Kanye, Kyrie and Musk: Between Antisemitism and Cancel Culture

I find myself torn between Kanye, Kyrie and Musk, between antisemitism and cancel culture.  I am happy that Kanye paid the price for his long-running litany of conspiracy-minded and antisemitic remarks on a variety of social platforms.  Instagram and Twitter suspended him, and many companies, including JP Morgan Chase, Def Jam, Adidas, Foot Locker, Peloton, and T.J. Maxx, terminated their relationship with him.  Kyrie Irving was suspended by the New Jersey Nets for promoting an antisemitic film on social media and I am pleased that the country as a whole recognizes that it’s unacceptable to utter or promote antisemitic speech in the media and you will pay a price for doing so.

At the same time, I am concerned about so-called censorship of free speech.  How much should we police free speech in the media, including social media?  When Elon Musk took control of Twitter, voices on the right welcomed the takeover, as they were long frustrated with perceived suppression of conservative voices on the platform.  Voices on the left, however, were opposed to the takeover, with fears of unchecked misinformation and bad actors spreading lies on the platform.  Should we censor false and offensive speech?  Furthermore, how do we precisely define when speech is sufficiently “false” and/or “offensive” to warrant censorship?  On the other hand, should we allow all speech because the value of free speech is so critical to a liberal democracy?

A society with Torah values is one that promotes “emet” and “shalom.”  The Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah #74) writes that “falsehood is abominable and vile in the eyes of all.  There is nothing more disgusting than it, and malediction and curse are in the house of its lovers.  This is because God, may He be blessed, is a truthful God, and everything that is with Him is true.”  In Shaarei Teshuva (3:184), Rabbenu Yonah writes that truth is “from the foundation of the soul.”  Truth is a key attribute of God, it is part of our very essence and it is the foundation of a just, functioning society.  Peace is also a key value of a just society, so much so that the Gemara in Masechet Yevamot (65b) states that one may distort the truth for the sake of peace.  Peace sometimes trumps truth!  As such, we must promote the values of peace and truth in our society.  If promoting these values sometimes means that we must censor certain types of speech, then doing so would be justified.  In practice that might mean that we censor someone from social media platforms or urge economic boycotts against that person until he does teshuva and demonstrates that he will refrain from hate speech, such as antisemitic speech, or speech that is patently false, as the case may be.

However, there is another Torah value at play in this instance, and that is the value of tochacha, which means rebuke.  The Torah states (Kedoshim 19:17) that we shouldn’t hate someone in our heart; rather, we should rebuke him.  Many commentaries explain that the Torah here is teaching us that if we feel that someone acted in an offensive manner towards us, then our response is not to “cancel” him, but to confront him.  The Torah believes that the victim of the offensive behavior must proactively seek resolution if the perpetrator doesn’t come forward.  The reason for this is that every member of society has the responsibility to foster harmonious relations with every other member in society.  If we simply “cancel” someone who may have made an honest mistake or said something that he shouldn’t have said in a moment of passion, then we will be left with a divided society.

We should allow for people to make mistakes, to act badly and to correct their mistakes without the fear of being censored.  We should allow for people to passionately argue for their position without the fear of being censored even if we think that their argument is completely illogical.  The default position in society should be to have the conversation, to discuss and to debate.  We must live in a society that promotes conversation.  If there is a feeling that whenever I offer a bold opinion, even if I haven’t thought it through, then I will be “canceled” by 50% of the country, then that doesn’t represent the “tochacha” model that the Torah envisions.

The Gemara in Arakhin 16b cites the view of Rabbi Tarfon who wonders if there is anyone in this generation who can accept rebuke because if the rebuker tells someone to rid himself of a minor infraction, the listener will likely tell the rebuker that the latter has committed far more severe sins.  Then the Gemara cites the view of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah who says that he is surprised if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to rebuke correctly.  The Gemara is aware that it is difficult to allow free flowing speech when we discuss, debate and criticize each other.  Nevertheless, tochacha, as opposed to canceling and boycotting, is generally the optimal method to deal with individuals who engage in bad behavior.

The question then becomes how do we balance a society grounded in values of “emet,” “shalom” and “tochacha?”  How do we promote truth and peace while encouraging dialogue?  First of all, we must educate our citizens about how careful we must be before we send an email, a whatsapp or a tweet, or before we post something on social media.  We must be careful that whatever we send or post reflects values of “shalom” and “emet.”  Even if it means that it takes a little longer for us to send or post our message so that we maximize the likelihood that our messages reflect these values, it is well worth the wait.

Second, we need to ask ourselves as a society if canceling or boycotting a particular person will have the intended effect that we want it to have to promote values of “emet” and “shalom.”  It would seem that the first step would be to engage in “tochacha,” that is, not to cancel the person who said the antisemitic, hateful, offensive, or false speech, but to confront him and explain to him why the speech was wrong.  Provide the opportunity for the person to correct his error.  If that doesn’t work, then censoring or boycotting the person may be the only option if it we believe that our actions will lead to the desired behavior.  Doing so minimizes the spread of the dangerous message, provides support for the victims of this message and communicates the correct values for an ethical and moral society.

However, the Gemara in Yevamot 65b provides an important limitation on the obligation to engage in “tochacha” which I think is also applicable regarding the desirability to censor or boycott.  The gemara states that just as it is a mitzvah for a person to say something that will be heeded, so, too, is it a mitzvah for a person not to say something that will definitely not be heeded.  Don’t rebuke someone if it will not be effective.  Rebuke can cause strife, so why criticize someone if no good will come from it?  Certainly, then, we should refrain from censoring or boycotting someone if doing so will not be effective in achieving our goals.

In the case of Kanye West and Kyrie Irving, I believe that our tough response to their behavior was warranted because it has been effective in convincing mainstream Americans that this type of speech is dangerous.  However, I am more concerned with censoring or boycotting individuals when there is no consensus that the speech uttered or promoted by those individuals was indeed patently false and/or hateful.  Unfortunately, in a hyper-polarized society, if half the country argues that someone’s speech was beyond the pale and half the country disagrees, then I’m not sure if censoring that person on a particular social media platform will have the desired effect of promoting peace and truth when there’s no consensus that the person violated those values.  It doesn’t mean that we should never censor anyone, because a society without standards and limits is dangerous.  However, I think that we overreach on our censorship and boycott when well-meaning people are afraid to speak.  In cases when the effectiveness of censorship and boycott is in doubt, I would rather err on the side of allowing a person to post whatever he wants to post and then engage in “tochacha” and publicly explain why I find the speech false and/or hateful.

Ultimately, building a society on values of truth, peace and an exchange of ideas requires an openness for everyone across the political spectrum to realize that it is in our best interests to look for ways to seek common ground with everyone to deal with these issues rather than simply demonize the other side and argue that they do not support these values and represent a threat to our country.  Admittedly, sometimes it’s hard to do that, but we should extend our best efforts to try.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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