Cancel Culture is Coward Culture

The disgruntled, like the poor, we will always have with us. Grumbling is not just something God’s people do in the wilderness. It has been a common feature of human life ever since Eve asked, “But why can’t we eat the apple?” and ever since Adam told God: “Yeah, sure, all the animals are great, but I’m still lonely.”

There will always be people who will complain. There have been bullies ever since Cain beat the life out of his brother Abel. What we have not always had in such large numbers are quite so many cowards who refuse to stand up to such people.

A friend and I have a joke about the phrase, “Is it too much to ask. . .?” Whenever you preface something with this phrase, it is understood that it is too much to ask, but shouldn’t be. If you say, “Is it too much to ask that the waiter would get my order right?” it’s because he didn’t.

So here’s my question. Is it too much to ask that corporate CEOs and university administrators, who get one of these increasingly ubiquitous, self-righteous “virtue-signaling” complaints about something or someone, would simply brace up and say: “No, I’m sorry; I’m not giving in to your emotional blackmail. Take it somewhere else”?

The answer to that question would appear to be the same as the answer to the question: Is it too much to ask that politicians would actually be consistent in applying moral indignation?

Would that some university president somewhere in one of these dust-ups would simply release a statement that says:

I am sorry you are offended, but one of our fundamental principles is freedom of speech. We respect your right to protest and complain, but the same right that protects you also protects them. We will not shut down the free exchange of ideas. If you want to shut down the free exchange of ideas, then you want another institution – probably another country. Did you mistake this for East Germany circa the 1950s perhaps? So you can gather all the mobs you want, either on-line or out in front of our offices, but we’re not giving in to the demands of an irrational mob. Come and make your case with solid arguments. We promise to listen respectfully. But please understand: our policy is “Everyone has a voice; no one has a veto.” If you make a good case, we just might change our practices. But if you come with nothing but vilification and threats of violence, we will simply shut the door and go about our business. Oh, and please don’t misunderstand: we will defend the property and heritage handed down to us by our forebears. So if you come here to tear down and destroy and not to discuss, we will have you arrested. If you assume our will to defend what has been built here is weaker than your will to destroy it, you would be making a very big mistake.


A female friend writes to say that, “The first thing any university could do that wishes to survive is to quit tossing the word ‘leadership’ around without ever exercising any. Civilized people do not practice cancel culture, and Christians certainly should not. When the mob tried to cancel the woman caught in adultery, Jesus was the woman’s strong defense.”

“Leaders,” she continues, “do not throw good people under the bus for trivial matters.” Leaders lead, they don’t just “manage.” They help form diverse groups of people into a community. They do not press the “eject” button on someone the moment the mob arrives at the door. Offering to throw his daughter to the mob at his door did not work for Lot, and it will not work for any of today’s cowardly lions either.

No one can guarantee success in the current educational market. But it would be nice if at least one university marketed itself as the place to study if you are brave and have the guts to test your ideas against the best minds of all time. You can disagree. You can disagree vigorously. We welcome it. But you better be ready with some tough, well thought-out arguments. If you want “safe,” then stay at home and live in your parents’ basement.

Do you want your diploma handed to you without much effort or mastery on your part? Go somewhere else. You’re not tough enough for us. Here you are going to work for it. It will be intense. But at the end of four years, you will have developed relationships that will last a lifetime, and you will have learned to be mature and resilient in a way that none of your peers from any other institution can touch. They will be shouting and throwing tantrums. You will be talking seriously with others who disagree with you, thinking through problems, and building together with them.

We don’t mollycoddle people who want to be “managers”; we form servant leaders. And here’s how you can tell. We do not just slavishly follow whatever fad others in the academic world happen to be running after. We do not trim our sails to the prevailing winds. We have principles. They guide us. We don’t sell them out. We are willing to question them and analyze them and subject them to serious critique. But we don’t spout empty slogans that have no meaning.

We adhere to these principles as faithfully as we can because we believe they are the best means to human flourishing, both as individuals and as a community. You don’t have to like them; we need not like your principles either. But we do have to learn to live together in peace. If you want us to bow to your idols, I’m sorry, but the answer is no. So it’s probably best to be clear on that right up front.

Now that’s the appeal I want to hear. I mean, is that too much to ask?


*Image: Canto XXIII: Circle Eight, Bolgia 6: The Hypocrites by Robert Rauschenberg, 1959-1960 [Museum of Modern Art, New York]. This is one of thirty-four mixed-media illustrations of Dante’s Inferno.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.