Not long ago the name of Flannery O’Connor, the famous novelist of the American South, was removed from a place of honour (a hall was named after her) at a Jesuit College because of allegedly racist overtones in her work.

She is one of a host of artists who have fallen foul of exalted standards of attitude and behaviour. Since no one is perfect this sort of demotion could happen to anyone.

The issue of O’Connor’s racism isn’t new. Her friend and the editor of her letters, Sally Fitzgerald, knew that O’Connor’s quirky sense of humour sometimes led her to tasteless jokes. O’Connor and her widowed mother were often frustrated by the lazy, drunken and even violent behaviour of the black workers they employed.

But she was not ideologically racist; her assent to the doctrine of the God-image in every person would, upon recollection, have corrected any bias. She knew she had faults and that we grow in grace and maturity, very slowly, if we cultivate that growth.

Confusing realms

O’Connor studied the book Art and Scholasticism by the French philosopher Jacques Maritain. Maritain distinguished between making and doing. Creativity belonged to the realm of making; ethical behaviour belonged to the realm of doing.

Thus a great artist could create outstanding artworks and express his vocation to make, while being a wretched, greedy, selfish human being, ignoring his vocation to justly do. Cancel culture activists confuse the two realms and denigrates a person’s art because of unsavoury behaviour or attitudes. No one can escape being cancelled on this basis since not one of us is perfect.

In 1960, Maritain published another book, The Responsibility of the Artist, which developed some themes in Art and Scholasticism. He reiterated a basic point.

The good that Art pursues is not the good of the human will, but the good of the very artifact. Thus, art does not require, as a necessary precondition, that the will or appetite should be straight and undeviating with respect to its own nature and its own—human or moral—ends and dynamism, or in the line of human destiny. Oscar Wilde was a good Thomist when he wrote: “The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose.”

This does not whitewash bad behaviour. It simply differentiates between a person’s good work and their imperfect life.

Kierkegaard banned by Bolsheviks

In 1958 O’Connor and a group of friends met at her house to discuss the book Fear and Trembling by the Danish philosopher SørenKierkegaard.  This book focuses on Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his only son Isaac at God’s command, an act that Kierkegaard highlighted as being contrary to all social and ethical norms as well as being terribly at odds with parental love. In Kierkegaard’s telling, Abraham, his vocation clear to himself, stands absolutely alone before God, his sacrificial act misunderstood by outsiders. 

Kierkegaard anticipated that his own life’s work would be misunderstood and derided, especially by intellectuals and academics. He was correct. Kierkegaard was cancelled for the entire Soviet period in Russia and in many of the Iron Curtain states. Ukrainian scholar Viktorya Trostohon reminds us, “The Soviet era circumvented Kierkegaard completely, for his philosophy was perceived and even branded as religious, and there was no place for any religion in the USSR.”

Cancel culture is as old as humanity’s desire to punish those in disagreement with currently-dominant ideas.

Vocation and legacy

Flannery O’Connor understood, like Kierkegaard, that an artist’s legacy is outside his control. Indeed, both O’Connor and Kierkegaard insisted it wasn’t any of the artist’s business. Each wanted only to fulfil faithfully their creative vocation. What happened to their work was in God’s hands.  O’Connor wrote to a friend:

When you write a novel, if you have to be honest about it and if your conscience is clear, then it seems to me that you have to leave the rest in God’s hands. When the book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He might use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think for a writer to worry about this is to take over God’s business.

Kierkegaard understood that the choices made by an individual in pursuit of his Christian vocation would likely provoke opposition. The consequent suffering could even be welcomed as a valuable means of edification.

Never forget that the devout wise man wishes no stroke of adversity to be taken away when it comes his way, because he cannot know whether or not it may be good for him. Never forget that the devout wise man wins his most beautiful of victories, when the powerful one who had persecuted him wishes, so to speak, to release him, and the wise man replies: “I cannot unconditionally wish to be released, for I cannot know for certain that the persecution might not be good for me.”

The circus of unexpected results

We cannot foresee the end of our actions.  We may discover, over time, that we achieved nearly the opposite of what we desired. Chesterton was alert to this oddity in human affairs; it is born of the deep complexity of reality which often frustrates humanity’s simple intentions.

And one of the things that are undoubtedly real is reaction: that is, the practical possibility of some reversal of direction, and of our partially succeeding in doing the opposite of what we mean to do. What experience does teach us is this: that there is something in the make-up and mechanism of mankind, whereby the result of action upon it is often unexpected, and almost always more complicated than we expect.

For instance, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has for nearly 70 years persecuted Christianity (and other religions) in China. By the 1980s, party functionaries appeared confident that religion had been successfully suppressed in many provinces. Instead, harsh CCP policies helped to create such profound disenchantment with brutal Communism that China is experiencing the greatest revival of Christianity’s history, especially among the poor in the provinces.

This sort of dynamic is very likely to happen with cancel culture. Reality is simply too intricate for anyone to be able to guarantee an action will get the intended result and only the intended result. When we start something, we cannot foresee how it will unfold.

The comedy of cancel culture is found in this disparity between intention and result. What is disparaged today may well be celebrated tomorrow, and the people avid for the cancellation may be remembered, if at all, as bigots and uncultured, undiscerning barbarians. They may well find that their cancelling activism has guaranteed the long-term prominence of their despised author, artist, commentator or business person.

Hypocrisy is, of course, one of comedy’s playgrounds; irony laughs at the obvious disparity between stated values and lived reality. The zealous, self-righteous Pharisees of ancient Israel were classic hypocrites, and in their fierce earnestness became almost clown-like figures.

In a sense, cancel culture activists are the Pharisees of today and are equally clown-like. Like the Pharisees, cancel culture activists condemn other people for their flaws (while excusing their own) and are sure of their intelligence and the quality of their knowledge and education (while overlooking the obvious). Like the Pharisees, cancel culture activists are contemptuous of those who dare to disagree with them (who have, however, often grasped the obvious) and are eager for public vindication (which changes like the wind).

Like the Pharisees, cancel culture activists are prone to secure their safety by group-think (ostracising rugged individuals) and to mistake outward show for inward sincerity (destroying their own credibility). As Jesus summarised: “The leaven of the Pharisees is hypocrisy”. He reproved them for neglecting mercy, insisting on sacrifice and accusing the guiltless.

Flannery O’Connor said the Devil is essentially a comic figure because he achieves the opposite of what he plans. Cancel culture activists will almost certainly prove to be similarly comic figures.

Similarly, Kierkegaard thought that seeking the approval of humanity, and then being satisfied with their tawdry accolades, was profoundly comic. The praise, or the condemnation, of a crowd is a play of fashion and confusion. Kierkegaard wrote:

To be victorious in the world is like becoming something great in the world; ordinarily to become something great in the world is a dubious matter, because the world is not so excellent that its judgment of greatness unequivocally has great significance—except as unconscious sarcasm.

Beheading Thomas More: the ultimate form of cancelling

Sir Thomas More is famed for his martyrdom. But he also enjoyed comedy. Condemned to death, he joked that his beard did not commit treason and therefore should not be lopped as part of his beheading. Ascending the gibbet, he asked the executioner, who stood ready by the head-block with his axe, “Give me a hand and help me up – I’ll fend for myself on the way back down.”

Thomas More knew that his Creator was wiser and juster than men. His will alone has no unforeseen consequences. Devout and humble to the end, More wrote a prayer for good humour. It seems his prayer was answered, most notably on the day of his death.

Grant me, O Lord, good digestion, and also something to digest.
Grant me a healthy body, and the necessary good humour to maintain it.
Grant me a simple soul that knows to treasure all that is good and that doesn’t frighten easily at the sight of evil, but rather finds the means to put things back in their place.
Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumblings, sighs and laments, nor excess of stress, because of that obstructing thing called “I”.
Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humour. Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke, to discover in life a bit of joy, and to be able to share it with others.

Anyone who finds that their work has been cancelled or is at risk of being cancelled, might pray the prayer of Thomas More.

copyright 2022 Gary Furnell

Gary Furnell is a former librarian. His stories, essays and book reviews sometimes appear in Quadrant, The Chesterton Review, Studio, The Defendant and The Catholic Weekly. His new book The Hardest path...