We live in an era of immense access to information through the internet. Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., most of the world knew within hours of the atrocity that had taken place. The outrage that followed shook the world and inspired movements for reform everywhere.
Last week, a photo began to circulate on social media depicting four University of Dallas students dressed in a wall costume holding a sign that read “José.” It immediately created outrage and division on our campus with some in support of the costume and others strongly offended by it.
The costume was racist and certainly in poor taste. That much isn’t really up for debate since it plays into a harmful stereotype and makes a joke out of our country’s issues on the border, which are not a laughing matter. All the same, questions of social media based call-outs and cancel culture landed right on our campus, and an examination of the problem bears merit.
The massive distribution of information has had many effects, positive and negative, but how does this phenomenon look on a smaller scale, and is it different when it comes to personal attacks?
Is it congruous with Christian charity to attack someone on the internet over something wrong they did?
According to Merriam-Webster, “to cancel someone… means to stop giving support to that person. The reason for cancellation can vary, but it usually is due to the person in question having expressed an objectionable opinion, or having conducted themselves in a way that is unacceptable.”
Cancellation often results in the removal of that individual or institution from mainstream acceptance. It can have more dramatic effects, however, such as job loss, rescinded school admissions and damage to real-life relationships.
There are certainly instances that call for exposure through social media. In instances wherein the justice system is known to fail, calling attention to an issue can be a positive good, but the intention must be to effect reform.
For example, in a case where public officials or those in the public eye who wield substantial influence, it may be desirable to publicize their misdeeds in order to halt their influence or take away their power due to a loss of confidence in their capacity to fill their role.
In smaller communities and when pertaining to a private citizen, however, the consequences of solidifying a person’s misdeeds in the seemingly everlasting archives of the internet before the whole public eye may be more severe than the perpetration merits.
The potency of present day “cancel culture” is demonstrable through the story of Alexander Katai, a soccer player for the LA Galaxy team. He was fired from the team due to racist comments made by his wife. While the malicious nature of her tweets are unquestionable, it is a testament to the power of social media that a man lost his job and his livelihood for comments that he did not actually make, even after issuing a public apology. The purpose of this example is not to condemn the dismissal per se, but to demonstrate the influence of social media.
Pope Francis states in his recent encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” “Digital communication wants to bring everything out into the open; people’s lives are combed over, laid bare and bandied about, often anonymously. Respect for others disintegrates, and even as we dismiss, ignore or keep others distant, we can shamelessly peer into every detail of their lives.”
It may be the case that the people we call out on social media or cancel are deserving of some punishment for their actions, but it seems contrary to Christian charity to deal with them in this way.
It is deeply impersonal, taking no account of that person’s life or the complete content of their character. Due to its impersonal nature, it also tends not to be productive to any of the parties involved. Forced public shaming often only leads to feelings of anger which ultimately solidify the belief under scrutiny.
In response to this anger, the accuser is often equally as outraged, and their own position is also blindly solidified. More often than not, there isn’t any real contrition involved, the person being shamed is not made to understand his or her mistakes instead, only suffer from them.
In “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis makes note of the lost phenomenon of human commonality, he speaks of “a deceptive illusion: thinking that we are all-powerful while failing to realize that we are all in the same boat. This illusion, unmindful of the great fraternal values, leads to a sort of cynicism.”
To call someone out on the internet without knowing who they are or where they come from and having no genuine intention of helping them improve as a person embraces the sentiment described above in “Fratelli Tutti.”
It is inhuman and unhelpful to everyone involved. It stirs up outrage. This outrage, which is often justified, can ruin a person, even for the smallest mistake. This is especially true for private citizens; people who do not hold political power or cultural influence.
People are rarely changed by strangers shaming them on the internet.We as Christians are called to work to the end of the salvation of people rather than to merely shame them.
Fraternal correction should be private, not public. In the theatre of politics or fame, the act of shaming an individual ought to work to the end of removing their influence because of some demonstration of failure in their office. For the individual, it is difficult to conceive of a situation wherein someone calls out another person on the internet with the intention of helping them gain salvation. It is a failure of fraternal love to smear someone’s good name merely out of anger or even to raise awareness, which should be done without revealing their identity.
In our own case, that of the wall costume, some of the students at our school seem to have reacted rashly. UD has an institutional solution to this problem in the form of our Title IX office and the costume could very easily have been reported to it privately.
Even beyond that, however, it may also have been possible for the peers of the students pictured to address the issue on a person to person basis, genuinely attempting to help them learn and grow. In the case of the failure of all other possibilities, publicity may be justifiable, but even then, it is never desirable.