Instances of antisemitism perpetrated by celebrities have lately dominated not only Jewish news but also national news. It has been close to a month since Kanye West (who now goes by “Ye”) shared blatantly antisemitic comments both on television and on the internet. He said that he was “a bit sleepy tonight, but when I wake up, I’m going death con 3 [sic] on Jewish people… you guys have toyed with me and tried to black ball anyone who opposes your agenda.”
It would seem to be self-explanatory in this medium why Ye’s comments are nefarious and threatening, especially given that there are twice as many people who follow Ye on Twitter as there are Jews in the world. It is well known that Adidas, who carried products under Ye’s brand, cut ties with him. This move was applauded by the World Jewish Congress, who also acknowledged Adidas’s history in assisting the Nazi regime during World War II, and by the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that publicly urged Adidas to do this.
Next, Brooklyn Nets basketball player Kyrie Irving tweeted in support of the book-turned-film Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America, which, according to the Jerusalem Post, “promotes the conspiracy theory that Jewish people are imposters who stole the heritage of black people.”
It is noteworthy that the book is a bestseller on Amazon and Apple, which speaks of a larger problem. But when Irving was confronted with the antisemitic nature of this work (including by the Nets organization), he denied any hatred on his part. He eventually deleted the Tweet and made a joint statement with the Nets and the ADL that he would make a $500k donation to ADL and work towards fighting hate and intolerance. His statement reflected a desire to take responsibility. The next day, however, he held a press conference and refused to apologize for promoting the film. As a result, the ADL announced it was rejecting his donation, and the Nets suspended him for at least five games but indefinitely until he unequivocally rejects antisemitic views and offers a real apology.
Both of these incidents exemplify features of “Cancel Culture.” They involve attempts to mute problematic ideas, pressure those who associate with a problematic figure to cut their ties, and in Irving’s case, to even affect their standing in their paid job. An individual may be de-platformed for expressing views that are unrelated to the general content they promote, but such a person is deemed to be morally toxic and therefore is altogether rejected.
Cancel culture has been at the center of many political and ideological battles in America. One complaint against cancel culture is that swift cancellation of someone whose views do not align with certain ideologies robs people of the opportunity to hear a diversity of viewpoints. This line of thinking would posit that progressive ideology today has become its own orthodoxy, and anyone outside the camp deserves to be shunned.
There is a lot to be said for this concern.
But if we think about it, we practice cancel culture in our own community. While the Gemara says of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai that “eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chayim,” their words and their words are the words of the living G-d, implying the possibility of a plurality of views, nevertheless halacha follows only Beit Hillel.
And in the story of the oven of Achnai (Bava Metzia 59b), Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus invokes divine miracles to prove his point, but his view is rejected. When he doubles down, they take any items declared pure by him and burn them, and they proceed to put him in nidui – they excommunicate him. Indeed, cheirem and nidui are in principle legitimate measures that can be taken for a whole host of reasons if someone does not act in lockstep with the will of the Torah and the Sages. Is this not a form of cancel culture? And even if today we do not generally apply official measures of excommunication, those who express views that do not cohere with Orthodox ideology can be and have been ostracized in some capacity.
Is this a bad thing? For the sake of preserving the truth of Torah and the integrity of the halachic system, boundaries and lines are necessary. To be part of the sociological and ideological community, certain norms need to be agreed upon, and certain actions that constitute an egregious violation of these norms may be dealt with as such.
L’havdil, we do the same with antisemitism and anti-Zionism. As disturbing as it is when pro-Israel speakers are barred from a college campus, we in turn berate leaders and politicians that deny support for Israel. We may be willing to invest money in ensuring that an anti-Israel politician running for office is denied that position. Many Jews justifiably felt they could not purchase German products for decades after the Holocaust because of the evil perpetrated by the German government. And to this day, we are likely to celebrate the cancellation of individuals like Ye and Irving who spew dangerous rhetoric against Jews.
So, with that said, are we truly against cancel culture? I think we all believe that there are people who need to be canceled and ideas that need to be canceled because they are at best wrong and at worst morally repugnant.
Conor Friedersdorf, in an essay entitled “The Real Reason Cancel Culture Is So Contentious” for The Atlantic, posits that the problems with cancel culture lie in the fact that there are no real rules around it. Of course, there will never be 100% consensus among Americans as to the proper terms for cancellation. But those who support “accountability” ought to be able to identify what requires accountability and what type of accountability is appropriate. Furthermore, is there teshuva that can redeem one from their past mistakes and not haunt them for the rest of their lives? Indeed, these guidelines are clearly defined in our tradition in a way that is lacking in contemporary discourse. Friedersdorf goes as far as to say that to some extent, some may enjoy the social control that is maintained by the arbitrariness of who gets canceled for what and how.
Ultimately, though, the crux of the matter lies in irreconcilable ideas of what constitutes truth and morality. I think our problem with cancel culture is not that cancellation exists as much as it is about what is considered beyond the pale of discourse nowadays. What is considered sufficiently offensive to merit censure? Do we even agree as to what is considered offensive to begin with? The scary thing for us today may be that our truths, especially certain ideas germane to Jewish tradition, will soon be beyond the pale for others if they are not already. Furthermore, we must expect consistent calling out of hatred. Racism and xenophobia should be called out, but antisemitism must be included in that as well.
A final thought is that cancellation should be a last resort. While Ye and Irving seem to not be easily persuaded, there are others that have been able to rebound from their mistakes. Athletes such as Desean Jackson and Meyers Leonard uttered antisemitic statements but made an effort to connect with Jews, engage with Jewish heritage, and learn about the dangers of antisemitism in the wake of their missteps. Comedian Nick Cannon did something similar on his podcast, but he engaged with the American Jewish Committee and read and reviewed books on the Holocaust and antisemitism to fix his mistakes. Canceling these individuals would have been a mistake, and providing an opportunity for education only creates new friends for the Jewish people.
The cases of Ye and Irving would seemingly demonstrate that cancellation is appropriate at times. It could be that it is appropriate in other instances as well. But cancellation will also not fix every problem. Given the polarization of today’s world, we need to reserve cancellation for the truly intolerable offensives where there is no teshuva, but our goal should be to understand people with perspectives that differ from us and build common ground to mitigate the culture of intolerance that permeates our environment.