Cancel Culture Cases and Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur services begin with Kol Nidrei. Kol Nidrei is not a prayer. It makes no requests. It is not even addressed to God. Kol Nidrei is a juristic declaration in Aramaic even before prayers in Hebrew are offered.

This mournful tune, probably the most recognizable one in Judaism, expresses regret for inadvertent assertions or vows during the course of the ensuing year that may hurt another or create false expectations. More significantly, it proactively annuls unintended propositions or generalized imperatives that may be uttered during the coming year. One explanation for its origin is that, in oppressive societies, Jews might be induced to say something, including making a promise that they did not mean. Rather than being pressured into silence, a Jew might affirm something to satisfy demands for conformity when they believe the opposite.

But the assertion could have been inadvertent and not simply defensive. In fact, this was more likely the most frequent situation that gave rise to the need to retract. The key importance is that the person making the inadvertent statement or vow was given the opportunity to clarify or retract what was said, to do so in public and earn forgiveness. It is a process that runs directly contrary to the practice of shaming in cancel culture.

The point is that people should not be canceled. Only an assertion or a promise or an oath or an imposed restriction should be canceled or retracted. Clarification and retraction are at the core of the most sacred moment in the Jewish year, not punishment and certainly not shame or banishment.

The wording of Kol Nidrei (“all vows”) is a retraction in advance, with the consent of God and the congregation, in a convocation of both a heavenly and earthly court that grants permission “to pray with transgressors.” When it comes to confessions of sins, the sinned against and the sinner pray together. Instead of accusations, we have empathy. Instead of judgment we find forgiveness.

We retract, we cancel, we annul both all vows and everything we have imposed on ourselves as forbidden. We are freed up, not to claim the truth of what is said nor to make it into a categorical imperative, but to both regret having said what we said or will say while, at the same time, giving permission to say even stupid things. “We regret having made them and may all be permitted.” However, when recognized for what these assertions are, they must be “forgiven, eradicated and nullified.”  They must be cancelled and exist no longer. “Forgive the entire congregation of the children of Israel and the stranger amongst them for the entire people sin unintentionally.” Greatness is best found in lovingkindness.

Trumpists use identity politics to harass liberal identities rooted in tolerance, secularism and freedom. They posit, at the extreme, battered Whites as victims whose identities are threatened. On the other hand, progressives use identity politics to limit discussion and reinforce moral stands against an allegedly oppressive order. The first sets up liberalism as the enemy. The second undermines liberalism from the inside.

In every case, shouting and insults replace discussion and dialogue as the search goes out to punish the one who is accused of inflicting pain. As Shane Phelan wrote in his 1989 book that introduced “identity politics” into political discourse, “non-negotiable identities will enslave us whether they are imposed from within or without.” Social circumstances do not determine who we are; they just create limitations and challenges. If we accept the identities thrust upon us as absolute determinants, we close ourselves off from new possibilities. I shall be he who I shall be and not simply who you say I am.

Though there are many variations, and though context and nuance are crucial in understanding individual cases, the following general characteristics are associated with cancel culture:

  • Rising intolerance and public shaming by mobs utilizing social media
  • Censoriousness and black and white thought applied to others
  • Twitter, as an example, incentivises emotion rather than cognitive analysis
  • Expression consists of outrage and vitriol
  • The negative emphasis is on ruining reputation and removing respect in the name of restoring respect
  • The core is judgement of others
  • Further, the more an Other is called out, the more “woke” you are
  • Social media democratizes what is acceptable to say and do, constricting behaviour
  • Those who defend traditional liberal values of tolerance and dialogue are allegedly simply defending the power of their own voices.

I have given one example of an attack on liberalism from the outside, from Donald Trump. In a speech he gave on 4 July 2020 at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, he attacked liberals by merging them with those utilizing cancel culture and depicted the latter as a “political weapon – driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees.”

Three days later, a letter in Harper’s Magazine signed by 153 academics, public intellectuals, journalists and celebrity artists (Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky, Malcolm Gladwell) also denounced cancel culture, but from a liberal perspective. Cancel culture was “progressive illiberalism” or “progressive intolerance” attacking free speech, open debate, and respect for opinions with which you disagree as excuses for tolerating the intolerable.

No sooner was the letter published in Harper’s than it was subjected to outraged voices denouncing the preciousness of these writers defending their positions of power and influence. The core critique: who gets to be objective and who does not is a function of power. See, for example, Steven Pinker’s article in The Guardian and Assistant Editors Nari Cohen and Joshua Leifer of Dissent who attacked some of the signatories for defending free speech in the abstract but suppressing speech in favour of Palestinian rights.

There are many more cases illustrating how cancel culture works to punish those perceived to be out of line:

  • The resignation of James Bennett at the New York Times
  • The resignation of Andrew Sullivan from New York Magazine
  • The resignation of Bari Weiss, a signatory to the Harper’s letter, from the New York Times
  • Opposing BDS (as another signatory, Cary Nelson, author of Israel Denial: Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism & the Faculty Campaign Against the Jewish State (2019), did) was also interpreted as being hypocritical in denying free speech to Palestinians.

The more common cases are not these high-profile ideological instances, but those who inadvertently or casually say something that is either mistaken or can be taken as insulting and even racist. Others viciously attack the individual who voiced the thought. In addition to the example I used to open this blog, there is the more widely known case of Chris Cooper who asked Amy Cooper (no relation) to keep her dog on a leash in Central Park in New York. She called police to accuse Chris of harassment, of being a Black who threatened her. Chris videotaped the whole incident on his cell phone.

When the whole story came out, and not just the initial accusation, Amy Cooper was fired from her job in an investment firm. Cancel culture easily creates the actions and reactions of a ball in a pinball machine that tallies how much hurt can be delivered to either party. It is worth noting that Chris Cooper did not want or expect Amy to suffer such dire consequences for her inappropriate behaviour.

More locally, in the college in which I am a Senior Fellow, Massey College at the University of Toronto, there are the cases of Professor Michael Marrus and Margaret Wente, the journalist. Marrus was “cancelled” as a Senor Fellow having an office in the college for making a bad joke misinterpreted as racist. Wente’s nomination to the Quadrangle Society was cancelled because of some of her controversial columns.

Let me conclude with a tale, a personal one, not of cancel culture in the university, but of liberal tolerance and respect for differences that characterized the university in which I was educated and the institution in which I dedicated my life’s work.  When I was in second year of my premedical studies, my English professor was an authority on T.S. Eliot. I wrote an essay for him based on T.S. Eliot’s poetry, particularly The Waste Land, as well as on his many essays on literary theory.

I offered three arguments. According to T.S.Eliot’s own criteria of communication with respect to poetry as set out in his own essays, he was not a real poet, at least not in The Waste Land, but a very ingenious wordsmith and clever craftsman. Further, he was explicitly an anti-Semite. Third, the antisemitism and the character of his poetry were intimately connected.

Many works on Eliot have noted his antisemitism since, and probably even before, I wrote my essay. T.S. Eliot and Prejudice by Christopher Ricks (1989) and T.S.Eliot and Anti-Semitism and Literary Form by Anthony Julius (1995) are examples. Some academics, like Hugh Haughton at the University of York (I taught philosophy at York University in Toronto and not the University of York in Great Britain), seem to want to lift the burden of antisemitism from Eliot’s shoulders by placing his views within the historical and social context of the time.

Others claim that the antisemitism characterized his early poetry but is absent in The Waste Land. (See Robert Siegel’s essay, “Smashing Idols, Then and Now,” in Moment (21 September 2020) where he interviewed Anthony Julius). “The anti-Semitic poems actually come from a relatively brief period in his literary life that precedes the writing of his masterpiece, The Waste Land. It’s not that I think Eliot became a liberal by the time he wrote The Waste Land. Rather, I think that he exhausted the resource that anti-Semitic language represented for him in the writing of poetry, and so he moved on.” I did not believe Eliot neglected his antisemitism in his later work nor accepted that his antisemitism could be partially exculpated because it expressed a dominant strain of thought at the time.

Benjamin Ivry in his essay, “Again, Off-Again Anti-Semitism” in Forward (16 September 2011) wrote, “Ricks and Julius cogently explained the details of how some early Eliot poems have unappealing images of Jews. ‘Gerontion’ recasts the stereotype of Jew as slumlord: ‘My house is a decayed house, / And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner.’ ‘Burbank With a Baedeker: Bleistein With a Cigar’ is an evocation of Venice that seems to refer to Shakespeare’s Shylock: ‘On the Rialto once. / The rats are underneath the piles. / The jew is underneath the lot.’ And in ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales’: ‘Rachel née Rabinovitch / Tears at the grapes with murderous paws.’” According to Ricks and Julius, underlying these images was Eliot’s admiration for the French fascist and anti-Semitic author Charles Maurras. I had used Eliot’s 1934 essay, “After Strange Gods” where he emphasized the importance of religious unity rooted in race. “Reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.”

See British-Jewish poet Emanuel Litvinoff’s discussion of Eliot’s antisemitism (https://forward.com/culture/books/142722/ts-eliots-on-again-off-again-anti-semitism/) who noted that Eliot had friends who were Jewish and published Jewish writers in his journal. He called them, “nice Jews,” “free-thinking Jews.” Yet Eliot also wrote: “I am sick of doing business with Jew publishers who will not carry out their part of the contract unless they are forced to.”

However, this is no place to even offer a superficial analysis of T.S.Eliot’s antisemitism. I merely offer a taste. The point I want to make is that my professor, a deep scholar and lover of T.S.Eliot’s poetry, awarded me an A+ for my essay. He clearly did not agree with my thesis. But that was not the point. The issue was whether, as an undergraduate, I had adequately defended the position I had taken in accordance with academic norms. It is this tolerance that I celebrate in the life of the university, a tolerance for diverse views and respect for other positions.

According to cancel culture, should T.S. Eliot not be excised from the curriculum? I, of course, would argue very strongly against such a move. But did Eliot’s poetry not make me uncomfortable? It certainly did. But it challenged me much more to explore and understand Eliot, to understand the nature of poetry and of communication. It did not stir up in me a desire to shame or humiliate Eliot – as if I ever could. It did not inspire me to engage in censoriousness black and white thinking. Nor did my professor at the time defend traditional liberal values of tolerance and dialogue by defending the power of his much greater expertise. Instead, he respected my voice and the way in which I had articulated my views. Censure is not the same as censor. The Kol Nidrei prayer commits me each year to engaging with others with whom I strongly disagree in a respectful manner whenever possible.

I do not share the position of those who insist that, “the loud protests of those who decry ‘cancel culture’ show that free speech is very much alive and well,” and that, “The principal critics of this activism are the privileged elites who, while claiming to be defending free speech, can’t tolerate criticism of their own cherished views.” Unfortunately, “Times are changing.” The defenders of cancel culture argue that, “Liberals need to recognize that their ideology is tired, and that it is being supplanted by a new one, which gives its followers a moral purpose, a sense of solidarity, and the hope of achieving genuine social change.” Instead, I argue for critical but sceptical engagement and using your moral framework, not to cancel the Other, but, rather, to engage in a conversation.

However, beware. The tyranny of the mob is all around us. 

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