Cancel Culture is a phrase one hears a lot these days. Cancel culture is the idea that if you don’t agree or even appear to agree with my thoughts, I will cancel your very integrity, let alone your credibility.
The problem with cancel culture is that as one group assumes the right to dictate how we should think and use our resources, other groups rise and claim that right too. Should we go down that road, we would find ourselves bending into every possible position to accommodate the interests of each group. One group would tell us to think one way, others would tell us to think another way, and yet others will tell insist on a different way. We would twist ourselves into pretzels and still not make anyone happy.
We should have a free and open exchange of ideas and let society adopt what makes the most sense. If you don’t like an argument, point out its fallacies. Don’t shut down the argument and certainly not the person. Cancel culture creates an atmosphere of intimidation wherein others don’t necessarily agree but are afraid to say so. Cancel culture doesn’t debate contrary opinions. It cancels our right to those opinions.
To Swallow Another
Everything can be found in the Torah and indeed, the Torah has long cautioned us against the perils of a cancel culture. Our sages taught us to pray for the welfare of the monarchy because if not for fear of the monarchy, man would swallow his fellow alive. To swallow your fellow alive doesn’t mean to kill him. If our sages meant to say that man would kill his fellow, they would have said so. They said man would swallow his fellow alive because that is what they meant.
To swallow your fellow alive means to demean and undermine his ability to think independently. It means to claim the role of your fellow’s overseer, to tell him how to think, how to talk, and how to use his resources. When you bully a society into letting you think for them, when you intimidate others enough that they are afraid to speak up for themselves, when you terrorize others until they forfeit their possessions and acknowledge your right to them, you have swallowed them alive. That person is no longer independent. He or she has been wholly swallowed and subsumed by you.
Did you win a debate? Did you score a victory? No, it is a hollow win because you didn’t persuade your fellows. You intimidated them. They still disagree but are afraid to say so. What kind of victory is that?
Why would someone do this?
When we believe that we are elite and superior to others, we begin to think that we should do their thinking for them and show them the light. If we are of superior intelligence, it would be foolish to let them think for themselves. In our elitism, we believe that we can shield them from costly errors, we can protect them from their own ignorance, and that we are in fact doing them a favor.
When we start down this path, we hope to merely guide and mentor others, but before long we begin to mold and shape their thoughts. The more we believe our elitism, the more we expect others to believe it too. People who do this are often surprised when their efforts are not appreciated. They can’t understand why their inferiors aren’t grateful for their guidance. This surprise leads them to become even more dismissive of the people they consider inferior and to double down on their efforts. Such is the nature of hubris. It begins with social pressure, it moves to intimidation, and before long, they swallow you alive.
Says the Mishnah, pray for the welfare of the monarchy because without them, those who believe themselves superior to you will do their best to swallow you alive. You will still live. You will still earn money. You will still eat and drink. But you won’t be your own person. You won’t be able to express an opinion that your superiors don’t like. You won’t be able to hold down a job if your superiors don’t deem you socially qualified. You won’t be able to use your money for things you consider important. You will need to do only what you are told to do and think only as you are told to think. That is what it means to be swallowed alive. You are alive, but because of the cancel culture, you are subsumed by others.
Says the Mishnah, without the restraining hand of government to ensure freedom of speech and freedom of conscience, you will find yourself subjected and subsumed by the social elite.
This all begins with pride. The Torah warns us that when we grow prosperous and build large palaces and corporations, we take pride in our achievements. We credit our success to our own brilliance and take to believing that we know best. When our ancestors were in the desert, they could not boast of their success because they could see verily that they were in G-d’s hands. But, the Torah forewarned, when they would enter civilization and build their own successes, they would become vulnerable to such hubris.
It all begins internally—with the way we view ourselves. If we see ourselves as superior, we will inevitably see others are inferior. When that happens, we seek to guide and lead them to the point that we cancel their right to think for themselves. We want to control their freedom, their success, and even their resources because we feel that society will otherwise fall to pieces.
The Torah describes the problem, but also provides the solution. The solution is to remember that our success is not the product of our brilliance. We might indeed be brilliant, talented, and capable, insightful, sharp, and smart, but these tools don’t guarantee success. G-d is the architect of our success. If we recall at every turn that our success is not of our making, but of G-d’s, if we remember at all times that before G-d, the smartest and the most foolish, the strongest and the weakest, the wealthiest and the poorest, are on equal footing, we won’t feel or claim superiority to others.
It is interesting to note that our sages also alluded to this solution when they spoke of our fear of government as a restraining factor. If you examine their words carefully, you will find that they did not speak of government and the rule of law as restraining factors, but to the monarchy and our fear of it. The truest monarchy is the monarchy of heaven. In the deepest sense, the Talmud is encouraging us not only to pray for the welfare of the terrestrial monarchy, but to pray that we be worthy of the celestial monarchy.
If we feel humble and in awe of G-d, we won’t fell entitled to dictate how others should think and act. We would happily share our knowledge with them, patiently answer their questions, and willingly debate their points, but we would not attempt to subsume them.
When we are invited to stand before a mortal king, we often grow prideful and boastful. The closer we are to power, the more arrogant and corrupt we grow. But this is not the case with G-d. When we are invited to stand before G-d, we don’t feel hubris, we feel our own nothingness. Before G-d, everything is nothing. Thus, the deepest meaning of this Talmudic teaching is that we should pray for our welfare within the context of G-d’s kingdom because our fear of G-d and our humility, will restrain us from imposing our will on others.
The Torah has a solution for everything, and this, my dear friends, is the Torah’s solution to our burgeoning cancel culture.