’ are the same for everyone, and I do not intend to minimise anyone’s pain. However, it is not fair to ignore the mass ‘cancellation’ of millions of people throughout history, just because their oppression has been normalised. The fact that ‘cancel culture’ may sometimes be directed at ‘unexpected’ victims, such as Christian Europeans, does not imply that it is a new and outstandingly threatening phenomenon.

I suggest that the discussion on cancel culture is biased and therefore much too alarmist. If we want to deal with this topic, within and without religious spheres, we should examine the history of who has been cancelled by whom, in order to commemorate the harm and celebrate the progress. Because progress towards acceptance is actually the most powerful trend.

This weekly comment was written by Clémence Sauty and reflects her personal analyses and opinions, rather than those of EARS.

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[1] Vaccins, migrants, « cancel culture »… Les inquiétudes du pape sur l’état du monde

[2] Pope Francis Called Cancel Culture ‘Ideological Colonization’

[3] Esclavage, l’Église dans le viseur de la cancel culture

[4] Recency illusion – Wikipedia

[5] Cancel culture: An introduction

[6] The Long and Tortured History of Cancel Culture – The New York Times

[7] The Mental Health Effects of Cancel Culture

[8] However, this is only one specific type of ‘cancellation’. Also legal acts of denunciation can be discarded as ‘cancel culture’: from removing statues, to ecological activism, to antiracist marches, to whistle blowing. See here: « L’expression “cancel culture” est une étiquette fourre-tout »

[9] Notes Toward Finding the Right Question – Lilith Magazine

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Ordination of women in Protestant denominations – Wikipedia

[13] Women as imams – Wikipedia

[14] Women rabbis and Torah scholars – Wikipedia

[15] What is the difference between a witch and a saint?

[16] Sorcières – La puissance invaincue des femmes

[17] Antisemitism Uncovered: Myth – Jews Killed Jesus

[18] Antisemitism in Europe – Wikipedia

[19] For instance, Pope Benedict stated in 2011 that Jews are not responsible for Jesus’s death.

[20] German Jewish leaders fear rise of antisemitic conspiracy theories linked to Covid-19 | Germany | The Guardian

[21] Banning Muslims from European society? – EARS