Forgiveness During An Era of Cancel Culture

For someone who follows media stories, politics, and general social trends it would not be surprising to hear about someone or some entity getting “cancelled.” However for anyone who is unfamiliar with this phenomenon, it is exactly what it sounds like; akin to when your favorite television program was erased from the screen forever. What originated as getting called out on social media for authoring offensive statements, having the unfortunate experience of “getting cancelled” has turned into many folks losing their careers and livelihoods due to making an apolitically correct comment or harboring an unpopular opinion. From high profile celebrities such as Kanye West and Scarlet Johansson to Washington Post staffers and climate change activists, the cancel culture mob seems to be capable of chasing down anyone that portends to disagree with them or with the woke politics of the day, which are routinely in flux. The list of people who have been cancelled is extensive and the “crimes” committed do not all always fall within the same level of intensity.

Just last month, James Bennet, the former New York Times Editor, decided to publish an op-ed by a sitting United States Senator Tom Cotton titled “Send in the Troops.” The piece argued in favor of President Trump sending in federal law enforcement to assist local law enforcement in the fall out from the George Floyd protests. Bennett initially defended publishing the article both on Twitter and in the Paper, but ultimately apologized after claims that the article put NY Times black staffers in danger. In reality, this would be a stretch considering Senator Cotten’s thesis was that an overwhelming use of force is necessary to restore order to American streets.  Contemplating the looting and rioting that resulted throughout many cites across America, this opinion from Senator Cotton at the very least should be welcomed and debated, not silenced.  This decision to publish on op-ed, yes, an op-ed was the ticket to resignation for the former editor of the New York Times Editorial Page.

Sue Shafer was fired from the Washington Post after the newspaper initiated an investigation into her Halloween costume from a party in 2018, in which she dressed up as Megyn Kelley in blackface. The use of this costume by white people can certainly be understood as offensive, but to lose one’s job over a silly costume (which Shafer seemingly was actually making fun of Kelley for wearing blackface instead of blackface itself) is a step too far. What ever happened to the chance for apology? For dialogue between the Washington Post HR Department and Shafer for her to learn why this would be offensive to people even if it was intended in good fun?

The list goes on and on. These are just a few examples. For proponents of free speech and debate, the increased power of the cancel culture mob is worrisome. The mob’s intentions are seemingly positive; they are trying to erase or cut down any form of offensive acts and speech. The problem with this motive is that it almost always intrudes on someone’s freedom of speech. This is exactly the reason why dialogue can be such a useful and constructive tool. Both the Black and Jewish community in America have been witnesses to this power in the past week.

Nick Cannon, an American musician, comedian, and TV host, recently made headlines due to positing Anti Semitic rhetoric in his podcast “Cannon’s Class.” Stating that the Zionists and Rothschild’s “have too much money” and that Blacks are the “true Hebrews,” Cannon rehearsed an all too familiar script that was greatly influenced by notorious Anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan. The results were fierce as Cannon was fired and dropped by ViacomCBS. Cannon’s comments are in no way acceptable and perhaps it was the intelligent move to fire him, perhaps it wasn’t. For clarity, I believe that for someone to lose their job they should commit or allege serious or hate-filled comments, unlike publishing an op-ed or wearing a costume. Nonetheless, Nick Cannon’s actions following this episode are what is truly important and should be a source of teaching for all of us.

Cannon joined with Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in close to a two-hour discussion engaging numerous subjects in which Cannon apologized for his Anti Semitic comments, examined different philosophical models of forgiveness with Cooper, and mentioned that he has studied multiple religions. Furthermore, Cannon and Cooper touched on the legacy and importance of the Holocaust where Cannon was laser-focused on Cooper’s every word. This is what progress between different groups of people looks like. Cooper went on to educate Cannon about Simon Wiesenthal and his work, in which they exchanged similar ideologies regarding the origins of evil and hatred. The unlikely duo also touched on an important subject for the future of the relationship between the Black and Jewish communities: Louis Farrakhan. Rabbi Cooper described to Cannon how the Jewish community views Farrakhan and the emotions that arise from just hearing his name; while Cannon responded about what many in the Black community associate with Farrakhan, namely leadership, supreme oration skills, etc. The distinction between the two communities opinions and feeling towards the controversial figure of Farrakhan is a positive direction for  continued dialogue and should be explored further. Cannon pleaded for Rabbi Cooper to “teach me, fix me” during this enlightening discussion. It is up to the Jewish community to accept the apology, to regard it as sincere. In the era of cancel culture, the fact that there was an apology is a step forward. Cannon claimed he is studying the Torah on a daily basis and is planning a trip to Jerusalem but only time will tell if he will be a true friend of the Jews.

In our tradition, forgiveness is something we cannot ignore. Certainly most of us remember the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. After Joseph sees the brothers through various tests, he finally informs them that he is indeed their brother, Joseph. He continues with an apology, and remarkably not with a drama-induced episode of scorn. “I am your brother whom you sold into slavery in Egypt. Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither..” (Parashat Vayigash). This story is a powerful example of selfless and righteous behavior. It should certainly be applied to situations in which an apology can be considered sincere. It is my opinion that in Nick Cannon’s case, the apology be accepted.

About the Author
Josh Less is a Rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, CA. His interests range from Middle Eastern History and politics to health and nutrition. He is a lover of Torah, hiking, Israel, and music. He studied International Relations with a focus on the Middle East before pursuing the Rabbinate.
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