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Even excommunication is better than cancellation Cancel and be damned: today's hyper-puritan mob justice offers no chance of redemption

The Expulsion from Paradise (La cacciata dal Paradiso), by Unknown Emilian Artist, first part of the 17th Century, oil on canvas. Detail.

The Expulsion from Paradise (La cacciata dal Paradiso), by Unknown Emilian Artist, first part of the 17th Century, oil on canvas. Detail.


July 16, 2020   5 mins

The liturgy of excommunication was designed to be as intimidating as possible. A dozen priests would meet after dark, by candlelight, perhaps in the crypt of the church, summoned by their bishop. They would ring a bell in anticipation of the death knell that would one day announce the end of life itself. In the Middle Ages, bells were understood to have special powers to ward off evil. Some bells were even baptised. But at this ceremony, the ringing of the bell was a terrifying warning to the excommunicated: death is always close and if you die outside the bosom of holy mother church, you will be delivered to the fires of the enemy.

The charge against the accused was read. The attending priests would shout “Fiat, fiat, fiat. Amen” – Latin for ‘let it be done’. A book of the Gospels was dramatically slammed shut and the priests would blow out their candles and then throw them to the floor. This is how they did cancel culture back then. It was a lot more stylish than some lazy mob pile-in on Twitter.

But its purpose was very much the same: to cut off the accused from the body of the faithful. It meant that other Christians — apart from your spouse and children — were not allowed to talk to you. No one was allowed to join you “in eating or drinking, in buying or selling, in prayer or greeting”. Your social network was immediately to abandon you. It also meant that you were denied the sacraments of the church. And if you died while under the sentence of excommunication, you could not be buried within consecrated ground. With excommunication you were cancelled, not just in this life but in the life to come.

And, as with Twitter, it was of the utmost importance to communicate the sentence of condemnation to others. The notice of excommunication was read out in neighbouring churches and posted in public places. And those who broke the rules and spoke to the accused were threatened with the censure of the church.

Napoleon was excommunicated. From Elizabeth I to Fidel Castro, all manner of people fell under the church’s most powerful curse. And in the 20th century there were a succession of unfortunate priests in Latin America who were excommunicated for preaching too liberal, too political a theology.

Though there were different sorts of excommunication and it changed quite a bit over the years — increasingly becoming more of a legal business from the 12th century onwards, for instance — its purpose was always the same: to get the person concerned to change their ways in order to return them to the church. Though it was often abused, theologically speaking the purpose of excommunication was always remedial, medicinal even, and never simply a punishment.

And this theology was rooted in some of the deepest instincts of the Judaeo-Christian tradition: that redemption must always be possible. Indeed, it is perfectly credible to read the big picture narrative of the Bible as being one long response to, and reflection up, the original cancellation of Adam from the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:23). St Paul, for example, regarded Jesus as the second Adam come to undo that first curse whereby humanity was cancelled from paradise. Paradise Lost always demanded a sequel.

This is where contemporary cancel culture differs from its medieval predecessor. To be charitable, it is not that cancel culture does not have remedial intentions. The more thoughtful proponents do sometimes insist that a recognition of error, an apology and commitment to change will allow the wayward soul a return to communion within the bosom of true believers. The problem is: there’s no way to achieve this. There is no agreed upon process whereby forgiveness is managed and distributed. And that is because cancel culture is little more than the hyper-puritan morality of Twitter. It doesn’t have a church, or anything equivalent to church rules. Its celebrity priests come and go and do not have the power of forgiveness of sins. And that is because Twitter — and its damnable ‘moral’ progeny, cancel culture — has an entirely horizonal organisational structure.

Back in 2006, two Stanford University MBAs, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom wrote a fascinating account of how horizonal ‘leaderless’ organisations work. Called “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations” it explained that the power of the starfish is that it doesn’t have a centralised neurological centre and so can regenerate when damaged. Chop off the head of a spider and it is dead. Chop off the leg of a starfish and it grows a new one. This was the sort of organisational structure employed, for example, by the Occupy movement. There were no leaders, no central administrative structure. And those who wanted to negotiate with Occupy found this especially frustrating. There was no one to sit down in a room with and negotiate.

Cancel culture is an excessively horizontal phenomenon. And that means that the cancelled have no one to whom they can repent so as to be assured of forgiveness. At best, the life of the penitent would be a continuous round of ongoing apologies as the cancelled are forced repeatedly to abase themselves before the ever changing court of Twitter. Some might accept that the person has properly repented. Others might not. But without any sort of official version of who is in and who is out, redemption can never be guaranteed. The curse will remain upon you forever. Or the suspicion, which amounts to the same thing.

Medieval excommunication was often misused. In 1304, the parishioners of Newport Pagnell were all excommunicated by the Bishop of Lincoln for not telling him where Sir Gerald Salvayn’s lost falcon was being hidden. And, of course, it was often also used as a tool of political power.

But at least with excommunication there is a way back. And not just as some theoretical possibility. Those who were excommunicated were not stopped from attending church. Indeed, they were still required to do so. They were refused the Eucharist, and no one could talk to them. But their presence was nonetheless important. Because forgiveness was always held out as a possibility.

Once the sinner has repented, the priest (or bishop or Pope in the more serious cases) declared absolution. And upon receiving absolution, the penitent can participate in the full life of the church once again. It doesn’t matter if some people don’t like it, or suspect their motives as less than sincere. It’s not a democracy. They have been officially uncancelled. And there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents than over 99 righteous people that never needed to (Luke 15.7).

One of my favourite hymns praises God for being “slow to chide and swift to bless”. In cancel culture, it is the other way around. Indeed, it is not just slow to bless: it is incapable of doing it. Cancel culture per se has been around a long time. But what is new about its current iteration is that — being suspicious of authority — the culture of condemnation has dismantled all the moral infrastructure by which forgiveness might be accepted and promulgated. That is what makes it such a nasty, pernicious doctrine. When you have been cancelled, you are lost forever.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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sulcfamily
sulcfamily
3 years ago

One can only hope that as with many of these hellish and/or Marx inspired revolutions they end up cancelling and devouring each other. The rest of us must refuse to be cowed or they will become even more entrenched than they are now

David Bell
David Bell
3 years ago

You do realised you will be cancelled for refusing to accept cancel culture doesn’t exists.

David Barnett
David Barnett
3 years ago

Twitter-storm cancellation demands would be of no consequence if cowardly contacts of the cancellee did not cravenly cave-in to the cancellation demand. Such virtue signalling ought to be punished.

The laws of defamation and interference with contact can’t work against a diffuse “horizontal” menace like a twitter-storm. To cope we need to to define a new offence of “listening to libel”.

“Listening to libel” would be evidenced by, say, a virtue-signalling sponsor summarily (and without manifestly fair due process) dropping a protege, or an employer firing a worker in response to a cancellation frenzy. The cancellee would have cause of action against anyone who was “listening to libel”. The burden of proof would be on the virtue signaller to prove (a) that the accusation was true, and (b) the facts materially justified the virtue signallers’ action.

I see “listening to libel” as an extension of the principle that a person is liable who recklessly or knowingly repeats a libel initiated by someone else.

Tris Torrance
Tris Torrance
3 years ago

I deplore the cancel culture’s attempted muzzling of freedom of speech. But let’s be honest; it is largely voluntary on the part of the cancelee. Most of this nonsense takes place on the open sewer otherwise known as Twitter.

If you bathe in sewers, then you are likely to become covered in excrement. The obvious answer seems to be to simply not use Twitter, Facebook or any of the rest of them.

Most of the discussion on this is among “media types” who seem to spend far too long obsessing over the last tweet or the next one. A suggestion? Stop doing it, close your account, and get a life.

Peter Boreham
Peter Boreham
3 years ago
Reply to  Tris Torrance

This may be mostly true but there are people who have lost their jobs over this…

Caroline Galwey
Caroline Galwey
3 years ago

Brilliant and thought-provoking – thank you.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
3 years ago

‘In cancel culture, it is the other way around. Indeed, it is not just slow to bless: it is incapable of doing it.’

Indeed, because (as you might have said), the essence of it is a refusal to see any good in someone, only what is bad. Even if the good is vast and the bad minuscule, the bad will always won out. That is why this is such a dangerous and disastrous path to follow: nobody can ever be perfect, so nobody can ever escape. The only path to salvation (as it were) is to reverse this, so that the good, however small, is seen to outweigh the bad, however great.

robert scheetz
robert scheetz
3 years ago

As you say this is just the latest iteration. An ancient way of enforcing tribal orthodoxy; orthodoxy, the supposed antithesis of Liberal Society. Presently in the US the categories of anathema and excommunication are legion, mostly the tyrannical dictats of our manifold of identitarianisms. But the winner and still heavyweight champion of the world is of course anti-semitism. In 31 states of the US you are banned from government employment or contracts if you support BDS.

Dean Crist
Dean Crist
3 years ago

Being conservative and, as a young adult, a card-carrying member of the so-called “Moral Majority”, I must humbly assume some measure of guilt for Cancel Culture’s brutality, for it was fostered in the abysmal way “we” treated folks with whom we disagreed back in those days. The very things we have come to loathe in the modern left — smug, self-righteous, unyielding, dismissive, hateful, justice-wielding, etc. — describes quite well the attitudes we carried back then (and, for some, still do). The only difference, as you so well point out, is that there really is nowhere or no one to whom we may turn to restore the disconnection. And, like today, while our critics may have held a more balanced and wiser view of the long game, we were unwilling and, thus, unable to hear them. This to our own shame and peril. In Christian terms, especially in light of the Christian underpinnings of the essay, humility and repentance are desperately in order, beginning with those of us who sinned first. Only here will we create the space necessary should those involved in today’s Cancel Culture choose to find rest.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

In 1900 the Pope declared that anyone writing about the subject of the foreskin of Christ would suffer excommunication (in the second degree).

There had been approximately eighteen foreskins hanging around Europe in the Middle Ages, but by 1900 this had been reduced to two, hence the controversy.

In 1954 the punishment was increased to excommunication first class (vitandi), literally ‘shunned’.

Surely to suffer ‘vitandi’, particularly for discussing such an interesting subject as the Calcata Foreskin, was in fact a far worse fate than any contemporary “cancelling” nonsense?

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

It’s about the same, isn’t it? In 1900, if you were excommunicated, you could always go off and become a Protestant. And in 2020, if you’re cancelled, you can always go off and write for The Spectator…

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

Or even UnHerd.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Well, indeed!

Kris Beuret
Kris Beuret
3 years ago

Ex communication is still a feature of some creeds such as Jehovah’s Witnesses – can lead to extreme mental illness see film Apostasy directed by Dan Kokotajlo

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Funnily enough I ‘cancelled’ my subscription to The Spectator owing to the permanent presence of Peston and one or two others.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago

Sorry Giles, this is one of the many occasions where a rose-tinted modern take on the idiosyncrasies of Catholicism falls flat on its face.

If a practicing Catholic, who believes in the actual concept of heaven and hell is excommunicated, there is hardly a worse punishment than eternal damnation and torture.

I am also sure it would have been small comfort to those over the years (including whole groups of peoples) who were then hunted down and murdered off the back of excommunications, that one day in the future highlight how the church now likes to focus on forgiveness more.

Aware you’re making a more allegorical point here, but this is probably not the argument to make.

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

If a member of the Labour party starts promoting the policies of the Conservative party, or vice-versa, they can expect to be kicked out. The same goes with a church (or at least any church which has a defined set of beliefs, so not the CofE obvs). It’s not comparable to cancel culture, where there is no recourse – this is surely the point Giles is making

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

So why wasn’t Tony Blair kicked out of the Labour Party?

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

How did he ever become a member in the first place?
Wasn’t he Thatcher’s darling?

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago

Because he was in charge. Once he ceased to be, he was in effect excommunicated. I daresay Corbyn and his cronies will also now face the metaphorical bell, book and candle at the hands of Sir Forensic. And on it goes. It’s all about power, no longer wielded by the church but by puritan witch-hunters who attach no value to reason, redemption or forgiveness

roger wilson
roger wilson
3 years ago

Because the Labour party was traumatised by constant defeat and knew Blair was their only hope of winning.

John Alyson
John Alyson
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

A formal excommunication would only be pointing out that someone is heading for eternal damnation. In that sense it was done in charity.

As for hunting down and killing the excommunicated; few societies exist that don’t punish those they consider to be transgressors and criminals.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
3 years ago

In March 1208 Pope Innocent lll imposed an Interdict on England which lasted until May 1214. An Interdict meant the suspension of all Church ministry in the whole country. It was a kind of national excommunication.
Interdicts were meant to be imposed for spiritual reasons, but they were weaponised by the Popes(especially Innocent who imposed four) as a political bludgeon.Innocent used this one to impose his choice of Archbishop of Canterbury on John. In the end the King only gave into the Pope’s demands when he needed his support against King Philip Augustus of France who, it was feared, might invade England.
Interdicts meant that Mass could not be celebrated, the dead could not be buried in consecrated ground, ordinations ceased, baptism and communion could only be administered in extremis, preaching could continue,but only in the churchyard.
Ralph of Coggeshall, a contemporary chronicler, described Interdicts in this way:
“Oh what a horrible and miserable spectacle it was to see in every city the sealed doors of the churches, Christians shut out from entry as though they were dogs”

PS We could make cancelling and noplatforming in our universities illegal and impose fines and withdrawal of funding for non-compliance.