#Cancelled: Where To Draw The Line

By: Shayna Herszage  |  August 30, 2020

By Shayna Herszage, Managing Editor

This past summer has been a crash course in human rights and social activism. From the fight for racial equality and justice to various celebrities, such as Madonna and Nick Cannon, making antisemitic comments or sharing antisemitic posts on social media, to other celebrities, such as Shane Dawson and Jenna Marbles, being publicly shamed for other immoral actions, the past several months have made social and moral change impossible to ignore. 

In such a time of social change in various domains, each person stands at a crossroads. With so many people, both in our lives and in the public eye, having terrible actions in their recent or distant pasts, there is temptation to invoke “cancel culture” and immediately label the individual as a “sinner” on the social scale. However, these sinners often act out of a lack of understanding — how can we “cancel” a person on the expectation that they should have an innate understanding of things that are, for better or for worse, not innate knowledge?

Meanwhile, if we are to combat cancel culture, we risk falling victim to a slippery slope. At which point does it stop being resisting cancel culture and become refusing to hold people accountable for their actions?

As strange as it may sound, some direction in maintaining this balance can be found in Tractate Bava Metziah in the Babylonian Talmud. On page 84a, Rabbi Yochanan meets Reish Lakish, who is a crusader, and Rabbi Yochanan convinces him to change his ways and study Jewish texts with him. Reish Lakish soon leaves his past in the dust as he becomes a scholar alongside Rabbi Yochanan.

However, this all changes when Rabbi Yochanan, in the middle of a Talmudic argument about purity status and the making of weapons, jokes that it is only natural that Reish Lakish would know about weaponry, being someone who wielded weapons on a regular basis in his past before he became a great scholar. 

Bringing up Reish Lakish’s past is a great insult to Reish Lakish, and he and Rabbi Yochanan have a falling out, ultimately leading to the deaths of both scholars.

One may wonder: how does this anecdote in the Talmud relate to the balance between combating cancel culture and holding others accountable?

YouTuber Shane Dawson and scholar Reish Lakish, among their many differences, have one glaring difference between their stories: while Shane Dawson has continued to make racist and pedophilic offenses over the years, Reish Lakish, upon learning there is another path, changed his ways and became better than the person he used to be.

In the public eye, some nearly “cancelled” celebrities have begun making efforts to become better people. For example, comedian Nick Cannon, after an antisemitic rant on social media, released a public apology and made an effort to visit the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles in order to educate himself about antisemitism and the people he targeted in his posts. Additionally, YouTuber Jenna Marbles made a humbling statement by posting an unprompted apology message on her channel for her past racist actions on her channel, followed by terminating her account after over a decade of YouTube success. While at this time I can not speak for the future developments of Nick Cannon and Jenna Marbles as people, I can commend them at this time for making conscious efforts to learn from their mistakes and be better than they were.

Ultimately, the balance between holding people accountable and not cancelling them is understanding that people are a work in progress. If they, like Reish Lakish did in the Talmud, are making a genuine, conscious effort to improve and become better people after their previous offenses or mistakes, do not reduce them to their pasts when their present depicts a person who has learned from their actions. However, if someone is not attempting to improve, it is integral that those around them hold them accountable for their actions and make it clear that racism, antisemitism, and other offenses will not be tolerated. 

On a local, smaller community scale, this teaches a similar lesson about balance: no one is perfect. People have dealt with lapses, losses, offenses, and mistakes. However, if a person is consciously attempting to move past these aspects of their life and become a better version of themself, why reduce them to their shadowed past when that is not who they are anymore? Why cancel them when they are attempting to move past their darker moments?

Overall, people are more than their pasts. A person is partially their past, but they are also who they are in the present and who they hope to be in the future. We are all works in progress, and reducing someone to their first draft instead of considering who they have become, when they have worked hard to improve, is a discredit to who the person is and disservice who they may become.