In the last several years, the term “cancel culture” has become part of both ecclesial and political parlance within the United States. Each time a speaker is disinvited from campus because of a reaction on social media, or a political figure is banned from a social media platform, the term is evoked. We bemoan, “There is that cancel culture again.”
The term itself describes a reality, which is troubling, even if “cancel culture” criticism has been politicized primarily from the far-right in recent months. Yet, fundamentally, the problem of “cancel culture” is not in the act of cancellation itself but in the public circus or drama surrounding cancellation. Cancel culture is really a “spectacle” culture in which the nation cannot take its eyes away from the public destruction and sacrifice of the now shamed person. Each person must choose a side in the spectacle, for or against the sacrificial victim. The drama plays out over the course of hours before our attention is redirected toward the next victim.
Spectacle culture is akin to what happens when one attends a medieval dinner theater where we chew upon over-cooked chicken and consume faux mead while each of us are asked to choose a side in the joust before us. Yet, the joust in this case is a culture that confuses condemning evil with immediate accusation and punishment of the accused. In the long run, this is bad for all of us, and the Church—despite often participating in this performance within the public sphere—can offer a way forward through renewed attention to the Eucharistic presence of the Lord.
Why Cancellation Is Not the Fundamental Problem
It may seem counterintuitive to say that cancel culture is not really about cancelation. The speaker, after all, is disinvited because what she has said is offensive to a certain group of people on campus. The politician is banned from social media because he has crossed an invisible boundary that the executives at Twitter have never really defined. These are occasions of “cancellation.”
We must admit that lumping every act of “cancellation” into “cancel culture” just does not work. In other words, sometimes cancel culture is just good sense. A university has the right to determine if a speaker should be on campus. The norms should be presented beforehand so that various groups can make that decision prudently. Inviting a speaker, like Abby Johnson to The Catholic University of America, was never a good idea. Not after what Abby Johnson has consistently said about race, the results of the 2020 election, and her own polarizing presence on social media. This disinvitation was not an occasion of cancel culture, but the university assessing the kind of speech that should be allowed on campus—speech congruent with Catholic identity. A Catholic University, for example, can determine that pro-choice politicians are not allowed to campus, or if they are, they can only speak at events where a pro-life position is also offered. It is not “cancel culture” to disinvite a pro-choice politician from a Catholic university if those norms are not followed.
In the case of social media, the situation is even more complex. Being banned from Twitter is not the denial of a fundamental human right. Sure, it is undoubtedly imprudent for a for-profit company to be given the power to shape public speech. But that is precisely the power that we have already given to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Twitter was not, and never was, a neutral space.
Further, we should all agree that some speech should be “cancelled.” If a politician begins to send a series of tweets defending the Nazi regime, that politician should pay a consequence for this act. A public norm has been crossed. It would be appropriate for a University to say, “I will not invite this politician to speak on campus.” That is not cancellation. That is called consequences. The problem, therefore, with cancel culture is that these distinctions are not normally made by users of the term. And yet still, not all “cancellations” fit under what I have laid out above.
In the Fall 2020 issue of The Hedgehog Review, Martha Bayles argues that at the heart of “cancel culture” is a confusion of the norms governing speech. She proposes that every institution in some way limits speech. There is illegitimate coercion and self-censorship, both of which must be avoided by democratic regimes. In illegitimate coercion, the authoritarian state determines what can and cannot be said. In such regimes, the citizen self-censors. Both ways of censoring speech are acts of violence, denying the freedom of the human person.
But not all censorship of speech is a denial of freedom. There is a rule of law, and therefore the state or institution can engage in legitimate coercion of speech. There is also self-regulation, where institutions choose to follow the law. Lastly, as a private citizen, I can restrain myself from saying certain things. Democracies flourish under this regulation of speech. The problem with what I call “spectacle culture” in the United States is the coming together of a market authoritarianism, the erasure of the rule of law, and the outrage cycle of digital media that discourages self-regulation of speech.
“Market authoritarianism” is practiced not through the government but through the “woke capitalism” of the market. Who, for example, norms the norm of acceptable speech today? In her July 2020 article in The Atlantic, Helen Lewis argues that speech is being normed in the United States through powerful economic actors in the marketplace. She uses the example of Harvey Weinstein. Revelations around Weinstein’s sexual abuse of women gave birth to the #MeToo movement. Through this movement, at last Weinstein paid the price for his crimes. Once prominent in Hollywood, he is now in jail.
However, as Lewis points out, the erasure of Weinstein has not solved the fundamental problem. The only thing that took Weinstein down was the court of public opinion. It was a market solution to an institutional problem. Everyone agreed that he should go, and for that reason, he did. But has the cancellation of Weinstein led to reforms within Hollywood itself?
Likely, as Lewis writes, no. The same powerful actors that overlooked Weinstein’s transgressions remain in charge. We got rid of Weinstein, but no one really attended to the institutional structure that both formed and sustained a Weinstein. If these institutional norms remain in place, there will be another just like Weinstein who comes along. In fact, he or she may already be at work.
But that is not the concern of these institutions, especially the powerful in them, who do not desire a change that would jeopardize their power. Instead, the mob approach to justice has been determined to be economically profitable, while also allowing no substantive change. Publicly firing an employee because he or she has crossed a norm builds good will with the mob. The institution increases its power, its influence, through firing an employee who has publicly transgressed against a norm often without the due process that should exist. As Lewis says:
This mechanism is not, as it is sometimes presented, a long-overdue settling of scores by underrepresented voices. It is a reflexive jerk of the knee by the powerful, a demonstration of institutions’ unwillingness to tolerate any controversy, whether those complaining are liberal or conservative.
Woke capitalism is not especially concerned about the victims of this sacrificial logic. If an employee has made a public transgression, their firing will satiate the mob. Forget due process. The mob rules because the mob is a consumer. Sometimes the mob is right, as in the case of Weinstein. But the mob, as the fathers of the Constitution of the U.S. knew, are not always the best distributers of justice. As Lewis notes, for every Weinstein there is an Emmanuel Cafferty, tricked into making an OK symbol—once innocuous and now a sign of white hate groups. Cafferty was fired by his trucking company, his life destroyed, because of a public transgression that was accidental. Because of social media and its immediacy, there is never time for due process. The decision must be made now. Are you for or against this person, who has transgressed this norm? Take a side, the spectacle commences.
Thus, the rule of law no longer has ultimate authority. If the mob reacts with enough vitriol, punishment must be distributed. Bayles in The Hedgehog Review describes UCLA students who filed a complaint against a professor who read aloud Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In this letter, King uses the n-word twice. The administrators, rather than dismiss this complaint, thanked the students, and conducted a private inquiry into the professor’s “transgression.” There is no real due process for this professor who was teaching a classic text. The students themselves should have been dismissed, or at least urged to talk to the professor directly about their concerns. Instead, they demanded his firing from the university.
It is, of course, the outrage cycle of digital media that is at the heart of a mob-oriented spectacle culture. A person on Twitter says something that offends. This person must be ratioed, told by every person on the platform how egregious their statement was. Cable news outlets and blogs both cover and analyze the 280 characters until viewership or website views decline. Clicks are generated and money is made. The offending party has two options. They can disappear, hoping that their offense will be forgotten one day. Or, if there is enough fame, they can double down. The doubling down is the best course of action for the outrage cycle, at least for those who can make a profit from said cycle.
CNN spent six years of doing exegesis on every tweet, rally, and public statement of first candidate and then President Donald Trump. The more offensive his claims, the more outrage and thus revenue it created. Outrage was often entirely appropriate. But the outrage did not lead to broader discussions about the gift of the human person, about the dignity that was under attack. Outrage was for the sake of entertainment. Therefore, we moved as quickly as possible from outrage to outrage, unable to keep track of it all.
Social media rewards those who make the most outrageous statements. Self-censorship in any mode is considered passé. How does one respond to a Matt Walsh, a Milo, an Abby Johnson, or a Bill Maher? Outrage. The cycle only generates more attention for such persons since they become an object of infinite entertainment for the spectacle-crazed polis. Universities invite such speakers not because they are the most qualified persons. They generate attention, outrage, and a tribal identity that is the bread for the circus. “Are you not entertained?”
Meanwhile, serious engagement with issues disappears. Outrage over a social media post is not a commitment to end racism, respond to poverty, understand the underlying anger behind populism, and cultivate communities of solidarity. The outrage cycle does not allow for this kind of attentive, reasonable, and contemplative understanding of anything or anyone. The digital sphere and its accompanying outrage cycle, in fact, destroys the bonds of solidarity. Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti writes:
Digital relationships, which do not demand the slow and gradual cultivation of friendships, stable interaction or the building of a consensus that matures over time, have the appearance of sociability. Yet they do not really build community; instead, they tend to disguise and expand the very individualism that finds expression in xenophobia and in contempt for the vulnerable. Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges. It is not capable of uniting humanity (§43).
We are united in the sacrifice of the offender. But it is a false union precipitated by tribalized violence, a shadow of the communion to which human beings are called.
And after a while, does the truth even matter? Our post-truth society is not the nefarious creation of the Russians. Rather, it is an almost universal recognition that each person possesses their own truth. Truth is whatever we want it to be because it allows the outrage cycle to continue. The one thing Plato knew was that it was difficult to know. We are not Plato. Knowing for us means seeing whatever you want to see, what you desire to be true. It does not matter whether Cafferty intended to make the OK symbol. The mob believes that he did, and therefore, he must be erased.
What Can the Church Do About Spectacle Culture?
What can the Church do about this spectacle culture? First, it should be acknowledged that the Church is complicit in this culture. Catholics are active participants in this outrage cycle that generates the sacrificial logic examined above. If a group of conservative Catholics decides a bishop is anathema or a theologian is a heretic, blogs are produced to destroy that person. Catholic Twitter is as likely to be governed by outrage over the Latin Mass, perpetual exegesis of every statement of Pope Francis or Archbishop Viganò, and the topic of the latest Synod.
Provocative tweets are intended not to add light but heat to discussions, to get clicks from one’s tribe. We feel obliged to respond to every attack on the Pope as if our single tweet or take-down blog will change the entire tenor of the internet. The purpose of many of these conversations is not contemplation or deeper understanding. It is the spectacle itself. Every Catholic—especially your author—needs conversion. Perhaps, the healing ailment for us Catholics is a deeper contemplation and adoration of the Eucharistic presence of Christ.
Theologically, spectacle culture is founded upon an act of idolatry. Jean-Luc Marion addresses spectacle culture in his prescient essay in the collection Crossing the Visible entitled “The Blind at Shiloh.” The image, broadcast on the screen, has become the total measure of reality. What is real is made manifest exclusively in the image. Yet, when we gaze upon the image, what we see is not reality but an image of our own desire. The screen is not reality despite the claim of cable news anchors that this footage or tweet will tell us the facts. The screen mediates spectacle, an idol to adore. As Marion writes:
We know today, following the violence of weapons (war) and the violence of words (ideology), the terror of the idolatrous image; like the preceding ones, this violence bears a grudge against our souls—but, to reach there, it no longer exercises this blackmail upon our bodies (as in war) or upon our intelligence (as in ideology). It takes hold of our desire itself; the tyranny of the idolatrous image defeats us with our willing consent. We desire to see or be seen by only what is proportionate to our desire. Henceforth all can pass—through the screen; there on the screen is all to see and to communicate, but nothing to give or receive, since nothing persists outside the screen. The libido vivendi which satisfies itself with the solitary pleasure of the screen, does away with love by forbidding sight of the other face—invisible and real.
Spectacle culture treats every image as the ultimate idol. Worship is performed by taking up one’s role in relationship to the image. The mob sees an image, and without thought, condemns. There is no love, no recognition of the personhood of the condemned whoever they may be. They must be erased, because after all, they are not a real flesh and blood person. They are an image of our own desire to destroy, to convict, to judge. They are an idol.
Of course, the accused is a person not an idol, and that is why Marion describes our idolatry as full of terror. Idolatry as a mode of false worship is terrible, often leading to violence. Israel’s creation of a golden calf in the desert is an exercise in control, an act of violence against the merciful God who led Israel dryshod through the Red Sea. The golden calf is an image of our own desire to control God (but God will not be mocked!). And such control, at least in the Old Testament, is an act of violence against God and neighbor alike.
To control God means forgetting the widow and the orphan, creating structures that deify the ones in power. God alone should be worshipped, because if we worship anything else, we continue the tragedy of Genesis anew. The Church knows the bitter truth right now behind this idolatrous cult of the image. At least some church leaders were more interested in presenting an image of the Church as without scandal than dealing with leaders like Theodore McCarrick. The “image” of the Church became the idol, the spectacle that was to be presented to the world.
The healing, therefore, of spectacle culture must be through an act of worship. But what can be worshipped aright without devolving into idolatry? Readers of Marion know that it must be the icon, the visible image that invisibly presents that which is invisible. Jesus Christ is the icon par excellence. What do we see when we gaze upon Christ? Marion says we see “a visible image of the Father who remains invisible but even a (visible) face of the invisible itself (the Father), a visible image of the invisible as invisible.” In Christ, there is no spectacle to behold.
Yes, he is the one who was crucified upon the tree because of the spectacle. He is entirely effaced, “no form or comeliness” (Isa 53:2) to be found in him. There is nothing divine to be visibly seen in him, what Marion calls the kenosis or self-emptying of the image. Christ becomes the visible icon of the Father because he bestows his will in love unto the end. We do not see this with immediacy. We must take up an iconic gaze, bending the knee before Christ and kissing the wood of the cross.
The Eucharist participates in this self-emptying of the image. As both Thomas Aquinas and Simone Weil claim there is nothing remarkable to see in that Host upon the altar, everything is hidden except through faith. There is no spectacle, no violence that forces us to bend the knee. When the Church has forgotten the kenosis of the Eucharistic sacrifice, turned the Host into spectacle (such as some of the Eucharistic tales told by Caesarius of Heisterbach), violence results. There is nothing but the invisible presence of Jesus, who presents to us his sacrifice in what looks like bread and wine. The doctrine of transubstantiation is not a philosophical explanation for Eucharistic presence but a confession of faith that the Eucharist is not object but a personal Presence, the gaze of the Spouse upon the Beloved.
Marion in his God Without Being presents the iconic quality of this doctrine of transubstantiation. Bread and wine have become, through the words of Christ spoken in the Mass, Body and Blood. The permanency of Eucharistic presence is not about control of the God-man, the reification of the Eucharist, turning the Host into spectacle. Rather, as Marion writes:
It is not a question of some “safety” that permanence would assure for man, but of the irrevocable commitment of the love that “endures all” (1 Cor 13:1) . . . The consecrated bread and wine become the ultimate aspect in which charity delivers itself body and soul. If we remain incapable of recognizing in it the ultimate advance of love, the fault is not its responsibility—love gives itself, even if “his own did not receive him” (John 1:11); love accomplished the gift entirely, even if we scorn this gift: the fault returns to us, as the symptom of our impotence to read love, in other words, to love.
All that is to be seen in the Eucharistic species is the free gift of love of the God-man. Eucharistic presence is an invitation to convert our idolatrous gaze. We give up the spectacle, empty ourselves of the desire to behold on our terms. Our desire is to be shaped by the presence of the Eucharistic Lord alone. The Eucharist requires us to take up a contemplative stance of distance, not to grasp and to seize, but to love. To offer the gift of ourselves to one another—friend or not.
Eucharistic presence is thus always connected to love of neighbor. The neighbor is not an object for us to behold, an image of our desires. We reify the neighbor when they become the actor in our spectacle—the one whose condemnation only feeds an idolatrous desire. Love of neighbor is a confession of the distance between ourselves and the neighbor. That tweet is not just part of a spectacle but the words of a concrete person. Even the most outrageous users of social media are visible icons of the invisible God, human beings who demand love.
This Eucharistic contemplation is the opposite of spectacle culture. It is not that the Mass will suddenly lead to a community of perfect love. The Mass-goer as fallen creature remains addicted to the logic of sacrifice performed by the spectacle. After all, we confess in each liturgy our addiction to the spectacle, an addiction that we have cultivated through what we have done and what we have failed to do. But the Eucharist is an invitation for conversion. We must take time to listen, to hear, to avoid the immediacy of judgment. We must not gaze at our neighbor through the lens of ideology, through the tribal logic that makes Donald Trump or Joe Biden, Abby Johnson or Bill Maher, the “enemy.” We must learn an iconic way of seeing, listening, and being with one another.
A thoughtful person, for all the reasons laid out above, will be more careful with the use of the term “cancel culture.” It is far too inexact, not attending to the underlying logic of spectacle behind this culture. This culture cannot be rectified by a policy against cancelling lectures on university campuses or ensuring that everyone has a right to use social media. Speech in institutions can and should be governed, although the rules should be laid out ahead of time, and due process should be provided.
The deeper logic of spectacle must be dealt with. Human beings have always constructed idols, but spectacle culture is novel because of the confluence of market-based consumption, the immediacy of judgment contrary to due process, and the outrage cycle precipitated by social media. Mob judgment may produce some fine results now and again. But eventually, how do we know that the mob will not turn its attention to you or to me?
The Eucharist is an invitation to convert away from this spectacle culture, from a violent idolatry to an iconic way of seeing. This iconic way of seeing is defined by a contemplative way of approaching the world, seeing reality as it is, not as image to behold but as a gift to respond to. Such a way of seeing and being requires conversion rather than benign tolerance or both-siderism.
We must be converted to the Eucharistic gaze, to adoration of the God-man who is un-spectacularly present among us. Only in this invisible gaze will we re-learn the habit of seeing the neighbor not as object to eliminate but as creature to be loved. Adoro te devote, latens deitas.