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Should we forgive Will Smith? How biblical forgiveness overcomes cancel culture and the outrage cycle

March 29, 2022 - Mark Legg

Will Smith arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Will Smith arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

“We wake up mad, we go to bed mad, and in between, the only thing that might change is what’s making us angry.” That’s Aja Romano writing for the progressive news outlet Vox, aptly summarizing the “modern outrage cycle.” 

The Oscars became a new source of outrage when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock on stage for making a joke about his wife’s hair. He won Best Actor later in the night. Smith apologized in his acceptance speech and on social media saying, “I deeply regret that my behavior has stained what has been an otherwise gorgeous journey for all of us…I am a work in progress.”

While Chris Rock’s joke was tasteless (and apparently unscripted), Will Smith’s indefensible, violent response prompted many to call for retribution. The Academy is considering “consequences” for his action. Chris Rock has said he won’t press charges

While this incident was an almost refreshing bit of non-political outrage and drama, on the whole, the division between conservative and progressive Americans continues to widen. Beyond this, the news cycle is filled with atrocities and blood-boiling controversies—seemingly without end. And we know that social media algorithms often use outrage to keep us on their sites.

This division and outrage cycle are symptoms of something deeper happening in our culture: an expanding chasm between worldviews. This division means that cancel culture becomes a problem for all Americans.

What is cancel culture?

Cancel culture is our culture’s propensity to immediately and harshly condemn someone for actions or speech and call for organizations to cancel someone’s show, product, or platform. Jim Denison wrote “What does the Bible say about cancel culture?” to help Christians engage with and prepare for it. 

Public figures are often “canceled” because of something from their past. Here’s a short list of recently canceled Americans:

Cancel culture is a fascinating phenomenon. On the one hand, it often doesn’t affect public figures very much. Either a half-hearted apology or letting the outrage die down seems like two effective strategies for bouncing back. For example, Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling expressed feminist viewpoints that undercut transgenderism, and she became the target of cancel culture. After this social media backlash, however, her book sales went up more than 25 percent. 

On the other hand, cancel culture can cause serious harm to a regular (non-famous) American. Getting fired from a job, being ostracized as a college student, or failing a class can all wreak havoc on someone’s life. 

While companies have recently seemed to resist cancel culture more (like Spotify resisting calls to cancel Joe Rogan), the problem persists and adds fear to the exchange of ideas in the time where discussion matters most: in our everyday lives and at universities.  

Cancel culture’s consequences: “Bad-faith nightmares”

The outrage that skips over critical reflection and assumes the worst intentions behind speech leads to fear and bad-faith conversations. Romano rightly says, “The idea of ‘canceling’ turns every potential interaction into a bad-faith nightmare.” It means that every conversation feels filled with landmines—especially when the conversation is full of bad assumptions. 

Studies continue to show that people feel less safe expressing their political opinions for fear of social backlash or cancellation. While conservative students seem to feel the pressure more strongly at certain universities, this fear of backlash exists across the political spectrum. 

For everyday Americans, in response to the question “Do you or don’t you feel as free to speak your mind as you used to?”13 percent said they felt less free in 1954, which has increased to 40 percent by 2019. Additionally, 62 percent of Americans say they have political views “they are afraid to share.”

So, how do we escape this “bad-faith nightmare?” 

Romano suggests forgiveness can provide a way out. 

However, as one writer for The Atlantic comments, our culture does not have a “coherent story—none whatsoever—about how a person who’s done wrong can atone.” 

Principles to “cancel” well

There are two issues here. 

First, we need to determine how to hold public figures accountable. As a society, we should: 

  • approach offensive speech with forgiveness and openness 
  • hold abusers accountable (generally, we should wait until they are condemned by the court of law)
  • be outraged by outrageous, egregious, wicked acts (e.g., sexual abuse)
  • not be outraged by non-outrageous acts
  • not unnecessarily weaponize outrage

It’s difficult to know when we, as a society, should cancel someone. It seems fair that if the person apologizes and pays out proportional consequences for their actions or words, we can broadly forgive them. For instance, some have reasonably suggested that Will Smith not be invited to the Oscars next year. Beyond those general principles, it will depend on each case. Cancel culture is such a heated issue because it requires some kind of common starting place. 

Social media users sometimes get it right. Access to social media has especially helped many women speak out against sexual abuse. For example, several abused women unified through social media to topple Hollywood giant Harvey Weinstein. We can all agree that rapists like him should go to prison—no one is defending Weinstein after the verdict. 

However, because these common starting places are becoming less and less shared, the issue of who to cancel feels more divisive than ever.  

The second issue is even more important. 

How do we combat day-to-day cancel culture, the kind of culture that fuels bad-faith discussions? The poisonous self-censorship seems to trickle down from the outrage cycle into personal friendships, workplace conversations, America’s classrooms, and family discussions.

How to offer true forgiveness

I use the following steps to engage in good faith conversation on controversial issues: 

  • Seek the truth, not necessarily to “win someone” over.
  • Use “active listening.
  • Always remember that we can learn something from our interlocutors. 
  • Find their best points and consider them.
  • Keep the discussion as unheated as possible. 

If we follow these guiding principles, why are forgiveness and apologies necessary? 

Because our imperfections, pride, and sinfulness inevitably seep in. 

When this happens, we must fall back on our relational safety net: a mutual assumption of grace. 

So, what’s the ultimate basis for forgiveness? 

Since our culture is so split at the worldview level, it seems impossible to find common ground. 

I propose that our own frailty and imperfections, together with the golden rule, should be enough to constitute a surface consensus for bridging that gap (Matthew 7:12). 

We should all agree that we have made mistakes and likely will make more. Having a good-faith conversation means knowing not only that the other person may become frustrated or say something offensive, but so might you. (For more on this, read Jim Denison’s Respectfully, I Disagree). 

Vox’s Romano seems to struggle with how to provide an ultimate foundation for forgiveness. While she writes that “most moral and spiritual authorities teach us that the cycle of repentance usually involves grace,” she misses the most important point of Christian teaching. The subtitle of the article is “Everyone wants forgiveness, but no one is being forgiven,” whereas the Christian teaching is that we should forgive and not worry as much about “being forgiven.”

The Bible provides the ultimate grounding for forgiveness and accountability. 

Each sinful offense and misspoken word needs to be paid for by someone. We cannot ultimately pay for them ourselves; we need Jesus’ sacrifice. With all sins atoned for by the blood of Jesus, Christians should have the higher ground in forgiveness because “God in Christ forgave” us (Ephesians 4:32). 

Sadly, that is not how we are perceived, nor how many notable Christians seem to act. 

If we want to change the culture for Christ, we need to swallow our pride and follow basic good-faith conversation tools.

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