This happens all the time: A prominent person, call her “Smith,” an expert on X, is asked to speak at a university about X. But some people don’t like Smith’s view on X, or Smith’s politics. And so they try to get Smith’s speech “cancelled.” To do so, they hunt through everything that Smith ever posted on social media, to find a comment or two which, taken out of context, will look stupid, thoughtless, or insensitive to various mobilized interest groups.
In petitions, or other social media mob behavior, the comments are never quoted, or examined in context. They’re only alluded to as proving Smith’s gross evil. Sometimes the charges are blatant: Smith is a racist. Sometimes they’re presented in code: Smith “does not love all persons regardless of their identity.” Usually, cowardly administrators cave in, and the speech is cancelled. A similar scenario applies to job applicants, although surreptitiously, of course.
It’s only once you appreciate this background, and understand that it’s happened hundreds of times already, that you’ll appreciate that the main news story coming out of the Abby Johnson controversy at The Catholic University of America: that Abby was not cancelled. In the face of somewhat strong pressures to cancel her, President John Garvey took steps to ensure that her talk would go on. More than that, 300 university members attended her lecture, a large turnout in a “zoom” environment.
Those who know Garvey weren’t surprised by the outcome. His tenure has been marked by an exceptional dedication to principles of free discussion and civility. Yet someone might reasonably wonder how it had gotten that far. Why was there pressure to cancel Abby at all? Why was it given any weight?
I’m not free to discuss details of the case. But I am convinced of the integrity and goodwill of all the major players involved. I know, too, that they fully support Catholic teaching on the pre-eminent status of the right to life.
With this as with other news stories, I would urge readers to use their imaginations to consider possible scenarios under which the publicly visible story might have arisen, not from insidious motives, but rather from honest mistakes, understandable misunderstandings, or even missed cues among persons of goodwill.
Here is another, not unimportant, thing: The Catholic University of America, positioned in the heart of Washington, D.C., situates students near the pulse of political and social movements in the country. The university’s culture, therefore, is also exposed to pressures that a campus in the heartland simply would not face. And that overall is a very good thing.
For me, it is a big reason why I am teaching there.
I mainly want to draw your attention, however, to another aspect of the “urge to cancel,” which is not addressed by the laudable push-back that insists that people should have room to speak. I mean sins against the virtue of justice, committed by those who, in anger, make serious charges against named persons.
Our Catholic tradition is helpful here, in fact, it is the only voice that is helpful. In that tradition, anger is a sin, and, more than that, when it becomes habitual it can be a “capital” vice, which is to say that it is so serious a distortion of one’s personality that it typically draws forth other bad traits of character, the way a leader in battle draws forth troops in support. These supporting vices are called its “daughters.” Injustice in speech is among anger’s daughters. For background, St. Thomas’s treatment (here) is a model of clarity.
Anger is not unlawful, St. Thomas insists. The Catholic tradition does not hold, like the Stoics, that anger of necessity renders someone irrational and therefore should simply be extirpated from a Christian’s personality. Nonetheless, anger is “a sin,” in the sense that anger almost always leads us into sin. To feel anger at least as fully as situations deserve, and yet, as a second nature never sin, is an extraordinary achievement of a virtuous person, worthy of the title “heroic virtue.”
Anger of its essence is a strong bodily arousal, in support of a desire for counteraction against some person or group, for their perceived injustice against yourself or your own, especially when their injustice acquires the aspect of showing you contempt. We sin out of anger when we seek counteraction against an innocent object (the man returning home from a frustrating day “taking it out” on his family); or we seek counteraction disproportionately; or we actually have no authority to seek counteraction; or we continue to seek counteraction when we should have put it aside; or when our emotions are too excessive, or enraged, or out of control in any respect – including, say, anger which smolders, like a grudge, or hides and makes us schemers.
It’s obvious that anger leads people to become moralistic hypocrites, as it makes them focus on others’ faults, not their own – a major social phenomenon today. But anger also causes people to be casual about committing serious injustice in speech, one of its “daughters.”
My students, immersed in the anger-factory that is Twitter, are astonished when I tell them that objectively it’s a mortal sin, typically, to reveal publicly a serious fault of another, even if true – the sin of “detraction.” Even in private, in our tradition, to do so is a sin (“backbiting”) unless there’s serious cause.
The project of wanting to take down an invited speaker, through turning others against her, by reference to presumed moral failings, falls under the heading of another sin, “tale-bearing.” “A tale-bearer speaks such ill about his neighbors as may stir his hearer’s mind against them,” says St Thomas, a perfect summary of the modus operandi of cancel culture.
Catholics are called to something better, a “Way of Life” shown in zeal for the honor of others, mildness of character, and discretion in speech. If you’re looking to “give up” something this Lent, try anger or one of her daughters.
*Image: Orpheus Torn Apart by the Bacchantes by Gregorio Lazzarini, c. 1710 [Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice]