‘Cancel Culture’ Is as Old as Religion, And It’s Only a Thing Because of Who’s Doing the Cancelling

Babylonian Talmud. WikiMedia Commons.

I don’t understand “cancel culture.” I mean, I understand what people mean, but I don’t quite understand why those decrying it claim that it’s something new. 

I’ve often thought the term itself is born from social media which portends to inaugurate the democratization of knowledge but really functions to introduce the democratization of opinion. In some way, of course, opinion was always democratized; free speech enables me to say whatever I want (given certain caveats) but it doesn’t, nor did it ever, give me the right to say it wherever I want. 

In some way, cancel culture has always existed, mostly in the hands of editors of opinion pages and letters to the editor; university committees who decide who’s invited to speak and who isn’t; people who evaluate material for publication, etc. That is, there was always a process of vetting, and that vetting was not always pure and without ulterior motives. 

The lines of communication between what I happen to think and your ear have never been unmediated unless you happened to pass by my front lawn as I stood there and expounded on the ills of the world. Before this present moment, for example, would anyone think of accusing a newspaper of “cancel culture” because they rejected one’s letter to the editor (if so, I would have been the victim of cancel culture many times over).

But something has changed. Let me cite a few examples. When I was a young assistant professor at The Jewish Theological Seminary I received many invitations from Conservative synagogues to speak about my research, or on topical matters. I enjoyed such opportunities. Once I began publishing essays criticizing Israel’s occupation, the invitations stopped. Pretty abruptly. As I told a friend at the time, I could close my eyes and envision my name being summarily plucked from the Rolodexes in synagogue offices. Did that disturb me? Not really. While I certainly missed the extra income, I knew that was the price I paid for making my views public on a contentious matter. At no point did I think I was being cancelled. In fact, I was happy that at least they were reading my essays. 

A second example happened more recently. I read an essay in an online journal on a topic I know something about that I felt was very problematic, not because I disagreed with the views expressed therein (although I did), but because the essay contained errors, inaccuracies, leaps of logic, and was poorly argued. I wrote to the editors of the journal to express my dissatisfaction. In response I received a very mean-spirited response from one editor accusing me of “bullying a young writer” (the editor called him “a kid”) and claiming he was just “living his truth” (he was an American who had immigrated to Israel). 

First, I had assumed he was closer to my age. But if readers were meant to account for the writer’s age shouldn’t his work have been presented in a way that reflected this? Second, I had no idea, nor did I care, where he lived. And third, I didn’t quite understand being accused of “bullying” since I never wrote to the author and never made my views of the essay public. To this day, the unnamed author still has no idea how I felt about his essay. I simply wrote privately to the editors. While I wasn’t quite accused of “cancel culture,” that seemed to be the underlying message of the editor’s remarks. In this editor’s view I was, in some way, questioning, by privately discrediting, the right for this author to state his views.

Finally, when someone crosses a line on my Facebook thread I often block them. Before doing so, I write to them to tell them I’m blocking them, and that they have the right to say whatever they want in this world, but they don’t have the right to say whatever they want on my Facebook page. While my page is public, it’s still mine and I have the right to curate it as I see fit. I offer them the opportunity to apologize or retract their remarks and if they choose not to, I block them. I’ve been accused in this instance of “cancel culture”; that is, of preventing him or her from expressing their views and censoring them. The elision of whatever and wherever seems to have grown roots in our psyche.

So in these three momentsone where I’m not invited to speak at venues because of my views (perfectly legitimate), one where an editor accuses me of preventing someone from “living their truth” by privately criticizing their essay (illegitimate), and one where I am accused of ‘cancelling’ someone for saying whatever racist or misogynist nonsense on my Facebook page (necessary, in my view)we find ourselves in a state of confusion where the right to say whatever we want has morphed into the right to say it wherever we want. Where public space and the democratization of opinion now enables us to confuse whatever and wherever

People can be, and continue to be, excluded (cancelled) for all kinds of reasons; race, religion, creed, sexual orientation. We now have legal structures in place to try to alleviate or minimize that kind of illegitimate discrimination. We’ve decided that those criteria for exclusion are unacceptable in our society. 

What it seems “cancel culture” is introducing is another layer; political or ideological discrimination. And in doing that, weaponizing something that’s existed for a long time: exclusion for other reasons. Kind of like how white people who oppose affirmative action do so because suddenly they are disadvantaged, though they had no problem for centuries when it was reversed. But is political discrimination valid? If I edit a journal and reject an essay because I find its political or ideological foundations unacceptable, is that discriminatory? Should it be? The expansion of discriminatory practice to include political or ideological differences in regard to who gets to say what, where, is perhaps the place to get a deeper sense of what’s going on.

Yes, even the Talmud

Recently, Will Berkovitz, a rabbi and CEO of Jewish Family Service in Washington State published an opinion piece arguing that, as the headline states, “The Talmud has a lesson for our cancel-culture world.” In it, he argues that the Talmud, a product of a small cadre of Jewish sages in Babylonia from the third to sixth centuries CE, can be a model for the tolerance and diversity of opinions that our present moment needs. That it can teach us a lesson about cancel culture. 

Others have made similar arguments that the Talmud is a lesson in pluralism as its pages contain legal discussions that include minority and rejected opinions. In fact, one of its tractates called Ediyot (‘Testimonies’) even discusses why minority opinions remain inside as opposed to being relegated to the dustbin of history. This of course, is not unique. U.S. Supreme Court decisions contain dissenting views that are continually analyzed by legal scholars. 

On the Talmud, Berkovitz concludes: 

“As our ancient rabbis understood, debate—and the people who engage in it—is vital to advancing society; it doesn’t degrade it. We gain nothing by turning debates on ideas into attacks on people. Both are part of the arc of the human story, but only one will elevate our community.” 

How can one argue with that?! 

And yet, the example of the Talmud fails to support Berkovitz’s claim. Jews, Christians, and Muslims may have entertained a variety of opinions on matters of great urgency. But not all. In fact, maybe not even most. They had their own “cancel culture.” It’s called heresy. Heresy constructed the limits of legitimate debate. In a sense heresy constructed Orthodoxy. 

So who formulated heresy? That’s a complex historical question beyond the scope of this essay. But typically it was ecclesiastical authorities, or sometimes regional leadership. And what constituted heresy? Also beyond the limits here, but suffice it to say that these were largely theological or ideological determinations that extended beyond simple “errors” of belief, but required pertinacity, which is a willful or deliberate act of deviance, even after being warned. 

In Christianity it often applied to the rejection of Church doctrine or dogma, while in Judaism it often consisted of either a rejection of rabbinic authority, or its construction of monotheism or claims of the divine origin of the Torah. One guilty of any of those “fallacies” was excluded from the debate; that is, they were canceled.

While the Talmud indeed includes multiple voices, it’s the product of a fairly small and exclusive fraternity of sages, each of whom passed the requisite initiation to be included. Of course, Babylonian Jewry was much more diverse than the included views would suggest. The Talmud doesn’t include those other voices, not necessarily because they thought they were heretics, but because they weren’t part of the club and thus their views had little if any authority. If all we had was the Babylonian Talmud we’d know very little about Babylonian Jewry in this period. All we’d have is the record of a thin slice of the society in a small number of academies. 

Today, Talmudic scholars are exploring the wider vistas of the context of the Talmud, not only to show how it may have been influenced by its surroundings, but also in some cases to examine those the Talmud “cancelled”; those who engaged in magic bowl incantations, perhaps Zoroastrian fire worship, and other manner of religious practices that didn’t find favor in the sages of the Talmud. Were the sages being discriminatory by excluding these people and ejecting heretics from their midst?

One could say, and many have, that heresy is an old idea that’s no longer relevant. That modernity has thankfully moved us beyond heresy toward a more pluralistic world. French sociologist Emil Durkheim didn’t think so. Author of many works, including the influential The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Durkheim held that categories like heresy do translate into secular societies. In an essay “Concerning the Definition of Religious Phenomena,” Durkheim writes:

It is a fact that there are general beliefs of all kinds which appear to be relevant to secular objects, things like the flag, one’s country, some form of political organization, some hero, some historical event or other…They are obligatory in a certain sense, because of the very fact of their being in common…they are to some extent indistinguishable from religious beliefs proper.

Durkeim is talking about things common in a society but the same would apply if we diversify it to apply to venues, universities, churches, synagogues, and mosques, social communities, even Facebook threads. To take an example straight from Durkheim, a 2017 poll found that 60% of Americans believe that professional athletes should be required to stand during the playing of the national anthem. Groups are able to hold deep-seated convictions like this one, the rejection of which is a kind of secular heresy meaning they are excluded from their discourse. Protesting that norm is an act of “heresy” to counter a norm. If successful it can change the norm. But it can do so only by acting outside it. 

This doesn’t deny that a group can hold a diversity of views on a particular issue, just as the Talmud records some of the views it ultimately rejects, but the Talmud in its diversity is also exercising cancellation (those outside the academy or those deemed to hold heretical views). Free speech enables us to say anything we want, but it doesn’t give us the right to say it anywhere we want. The Jewish heretic in late antique Babylonia could espouse any theological view he or she wanted, but if it didn’t find favor with the rabbis it wasn’t recorded in the Talmud. And thus, for all intents and purposes, it was cancelled.

Anything, but not anywhere

In light of the Harper’s Magazine letter, I find it curious that many now decrying cancel culture are the very beneficiaries of precisely that culture before it was named. That is, beneficiaries of all kinds of other people being excluded from the public sphere because of their religion, race, sexual orientation, or political views (communists, for example). 

Thankfully our society is slowly rectifying those sins. But now to raise the issue of ideological discrimination as if to say, you cannot prevent me from saying that I want to say in your newspaper, or at your university, in your church, or even on your Facebook page, seems like protesting too much. That kind of freedom was never given, nor should it be foisted on, any community, publication, or platform. 

In addition, the “cancel culture” police seem to be playing both sides of the wager. That is, they decry being “cancelled” but maintain their state of privilege and thus use their “cancellation” as proof they’re saying something important. 

That’s because, ironically, the mere fact that they can say they’re being cancelled means, in part, that they’re not. They just take the position of privileged opposition and wear it as a badge of honor. If they were really cancelled, we wouldn’t hear their voices at all. 

If you want to see real “cancel culture,” look at the myriad women, Black, gay, and other writers who lived their life in obscurity because they couldn’t get published and thus had no voice. For every Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, or Toni Morrison there are hundreds, maybe thousands, whose names we will never know.

In a free society, I may have to tolerate your views, but I’m under no obligation to publicize them, nor to let them pass without criticism. My right to criticize you publicly is no less important than your right to pontificate publicly. As Durkheim said, secular societies and subgroups, like religious ones, get to choose what is sacred and what is heretical. The former is included, the latter excluded. There may be no better example of that very limited diversity, and equally strong exercise of exclusion, than the Talmud.

Shaul Magid is a Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and Contributing Editor to Tablet magazine. His forthcoming book Meir Kahane: An American Jewish Radical will be published by Princeton University Press.