The Bible sheds light on some very modern issues
The latest victim of what is now known as “cancel culture” fell last week. This time it’s not a middle aged white man, but a young woman of colour, who lost her job as editor of Teen Vogue over racist tweets sent a decade ago, when she was 17.
Many people have expressed disquiet that, despite apologising and making clear she in no way still holds those reprehensible views, Alexi McCammond still felt she needed to resign.
“Cancel culture” is, like most phenomena to catch the public imagination, more complex than it appears. Sometimes it’s a label slapped on a long overdue reckoning, and other times, it really is just a self-righteous lynch mob throwing their weight around. It is, however, usually seen as less of an issue by younger people.
As usual, the founding text of the West has some light to throw on this. In the story of the woman caught in adultery in St John’s gospel, Jesus famously tells the surrounding mob poised to punish her: “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone”. At these words the crowd slowly disperses “starting with the oldest”.
I think that at least part of the reason that older people are more disturbed by these repeated defenestrations is that they have had more time to screw up, to say stupid things they later regret, and to change their minds. Age is the natural enemy of idealism. The painful process of growing up, for most people, involves coming face to face with our own inability to live up to the ideals of our youth. It’s uncomfortable and exposing, and as the long withdrawal of religious practice continues to ebb, most people have nowhere healthy to process it.
It is possible that incidents like these may trigger a rethink. Alexi McCammond is 27, and many watching will wonder if horrible views held in your teens should tank your career before you even hit your thirties. The proportion of leaders in public life with a full record of their youthful missteps will only increase, and so learning to distinguish between genuinely unacceptable behaviour now and in the past is going to become more urgent.
Neither age nor youth have a monopoly on wisdom, but it feels like both have part of the answer. Rather than surrendering to the slide from idealism to cynicism, we should seek to combine the earnest hope for goodness and justice with humility while avoiding self-righteousness. The possibility of forgiveness and redemption would have to be in the mix, for individuals if not always for careers. And that old book might hold some clues.